Will Fascism Win the US Election?
NEW YORK – Many Americans can see that voting for US President Donald Trump is tantamount to endorsing white nationalism and the kind of conspiracist, magical thinking that denies real threats like pandemics and climate change. But it also must be recognized that failing to vote against Trump in this year’s election is itself a form of collaboration with an attack on democracy that is already underway.
America today is threatened not just by authoritarianism but by fascism, which operates as an explicitly anti-democratic cult centered around a leader who promises national restoration in the face of humiliation supposedly caused by minorities, liberals, and Marxists. Because fascism glorifies violence and the militarization of politics, we should be wary of the fact that Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. Even if his regular use of anti-democratic rhetoric is merely a tactic to divert attention from his failure to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, such language from an elected leader is highly dangerous and should be shocking to citizens in any democracy.
But many Americans are not shocked at all. By normalizing anti-democratic speech and ideology, Trump has increasingly normalized authoritarian rule, too. That is why this election must be understood as a struggle for the survival of American democracy itself. Trump’s strategy of undermining democratic norms and the legitimacy of the election is eerily reminiscent of the destruction of Latin American democracies in the 1960s and 1970s, when autocrats manufactured an environment in which acts that were previously deemed illegal suddenly became the new standard.
To be sure, whereas fascism typically offers a grand vision of “national restoration,” Trump has no such vision to speak of. But that does not mean America is safe from fascism. Trump’s attacks on democracy are a response to the challenges that his personality cult is facing, both from the nationwide mobilization of resistance against its main ideological pillar, white nationalism, and from the Democratic Party, which seems more unified than ever.
These two threats are not coordinated, as Trumpian propaganda would have it. But they have created a pretext for Trump to deploy the fascist playbook even more aggressively than he has before. As with the classic fascist movements of the past, this new, more dangerous phase of Trumpism features a campaign that has doubled down on messianic leadership, the subornation of violence, and open attacks on the constitutional order.
At this stage, the Trumpian personality cult has completely dispensed with the need for actual plans and proposals (indeed, the Republican Party, which Trump now controls, did not even bother to offer a policy platform for the election). Trump embodies whatever his supporters want, even when they themselves don’t know what that is. This is all too typical of fascist leaders, who usually function as a father figure for those susceptible to the appeal of an authoritarian personality. As the father of the “MAGA” nation, Trump decides what is best for his children, and it is this patriarchal authority that provides the rationale for violence, lies, and even dictatorship.
In this context, other forms of authority (be it scientific or legal) are seen as direct threats to an aspiring fascist leader. It is no wonder that Trump responds with immediate anger when he is contradicted by Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious-disease expert. When Trump himself fell ill with COVID-19, he used the occasion not as a wake-up call but as an opportunity to demonstrate his physical strength (with the help of powerful steroids). By the same token, displays of strength, domination, and violence by supporters of the fascist leader are duly rewarded, especially when they clearly violate norms and civilized constraints, as when Trump pardoned the Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher, who was convicted of heinous war crimes.
Finally, with Trump occupying the position of the father, there is a strong religious dimension to Trumpism. In this context, one must not take lightly Trump’s cynical and clumsy displays of religiosity. The more that Trump’s followers regard him as a kind of divine authority, the more justified they will feel in using violence to defend him. The armed civilians who threaten and even shoot protesters in the streets are not “defending property.” Rather, they are claiming the right to use violence against the leader’s enemies. The use of federal, state, and local forces against the same protesters is deemed justified – even when it is illegal – to defend an order that starts from the top.
With the approach of Election Day, Trump has elevated the risk of fascism. He routinely depicts those who oppose him in brazenly racist terms, and his administration has supercharged its mistreatment of immigrants under its control, including by allegedly allowing a “silent pandemic” to spread through an immigrant detention center in Georgia. The connection between immigrants and disease is a familiar trope in fascist propaganda, as is the strategy of making the propaganda come true, as the National Socialists did in Europe’s ghettos in the 1930s.
Trump has also been stepping up his campaign to undermine the public’s trust in electoral institutions. Here, he has been building on Republicans’ long history of efforts to disenfranchise African-American voters and gerrymandering to reduce the weight of votes in more diverse, left-leaning urban centers.
The point of all this is to head off the possibility of an electoral loss by claiming that a broad, anti-democratic cabal of media elites is “rigging” the system to block the will of the people. As we have seen, no amount of empirical evidence can convince Trump’s supporters that their leader’s claims of election fraud are false. Fact-checking by the mainstream media is easily dismissed as just another conspiracy among elite enemies of the people.
If the early reported results on Election Day are pointing to a defeat for Trump, that will be his last chance to cash in on the faith of his followers, by translating a long-cultivated skepticism of the electoral process into new physical threats, potentially creating a crisis in which he will claim to be above the law. If Trump does not accept an electoral defeat, he will have nowhere else to turn but toward a distinctively fascist form of authoritarianism.
Only a clear, decisive victory for Joe Biden can make that much more difficult to pull off. The implication is clear: failing to vote against the Trump cult is no different than joining it oneself.