By Jason Garshfield
Now that Joe Biden is president, and we once again have a leader who can tell lies with grace and dignity, the soul of America has been restored. Still, it is worth reflecting on just how much of a bullet we dodged with Trump.
Donald Trump is a fascist. If you doubt this, read Newsweek. Or The Guardian. Or Teen Vogue. And while Trump did not reshape America into a fascist nation during his presidency, that was undoubtedly just because he was waiting for his second term to go full fash.
What might America look like if Donald Trump had, in fact, won a second term and implemented his fascist vision?
Well, it is easier than you might think to make a country succumb to fascism. Such movements, after all, consist not primarily of psychopaths, but of ordinary people. (The 2008 German film The Wave is a particularly interesting watch on this topic.) Most of these ordinary people believe themselves firmly to be on the right side of things, and would laugh if you called them fascists. There is no reason to believe that It Can’t Happen Here. America could become a fascist country, and very quickly, perhaps even within the space of a year or so.
The best way to turn America fascist – and the one Trump probably would have tried if given the chance – would be to drum up fear of a common threat. As Nazi leader Hermann Göring reportedly said in private during the Nuremberg Trials, even if the people don’t want war, it is easy for the leaders to concoct one, regardless of the governing structure: “All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.”
Here, Donald Trump might have run into some difficulty in implementing his fascist plan. After all, he ran on an antiwar platform in 2016, and the American people, after two decades of Afghanistan and Iraq, were not feeling particularly hawkish. Even this, however, is not a dealbreaker, only an obstacle. Trump still could have concocted some substitute for a war which would have had the same effect of frightening the public into compliance. Perhaps a real or perceived natural crisis, such as a pandemic or climate change, might serve. Fascists can always find some pretense.
Once mass hysteria has been induced, people are often surprisingly compliant in surrendering their freedoms. At worst, a fascist Trump might have been able to reshape all of American life, curbing citizens’ everyday freedoms to an unprecedented degree. He might have locked us all in our homes for months on end, deemed certain subsets of the population “nonessential,” forcibly closed the businesses and ruined the livelihoods of these “nonessentials,” and forced everyone else to comply with a set of onerously petty daily rules, including standing a certain distance apart from each other, performing routine cleansing rituals, and maybe even wearing a certain article of clothing. At every step along the way, Trump and his cronies would have constantly assured us that everything was being done for our own good, for our health and safety.
Some of this, admittedly, may sound far-fetched to us, accustomed as we are to living in a free country. But nothing is impossible.
Imagine a world where a man could be sentenced to a year in jail for holding a party in his home, a group of religious worshipers could be carted away by police for peacefully singing hymns in public, or a business could be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars just for reopening in defiance of its “nonessential” designation. What a horrible alternate reality! We should all be grateful we avoided that, by getting rid of the tyrant Trump.
Surely, you might think, the people would rebel against such a state of affairs. In this, you might be overly optimistic. There would be a few dissenters, of course, but it would be easy to silence them, as Göring suggested, by denouncing them for their lack of patriotism. Simply accuse them of not caring about the common good, and publicly humiliate a few (perhaps amplifying the mob gang-up through Twitter and other social media platforms), and the rest will fall into line.
It is important to note that none of this would require ripping up the Constitution. Such a system could be implemented with the Constitution still in effect, and most of its central provisions nominally preserved. After all, our Constitution is nothing unless enforced. When the will to uphold it is gone, it becomes a mere piece of paper. In the words of the late Justice Scalia, “Every tinpot dictator has a Bill of Rights which he casually ignores.” Even the North Korean constitution guarantees free speech and assembly.
Such a system would merely require the courts to stop enforcing the Constitution, to concede that, on the basis of “emergency powers,” the freedoms of citizens are suspended. If enough federal judges issued decisions with sentences like “governments have broad powers to act during an emergency to secure public health and safety,” then the Constitution would be rendered obsolete. And if prominent civil libertarians, many with otherwise admirable track records in defending individual liberty, came out in support of these measures, the prognosis for a judicial remedy for Trump’s fascism would be grim indeed.
In fact, states of emergency that last months or years have been used in dictatorships before. Egypt, under Hosni Mubarak, had one for over three decades. Once it had been determined by the courts that safety supersedes freedom, there is no end to what Trump could have done.
The use of propaganda is also characteristic of fascism. If Trump’s fascism had gone into effect, we would have been inundated with propaganda messages from every angle: billboards, commercials, signs in stores, all telling us to follow the new social restrictions. They might hammer the same over-simplistic phrases into our heads for months on end, the type of slogans which Noam Chomsky would say “don’t mean anything” and only serve to divert your attention from “a question that does mean something: Do you support our policy?”
The film Starship Troopers parodied the empty, jingoistic, repetitive nature of such propaganda. Of course, propaganda bits with cliches such as “I’m doing my part” are entirely the domain of sci-fi movies. No one in real life, not even a fascist like Trump, would ever try to push such a hackneyed slogan. Would they?
Propaganda in a Trumpian fascist state might also encourage citizens to listen to the people in charge rather than trusting their own judgment. As a World War II-era propaganda poster in dictator Marshal Petain’s collaborationist Vichy France regime admonished citizens, “Do you understand the problems of the hour better than him (Petain)?” A more modern, succinct version of this might be something like “listen to the experts” or even “trust the science.” The aim, of course, is to undermine citizens’ faith in their individual discernment, to encourage epistemological self-doubt.
Perhaps the fascist Trump might have even come up with a catchy label for any piece of information that diverged from the party line. He was fond of using the term “fake news,” but I think that “misinformation” would sound a bit more serious and official.
Finally, Trump might have come out with a “passport” system for citizens to show their compliance in the new regime whenever they venture out in public. The passport might be framed as a “ticket back to normalcy,” and would require the cooperation of government and private entities to implement, so that there would be effectively no escape: citizens would be obligated to comply, or else be excluded from all aspects of society, unable to work, shop, or socialize, reduced to a life on the margins. No one is forcing you to go along, Trump and his fascist cronies would assure us with smiles on their faces and daggers in their hands, but if you do not want to be scrounging for food in a dumpster, you had better do so. It would be an all-encompassing matrix of control from which no citizen could ever find respite.
What a horrifying future! I’m glad Joe Biden is president, so we don’t have to face it. Can you imagine how horrible America would be, if only Trump had won a second term?