I hesitate to label anything “fascist,” a word so overused and misunderstood it’s been leeched of all meaning. But it’s a hard word to avoid these days.
I no longer want to hear of Trump’s “authoritarian tendencies.” They’re no longer tendencies, they’re naked power grabs, and Trump is grabbing as much as he can before Election Day, possibly for use afterwards.
That’s classic fascism, so let’s call it by its name.
Fascism, we’re taught, is the concentration of all levers of power in the hands of an oligarchy of wealthy and corporate interests, headed by an absolute leader.
We’ve long speculated about whether it could truly take hold in this country, and if it did, what it would look like.
Well, this is what it looks like. Minus some of the bells and whistles, which could be on the way.
So far, the concentration camps are still largely on the southern border — at least the ones we know about. So far, the police haven’t quite descended to Gestapo level — but the protests aren’t over, and Trump is encouraging their worst impulses. So far, the mass execution of undesirable ethnics is still, apparently, on the back burner — but would it surprise us?
So let’s look at those levers of power and consider, briefly, what we are now up against.
The Executive Branch is largely in the hands of the industries it’s supposed to regulate. The inspectors general — the watchdogs in the federal agencies — are being systematically purged and replaced with copy-and-paste Trump loyalists. Unqualified hacks occupy all the leadership roles, and it shows. Their catastrophic response to the pandemic, leaving 100,000 dead, is a fitting testament to their incompetence. And to fascism in action.
Half the Legislative Branch — the House — has been effectively neutered, mostly by Bill Barr. As long as he’s in charge, oversight is a non-starter and subpoenas might as well be toilet paper. In a way, he’s the scariest of them all, because he’s a true believer — a rarity in an administration that’s mostly in it for the grift — and he’s been working toward this moment his whole life. He truly believes in the “unitary executive” — a cute euphemism for dictator — though I’m guessing Trump wouldn’t have been his first choice. Fascist dictators really need an attention span.
The Senate, for its part, is still a rubber stamp for Trump. Mitch McConnell is the only senator who matters, and he could end this madness tomorrow. He alone has the clout — and the votes — to remove Trump from office if he so chooses. But we know he can’t take the chance. His connections to China, through his wife’s family, are suspicious enough to warrant investigation by a new administration. And there are still plenty of questions about Oleg Deripaska’s business interests in Kentucky. Other skeletons shouldn’t be hard to find, which has to make McConnell queasy. But for now, he’s content to undermine the recovery, withholding desperately needed relief funding, all in lockstep with the unitary executive. A pliable legislature is one of fascism’s greatest hits.
The Judicial branch also has McConnell’s fingerprints all over it. If another Supreme Court seat opens between now and next January — right up to midnight of the Inauguration — he will effectively put SCOTUS out of reach for 30 years. But that’s not nearly the extent of his damage. His only mission these days, besides obstructing legislation, is stocking the federal court system with as many unqualified, far-right judges as he can ram through the confirmation process.
As for the current line-up of SCOTUS, let’s just say we’re placing a lot of faith in the sanity and humanity of John Roberts, even as we totally write off the other four nuts to his right. Does this fill you with confidence? If ever there was a Supreme Court built for fascism, this is it.
So yes, we’re all set up for a fascist state. The only piece missing is the military. If they get aboard, it’s game over.
But I don’t think Trump controls the military, at least not yet. He’d love to, but he’s burned a lot of those bridges, from the generals on down. You don’t win them over by pardoning war criminals, abandoning the Kurds, blackmailing Ukraine, or firing the captain of a Covid-ridden ship. And most of them were fans of John McCain.
Even the top brass, authoritarian by nature, can’t be comfortable with what’s going on. The thought of turning their own troops on their own countrymen — which Trump would gleefully have them do — has got to keep them up at night.
Even so, you have to wonder what they’re saying to themselves. Are they expecting Trump to declare martial law? Have they thought through which orders they’re prepared to carry out? If he tells them to shoot peaceful protesters on Fifth Avenue, will they give that order?
And let’s not forget that the virus gets a say. The most ruthless fascist of all, it lives to punish those who break the rules, especially the rules of social distancing. The one thing the rallies have in common — protesters and police alike — is a visible disregard for masks and the six-foot rule. The virus will no doubt weigh in on this in the next week or two.
I hope I’m wrong about all of this. I hope this infection, this rash on the body politic, will go away by itself. I hope our system has enough antibodies to fight it off. I hope it isn’t fascism at all.
But if it looks, walks, and quacks like fascism, what else would you call it?