Na­tion fall­ing into line with fas­cism

SundayXtra - - OPINION - By Robert Ka­gan

THE Repub­li­can party’s at­tempt to treat Don­ald Trump as a nor­mal po­lit­i­cal can­di­date would be laugh­able were it not so per­ilous to the repub­lic. If only he would mouth the party’s “con­ser­va­tive” prin­ci­ples, all would be well.

But of course, the en­tire Trump phe­nom­e­non has noth­ing to do with pol­icy or ide­ol­ogy. It has noth­ing to do with the Repub­li­can party, ei­ther, ex­cept in its his­toric role as in­cu­ba­tor of this sin­gu­lar threat to our democ­racy. Trump has tran­scended the party that pro­duced him. His grow­ing army of sup­port­ers no longer cares about the party.

Be­cause it did not im­me­di­ately and fully em­brace Trump, be­cause a dwin­dling num­ber of its po­lit­i­cal and in­tel­lec­tual lead­ers still re­sist him, the party is re­garded with sus­pi­cion and even hos­til­ity by his fol­low­ers. Their al­le­giance is to him and him alone.

And the source of al­le­giance? We’re sup­posed to be­lieve Trump’s sup­port stems from eco­nomic stag­na­tion or dis­lo­ca­tion. Maybe some of it does. But what Trump of­fers his fol­low­ers are not eco­nomic reme­dies — his pro­pos­als change daily. What he of­fers is an at­ti­tude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boast­ing dis­re­spect for the niceties of the demo­cratic cul­ture he claims, and his fol­low­ers be­lieve, has pro­duced na­tional weak­ness and in­com­pe­tence. His in­co­her­ent and con­tra­dic­tory ut­ter­ances have one thing in com­mon: they pro­voke and play on feel­ings of re­sent­ment and dis­dain, in­ter­min­gled with bits of fear, ha­tred and anger. His pub­lic dis­course con­sists of at­tack­ing or ridi­cul­ing a wide range of “others” — Mus­lims, His­pan­ics, women, Chi­nese, Mex­i­cans, Euro­peans, Arabs, im­mi­grants, refugees — whom he de­picts ei­ther as threats or ob­jects of de­ri­sion. His pro­gram, such as it is, con­sists chiefly of prom­ises to get tough with for­eign­ers and peo­ple of non-white com­plex­ion. He will de­port them, bar them, get them to knuckle un­der, make them pay up or make them shut up.

That this tough-guy, get-mad-and-get-even ap­proach has gained him an in­creas­ingly large and en­thu­si­as­tic fol­low­ing has prob­a­bly sur­prised Trump as much as it has ev­ery­one else. Trump him­self is sim­ply an ego­ma­niac. But the phe­nom­e­non he has cre­ated and now leads has be­come some­thing larger than him and some­thing far more dan­ger­ous.

Repub­li­can politi­cians marvel at how he has “tapped into” a hith­erto un­known swath of the vot­ing pub­lic. But what he has tapped into is what the founders most feared when they es­tab­lished the demo­cratic repub­lic: the pop­u­lar pas­sions un­leashed, the “moboc­racy.” Con­ser­va­tives have been warn­ing for decades about gov­ern­ment suf­fo­cat­ing lib­erty. But here is the other threat to lib­erty Alexis de Toc­queville and the an­cient philoso­phers warned about: that the peo­ple in a democ­racy, ex­cited, an­gry and un­con­strained, might run roughshod over even the in­sti­tu­tions cre­ated to pre­serve their free­doms. As Alexan­der Hamil­ton watched the French Rev­o­lu­tion un­fold, he feared in Amer­ica what he saw play out in France — that the un­leash­ing of pop­u­lar pas­sions would lead not to greater democ­racy but to the ar­rival of a tyrant, rid­ing to power on the shoul­ders of the peo­ple.

This phe­nom­e­non has arisen in other demo­cratic and quasi-demo­cratic coun­tries over the past cen­tury, and it has gen­er­ally been called “fas­cism.” Fas­cist move­ments, too, had no co­her­ent ide­ol­ogy, no clear set of pre­scrip­tions for what ailed so­ci­ety. “Na­tional So­cial­ism” was a bun­dle of con­tra­dic­tions, united chiefly by what, and who, it op­posed; fas­cism in Italy was anti-lib­eral, anti-demo­cratic, anti-Marx­ist, anti-cap­i­tal­ist and anti-cler­i­cal. Suc­cess­ful fas­cism was not about poli­cies but about the strong­man, the leader (Il Duce, Der Führer), in whom could be en­trusted the fate of the na­tion. What­ever the prob­lem, he could fix it. What­ever the threat, in­ter­nal or ex­ter­nal, he could van­quish it, and it was un­nec­es­sary for him to ex­plain how. To­day, there is Pu­tin­ism, which also has noth­ing to do with be­lief or pol­icy but is about the tough man who sin­gle­hand­edly de­fends his peo­ple against all threats, for­eign and do­mes­tic.

To un­der­stand how such move­ments take over a democ­racy, one only has to watch the Repub­li­can party to­day. Th­ese move­ments play on all the fears, van­i­ties, am­bi­tions and in­se­cu­ri­ties that make up the hu­man psy­che. In democ­ra­cies, at least for politi­cians, the only thing that mat­ters is what the vot­ers say they want — vox pop­uli vox dei. A mass po­lit­i­cal move­ment is thus a pow­er­ful and, to those who would op­pose it, fright­en­ing weapon. When con­trolled and di­rected by a sin­gle leader, it can be aimed at whomever the leader chooses.

If some­one crit­i­cizes or op­poses the leader, it doesn’t mat­ter how pop­u­lar or ad­mired that per­son has been. He might be a fa­mous war hero, but if the leader de­rides and ridicules his hero­ism, the fol­low­ers laugh and jeer. He might be the high­est-rank­ing elected guardian of the party’s most cher­ished prin­ci­ples. But if he hes­i­tates to sup­port the leader, he faces po­lit­i­cal death.

In such an en­vi­ron­ment, ev­ery po­lit­i­cal fig­ure con­fronts a stark choice: get right with the leader and his mass fol­low­ing or get run over. The hu­man race in such cir­cum­stances breaks down into pre­dictable cat­e­gories — and demo­cratic politi­cians are the most pre­dictable. There are those whose am­bi­tion leads them to jump on the band­wagon. They praise the leader’s in­co­her­ent speeches as the be­gin­ning of wis­dom, hop­ing he will re­ward them with a plum post in the new or­der. There are those who merely hope to sur­vive. Their con­sciences won’t let them curry favour so shame­lessly, so they mum­ble their pledges of sup­port, like the victims in Stalin’s show tri­als, per­haps not re­al­iz­ing the leader and his fol­low­ers will get them in the end any­way.

A great num­ber will sim­ply kid them­selves, re­fus­ing to ad­mit some­thing very dif­fer­ent from the usual pol­i­tics is afoot. Let the storm pass, they in­sist, and then we can pick up the pieces, re­build and get back to nor­mal. Mean­while, don’t alien­ate the leader’s mass fol­low­ing. Af­ter all, they are vot­ers and will need to brought back into the fold. As for Trump him­self, let’s shape him, ad­vise him, steer him in the right di­rec­tion and, not in­ci­den­tally, save our po­lit­i­cal skins.

What th­ese peo­ple do not or will not see is that, once in power, Trump will owe them and their party noth­ing. He will have rid­den to power de­spite the party, cat­a­pulted into the White House by a mass fol­low­ing devoted only to him. By then, that fol­low­ing will have grown dra­mat­i­cally. To­day, less than five per cent of el­i­gi­ble vot­ers have voted for Trump. But if he wins the elec­tion, his le­gions will com­prise a ma­jor­ity of the na­tion. Imag­ine the power he would wield then. In ad­di­tion to all that comes from be­ing the leader of a mass fol­low­ing, he would also have the im­mense pow­ers of the Amer­i­can pres­i­dency at his com­mand: the Jus­tice De­part­ment, the FBI, the in­tel­li­gence ser­vices, the mil­i­tary. Who would dare to op­pose him then? Cer­tainly not a Repub­li­can party that laid down be­fore him even when he was com­par­a­tively weak. And is a man such as Trump, with in­fin­itely greater power in his hands, likely to be­come more hum­ble, more ju­di­cious, more gen­er­ous, less venge­ful than he is to­day, than he has been his whole life? Does vast power un-cor­rupt?

This is how fas­cism comes to Amer­ica, not with jack­boots and sa­lutes (although there have been sa­lutes and a whiff of vi­o­lence), but with a tele­vi­sion huck­ster, a phoney bil­lion­aire, a text­book ego­ma­niac “tap­ping into” pop­u­lar re­sent­ments and in­se­cu­ri­ties, and with an en­tire na­tional po­lit­i­cal party — out of am­bi­tion or blind party loy­alty, or sim­ply out of fear — fall­ing into line be­hind him. Robert Ka­gan is a se­nior fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion and a con­tribut­ing colum­nist for the Wash­ing­ton Post. He served in the U.S. De­part­ment of State from 1984 to 1988.


Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Don­ald Trump asks the crowd at an Or­lando, Fla., cam­paign rally to take a pledge promis­ing to vote for him.

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