President Trump and his supporters have embraced fascist politics, and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his positive diagnosis are a “classic” example of how, according a Yale philosophy professor and fascism expert.
“In this kind of politics the leader is the nation,” Jason Stanley, the author of 2018’s How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, told The Independent.
“The leader is supposed to be strong. They’re just trying to represent that he’s strong and it doesn’t affect him and it won’t affect the nation. [President Jair] Bolsonaro in Brazil did the same thing.”
Trump has long cast doubt on the severity of coronavirus, often publicly disagreeing with his own top medical experts, and that streak has continued even as he joined the ranks of the more than 7.3 million Americans who’ve caught Covid.
On Monday, tweeting about his upcoming release from the hospital, Trump said, “Don’t be afraid of Covid,” despite the fact it has killed more than 209,000 Americans and infected even those inside the White House, who have access to some of the best medical care in the world.
Trump’s surrogates, Stanley points out, have also gone on to spin Trump’s diagnosis as a sign of his and America’s strength, and to paint former Vice President Joe Biden’s more cautious approach to campaigning virtually as a weakness.
In a Monday interview with Fox News, Trump re-election campaign adviser Mercedes Schlapp described Trump as “the ultimate fighter.”
“He obviously has stayed in contact not only with the campaign but also talking directly to the American people in saying, ‘We’re going to get through this. We’re going to defeat this virus. We’re not going to surrender to it like Joe Biden would surrender to this virus,’” she said.
Fascists, Stanley said, gravitate to the same kind of tactics: building a cult of personality among supporters; encouraging anti-intellectualism; appealing to the mythic strength of a nation to cure its decline—or Make it Great Again, in Trump’s famous turn of phrase.
But something like a pandemic can, if only temporarily, break through this bubble. Those who deny coronavirus is a threat can still catch it themselves.
“Now signals are crossed when it’s his own supporters. He’s been denying reality,” Stanley said. “He only thinks of everything in terms of war, and you can see this in the reaction to coronavirus, too, but facts don’t really have a side.”
The fascism expert worries about developments beyond the pandemic too, from Trump’s seeming approval of militia groups like the Proud Boys during the debate, to his demonization of Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “drug dealers,” to his more than 20,000 documented false or misleading claims made since becoming president.
President Trump, but for the safeguards of our liberal democratic system, would gladly rule like Russian President Vladimir Putin if he were able, Stanley believes.
But not everyone believes the label of fascism, whether applied to Mr. Trump himself, or to the broader movement of his supporters in- and outside of government, to be an accurate one.
Eliah Bures, a visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Right-Wing Studies, wrote in Foreign Policy in 2019 that the “F-word” is “marvelously flexible and emotive, but it is also an example of language that is more likely to alienate and enrage than promote dialogue.”
This would seem, Bures argues, to go exactly against the kind of open society opponents of fascism want. “While demonization is an ancient political itch always better left unscratched, it is especially harmful to a liberal-democratic political culture since it legitimizes intransigence and extremism in return,” he writes.
For every more-liberal book like 2018’s Fascism: A Warning, from former Secretary of State under the Clinton Administration Madeline Albright, or accusation from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that Trump’s family separation and detention policies at the border signal we’re “headed to fascism,” there are books like conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza’s 2017 work The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left, and President Trump’s claim that anti-fascists protestors were in fact encouraging “fascism.”
Fascism, in other words, has become the latest grist for the partisan mill, Bures worries, and it’s easy use today often ignores the meaningful differences between regimes past and present, such as older fascist’s millenarian visions and genocidal violence.
How to make sense of this context, then, when all people of various political persuasions accuse each other of being the truly dangerous radicals? It is actually somewhat simple, Stanley says. The media must focus less on Trump the man who frequently lies and contradicts himself, and more on the impact of the president’s actions, such as his repeated efforts to undermine trust in the November elections.
“When he’s running against the media, and the media says he’s lying, that’s a win for his supporters,” Stanley says. “Trump is trying to rig the election.”
More than anything though, Stanley says the people in power must decide to wrestle us back from a world where the president can both say and do seemingly whatever he wants without losing their support.
“You need two political parties that respect the existence of the other political party,” Stanley says. “If you’re going to reestablish norms, you can’t have a political system where norms only hold for the Democrats.”
Whether those norms will matter will be put to the test in the coming weeks.
Republicans, who refused to confirm a new Supreme Court Justice appointed by President Obama because the election was only nine months away, will convene on October 12 to begin a Supreme Court confirmation process for one of Trump’s picks, weeks from an election day already rocked by a global pandemic.
Two Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Utah’s Mike Lee and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, announced they tested positive for coronavirus on Friday. The consequences of the coronavirus are without question, but everything else, that’s up for debate.
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