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While discussing the current situation recently, a historian friend told me that he did not believe history repeated itself. Bearing that in mind, I asked him if he thought it still had lessons for us to draw on. He answered, yes of course. Keeping that under consideration, I decided to take a deeper look at the rapid changes Donald Trump and his “people” are trying to put in place in the United States. As I began my investigation, it was announced that Trump adviser Steven Bannon had replaced a General and an intelligence chief on the National Security Council. In essence, this move is another attempt by the Trump administration to upend the traditional chain of command (the professional class, if you will), with ideologues from outside that class.
Upon hearing of this move, I was immediately reminded of similar moves by Adolf Hitler at the beginning of his government. Now known as the Gleichschaltung, this time period in the rise of Nazism involved (among other things) the replacing of various members of the German government with Nazi ideologues whose primary allegiance was to Hitler and the philosophy of Nazism. Essentially the process of bringing all elements of power, from the government to the military to the trade unions to the media, into line with the Nazi state, the Gleichschaltung began with the elimination of independent state legislatures. This was followed by the dismantling of trade unions, attacks on the independence of the churches (especially those opposed to the Nazis), the elimination of all political parties except for the Nazi party, the creation of youth, worker and women’s organizations where involvement was mandatory and enforced by the schools and community. In addition, the private militias of the Nazis became official state military organizations with the task of enforcing allegiance to the Hitler wing of the Nazi party. Crucial to all of this undertaking was the role of Hitler’s right hand man and propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels.
In the wake of the Trump administration’s unconstitutional immigration order, the spontaneous protests and numerous lawsuits that took place in its wake, and the refusal of certain Justice Department officials to support or enforce the ban, and their subsequent dismissal, Trump dug in his heels. For many folks, the firing of the Justice Department officials was reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s firing of officials charged with investigating his participation in the Watergate break-in and cover up (one result of which was the elevation of Robert Bork.) This became known as the Saturday Night Massacre and was but one of Nixon’s authoritarian attempts to assume complete power of the US government.
Nixon’s moves were eventually countered by the liberal wing of the US government. The result was his resignation. This saved the liberal republic that was the United States. Given the weakness of today’s liberalism—and the fact that they are much closer in philosophy to the right wing than the Left—it seems unlikely that liberals will be able to stop the advance towards fascism we are currently witnessing. Philosopher Ernst Traverso discussed in his most recent book the notion that the rise of fascism in Twentieth century Europe was partially due to the failures of liberalism; its economic failures, its rejection of the Left and accommodation of the Right, and its use of horrible violence to maintain its colonies and power at home. Those who argue that Trumpism is a direct result of the neoliberal capitalism prior to the US election of 2016 have that historical argument in their favor.
There is a trope that is appearing in various newspapers and in social media that focuses on the fact that Bannon has read Lenin. This fact is then used as proof that he is a Leninist. Nothing can be further from the truth. Liberal philosophy tends to equate communism with fascism in an attempt to make liberalism appear reasonable. As far as Bannon is concerned, a better comparison would be this: Steven Bannon is to Donald Trump what Josef Goebbels was to Hitler. Writing this is not meant to be alarmist. Instead, it is written so we can understand his role. It is clear from his work with Breitbart and in his production of propaganda films for the far-right that Breitbart is a clever propagandist. Indeed, it seems likely that he has read and absorbed Goebbels’ admonitions and advice regarding the role of propaganda to the State. His appointment to the National Security Council is not appalling because it removes a couple of war criminals from positions they assumed were theirs by decree. It is appalling because it represents the rise of an American fascist to the inner circles of power. Not just the inner circles, but arguably a circle most fundamental in matters of life and death. Time will tell exactly what this means.
Another tendency among the liberal establishment is to discount the potential of the Trump-Bannon duo. This attitude assumes permanence to the US Constitution and its much-lauded systems of checks and balances. Furthermore, it also assumes a certain allegiance to that document and the system its words hold in place by those in power, no matter what party they belong to. This purposely naïve narrative ignores the ongoing reality in Washington. It is a reality that has seen the power of the president expand not just in arithmetic terms but in geometric ones the past couple of decades. What began with FDR during World War Two has continued under the auspices of national security, with the growing consolidation of presidential power drastically expanding since 9-11. If one adds the complete control of the Congress by a sycophantic and soulless Republican party marked only by an unparalleled and unprincipled lust for power and money all too willing to follow Trump’s authoritarian march, the remnants of that constitution are in serious danger. There comes a time when liberalism (especially this current version) must put up or die the spineless death its actions have always solicited.
Where then, will the protest come from? The immediate response of people to the Trump administration’s executive order regarding immigration seems to prove it will come from the people themselves. Although spontaneous in their actual manifestation, these protests are a result of numerous threads of organizing over the past decade—Occupy, Black Lives Matter, antiwar agitator organizations like CodePink and even the Bernie Sanders campaign—combined with the efforts of established socialist organizations that maintain a constant presence on college campuses, some workplaces and at protests for social justice. While spontaneity has its benefits and the current protests have been quite useful in highlighting the unjust nature of the immigration order, there is definitely a need for an organized multifaceted resistance to the authoritarian state Trump and his associates seem intent on establishing.