Thursday, March 10, 2016

The F Word

“Love him or hate him, no one has been able to figure out Donald Trump.”
—Journalist and author Ronald Kessler
I have been noticing a lot of dark musings from multiple sources about Donald Trump’s extraordinary presidential campaign. The whole thing seems to be reminding a lot of people of the 1930s.

The comparison is not completely without merit. Since the big financial crisis of 2007-2008, the developed world’s economies have been persistently uneasy. There is a sense that economic progress has stalled. While this is by no means as extreme as the Great Depression of the 1930s, there seems to be similar loss of confidence in various nations’ political institutions. In Europe many people worry that the waves of people fleeing from Syria and other Middle East and African countries will overwhelm western Europe. Other people worry that it will be European governments’ botched response to the crisis that will do in the European Union. Meanwhile in the United States, the normal pattern of politics seems to have warped completely. The usual political pundits all seem to be less than useless at giving us any idea about what to expect or even about what much of the country is really thinking.

There is one interesting strain of commentary that spans the entire political spectrum. In outlets as diverse as The Huffington Post, Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal, you can read opinion-makers hinting or even suggesting outright that Donald Trump’s candidacy is akin to the rise of fascism in the 1930s. I wish they wouldn’t do that—because it puts me in the uncomfortable position of having to sort-of defend him.

The evidence for the Trump/fascist thing mainly comes down to perceptions of nationalism in his campaign slogan (“Make America Great Again!”) and racism in his utterances about the character of illegal Mexican immigrants and his call for a temporary ban on visas for Muslims.

I suppose we should not be surprised that commentators would make accusations or implications about Trump being a fascist. The word fascist has been bandied about in American political discourse for some time now, and the name Hitler has been applied in the heat of argument by less-than-stable minds in the direction of both George W. Bush and President Obama. It is probably safe to say that the term fascist has by now lost any real meaning beyond the vague idea of someone really, really bad.

It is worth noting that real fascists (back when the word meant something) like Mussolini and Hitler got their starts in their respective countries’ socialist movements and then broke with their fellow socialists to put a greater emphasis on national (rather than international) destiny—becoming virulently anti-communist in the process. What those two leaders had in common was an extremely engaged political activism from an early age and a vocal longtime devotion to a particular ideology. Among the reasons we may have for fearing Donald Trump, the idea that he might have an actual ideology does not seem to be among them. Ideologically, the man is all over the place.

When we think of 1930s fascists we might also think of Spain’s Francisco Franco. He differs from Mussolini and Hitler in that he was a career military man who was installed as leader in a coup. That coup, by the way, would have happened whether Franco had participated or not.

So why do fascists come to power? It usually seems to happen in reaction to two things—a serious political vaccuum and increasing pressure from the political left. A lot of Italians and Germans tolerated fascists because they were seen as being able to deal with increasingly active communists. The irony is that with both communism and fascism you get more government control over every aspect of citizens’ lives. What both those ideologies abhor is liberal (in the classic sense) democracy in which the government’s role is limited and personal liberty is emphasized.

So is Trump another Mussolini in the making? Frankly, it is hard to see him militarizing the country and imposing an ideology in the manner of Il Duce. But what about all those outrageous things he says about Mexicans and Muslims? Dilbert cartoonist and blogger Scott Adams, who seems to have a much better handle on Trump than anyone else out there at the moment, may have the right take. Trump is the ultimate negotiator and dealmaker. As such, according to Adams, his outrageous comments should not be seen as hard and fast statements of committed belief but as his opening position in a negotiation. That is borne out by the fact that Trump regularly contradicts himself or modifies his positions as time goes on.

The main reason to fear Trump, as far as I can see anyway, is that there is little basis—given his constantly shifting positions and rhetoric—for knowing what he would actually do as president. If you don’t like uncertainty, it seems to me that Trump should be your worst nightmare. Furthermore, his track record in business does nothing to suggest that he would tackle what is the biggest longterm threat to the country—the ballooning growth in the national debt (distinct from the annual deficits, which President Obama always prefers to talk about) which threatens at some point to wreck the economy.

As it happens, those are also the reasons to fear anyone else who, at this point, has a credible shot at winning the presidency.

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