Many envisage Donald Trump as a plague that has been visited upon the United States, bringing disorder, chaos, and the pestilence of a magnified pandemic. In this telling, before Trump crashed the Republican Party and swept up all the Party faithful, everything was “normal.” Sure the Republicans were a bit edgy, pushing their partisan efforts to the margins, but was it really all that different from the Democratic Party?
The true answer is, ‘yes:’ the Republican Party had become something far different than the Democratic Party, and it started long before Trumpism gained traction. Trump was very much a natural extension of what the party had been doing for years, narrowing its base to a rabid breed of grievance-driven whites with little regard for the lofty principles it ostensibly stood for.
Trump, however, was not only a natural extension, but also a very lucky turning point – lucky, that is, from the point of view of US democracy. Trump has managed to unmask the true direction of the Republican Party. His haplessness and inability to control his own ego have rendered him incapable of pursuing a clever coalition strategy that might have cemented the dominance of the Party and its racist policies for the foreseeable future.
Imagine if instead of Trump, a savvy and ruthless leader like Victor Orbán, head of the Fidesz Party in Hungary, had burst onto the scene in 2016. Orbán, once a pro-democracy activist, has systematically destroyed Hungary’s post-communist, democratic foundations since regaining power in 2010. He has unerringly identified weaknesses in the system and in his opponents. At times he has aligned himself with them and then, when he felt the time was right, crushed them. Democracy in Hungary has been obliterated surprisingly quickly.
Trump, to borrow Lloyd Bentsen’s famous putdown of Dan Quayle in a vice-presidential debate, is no Orbán. Even as his poll numbers continue to sink with the election less than a month away, he has obtusely decided to torpedo a desperately needed economic stimulus package. Helping the economy could only help him, but he fears that he would have to share the success with the Congressional Democrats whom he loathes.
What if Trump, rather than doubling down on naked racism in support of the Proud Boys and similar proto-fascist, armed groups, had done what Republican politicians have done for years, i.e. made some anodyne comments about how that’s not how we do things in the United States… while weakly condemning them? Doing that and dozens of other less extreme things could have worked in his electoral favor, incrementally increasing his support.
Instead, driven by his insatiable ego, he has thrown political caution to the wind and focused only on his most rabid base. Thank god! If, instead of following his gut to consolidate his base, he had half Victor Orban’s – or, god forbid, Vladimir Putin’s – political savvy, we would be facing the immediate end of American democracy. A second term would make the depredations of the first Trump term look like child’s play. The destruction of the various government departments would proceed completely unchecked. The elimination of all norms and decorum of the federal government would be enshrined in new, corrosive laws and norms.
Even assuming Trump loses the general election and we are able to lever him out of the White House, we are far from out of the woods. The problem is not Trump, or even Trumpism. It is the rot in the Republican Party itself. We are very lucky that a political ingénue like Trump came to power at this critical time. He was destructive, sure, but he has alerted the county to the danger the democratic system is in, exposing his many enablers in the Republican Party.
That Party needs to be destroyed. It is a direct threat to the Republic. There are a number of Republicans, or former Republicans, who clearly see that, more clearly, it seems, than many Democrats. Many of these are not just ‘anti-Trumpers’, but high-level operatives who have had the scales removed from their eyes to see the Party for what it has become: a Party of white grievance, instead of a ‘big tent.’ The Never Trumpers have been joined by other groups such as the Lincoln Project, who harken back to the inclusiveness of the post-Civil War Republican Party.
Stuart Stevens, a former Republican consultant who helped put George Bush in the White House has put it eloquently in his book, It Was All a Lie. The Republican Party has aligned itself ever more strongly with racists going back at least as far as Ronald Reagan. Using the ‘conservative’ ideal as window-dressing, the Party has worked to fan the grievances of a dwindling percentage of voters who are white and have a sense of loss for a mythical era of white domination somewhere back in the 1950s.
Such a myth is central to the fascist playbook, as Jason Stanley carefully documents in his seminal, How Fascism Works. Although it is considered hype and ‘unhelpful’ to point out the obvious parallels between the modern Republican Party and the European fascist parties of the 1930s, Stanley takes a calm approach to listing main the characteristics of any fascist movement:
- building a mythic past of a nation’s “greatness” – think MAGA
- propaganda machinery capable of injecting that myth into popular consciousness – Fox anyone?
- anti-intellectualism, something with deep roots in the US
- unreality and a skein of lies to tie followers together – 20,000 Trump lies and counting according to the Washington Post
- belief in the value of hierarchy, in the family and of the nation – so-called family values
- a deep sense of victimhood, of grievance of what has been supposedly “lost” – the 1950s in our case
There are more, but the congruence of these characteristics with how Trumpism has worked, and how the Republican Party has acted since at least the late 1970s, is startling.
Trump, we hope, will soon be confined to the proverbial dustbin of history, but until the anti-democratic machine known as the Republican Party is destroyed, we run the very real risk that rather than a bumbling El Duce Mussolini wannabe, we end up with the real, Hitlerian deal.