On March 7th, I published “Is Donald Trump a Fascist?” Reading it again now, worst fears have been confirmed.
By March 2016 Donald Trump had: said John McCain was not an American hero because he was captured and told us he didn’t like people who get captured; insulted accomplished Republican politicians such as Jeb Bush; behaved like an adolescent bully by mimicking the physical movements of a disabled journalist who had written critically about him; responded to terrorist attacks by calling for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States; advocated the deportation of eleven million undocumented immigrants now in the United States; responded to critical questions from Megyn Kelly, a Fox News anchor with insulting references to her bodily rhythms; responded to enthusiasm for his candidacy from right wing extremists by refusing to clearly and openly repudiate them; promised to build a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants; indicated he did not know what the nuclear triad was; said he gained his foreign policy information from “the shows” on TV; proposed killing the families of terrorists, a measure that was an obvious war crime under international law; showed ignorance about the details of the Trans Pacific Trade agreement at the same time he claimed negotiate better deals with China; threatened the Washington Post editors with libel suits in response to the Post’s critical reporting about his business practices, Trump University and his expressions of admiration for Vladimir Putin.
He had shown none of the intellectual curiosity or capacity that normally one expects from anyone seeking to be President of the United States. All of the above were widely reported in the press, media and the web. On March 16th, Eliot Cohen, compellingly laid out the case that Trump had nothing to do with “The Party of Lincoln” and was unfit to conduct the foreign and military policies of the United States. His essay as well has been confirmed by Trump’s words and actions since then.
A most disturbing aspect of the Trump phenomenon was the bond Trump was creating with first a third and then in some cases two thirds of Republican primary voters. Trump had discovered what the classic demagogues of the twentieth century had understood, namely that in a democracy it is possible to gain millions of votes by appealing to the worst in people. Trump, like Mussolini and Hitler but also like Stalin and Mao, understands that there are millions who enjoy hatred, who take pleasure in humiliating others, who find relief in giving a face and a name—Mexicans and Muslims today, Jews, capitalists and imperialists—to complex economic and social processes. The infuriating aspect of the Trump phenomenon was not only Trump but even more so that so many of our fellow Americans have proven to be suckers for his lies and that the Republican Party political establishment, with some stunning exceptions, cravingly began to fall into line behind him or, in March, on the whole held back from taking him on with the ferocity and persistence defense of our democracy required. Donald Trump was not a fascist but there was a whiff of fascism in the air around him. His rallies exuded menace and violence and that too added to his appeal.
Since March, Trump doubled down on his most outrageous statements. He repeated the slogan “America First,” one that he must have known had been made famous by Charles Lindbergh and others who opposed American intervention in World War II in Europe to fight Hitler. Displaying further ignorance of the central role that the NATO Alliance has played in forming the bedrock of global security led by the United States since the late 1940s, Trump suggested that the United States not come to the aid of NATO members in Eastern Europe if threatened by Putin’s Russia. Having won the Republican nomination by May, Trump wasted next month in malicious attacks on his defeated rivals culminating in an accusation Ted Cruz’s father had been involved in the assassination of President Kennedy. As a source he referred to the scandal tabloid, the National Enquirer. In so doing, he demonstrated the pleasure he took in humiliating his defeated rivals. In other words, he revealed a streak of sadism and cruelty which Richard Cohen of The Washington Post had clearly seen early on and was now there for all to see.
His followers loved it.
In early May, Robert Kagan in The Washington Post wrote that the Trump candidacy was the way fascism could come to the United States. Kagan pointed out that if Trump were to win the election, he would have the formidable powers of the Presidency with which to threaten opponents and arrive in office with a head swelled by having defeated the wishes of the Washington political establishment. The Republican Convention of July 2016 was as close to a fascist spectacle as anything in history of modern American politics. The extent to which Trump delegates took enormous pleasure in hatred and in flouting the rule of law was most in evidence with New Jersey governor Chris Christie turned the delegates into a mob bellowing “lock her up” as he played prosecutor of Hillary Clinton. The call and response of Christie’s speech was, like Trump, a moment of liberation from civility and decency when the mob could take pleasure in venting all of its hatred and resentments at Clinton. Trump’s acceptance speech offered no substance, repeated the adolescent insult about “crooked Hillary” and then revealed what had been obvious all along, namely that he believed that “I alone” would be able to restore law and order and make America great again. The delegates in the hall loved it. On July 22nd, the editors of The Washington Post summarized the case against Trump in an editorial entitled “Donald Trump is a Unique Threat to American Democracy.”
They were not exaggerating. When historians write about the great dictators of right and left, fascist, Nazis and Communists, when we write about totalitarian politics, we face the sobering reality that the more Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Mao lied, the more vicious and cruel they were, the more they blamed their country’s problems on vulnerable yet easily identifiable scapegoats, the more popular they became, the more adoration they received from millions seeking a savior and his simple answers to complex problems. When we write about the destruction of the existing democracies by the fascists and the Nazis in Italy and Germany, we point not only to Mussolini and Hitler because they would have amounted to nothing had it not been for the political establishments that failed to stop them.
So it needs to be said that with too few exceptions the Republican Party’s leadership has failed its responsibility to American democracy by repudiating Trump’s candidacy. The leaders of the Republican Party appear to know nothing or have forgotten about how the dictators in Europe destroyed democracy? Have they not read the excellent historical scholarship about the Italian and German political establishments who made it possible for the dictators to gain power? Have they never read about the underestimation of Hitler by the supposedly sophisticated elites of German industry and conservative politics in 1932 and 1933? The Republican establishment should use its August vacation to read Henry Turner Jr., Ian Kershaw, Karl Bracher and Richard Evans on the German elites and Hitler’s rise to power or my work on the appeals of Hitler’s conspiracy theories.
The mix of cynicism and naiveté of Republican politicians remind this historian of Franz von Papen and other German conservatives in January 1933. He and they were confident that once in power Hitler could be restrained or that he would dispense with the nonsense of his previous radicalism as the demands of governing overcame the extremism of a movement. Yet as the Republican convention mob scene made clear, the more success Trump has had, the more he and his followers have become convinced of his omniscience and that “he alone” is the savior that can solve our problems. His heartless and narcissistic response to the slaughter of 84 people and wounding of hundreds of others in Nice, France was now familiar. He congratulated himself on being uniquely prescient about the threat of terrorism. Yet in the face of all of this, the Republican Party’s political establishment has refused to repudiate Trump.
The Democratic Party is exasperating to those of us who opposed the Iran nuclear deal, Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq and his refusal to lead NATO to intervene to stop the Syrian civil war. It is exasperating that the heart and soul of the Democratic Party gives no indication of being able and willing to carry on an ideological offensive against Islamism and to explain its differences with the religion of Islam. The rise of a genuine leftist—not liberal but leftist—wing within the Democratic Party is also a source of concern. Yet in sharp contrast to the Republican Party, the established Democratic Party defeated Sander’s effort at a hostile takeover. Its establishment held firm and defended its principles. Yet the success of Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party and Sanders failure to do the same to the Democrats means that Hillary Clinton is now the only candidate running for President who supports the fundamentals of the bi-partisan foreign policy adopted by the United States since the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. I look forward to voting for her.
Merely because Trump is not identical to the dictators of Europe’s twentieth century does not mean that the whiff of fascism, the appeals of authoritarianism that were so obvious in March can be dismissed. At its July convention, the whiff became a stench. Trump and his followers together publicly found pleasure in hatred and contempt for those who disagreed. As Kagan pointed out in May, there is no reason for complacency or optimism should Trump win this election. Modern European history is littered with disasters that could have been prevented if people with power had taken the threat to democracy more seriously.
Trump boasted that he alone could solve our problems. This was yet another of his many lies. He has never done it alone. He, like the demagogues of the twentieth century, has always had enablers and supporters. As a historian of modern European history, I am always aware that the worst can happen. My publications are filled with examples of the enormous pleasure that millions of people can take in the expression of hatred, in hopes offered by demagogues of the right and left. We historians are not inclined to clichés about “the common sense” and “fundamental decency” of the American people. We know that things can go horribly wrong.
Yet there are moments in a history of a democracy when individuals rise to the occasion and put demagogues on a defensive from which they have difficulty recovering. In June 1954, the lawyer Joseph Welch’s question to Senator Joseph McCarthy, “at long last sir, have you no decency” was the beginning of the end for the demagogue from my home state of Wisconsin. In seven powerful words, another lawyer, Kzhir Kahn, whose son died fighting for this country in Iraq, offered an equally powerful rebuke to Trump when he said at the Democratic convention “you have sacrificed nothing and no one.”
There, standing next to his grieving wife, was a Muslim father proudly waving the United States Constitution and evoking its equal protection clause. Rather than keep his mouth shut, Trump attacked the parents of a fallen soldier who died fighting the Islamists that Trump claims to fight. Time will tell as to whether or not this is the beginning of the end of the Trump phenomenon. Yet those seven words and the Trump’s indecent and shameless response certainly should take the air out of a candidacy that never should have come this far in the first place.
This article was published in The American Interest online on August 8th.
Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland in College. In May Cambridge University Press published his most recent book, Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, 1967-1989.