On Friday March 11th, thousands of protesters disrupted and eventually caused the cancellation of a rally for Donald Trump to be held at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The protesters objected to the candidate’s far-right rhetoric and a series of violent incidents at previous Trump rallies. How accurately were they gauging the Trump danger?
The protesters inside the hall behaved so stupidly, one wonders whether Trump paid them. Grabbing signs from the hands of Trump supporters, shutting down a Trump rally, dancing on the stage may have lent protesters a brief “victorious” feeling, as one put it, but it also brought them down to his thuggish level. Now Trump can claim, as he has, that he and his supporters have been denied their freedom of speech. Here he is crowing on Twitter early Saturday morning: “The organized group of people, many of them thugs, who shut down our First Amendment rights in Chicago, have totally energized America!”
Despite his fundamental misunderstanding of the Constitution, Trump has a point. Pulling a sign from someone’s hand and disrupting a political rally are tactics used by those who have abandoned faith in the principle of free speech. Speech used to curtail someone else’s speech makes use of free speech but does not hold with its precept. Arguably, there are times when such a tactic is called for. This is not such a time.
Not because Trump is insignificant. Quite the contrary. Trump represents the most real threat we have faced of living under a classically totalitarian ruler. But there are two ways of confronting such a threat. One is to model the open society one claims to value. To meet speech with speech, but to allow evil and senseless speech to condemn itself. The Skokie Nazis did not win over Illinois to Nazism. They remained a small and pathetic group in hateful costumes. They faced counter-protesters, to be sure, but they were allowed to voice their bad ideas to an unreceptive public. The other method of confronting an opposing idea is combat. Force. The choice of a confrontation that sacrifices the very principles it claims to fight for in the quest for victory over an external enemy. This is the choice made by the protesters Friday night in Chicago, and it was a foolish choice.
Trump is himself a threat only inasmuch as he galvanizes a threatening force, namely the reactionary sentiments of certain layers of the working class. Should Trump drop out of the race tomorrow, those sentiments would eventually vibrate to the touch of some other more or less buffoonish virtuoso. Xenophobia, racism, nationalism, all these are tools of fascism, hooks lodged deep in the flesh of a disenfranchised, angry and frightened class of people that can be tugged at to make those people rise or march, strike or look the other way.
Trump is fascistic, again in a classical sense. He is a demagogue. His followers adhere to a cult of personality. As I have written in these pages, his speeches are journeys not through a rational treatment of issues but through his emotions. His favorite virtue, perhaps the only virtue to which he consistently pledges allegiance, is strength. His rhetoric castigates the politically marginal and vulnerable such as undocumented immigrants and Muslims. His rhetoric is also one of violence. He has celebrated torture and has suggested the need to “take out” the families of terrorists. He promises strength to the weak, belonging to the isolated, and a past-colored future to the hopeless.
But what of Bernie Sanders? “Crazy Bernie” and “the communist,” Trump has called him. Is he really so diametrically opposed to Trump? Are his followers so superior in their politics to Trump’s followers? Consider those hooks under the skin. Sanders and his middle class supporters would never openly express an anti-ethnicity sentiment. In the true spirit of the corporate-sponsored liberal “diversity” movement, they tread delicately yet endlessly around matters of race and religion while loudly proclaiming their humanity and sophistication. And yet they have utter contempt for the uneducated, politically incorrect working class. The working class knows this, feels it, and it plays no small part in the scorn with which some among them use the word “liberal.”
And are Sanders’ followers so clean of the taint of xenophobia? Trump vows he will “make America great again” and uses language that is openly hostile to China, such as his threat of a 45 percent tariff on Chinese-manufactured goods. But—matters of rhetorical style aside—isn’t this basic position also that of Sanders? According to Sanders, our economic troubles stem from bad trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). His answer is a nationalist protectionism that in effect constitutes a war on the working class of Mexico, China and other countries. Yet when he voices such ideas he is enthusiastically cheered by his liberal fans.
There is no question that NAFTA was, as intended, disastrous for the American worker. But NAFTA was merely a logical expression of a system. Just as Trump is a representation, a projected image, of a deeper problem, so NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are symptoms of an underlying illness. That illness is no less than capitalism itself, and it is capitalism, which is in crisis, that Sanders is committed to preserving at all costs. Far from qualifying as a “revolution,” which would challenge the system in its essentials—for instance, by eliminating the profit motive and private ownership of factories and natural resources and by uniting the working class internationally—Sanders’ proposals are all reformist in nature and aim at nothing more ambitious than making the middle class more economically secure.
Nor would a Sanders presidency put an end to the condition of permanent imperialist war that has come to characterize our nation. Though far more circumspect and less bellicose in his language than Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders’ Senate voting record has made it clear that he will continue Washington’s fealty to the military/industrial complex. Indeed, Sanders’ anti-China campaign rhetoric and his support for the U.S.-backed right-wing coup in Ukraine indicate that he will pursue the same imperialist aggression against Russia and China that the Obama administration is now so recklessly engaged in.
In conducting this comparison of Sanders to Trump, I do not suggest an equivalence between the two men. A Trump presidency that bore out half of his campaign bluster would pose an immediate threat to undocumented Mexican immigrants and to Muslim Americans. But I do want to suggest that by looking into the bright light of Trump’s overt fascism, we run the risk of blinding ourselves to a fascism more intractable than the tin-horn billionaire.
Trump is a would-be dictator. He has no evident regard for democracy or for constitutional government. Comparisons to Mussolini and Hitler, while still a stretch, begin to resonate when one listens to him speak about Mexicans and Muslims, and when one hears him incite his audiences to violence as he did at a rally on February 1 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when he told the crowd, “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of ’em, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell—I promise you I will pay for the legal fees.” Or on February 22 in Las Vegas when he said of a protester, “I’d like to punch him in the face, I tell ya” and “You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher.”
Or on March 9 in Fayetteville, North Carolina, when he said regarding protesters, “See, in the good old days this didn’t used to happen because they used to treat them very rough. We’ve become very weak.” Soon afterward, Rakeem Jones, while being escorted out of the rally, was punched and knocked down by a Trump supporter in the crowd. Jones was guilty of being with a friend who responded to the scene of the rally by saying she found it disgusting and was overheard by Trump supporters who responded angrily.
The violence Trump invites is cause for serious concern. A direct comparison with the early days of Hitler’s leadership of the Nazi Party yields an important and perhaps reassuring difference, though, in that Trump commands no paramilitary force, no Brownshirts. But it needs little imagination to envision a heightening of security, and of the threat of violence, at Trump rallies as a response to the directly aggressive conduct of the protesters Friday night.
The most important distinction between Trump’s political ascent and that of Hitler is not at all reassuring, however. Chancellor Hitler and his party had to build their security, surveillance, propaganda and legal apparatuses. A President Trump would inherit his.
We are already living in a totalitarian state. At the moment it still happens to be somewhat tolerant of dissent, though leaders and organizers of protest movements are targets of surveillance by the FBI and other organizations. Our electronic activities, from texting friends to surfing the net are scanned and recorded by the National Security Agency (NSA). Since the signing of the Military Commissions Act in October of 2006, American citizens can be disappeared on the order of the president or the secretary of defense. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 (NDAA) provides for the arrest and indefinite detention of those deemed by the government to have provided “substantial support” (a vague and legally meaningless term) to al Qaeda “or associated forces” (another undefined term). We are already a nation that tortures its prisoners, foreign and domestic.
All of this apparatus serves to protect and further the interests of a corporate and financial elite, of whom Trump is a member. The same elite whom Bernie Sanders refers to as “the billionaire class” but whose interests he ultimately protects.
So, is Donald Trump a fascist? He is, and in the classical sense of a megalomaniac demagogue who heads up a political movement that sells itself as the savior of the working class and of the nation in a time when the traditional political institutions are seen to have failed the people. As such he is dangerous, and a Trump presidency would likely usher in horrors. But we already inhabit a totalitarian reality, though not of the classical type. It is all-pervasive yet largely unobtrusive. Like a stalking cat, it is just out of sight, watching and waiting for its moment to attack. It may be that it will resemble Donald Trump. But it has also resembled George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And it may well assume the appearance of Hillary Clinton or even Bernie Sanders. Whoever sits in the White House when the crisis arises, the arsenal of repression will be waiting, and there is not a candidate in either big-business party who will not use that arsenal against us.
Sources: twitter.com. Donald J. Trump
Photo source: redstate.com