Trump’s worrisome bond with dictators
President’s association with right-wing demagogues should be viewed as a warning sign
Trump’s endorsement of right-wing demagogues such as Duterte, Putin, and Erdogan, in particular, is more than an aberration for a U.S. president.
There are important lessons to be mined historically regarding how we examine Donald Trump’s support from and for a number of ruthless dictators and political demagogues. Trump’s endorsements of and by a range of ruthless dictators are well-known and include Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah elSissi, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and the former French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front Party. All of these politicians have been condemned by a number of human rights groups including Human Rights Watch on Torture, Amnesty International and Freedom House. All of these politicians share a mix of ultranationalism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia and transphobia.
Historical memory suggests that a template for understanding Trump’s embrace of rogue states, dictators and neo-fascist politicians can be found in the reprehensible history of collaboration between individuals and governments, and the fascist regimes of Italy and Germany before and during the Second World War. For instance, one of the darkest periods in French history took place under Marshall Philippe Petain, the head of the Vichy regime, who collaborated with the Nazi regime between 1940 and 1944.
As Helene Fouquet and Gregory Viscusi have noted, the Vichy regime was responsible for “about 76,000 Jews (being) deported from France, only 3,000 of whom returned from the concentration camps … Twenty-six per cent of France’s pre-war Jewish population died in the Holocaust.” For years France refused to examine and condemn this shameful period in its history by claiming that the Vichy regime was an aberration, a position that has been recently taken up by Marine Le Pen, the neo-f ascist National Front candidate. Not only has Le Pen denied the French government’s responsibility for the roundup of Jews sent to concentration camps between 1940 and 1944, she has also used a totalitarian script from the past in appealing to economic nationalism in order “to cover up her fascist principles.”
Memories of collaboration with f ascist dictators function historically to deepen our understanding of Trump’s associations with right-wing demagogues as a warning sign that offers up a glimpse of both the contemporary recurrence of fascist overtones from the past and what Richard Falk has called “a prefascist moment.” Trump’s endorsement of right-wing demagogues such as Duterte, Putin, and Erdogan, in particular, is more than an aberration for a U.S. president: It suggests more ominously his disregard for human rights, the suppression of dissent, human suffering, and the principles of democracy itself. Trump’s collaboration with dictators and right-wing rogues also suggests something more ominous.
It is against this historical backdrop of collaboration that Trump’s association with various dictators should be analyzed. The case of Duterte is particularly telling. Warning signs of a “prefascist moment” abound in Trump’s invitation to Duterte to visit the White House. Duterte has supported and employed the use of death squads both as mayor of Davao and as the president of the Philippines. The New York Times has reported that “more than 7,000 suspected drug users and dealers, witnesses and bystanders — including children — have been killed by the police or vigilantes in the Philippines” under Duterte’s rule. Moreover, he has supported a nationwide killing machine that includes giving “free licence to the po- lice and vigilantes” to kill drug users and pushers while allowing children, innocent bystanders and others to be caught in the indiscriminate violence. He has called former president Barack Obama “the son of a whore,” has compared himself to Hitler, has stated that Trump approves of his drug war, and has threatened to assassinate journalists. Duterte’s ruthlessness is captured by photographer Daniel Berehulak who while working in the Philippines stated that he had “worked in 60 countries, covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and spent much of 2014 living inside West Africa’s Ebola zone, a place gripped by fear and death” but added that what he experienced in the Philippines “felt like a new level of ruthlessness: police officers’ summarily shooting anyone suspected of dealing or even using drugs, vigilantes’ taking seriously Mr. Duterte’s call to ‘slaughter them all.’”
In his endorsement, support and legitimization of a range of dictators and right-wing extremists, Trump has emulated a period in history of shameless complicity with the ideologies, policies and practices associated with fascism itself. Situating Trump within the historical legacy of collaboration with f ascist states and leaders provides a new language for examining how far Trump might go in pushing authoritarian policies, and how historical memory can be used to prevent such practices from being normalized. Trump’s collaborationist endorsements offer insights into what the prelude to authoritarianism looks like in contemporary terms by enabling the public to understand how fascism can be normalized by escaping from history.
Henry A. Giroux is a widely-published social critic and McMaster University professor who holds the McMaster Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest, the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar Chair, and is a Visiting Distinguished University Professor at Ryerson University. Born in Rhode Island, he held numerous academic positions in the U.S. and now lives in Hamilton.