If historically low popularity and a failure to win the popular vote in the presidential election are indicators, most of us are aghast at Donald Trump’s inauguration today. Never before in American history has a politician so clearly authoritarian ascended to our highest political office.
Pundits and analysts are working overtime to understand the meaning and implication of this for public policy, and the future of the national and global communities. Here I want to focus on something closer to home — the emerging threat I see to my family and friends. The topic came up when a friend asked how I was feeling about a Trump presidency.
My hope is that opposition to Trump will mobilize a progressive movement that truly represents poor, working, and middle-class Americans. Sanders is already taking steps in this direction. This includes the release of his book, Our Revolution, the formation of a political action group by the same name, the push to elect the progressive Keith Ellison to chair the democratic party, and escalating efforts to oppose Trump and the Republicans.
My friend then laughed at my admission that such hopes are an artifact of my optimistic, glass-half-full nature. For her, the situation looks more dire.
Before even taking office Trump is raising military tensions with China over Taiwan, endorsing a nuclear arms race with Russia, defending what looks to be an influence-peddling scheme by his son, facing impeachable offenses for financial conflicts of interest that violate the Constitution’s emoluments clause, and mocking substantive concerns about Vladimir Putin ordering the hacking of the US presidential race.
Just the harm that will come from his stated climate change policies will wreck incalculable harm for generations across the globe. While the oligarchs will insulate themselves behind walls of privilege, most of humanity will suffer the environmental and social dislocations of global warming.
Most recently we’ve become aware of unconfirmed allegations assembled by a respected British spy that Trump served as a mole for the Kremlin in the American business community, and the Russians hold serious compromising information — “kompromat”— on Trumps infidelity and business interests.
The friend I mention above is a Latina, the mother of a transracial family, and a strong voice for social and environmental justice. She and many other “minorities” believe they are explicit targets of Trumps politics. This is a visceral concern that chills me too. I am from a transracial and multicultural family, and my wife Karin and I are guardians for two children of another transracial family.
Trump stacking his team with military and corporate executives is worrying enough. It signals he is primarily committed to protecting the interests of our plutocrats at the expense of regular people, both at home and abroad.
More worrisome is the explicit voice of the alt-right in a Trump administration through the person of Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief political advisor, as well as members of Trumps inner circle like Carl Paldino. Trump’s campaign did not simply unearth white supremacists: he brought the revanchist alt-right directly into the halls of government. These are moral and political miscreants who will target people like my friends and family if they get the opportunity.
I am not claiming that all or even most of Trump’s support lies with fascists of one sort or another. Rather I agree with Bernie Sanders that Trump tapped into the immiseration of the American working class. Democratic and Republican politicians alike have betrayed this demographic for decades. When given a choice between more of the same and “drain the swamp”, Trump’s iconoclasm won out.
Yet there is no denying that for a cohort of Trump supporters making America great means making it white, Anglo-Saxon, and Christian. Throughout his campaign, Trump nurtured the legitimacy of the alt-right with his racism, sexism, and islamophobia. This underwrote his overt calls for violence against protestors at his rallies. It is crucial to remember that violence and toxic masculinity are staples of fascistic ideology and conduct.
During the transition, his overt calls have transformed into dog whistling twitter storms. This is more than cyberbullying. These tweets are made with an eye to “brown-shirting” — intimidating political opponents by telegraphing supporters to engage in threats or acts of violence. Because these actions are carried out by others (and often online) Trump maintains plausible deniability and disclaims responsibility.
So my friends and family are not feeling too hopeful. Brown-shirts are by definition not terribly sophisticated. It is easy for them to look past me while targeting others according to the colour of their skin, the accent of their voice, or the clothing they wear.
My concerns are underscored by a recent interview in the New York Times given by Nadya Tolokonnikova, one of the Russian dissidents from the feminist art collective Pussy Riot.
Trump Inc., the Republicans, and elements of the established media would have us believe this transition is no different from any others. But Tolokonnikova reminds us that “It’s important not to say to yourself, ‘Oh, it’s O.K. It’s important to remember that, for example, in Russia, for the first year of when Vladimir Putin came to power, everybody was thinking that it will be O.K.”
What she means of course is that the US is not immune to authoritarianism, much less its fervently nationalistic, racist, and militaristic brand known as fascism. Here I’m using fascism not an empty political slur, but an ideology that serves as a mental map orienting the political ideas and actions of its adherents. The economic and white nationalists of the alt-right are arguably within the fascistic ideological domain.
Many U.S. elites and popular movements have cultivated various version of authoritarianism and used this to victimized others. Think about the colonization and genocide against First Nations, slavery and Jim Crow, anti-immigrant and anti-communist crusades, post-war policies of segregation, pervasive police violence against minority and poor communities, and contemporary efforts to suppress social movements of many stripes — civil rights, women’s rights, animal rights, and the rights of nature. Our history is such that a drift towards authoritarianism, particularly fascism, could happen here.
I do not believe Trump is a fascist of the old school. But he is an authoritarian whose corporate power over others informs his political mindset. His policies will do grievous harm to the environment and society. Of equal concern is the harm he will do to our political culture by ushering in a novel kind of American fascism.
And so I fear for my family, my friends, and the nation.
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