Politics & Policy

The F-Word

(Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
Donald Trump and concerns about fascism.

There is an F-word in the present political campaign, and it is “fascist.” Some people say, “Trump is a fascist. Or if he’s not, he has fascist tendencies.” Others say, “Come now. He may be many things — a lout, a nationalist, a demagogue — but he’s not a fascist. Let’s not get carried away.”

I am not in favor of getting carried away. But I think there are grounds for concern: concern that Trump is something other than an exponent of liberal democracy. I will list some of those grounds. Not a single one will mean all that much. But taken together, they may give a person pause.

‐He mainly talks of “strong” versus “weak.” Strength is better than weakness, of course. But an exaltation of strength can be strange.

In 1990, he gave an interview to Playboy magazine. The Soviet Union was in interesting, uncertain condition. Democratic protesters were getting bolder. Trump said, “Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it. That’s my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.”

His interviewer asked, “You mean firm hand as in China?”

Trump answered, “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”

This sounds admiring to me. And think of it: “The Chinese government almost blew it.” I wish they had, and so does every other well-wisher of democracy, human rights, and freedom.

Trump said, “That’s my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.” For 70-plus years, democrats had been wishing for a less “firm” hand in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev killed a relative few in the Baltics. And then drew back.

Wasn’t that something to celebrate?

‐In Trump’s mind, there are “winners” and “losers.” He is the chief winner, of course. His supporters get to be winners, too. But his critics are “losers.”

Consider a tweet of his about Michelle Malkin, the conservative columnist, and a Trump critic: “@MichelleMalkin would be nothing without being on the ‪@seanhannity show. I don’t see what Sean sees in her — loser!”

While we’re at it, consider the phrase “@MichelleMalkin would be nothing.” There are people who regard others as nothing if they are not on television and famous. Donald Trump puts great stock in being on television and famous. Michelle Malkin is fairly well-known. But even if she weren’t, she would not be nothing. She is a woman of substance.

At this point, let me say that I was taught to beware politicians — bellowing politicians — who prize “strength” over “weakness,” and “winners” over “losers.” I think this wariness is right.

‐Critics of Trump, in Trump’s mind, are not only losers, they are stupid. Here is a Trump message to Malkin, for example: “You were born stupid!” Now, Michelle may be wrong, and Trump is perfectly within his rights to argue with her, talk back to her. But she is sharp as a tack — not stupid (whether from birth or not).

‐Trump frequently boasts of having a high IQ. Here is a characteristic tweet: “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest -and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure,it’s not your fault.”

What do psychiatrists call this? I always forget: projection or transference?

Here is another tweet: “I know some of you may think I’m tough and harsh but actually I’m a very compassionate person (with a very high IQ) with strong common sense.”

I know that IQ has its place. But I believe an emphasis on IQ can be alarming. And when a person regularly touts his own IQ — watch out.

‐Relatedly, Trump speaks of his brain. He was asked whom he consults on foreign policy. “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.” He has unquestionably said a lot of things.

‐More in this vein: “I went to an Ivy League school. I’m very highly educated. I know words, I have the best words.”

‐Trump had an uncle, John, who was a professor at MIT. Trump has pointed to his head (his own head) and said, “I believe in the race-horse theory.” In other words, he believes in breeding, and regards himself as genetically endowed.

A Trump statement: “I had an uncle, went to MIT, who is a top professor. Dr. John Trump. A genius. It’s in my blood. I’m smart. Great marks. Like really smart.”

More Trump: “Good genes, very good genes. Okay, very smart.”

Trump has passed down his views to his son, Donald Jr., who said, “Like him, I’m a big believer in race-horse theory. He’s an incredibly accomplished guy, my mother’s incredibly accomplished, she’s an Olympian, so I’d like to believe, genetically, I’m predisposed to better than average.”

‐Donald Trump (Sr.) makes a lot of looks. When speaking of his late brother, he stresses how handsome he was. This is a sweet thing to say about a late sibling. But Trump is apt to insult the looks of those he disagrees with or dislikes.

There is a tradition, particularly found on the European right: Physical attractiveness is equated with virtue or worth; plainness or homeliness is associated with inferiority.

‐Trump mocked — physically mocked — a physically handicapped reporter for the enjoyment of an audience. This was one of the sickest moments in recent political memory.

‐Constantly, Trump invokes national greatness.

‐Constantly, or regularly, he stokes the grievances of people.

‐Regularly, he tells them that foreigners are to blame for their problems. He is a scapegoater.

‐He has made an ethnic bogeyman out of the judge in the Trump University case. (The judge was born in Indiana of Mexican parents.)

‐He encourages, and relishes, a cult of personality.

‐He puts his name on everything — his product lines, such as Trump Vodka, Trump Water, Trump Steaks, and Trump University; and his buildings, of course. The name “TRUMP” features in cityscapes all over America. In central Chicago, it is enormous, and, to me, creepy. I’m reminded of the headquarters of a Bond villain.

Now, businessmen put their name on things, obviously. This is part of business. Part of branding. Nothing to get nervous about. But I think there are degrees that are worrisome, not to say pathological.

‐Trump’s method of campaigning is the stadium rally. He almost never campaigns among individuals — shaking their hand or listening to them or taking questions from them. Can you remember Trump fielding a question from a voter? He talks at them, and entertains them, in stadiums.

‐In one stadium, he asked people to take a pledge to him — a pledge to him personally. He asked them to raise their right hand and promise to vote for him. “I do solemnly swear,” etc. They did this.

Later, Trump said that the pledge was all in fun. Could be.

‐Sometimes, Trump acts as though he owns people. “Look at my African American over there!” And we’ve seen him boss around his supporter Chris Christie, in a fashion bordering on the humiliating (though not to Christie, apparently).

‐Trump campaigns in brutish language. He is an insult artist. His antics are often clownish. And, of course, he has considerable talent.

Many have drawn comparisons to the late Hugo Chávez. Recently, a Venezuelan democracy activist observed to me, “Trump is Chávez with money.” Chávez was fabulously entertaining. Articulate. Cunning. A reader of men. A manipulator of emotions. He made scapegoats, and stoked grievances, and whipped up crowds.

His child, Correa, does the same in Ecuador. I once watched videos of him, at a human-rights conference. His appeal was obvious, tremendous, and chilling.

‐Trump will tell a whopping, lurid lie, if he thinks it will bring him political gain. Consider what he said about Ted Cruz’s father and the Kennedy assassination: “I mean, what was he doing — what was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death? Before the shooting? It’s horrible.”

Yes, it’s horrible. That much is true.

‐Trump promises to be the nation’s Big Daddy. “I’m gonna take care of everybody,” he says. He recently told a crowd, “I will give you everything. I will give you what you’ve been looking for for 50 years. I’m the only one.”

I’m the only one. Those are not usually the words of a democrat. (Neither are I will give you everything.)

‐He denigrates the religions of other people, especially when those religions are out of the mainstream, and easy to get a crowd to suspect or dislike or turn on.

This is what he did to Ben Carson (a Seventh-Day Adventist): “I’m Presbyterian. Can you believe it? I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian. Boy, that’s down the middle of the road, folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-Day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know about.”

This is what he did to Ted Cruz (an evangelical): “Just remember this. Just remember this. You gotta remember: In all fairness, to the best of my knowledge, not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba. Okay? Just remember that. Okay? Just remember. In all fairness, here we are.”

At that point, Trump held up a Bible — and continued, “Just remember that, folks. When you’re casting your ballot, remember.”

‐If someone opposes Trump, politically, Trump tears him down, personally. Trump seems to judge a person by one criterion: Does that person support him or not? Black and white. All or nothing.

Trump seems to hold the attitude of a king, or dictator.

Most of us are touchy, to one degree or another. We like to be liked rather than disliked, agreed with rather than disagreed with. That’s perfectly normal. Trump’s mindset, however, is evidently extreme.

‐“I’m going to get along great with Congress,” said Trump. “Paul Ryan, I don’t know him well, but I’m sure I’m going to get along great with him. And if I don’t, he’s going to have to pay a big price.”

Not the worst thing in the world, those words. Nothing to man the barricades against. But they sound more authoritarian than democratic.

‐Trump cares a lot about who’s “nice” to him and who’s not. He attacked Susana Martinez, the (conservative Republican) governor of New Mexico, and later explained why: “She was not nice.” (Martinez had declined to attend a rally of Trump’s in her state.)

He once had warm words for Bill de Blasio, the far-Left mayor of New York City. Why? I think we have the answer in this statement by Trump about de Blasio: “He actually said some very nice things about me at a recent cocktail party, I was told by somebody, and I thought that was very nice.”

What if a foreign strongman is “nice” to Trump? Late last year, Putin said of Trump, “He’s a really brilliant and talented person, without any doubt.”

Trump phoned in to Morning Joe, for an interview. Mika Brzezinski asked him whether he liked Putin’s comment. “Sure,” he purred. “When people call you brilliant, it’s always good, especially when the person heads up Russia.”

Joe Scarborough interjected, “Well, he’s also a person that kills journalists and political opponents and invades countries. Obviously, that would be a concern, would it not?” Trump replied, “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, you know, unlike what we have in this country.”

“But again,” said Scarborough, “he kills journalists that don’t agree with him.” Trump replied, “Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe.”

For decades, conservatives have decried this kind of moral equivalence — a false equivalence — from the Left. Now it abides in the Republican nominee for president.

Finally, Scarborough got Trump to agree that killing political opponents is not right. Then he asked about the U.S.-Russia relationship in a Trump administration.

“Well, I think it would be good,” said Trump. “I’ve always felt, you know, fine about Putin. I think that he is a strong leader, he’s a powerful leader, he’s represented his country — that’s the way the country is being represented. He’s actually got popularity within his country. They respect him as a leader, certainly over the last couple of years they’ve respected him as the leader. I think he’s up in the 80s, which is, you know — you see where Obama’s in the 30s and low 40s, and, you know, he’s up in the 80s.”

Trump was referring to polls.

Earlier this year, I interviewed George W. Bush, who brought up Putin, unprompted, in a discussion of strongmen and dictators. “People say, ‘He’s the most popular guy in Russia.’ I say, ‘Yeah, I’d be popular too if I owned NBC,’” and the other networks.

So, Putin flattered Trump, and Trump responded with great warmth and support. What if the mullahs in Iran, for example, flattered him?

‐When Trump is criticized in the press, his instinct is to shut down or injure the press. He may well envy what Putin is able to do, and has done.

Trump was upset at such papers as the New York Times and the Washington Post. Conservatives like me have been upset at those papers our entire lives. But we usually don’t say what Trump said: “If I become president, oh, do they have problems. They’re gonna have such problems.”

He went on, “One of the things I’m gonna do if I win is, I’m gonna open up our libel laws, so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money. We’re gonna open up those libel laws.”

On a later occasion, he specifically targeted the Washington Post and its owner, Jeff Bezos, who is also the founder of Amazon. “What they’ve done is, he bought this paper for practically nothing, and he’s using that as a tool for political power against me and against other people, and I’ll tell you what, we can’t let him get away with it.”

‐Trump threatens to bring companies whose policies he doesn’t like to heel, once he’s president. He has threatened Ford, Nabisco, and others.

‐He has said that he would order U.S. military personnel to perform acts outside the law — the murder of terrorists’ families and so on. Pressed on whether our men would obey such orders, he answered, “They’re not gonna refuse me. Believe me.”

‐As can be seen throughout the social media, Trump has a great many fans among Nazis, white supremacists, fascists … They look forward to the retribution they imagine he would bring. One is not responsible for one’s fans, by and large. But what do they see in him? What do they see in Trump that they do not see in, for example, Scott Walker?

‐Trump almost never talks about American democracy, the Constitution, the rule of law, pluralism, the Founding, the separation of powers, a democratic process, freedom, human rights. He talks of “strength” and “winning” and himself.

‐Recruiters for Trump University were told not to sell “solutions” but “feelings.” The Trump U operation prefigured the Trump presidential campaign.

‐He appeals to the lowest common denominator. In 1941, John Dos Passos wrote,

Under the stresses of the last years we have seen nation after nation sink to its lowest common denominator. Naturally it’s easy for us to see the mote in our brother’s eye [our brother in Europe]. The question we have to face is: What is the content of our own lowest common denominator?

Dos Passos warned of a “personal despotism that has so often been the style of government” outside “the Anglo-Saxon family of nations.”

Okay. I am done with what I’ve described as grounds for concern about Trump — about his commitment to democracy, his non-fascism or non-authoritarianism, if you will. And let me repeat something I said at the beginning:

No single item is enough to indict him. No two or three or four items, bundled, are enough to indict him. Some of the items can in fact be interpreted as virtues. For example, national greatness can be … well, great. A constitutional republic, with a free economy, is a great thing. And how about the press? Many sensible people have argued for years that it is too hard for a plaintiff to win a libel case — that “reckless disregard” and “malice aforethought” are simply too hard to prove.

But all of the above items taken together: Do they not paint a picture to be concerned about? To give one pause? Do they not excuse people who doubt that Trump is 100 percent democratic?

A couple of weeks ago, one of my colleagues said, “There are specific criteria for fascism, and Trump does not meet them. He does not meet the definition of fascism.” That may well be true. My colleague is a smart and learned fellow. But the impressions that Trump has left, in this campaign, are not reassuring, to many.

I do not hate Donald Trump. I do not wish to malign him (or anybody). I have often said that I get a kick out of him, in many respects. I agree with much of what he says. During the campaign, I have occasionally pumped my fist in agreement with him: Yeah. Tell it, Donald! I’d like to play golf with him. Practically any guy would. I do think he is utterly unsuited to the presidency.

(I think the same of Hillary Clinton, which makes 2016 a nightmare year for me, and lots of other people.)

Also, I am aware of this: Ever since I adopted Reaganite or classical-liberal views when I was in college, I have been called a fascist, a racist, and all the rest of it. That’s the way the Left operates. I know the sting of false accusation. I can think of one instance, right now, in which I was labeled a fascist in a prominent arts institution. People are stupid, reckless, ignorant, mean.

I do not bring up the F-word lightly, about anybody.

And it could well be that Trump, for all his roughness, is benign. That he is simply a populist, in a fine American tradition — a nationalist, a protectionist, an isolationist. A nativist, even. It could be that he is a talented blowhard and self-promoter who has brilliantly exploited a political moment in time — and, whatever his problems, poses no threat to the American constitutional order.

I’m unsure.

Regardless, we have checks and balances. We are “a nation of laws, not men.” “It can’t happen here.” (A sentence meant to be ironic, yes.) Milton Friedman liked to paraphrase Adam Smith: “There’s a lot of ruin in the United States of America.” There’d better be.

Inscribed on the National Archives Building, that solid, glorious, beautiful structure near the White House, is, “This building holds in trust the records of our national life and symbolizes our faith in the permanency of our national institutions.” Permanency? That sounds good. But let’s just get through the next couple of generations …


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