By any historical measure this country should not be where it is right now, politically speaking. The worst pandemic to strike this nation in over a century has begun its slow but inexorable transformation into an event now comprehensible in hindsight rather than experienced in the immediate moment. The economic crisis has started to recede, with millions of Americans’ thoughts increasingly occupied by their summer vacations and reuniting with friends and relatives instead of focusing on whether they can safely return to work. People are once again going out to eat, to shop, and to entertain themselves, spending money and traveling.
In short, you could fairly expect this to be a time of resurgence and shared national enthusiasm as the country emerges from an unprecedented, unbelievably stressful, involuntary hibernation, and as Americans begin to reclaim their former lives. And you could fairly expect the political differences among the nation’s citizens to reflect the same general sense of relief.
Instead, the prevailing public sentiment right now is one of politically polarized anger, distrust, suspicion and hatred on a scale that most of us have not witnessed in our lifetimes. These sentiments have consumed the nation’s politics solely because one of our two major political parties has willfully adopted the delusional notion that the 2020 election—possibly the most secure election in our country’s history—was somehow tainted by widespread fraud, even though absolutely no evidence of such fraud exists. This farcical narrative has become so embedded and fundamental to the Republican Party’s thinking that its adherents now feel emboldened and justified in attempting to disenfranchise those Americans whose votes they arbitrarily deem unworthy or illegitimate, a judgment based primarily on their skin color. But worse than that, and even more ominously, that party has now become much more overt in countenancing outright violence against other Americans in furtherance of its goals.
As a result, the nation now faces a crisis even worse than the one foisted upon us by the COVID-19 pandemic, this time not from any unexpected health calamity or foreign invasion, but one that is entirely homegrown, spun out of thin air by people with no respect or regard for the country’s democratic principles, or even democracy itself. Conservative David Frum, writing for The Atlantic, recognizes what we are witnessing in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s brief tenure has a name, and it’s past time to start calling it out for what it is: fascism.
Frum acknowledges he’s arriving late to this acknowledgement, having cautioned against labeling the autocratic tendencies of Donald Trump as akin to those infamous European fascists who deservedly turned that word into a monstrous epithet, encapsulating every horror of the 20th century as wielded by the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. But the analogy now is inescapable; as Frum observes, there is simply no other word that applies when a movement couples both contempt for the law and legal process together with an explicit endorsement of violence against one’s political opponents.
That is what the GOP has become in the shadow of Trump’s Big Lie, and its recent trajectory suggests it will become much, much worse. Frum notes the change in Trump himself, comparing his shockingly equanimical but still somewhat tempered treatment of far-right white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville—while he still had to consider his reelection prospects—to the vitriol-spewing, unapologetic racist monster he has visibly morphed into since his electoral defeat in 2020:
Whatever he felt in his heart, he was constrained [in 2017] by certain political and practical realities. His non-Twitter actions as president were filtered through bureaucracies. He had to work with Republican congressional allies who worried about losing seats in Congress in the next election. He himself was still basking in the illusion of his supposedly huge victory in 2016, and hoping for a repeat in 2020. Outright endorsement of lethal extremism? That was too much for Trump in 2017. But now look where we are.
The failed insurrection of Jan. 6, which Trump himself orchestrated along with his most virulent and fanatical accomplices, provided a springboard for him to convince those followers that violence was not simply the only course to follow, but the correct and proper course, one fully justified by the sinister presence of allegedly hidden forces aligned against them. To emphasize the point, Frum quotes another well-known fascist, speaking to his crimes in the face of an establishment that had considered him defeated. When Hitler was imprisoned after failing to overthrow the German government in 1923, he defended his actions as not only justified, but necessary:
I do not consider myself guilty. I admit all the factual aspects of the charge. But I cannot plead that I am guilty of high treason; for there can be no high treason against that treason committed in 1918.
Frum compares this infamous Nazi sophistry to the revisionist tripe now being peddled by Trump’s media enablers concerning the events of Jan. 6, in which a mob of violent thugs attacked the U.S. capitol with full intent of killing members of Congress to stop the certification of a lawful election. At first Republicans sought to distance themselves from that insurrection, attributing it (falsely) to subterfuge by antifa or to media distortion of “peaceful,” law-abiding protests, even as hundreds of Trump-supporting seditionists were arrested for crimes ranging from assault on police officers to conspiracy to overthrow the government.
But the tone has changed. Now, instead of minimizing them, more and more Republicans are endorsing the events of Jan. 6, much like Hitler endorsed the crimes of his failed putsch in 1923, as a necessary response to government tyranny. The insurrectionist Ashli Babbitt, fatally shot while breaking into the Capitol along with her fellow rioters, is being lionized by some Republicans as a type of martyr rather than someone who recklessly threatened to inflict violence. This shift in narrative from minimizing the events to extolling the perpetrators is calculated and deliberate: it fuels the idea that the insurrection was an appropriate response to a grave crime committed against a select segment of the American people. And it makes no difference that this fanciful scenario is wholly derived from baldfaced lies.
Frum notes how Trump has pushed this narrative in the past week, praising the rioters as great people, calling Babbitt (who he certainly never met) an “incredible, wonderful” woman and darkly insinuating, again, falsely, that she was shot by a “democratic” head of security (implying that Chuck Shumer somehow orchestrated Babbitt’s death). As Frum observes, all of this nonsense is directly culled from the Nazi playbook, specifically the endorsement of violence as a a justified political tactic, and the elevation of those who commit that violence in the service of fascism. But the most important takeaway for Frum is that this is a new, evolving tactic, one characteristic of fascist regimes:
Two traits have historically marked off European-style fascism from more homegrown American traditions of illiberalism: contempt for legality and the cult of violence. Presidential-era Trumpism operated through at least the forms of law. Presidential-era Trumpism glorified military power, not mob attacks on government institutions. Post-presidentially, those past inhibitions are fast dissolving. The conversion of Ashli Babbitt into a martyr, a sort of American Horst Wessel, expresses the transformation. Through 2020, Trump had endorsed deadly force against lawbreakers: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he tweeted on May 29, 2020. Babbitt broke the law too, but not to steal a TV. She was killed as she tried to disrupt the constitutional order, to prevent the formalization of the results of a democratic election.
Emphasizing that fascism wears a coat of many colors, Frum cautions against relying solely on the European model as an analogue to what we are witnessing in the United States. In particular, the cult of personality surrounding the autocratic, politically opportunistic regime of Juan Perón of Argentina is most strongly suggestive of the following Trump has cultivated in this country:
Juan Perón, a bungling and vacillating leader, attracted followers with a jumble of often conflicting and contradictory ideas. He had the good luck to take power in a major food-producing nation at a time when the world was hungry—and imagined that the brief flash of easy prosperity that followed was his own doing. The only thing he knew for certain was the target of his hatred: anybody who got in his way, anybody who questioned him, anybody who thought for himself or herself. An expatriate Argentine who grew up under Perón’s rule remembered the graffiti on the walls, the Twitter of its day: Build the Fatherland. Kill a student. As V. S. Naipaul astutely observed, “Even when the money ran out, Peronism could offer hate as hope.”
Frum isn’t the first person to compare Trump to Argentina’s Perón. In May, writing for the New York Review of Books, Duke Emeritus professor Ariel Dorfman made the same analogy between Trump’s exile and that of the Argentinian dictator:
After being ousted as president, Perón sought refuge in Madrid (Franco was an amiable host), and instead of quietly retiring, he kept determining from afar the destiny of his native land by keeping a hypnotic hold on millions of his working-class followers, before triumphantly returning to govern Argentina at the age of seventy-eight. He is a chilling model for Trump to emulate as he ponders his next moves in his Florida exile or even from abroad.
If this was just about Trump it wouldn’t matter much; he would simply occupy his place in a long list of presidents rejected by Americans for incompetence or other reasons, whining about his perceived mistreatment by an electorate who had finally, decisively taken the full measure of his character, or lack thereof.
But the true fascist cannot cope with such a desultory vacuum if he wants to regain power. He must constantly up the ante, driving his followers to more desperate extremes until violence appears as the only solution to their ginned-up grievances. What we are seeing slowly being developed in the U.S. is the cultivation of violence in a substantial segment of the population: in effect, the formation of a base of support carefully primed to endorse the use of violence to achieve their leader’s political ends. In fact, as Frum points out, the sheer number of ordinary Republicans who buy into the Big Lie nonsense is the very reason so many Republican elected officials feel compelled to embrace it, willingly or otherwise:
[T]he post-election Trump movement is not tiny. It’s not anything like a national majority, but it’s a majority in some states—a plurality in more—and everywhere a significant minority, empowered by the inability of pro-legality Republicans to stand up to them. Once it might have been hoped that young Republicans with a future would somehow distance themselves from the violent lawlessness of the post-presidential Trump movement. But one by one, they are betting the other way.
There is no longer any question about what we are facing in this country. The sooner all Americans realize that fact, the better we all will be equipped to defeat it, before it’s too late.