Thursday, December 3, 2020
Dec. 3, 2020

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Jayne: Danger of making America fail

By , Columbian Opinion Editor
Published:

Remember when our presidential scandals were not so scandalous? When Fox News thought it was a big deal that President Barack Obama wore a tan suit or ordered Grey Poupon on a hamburger?

Life was so much simpler then. So much simpler than having a president openly trying to prevent the count of legally cast votes or undermine the Postal Service to prevent the delivery of ballots.

Assessments of the Trump presidency can be complicated, especially when trying to separate hyperbolic criticism from reality. And while impeached President Trump might not be an elitist who likes tasty hamburgers, there is an overriding question that has stalked his reign: Is Donald Trump a fascist?

Once upon a time, you see, Americans were darn near unanimous in their belief that fascism was evil. But now? Now, in the age of invectives and overstatements and boiling partisanship, it can be difficult to maintain a grasp on accuracy. Definitions become diminished; epithets become too easy. So, in an effort to offer a fair assessment of Trump and his presidency, I sent a note to Peter Hayes.

Hayes is a smart guy. Author of “Why?: Explaining the Holocaust” and a bunch of other books; editor of “How Was It Possible? A Holocaust Reader”; former scholar-in-residence at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He also is a professor emeritus at Northwestern University, and many years ago I had him for a class about Nazi Germany. So, he understands fascism about as well as anybody.

Hayes defines fascism as “an authoritarian, militaristic, and patriarchal form of hyper-nationalism, with strong admixtures of romanticism about a country’s past, hostility to social change and specialized expertise, and intolerance of internal disagreement.”

No, he was not asked to define the Trump presidency. It just sounds that way. Hyper-nationalism? Romanticism about a country’s past? Intolerance of internal disagreement? You could not draw a clearer portrait of Trump.

So, does Hayes see elements of fascism in the Trump regime?

“Off and on, but he lacks the discipline and commitment to ideas (however crazed) that characterized such figures as Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco,” the professor wrote. “He clearly echoes their populism (i.e., the view that my people are the people), and their readiness to divide their countries from the wider world and even their own societies between us and them. But he only plays at militarism in the form of parades, displays, and the occasional missile launch, rather than in the form of territorial aggression.”

Of course, we’re talking about traits that Trump supporters consider a feature and not a bug. But the danger is clear. As Hayes wrote when asked if Americans should fear fascism: “You bet. It leads at best to stagnation for a country in which it prevails (Portugal and Spain from the 1930s to 1970s, Hungary today), and at worst it leads to self-destruction through auto-intoxication (Germany and Italy from 1935 to 1945).”

Which would seem to be a problem. Yet fascism is making a comeback, with multiple nations embracing hyper-nationalism from leaders too often excused as “populists.”

The reason? “It’s a globalizing world with complicated problems that can only be handled, if at all, by collective, international responses, which are hard to devise and understand,” Hayes wrote. “Retreating into a fortress mentality is simply easier, and hating complexity and the people who seem to cause it feels good to many people.”

So when counting votes sounds too scary, Trump tries to prevent it — adhering to his habit of tearing down institutions that don’t adhere to his self-obsession. “The principal danger from Trump is not that he’ll make America fascist, but that he is making America fail,” Hayes wrote. “We are becoming a country that cannot meet the challenges of the present (a pandemic) or the future (climate change). He thinks only about the show and the short term, which is a catastrophic combination.”

And it might have a more enduring legacy than whether or not the president wears a tan suit.

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