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It is the greatest danger if Trump remains in office.
The election of Donald Trump felt to many like that final scene from the “Planet of the Apes,” when riding horseback on an isolated beach, the astronaut who has landed on a world ruled by apes sees—sticking out stark and alone on the quiet shore—the head of the Statue of Liberty, and realizing he has not traveled to another planet, but rather to a future without humanity, gets down on his knees amid the breaking waves and sobs, “You maniacs, you blew it up—God damn you, God damn you all to hell.”
We believed it could not happen here, and now we are living with what never seemed possible: fascism has finally arrived on the shores of America. And while most of us go about our daily lives unperturbed, a momentous sense of dread has come to nag at our consciences. We try to ignore the possibility that it may spell an end to American democracy, and with it so many of the freedoms we had so recently taken for granted. Yet, we periodically awaken to the reality with a sense of helplessness and angst, struggling to find an appropriate response to what can often seem a sort of mass psychosis.
But mostly, life just goes on as before.
There is a moment of calm that can come before a horrific crisis. We cannot believe what is happening and tell ourselves it is not as bad as we think. We try to normalize the things we are about to confront or find the humanity in a violent perpetrator. It is much the same with the victim of a kidnapping as it is with the subject of a tyrant: most people try to normalize their situation in order to carry on living. But often it is worse than they could ever imagine, and the disproportionality of their responses only highlight the dangers.
All this was conveyed to me by an older Syrian gentleman in a Greek island cafe. His city had just been besieged by the Assad regime, which was starving the population to get at the Free Syria Army, and people were killing each other for bread. So, when Isis arrived and they were “nice at first” as he put it, people accepted them in the hope things would change. But then they began killing people en masse for petty religious offenses and leaving their bodies to rot in the streets. Now he found himself in a refugee camp, awaiting acceptance into an unknown country on another continent. And yet, life rolled on as we sat with his wife and children, slowly sipping coffee.
A period of unnerving calm followed the election of Trump. Many people said we should wait and see, that he would shake things up and displace elites; that he was a pragmatist with no clear ideological commitments and could be influenced in the right direction. Now all of that is gone and almost everyone who was not a supporter has awoken to the reality that they may soon be living in a once and former democracy. The new normal is so surreal that outrage at specific policies and pronouncements will probably fail to get at the tectonic shifts now knocking us off our feet.
Fascism is anything but normal, but it must be normalized if it is to succeed. It is normalized through its contagious energy, which empowers followers, paralyzes skeptics, wears down opponents, and destroys resisters. Peter Fritzsche’s Life and Death in the Third Reich highlights the way even people resistant to the regime became swept up by its activities. The Third Reich made itself felt everywhere, and there was no place to resist, but people also welcomed the vigorous sense of national pride accompanying its ascent to power. They were excited over the changes taking place and felt themselves joined together as part of a great nation. Meanwhile, those who might otherwise have resisted gradually found themselves overwhelmed and isolated.
Few Americans have ever lived under an authoritarian, let alone fascist, regime. We have never watched leaders arrogate power without justification, never witnessed the unapologetic assault on democratic institutions. We have never seen friends and family explain away such outrages, nor read about fellow citizens being shipped to camps where they await deportation. Few of us can imagine how we would respond to all this, and yet much of it has become a daily reality already.
The gulag of concentration camps, where kids are separated from parents and placed in densely packed cells without shampoo, toothpaste, or bedding; his sharing of statements about killing all Democrats; and periodic reports of millions of children starving in Yemen, as a result of Trump’s insistence on arming the Saudis, are now a daily reality. In the end, we may adapt much as did the Germans, gradually reconciling ourselves to what never seemed possible.
The spectacle accompanying these changes may make it all the more likely.
The fascism this time is less strident and more disorderly, less disciplined and more absurd. The country is more stable than Weimar Germany and postwar Italy, and its institutions are stronger. Scholars of fascism are in fact divided over how to characterize the administration, with most settling for a more narrow definition of fascism that would exclude it. Yet, the Trump administration bears a family resemblance to Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy in its populism, nationalism, militarism, and ethnocentrism. The irrationalism and nihilism of the administration lend to it a similar tone. And the cult of personality surrounding its narcissistic leader, with aggressive impulses and an abusive manner, could not be more familiar.
Fascism always ends in destruction; and the fascism this time is in that sense little different from the last.
But whatever we wish to call the administration, it is imperative we take the threats it poses seriously. Almost nobody in Germany would have imagined the extremism of the Third Reich when Hitler entered office in 1933, but his radicalism deepened as he consolidated power. In the end, ordinary Germans embraced the mass killing of Jews, even as they were repeatedly given the opportunity to sit it out. It takes time to wear down institutions and to staff them with your own people, to normalize hate and erode distinctions between fact and fiction.
The road to a fascist state may in fact be longer than we tend to think, and it is for this very reason that we should not take anything for granted.
The greatest concern probably lies with the gradual destruction of democratic norms and institutions, amid widespread social regression. Democratic norms are always fragile, for they are based on widely shared sentiments, passed down from one generation to the next in a chain of succession, which over the course of a few generations might be broken altogether.
Democratic institutions rarely last without the love of freedom and sense of inherent equality, which make people so resistant to authoritarian leaders. But these sentiments were already weakening and are now being assaulted, along with the legitimacy of basic democratic institutions, like freedom of speech and assembly, fair courts and elections. However, the deeper concern should lie with the crimes against humanity that are proliferating across the world. In the end, Trump will have destroyed far more than democratic institutions.
As the stresses involved in facing what is happening intensify, many will simply turn inward in a perverted attempt to find their bearings, expecting others to continue the resistance, with most lacking the strength to do so without the support of everyone else. It has happened countless times before in nations that succumbed to authoritarian rule, and in the Second World War over an entire continent, but this time it could be the world itself that goes under.
Preventing such an outcome will require that we commit ourselves to using resistance to make ourselves better and stronger. Simply finding the strength to face the forces of oppression is a powerful path of personal development when the stressors you are facing will not go away on their own. For in facing overwhelming odds, we develop capacities we never thought possible. Hence, what begins as a worldly struggle can be transformed into a personal path of freedom.
It is time we begin to consider such a path more suitable to the times. If we succeed, we will find ourselves not only better people, but a better nation—and maybe, perhaps, even a better and stronger world.
This article is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, The Fascism This Time; and the Global Future of Democracy. Theo Horesh is also the author of The Holocausts We All Deny.