Bordering on Fascism: Scholars Reflect on Dangerous Times

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

My fellow U.S.-Americans, we stand at a moment of no small peril.

Contrary to much of what one hears from liberals, Donald Trump’s “insane” border-wall gambit may be something of a winning play for him.

Yes, the whole stunt is built on a fetid pile of falsehoods. The level of bullshit emanating from Trump’s mouth and Twitter feed on this matter is remarkable even by his standards.

There is NO reasonable argument for constructing a 1000-mile steel (or concrete) wall along the U.S. border with Mexico – a boundary already possessing 654 miles of existing barrier. There is NO “national security” crisis at the U.S.-Mexican border. There is NOTHING remotely like an influx of terrorists across the border. The U.S. did NOT detain “nearly 4000 suspected terrorists” at the southern border in 2018.There is NO increase in attempted illegal entry, which is at a 20-year low. Building such a wall will do NOTHING to make the United States safer from terrorist attacks, dangerous drugs, and gang violence.

The federal government is NOT currently “building the wall.” “A lot of the wall is [NOT] already built.” Existing southern border barriers have NOT in fact caused “declining illegal entry.”

The two migrant children who died in federal custody near the border were NOT “already very sick” when U.S. officials became responsible for them.

Migrants from Mexico and Central America are NOT more likely to commit crimes than naturalized U.S. citizens. The truth is the opposite. “Illegal aliens” from Mexico and Central America are NOT especially prone to rape and murder U.S.-Americans. There is NO epidemic of violent crime on the part of “illegal” immigrants.

The federal workers being furloughed and told to work without pay are NOT able to easily “make adjustments” to make ends meets during the federal government shutdown Trump has forced based on his concocted border crisis. Most federal workers do NOT support Trump’s shut-down.

The four living former U.S. presidents (Carter, Clinton, Bush, and Obama) have NOT expressed support in any way for Trump’s “big and beautiful wall.”

The Democrats have NOT been trying to bring in a Caravan of illegal immigrants into the U.S.

Trump’s rhetoric on the border one is epic high-state deception on steroids.

But so what? One of the president’s nicknames ought to be Orange Truth-Crush (OTC). Trump has been lying about these and countless other matters on a scale that is simply off the historical charts from the beginning of his presidency and before. That’s because he is at heart a totalitarian. And totalitarians don’t just lie about a one or a few things on occasion. They lie about almost everything they can pretty much all the time. They do this to advance their own political agenda and – most dangerously of all – to undermine and exhaust the public’s ability to separate fact from fiction and truth from deception.

Think Big Brother in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: he informs the masses over and over that 2+2=5, that Love is Hate, and the War is Peace. Because he says so.

Hedges: “The Permanent Lie”

OTC is an outwardly clumsy, yet deceptively skilled master of what Chris Hedges has called “the permanent lie.” As Hedges explained two Decembers ago:

“The permanent lie is different from the falsehoods and half-truths uttered by politicians such as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The common political lie these politicians employed was not designed to cancel out reality…Clinton did not continue to pretend that NAFTA was beneficial to the working class when reality proved otherwise. Bush did not pretend that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction once none were found…The permanent lie is not circumscribed by reality. It is perpetuated even in the face of overwhelming evidence that discredits it…The iron refusal by those who engage in the permanent lie to acknowledge reality, no matter how transparent reality becomes, creates a collective psychosis.”

Hedges quoted the German philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt, an émigré from Nazi Germany. “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth,” Arendt wrote in her classic volume The Origins of Totalitarianism, “is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.”

A Method to His Mendacious Madness

There’s a method to Trump’s mendacious Mexican wall madness. What does Herr Donald hope to achieve with his deranged deceit and dishonesty on this issue of his own making? Three things.

First, he needs to keep his white-nationalist base and its right-wing media organs on board by not appearing to back down from his Nativist campaign promise to “build the wall.” With his approval rating ranging from the low 40s to the high 30s, with the House of Representatives having recently shifted to Democratic Party control, and with Robert Mueller poised to unload blockbuster, impeachment-worthy revelations on Trump’s corruption and, perhaps, (Russia) “collusion,” the FOX News, Breitbart, and talk-radio right has Trump over the barrel. Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and other proto-fascistic media-politicos cracked their whips when it looked like the president was trying to cut a deal with the Democrats at the expense of the wall. Trump responded by turning on a dime. He went Mussolini on the Dems to shore up his base.

There’s no turning back, thanks to the outsized power creeping fascist white-nationalists hold in a wildly polarized American political system that grossly inflates the power of right-wing extremists and rural, red-state voters.

Second, Trump hopes to divert “mainstream” (corporate) media operatives and viewers away from the latest Mueller revelations, including recent reports that the president’s former campaign manager shared internal Trump polling data with a Russian intelligence operative. Who can properly focus on Trump collusion and corruption when the soul-numbing shut-down story and the Donald vs. Chuck and Nancy Reality Show is sucking up all the telescreen energy and sadistically freaking out millions who depend directly and indirectly on federal government salaries, programs, and operations?

Third, Trump is looking to drop a fascist-style presidential hammer by declaring a National Emergency over the fake border “crisis” and ordering the U.S. military to construct the border. He’s made a deceptive show of appealing rationally to the public with his nationally televised address (never mind that his fib-soaked was straight out of Joseph Goebbels) and of holding a serious meeting with Democratic Party wall opponents in Congress (never mind that he quickly stormed out of the summit and quickly called it “a waste of time”). Now he will claim that Democratic “stubbornness” and “intransigence” have left him with “no choice” but to make the dreaded “emergency” declaration to deal with the concocted border drama.

Goiten: “A Parallel Legal Regime”

A National Emergency declaration will permit Trump to take credit for “re-opening the government” and thereby returning paychecks to federal workers (so what if he created the shut-down on false pretexts in the first place?) It will also grant him a series of chilling executive branch powers that make a shameless mockery of U.S. constitutional “checks and balances.” Elizabeth Goitien of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice explains some harsh and widely unknown “deep state” policy realities in a recent Atlantic essay titled “What the President Could Do if He Declares a State of Emergency”:

“It would be nice to think that America is protected from the worst excesses of Trump’s impulses by its democratic laws and institutions…Those who see Trump as a threat to democracy comfort themselves with the belief that these limits will hold him in check…But will they? …a parallel legal regime allows the president to sidestep many of the constraints that normally apply. The moment the president declares a ‘national emergency’—a decision that is entirely within his discretion—more than 100 special provisions become available to him. While many of these tee up reasonable responses to genuine emergencies, some appear dangerously suited to a leader bent on amassing or retaining power. For instance, the president can, with the flick of his pen, activate laws allowing him to shut down many kinds of electronic communications inside the United States or freeze Americans’ bank accounts. Other powers are available even without a declaration of emergency, including laws that allow the president to deploy troops inside the country to subdue domestic unrest.”

“This edifice of extraordinary powers has historically rested on the assumption that the president will act in the country’s best interest when using them. With a handful of noteworthy exceptions, this assumption has held up. But what if a president, backed into a corner and facing electoral defeat or impeachment, were to declare an emergency for the sake of holding on to power? In that scenario, our laws and institutions might not save us from a presidential power grab. They might be what takes us down.” (emphasis added)

Goitien thinks Trump could even deploy U.S. troops to impose martial law against citizens who resist his power grab. An American president has the power to do that under the 1807 Insurrection Act. And Trump is just the kind of demented president to look for an opportunity to try that power out.

What about the courts? House Democrats addressing the potential for an Emergency Declaration seems to believe that the bogus nature of Trump’s “crisis” will lead to any such declaration being shot down by the federal judiciary, with Trump badly humiliated and politically wounded along the way.

Goitien argues that things aren’t quite that simple. Should he opt to employ them, Trump has a vast array of repressive powers granted him by Congress, that supposed great check on executive branch overreach.

Goitien lays out a sadly believable scenario in which Trump seizes dictatorial control and is supported in doing so by the Supreme Court with the recent right-wing appointee Brett Kavanaugh writing the majority opinion in a 5-4 decision.

“The one thing Trump has done in a sort of systematic fashion is refashion the courts,” the left historian and journalist Terry Thomas wrote me yesterday.

“We are living in dangerous times,” Thomas says.

Feffer: A “Reichstag Moment”?

With Trump responding harshly to protests of emergency declaration, the nation “could go,” writes John Feffer, “from a state of emergency at the border to martial law throughout the country.”

Does any of this remind you of the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party in the 1930s? It should. As Feffer reminds us in Foreign Policy in Focus:

“In the Weimar Republic of the 1920s and 1930s, the German constitution contained the controversial article 48, which granted the president the right to rule by decree in the case of a national emergency. German leaders invoked this right several times between 1930 and 1933…But the most momentous decree came in the wake of the Reichstag fire, six days before German elections in 1933. Hitler, already appointed chancellor at that point, persuaded German President Paul von Hindenburg to pass the Reichstag Fire Decree. No doubt inspired by Benito Mussolini and his use of emergency powers to establish fascism in Italy in the 1920s, the Nazis then took full advantage the authority granted them by Hindenburg’s decree to remake Germany into a dictatorship…. Trump’s public support remains low and his political influence is on the decline. He’s surrounded almost exclusively now by advisors who favor his most autocratic impulses. It’s not inconceivable that Trump will use his standoff with Congress over the border wall as his Reichstag moment.”

DiMaggio: “The Concern with Fascism in Trump’s America is Warranted”

Is there any support for such a Hitler- and Mussolini-like Reichstag move on Trump’s part in the U.S. populace? Yes, as the left political scientist Anthony DiMaggio recently noted on CounterPunch, there is. Commenting on key polling data from the last three years, DiMaggio reports that a considerable portion of Trump’s base backs fascist-style authoritarianism in the U.S. today:

“…the concern with fascism in Trump’s America is warranted. Twenty-one percent of Trump supporters agreed in 2017 that the use of violence against civilians was acceptable in pursuit of political, social, and religious goals – in line with the longstanding embrace of such acts on the Christian reactionary right and among right-wing militia groups in America. Twenty-eight percent of Trump supporters in 2017, and 30 percent in 2018 agreed that the president should be freed from Constitutional checks and balances imposed by Congress and the courts in order to pursue his political agenda…19 percent of supporters agreed that freedom of the press is not too important or not at all important, contrary to longstanding First Amendment protections for journalists against media censorship. Other measures outside those considered here suggest that Trump supporters’ and Republicans’ authoritarianism is even more severe, with about half of Republicans agreeing that the 2020 election should be postponed in light of Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud, that the news media are the ‘enemy of the people’ and that news outlets should be ‘shut down’ if they are perceived to be trafficking in ‘inaccurate’ or fake news” (emphasis added).

No, nothing close to most U.S.-Americans are ready to back a fascist-style declaration of a national emergency and martial wall. Still, the percentages DiMaggio cites translate into millions of people (many of whom are armed). The president and his supine, Trump-whipped party have shown repeatedly that they don’t need anything like majority support to go forward against majority public opinion. The best examples, perhaps, are the giant oligarchic tax-cut they passed in December 2017 and their stubborn refusal to permit any significant gun- control legislation despite an ongoing epidemic of mass shootings.

Giroux: “Neoliberal Fascism”

Would the wealthy Few really care about a fascist-style Trump power grab? Some ruling-class elites would but many would not, given all the tax cuts and de-regulation Trump has showered on them – a perfect illustration of the “neoliberal fascism” that the prolific left scholar Henry Giroux sees developing atop the American system over the last four-plus decades. As Giroux says, this neoliberal fascism “is more than willing to exercise cruel power in the interest of accumulating capital and profits without any consideration of social costs to humanity or the planet itself….Neoliberal fascism, as a form of extreme capitalism, views democracy as the enemy, the market as the exclusive arbiter of freedom, and the ethical imagination as an object of disdain.”

“Neoliberal fascism” is consistent with a vicious government shutdown that puts millions of working Americans at grave economic risk in the name of funding a nativist “blood and soil” wall that trumps civic nationalism with racial nationalism. It is consistent also with the absurdly unnecessary declaration of a national emergency and the possible imposition of martial law.

The Real Problem is the Corporate State

Are the liberal and left concerns with authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and fascism expressed in the reflections I’ve give above excessive? I think not. Nobody really knows for certain, of course. We are in uncharted territory that has developed over many years of a long corporate and financial coup that has been systemically shredding the last remnants of democracy in U.S.-American culture and society. The remarkable authoritarian powers that the American imperial presidency has accrued over the last seven-plus decades have fallen into the lap of a malignant narcissist and creeping fascist without the hint of moral conscience and respect for democracy. But Trump himself is but a noxious symptom of what Sheldon Wolin identified as the “inverted totalitarianism” of “corporate-managed democracy” during the George W. Bush administration. That corporate-totalitarian disease is deeply rooted in the history of American capitalism going back to before the turn of the 20th century, As Hedges reminded us last year:

“The Trump administration did not rise, prima facie, like Venus on a half shell from the sea. Donald Trump is the result of a long process of political, cultural and social decay. He is a product of our failed democracy. The longer we perpetuate the fiction that we live in a functioning democracy, that Trump and the political mutations around him are somehow an aberrant deviation that can be vanquished in the next election, the more we will hurtle toward tyranny. The problem is not Trump. It is a political system, dominated by corporate power and the mandarins of the two major political parties, in which we don’t count. We will wrest back political control by dismantling the corporate state, and this means massive and sustained civil disobedience.… If we do not stand up, we will enter a new dark age.”

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).