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Full-On Fascism: Trump Makes the Transition in his War on the Press

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Donald Trump’s call for Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice to investigate the New York Times for running an anonymous op-ed that embarrassed his administration is a watershed moment. It represents Trump’s full shift from rhetorical to real-world fascist. The president has a history of flirting with authoritarian figures, be it his adoration of Kim Jong Un’s regime, or his efforts to foster stronger ties with Vladimir Putin. But his consistent verbal attacks on the media have now shifted to active efforts to criminalize dissent.

It’s one thing to complain about the press, but quite another to badger the Justice Department to engage in open partisan hackery by granting legal immunity to one’s political allies, while persecuting one’s “enemies” in the media. And yet, this is precisely what’s happened in recent days, via Trump’s slam on the Attorney General and the DOJ for bringing federal charges against Republican electoral candidates, and his pressuring of Sessions to begin a criminal investigation of the New York Times for publishing an op-ed from a disgruntled member of the administration labeling him/herself part of the Trump “resistance.”

We are living in very dangerous times. After sending up countless trial balloons over the last year-and-a-half, this president has now crossed over from a state of “aspirational fascism” to full-blown fascism. The “creeping” fascist president is no more, as Trump feels empowered to openly call on the federal government to crack down on and suppress his critics. First, there is his attack on the Justice Department, and Sessions specifically, following DOJ charges against Republican Representatives Chris Collins (NY) and Duncan Hunter (CA), both of whom officially endorsed Trump’s 2016 presidential election bid. Collins was charged with insider trading and multiple counts of securities fraud, in addition to wire fraud and lying to federal investigators, and Hunter has been charged with wire fraud, false campaign reporting, and using hundreds of thousands in campaign contributions for his own personal “slush fund” to cover vacations and personal medical expenses. In response to the charges, Trump angrily tweeted:

“Two long running, Obama era, investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-Terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department…Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job Jeff.”

Trump makes it clear that he expected charges not to be brought against these two Republicans because they were “popular” with constituents. His “easy wins” comment suggests that Trump expected the incumbents not to be charged by the DOJ, and that they would be allowed to serve out their full terms upon re-election. Presumably, simply being Republican is now enough to ensure one is treated like they’re above the law. Under a fascist regime, “the law” is seen as a tool for cementing the president and his party’s control of government.

Second, there is the issue of Trump’s latest attack on the New York Times, which is an important (and tragic) moment signifying America’s fascist transformation. Showing his notoriously thin skin, Trump fumed over the anonymous New York Times op-ed by one of his administration’s malcontents, who sees the president as a dangerous, infantile doofus (a common enough perception), and seeks to undermine his administration from within. As the senior administration member writes, he/she is part of a larger group who “believe our first duty is to this country,” and against a “president [who] continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.” The op-ed continues:

“Many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office. The root of the problem is the president’s amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.”

The Times op-ed calls the president “ill-informed” and “reckless,” – committed to “repetitive rants” and a reckless “impulsiveness” that leads to “half-baked” decisions. It condemns one of Trump’s most notable authoritarian characteristics, “his mass-marketing of the notion that the press is the ‘enemy of the people,’” which the writer rightly regards as dangerous and “anti-democratic.”

As the New York Times reports, in response to the op-ed Trump has demanded that Sessions “investigate the source of the article, which he has condemned as an act of treason.” Making no effort to distinguish between administrative disloyalty and freedom of the press, Trump notably refers to the op-ed itself as treasonous, and as the Times reports, he is “also considering action against the Times,” though he has not elaborated on what that action would entail. The attempt to criminalize the newspaper of record was instantly dismissed by “[federal] prosecutors [who, the Times reported] said it would be inappropriate for the Justice Department to conduct such an investigation, since it was likely that no laws were broken.” To this rebuttal of Trump, one could add that such an investigation would represent a blatant violation of freedom of the press, as guaranteed under the First Amendment.

Disturbing as it is to imagine, Jeff Sessions is now the bureaucrat standing between the president and dictatorship. But it’s unrealistic to expect one political appointee to shut down a full-on fascist assault on the Republic. Members of Congress – Democrat and Republican alike – must step forward to impede Trump’s authoritarianism. A fascist assault on the rule of law is as good of a reason for impeachment as any – the best reason. Congress should quickly invoke the 25thAmendment’s language to justify impeachment, citing the need to remove a president who is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” in line with the parameters of existing federal and Constitutional law.

Now is the time for Americans to be united against this fascist threat. Sadly, unity is made difficult to impossible when half of Republican Americans side with the president in his attacks on the media, and when Trump’s base, which is 40 percent of Americans according to Gallup polling, have been willing to stick with the president no matter how incendiary or authoritarian his rhetoric and policies have become. Unity in opposition to the president is also hard to achieve when “the left” shows signs of divisions regarding Trump’s politics. Some progressives have stifled opposition to Trump’s fascism by calling for a “brown-red,” left-right political alliance, despite the noxious racism, sexism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism that dominates on the American right. This attempt to normalize fascism from a “progressive” vantage point runs contrary to the most basic principles of justice, equality, and democracy.

Leftists who focus on the propagandistic nature of the corporate media, while shilling for the far right and failing to condemn right-wing fascism, provide comfort to the reactionary right’s efforts to suppress journalistic freedom. Yes, corporate media practice propaganda. But the media propaganda problem is a discussion for another time, as it should go without saying that Trump and the far-right have no interest in promoting greater transparency, integrity, or accuracy in journalism. Trump comes to bury the press, not to save it. This point is recognized by scholars of fascism like Henry Giroux, who presciently warned that Trump’s efforts to depict reporters as treasonous are not only “ominous and alarming,” but “echo previous totalitarian regimes that waged war on both the press and democracy itself.”

Personifying a serious and unfortunate division on the left, progressive-libertarian journalist Glenn Greenwald has focused his ire on the individuals in the administration who seek to undermine Trump’s presidency, and his anger at these alleged “deep state” bureaucrats has been echoed by numerous leftists I’ve spoken with in recent days. While admitting that Trump “may be a threat,” Greenwald responds: “but so is this covert coup” within the White House, which represents “an unelected cabal that covertly imposed their own ideology with zero democratic accountability, mandate or transparency.”

Greenwald is an important figure for leftists considering his work with Edward Snowden to expose the federal government and NSA’s illegal spying in the “War on Terror.” But his message here badly misses the mark. The claim that Trump “may be a threat” to the country is perhaps the understatement of the century.And his willingness to focus on turmoil within the administration as a major threat to democracy is strange. It’s akin to complaining that your lawn is slowly turning brown when your house is burning down in front of you. This is not a critique that’s unique to Greenwald, as I’ve engaged with numerous individuals on the left over the last week who see the White House op-ed as an example of the “deep state’s” assault on civilian political rule.  I don’t see it this way. The stakes are far higher than some monkey wrenchers in the White House undermining the president. If we cannot separate the real threat to the nation – fascism in the White House – from the marginal “problem” of intra-administrative discord within that fascist administration, then we are in serious trouble. One of the major points of protest in the anonymous Times op-ed is Trump’s contempt for freedom of the press. By calling on Times staffers to be prosecuted for “treason,” Trump has confirmed that he is, in fact, opposed to freedom of the press and the rule of law. In his war against the media, there is little room for nuance or apologetics for would-be-fascists.

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Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He earned his PhD from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and is the author of 9 books, including most recently: Political Power in America (SUNY Press, 2019) and Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com

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