For many of us, last week’s Republican convention in Cleveland provided a frightening display of demagoguery from Donald Trump and his associates, and rekindled concerns that Trump’s campaign is genuinely fascistic. But those who have feared that Trump’s candidacy represents the threat of fascism find themselves contending with skeptics. One such skeptic is angered by Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of Hillary Clinton and is convinced that Trump would scarcely be worse than Clinton. Another skeptic sees Trump’s campaign as little more than theatre, and openly speculates that if he were to actually win in November, he would promptly withdraw before inauguration day. Yet another skeptic is concerned with what they see as the whitewashing of America’s past of racism and demagoguery, and who views the descriptive category of “fascism” as one that only serves to mask that past. This last observer often find themselves incredulous as to what, exactly, Trump’s fascism would entail – that somehow those who are ringing the alarm suppose a Trump administration would mean immediate transformation sweeping all before it, making the country “unrecognizable.” As one friend and esteemed scholar of American history recently put it on Facebook: “I’d be less worried about Trump if I could accept the convenient theme that he’s a sui generis threat to the republic and un-American … I don’t fear a baroque dystopia of gold-leaf Trump monuments, mandatory rallies, and secret police who double as marketing shills for Trump University.” In such moments, a hoary notion of fascism as mass choreography and legions of shirted, goose-stepping followers is employed as a way of discounting the argument that Trump represents a bona fide, anti-democratic threat.
However, such a conception of fascism misses one thing: incrementalism. As the history of fascist regimes demonstrates, the beginning is not marked by a sudden transformation of the political, social, cultural – let alone physical – landscape. Regardless of speeches calling for immediate change, once fascists gained power their regimes were marked instead by alliances with preexisting conservative elites, and a gradual implementation of the program, often marked by seemingly spontaneous occurrences that are exploited as opportunities to further realize the agenda. And for the victims of fascist governance, gradual social death precedes a wall, precedes camps, precedes physical death. The first months – even years – are marked by seeming continuity, or a change only of degree, rather than of kind. The racism of historically fascist regimes could be so incremental that often only a trickle of its victims fled the country in the first years of fascist rule, while the rest believed that only little had changed; by the time they understood the danger to their lives, many were unable to leave.
Prognosticators wondering what the first few months or years of a Trump presidency would look like would be right to dismiss the notion of fascist spectacle arriving out of nowhere. As with past fascist governments, the change would take more insidious, gradual form. And the motor of that change would be a white nationalist constituency not just waiting for their new president to enact the agenda he promised, in all its demagoguery – but ready to act themselves, ready to take seriously what some suppose is only Trump’s hyperbole. Historically, fascist followers often engaged in spontaneous actions without awaiting orders or directives from above; in classic tag-team fashion, fascist leaders would frequently take advantage of this frisson to implement policies in the name of restoring order. Trump’s constituency, long pining for the chance to “take America back,” would similarly presume the White House would welcome their initiatives and post facto sanctify them, however planned or spontaneous. That many of his own followers suspect Trump’s promises are disingenuous would only deepen their resolve to force his hand and prove that he meant what he said during the campaign.
What would such actions look like? The painfully familiar would become more common. Racist elements in the nation’s police forces would find themselves killing more black people with more impunity, camera or no camera. Such incidents would be followed by Latinos (whose deaths in similar circumstances are currently underreported) and then Muslims experiencing the same. Official expressions of concern would be followed by winking approval from the White House as Trump would ponder whether the victims somehow “deserved it.” Increasing public harassment of American Muslims would take social and economic form, before eventually mosques would start to burn down – followed by the executive branch exploring the possibility that local Muslims had somehow “provoked” the local population. A surge in open discrimination against lesbians and gays would commence at economic and social levels. Presidential “executive orders” would nullify LGBTQ progress made in the last eight years, as one state after the next would strip gays of their rights and goad the Supreme Court into hearing the appeals – which wouldn’t, once public rallies calling for the impeachment of Ruth Bader Ginsburg were finally heeded and she was replaced with a new Trump appointee. Government officials crying foul – federal employees, ethical law enforcement officials, civil servants – would leave their jobs in disgust or be purged. Demonstrations from enraged citizens would be violently broken up or ignored. Political opponents and long-standing enemies would be “held accountable.”
Unmitigated “take our country back” white nationalist anger, still stoked by a now President Trump and his surrogates, would gradually be mitigated. Appeals to “make America great again” would be accompanied by calls – however disguised – for putting black and brown people “back in their place,” with enough exceptions at first to keep middle class people of color in stasis, hoping for the best. President Trump would tag-team his white nationalist followers, calling for legislation to restore order and “restore greatness” that would begin to legalize the concept of “lesser” and “better” Americans on a host of issues. There would be increased legislation by decree – “executive order” – as congressional immobility grew into strife. Filial Tea Party congressmen would practically invite suspension of the legislative branch; a possible terrorist attack would provide the pretext for finally doing so. It would hardly be necessary for a one-party state to be declared for questions as to whether such an attack was real or staged to be shouted down as treasonous. Bread and circuses would obfuscate disappointment when white Americans wouldn’t magically get jobs after the last vestiges of Affirmative Action were killed off and the promised mass deportation of illegals began. “The Apprentice: Heartland and Hard Hats” would be the new Kraft durch Freude. Michelle Bachmann would be put in charge of the Smithsonian.
Establishment Republicans and gated suburbanites would tut-tut the nastier bits, reassure each other that at least they defeated Hillary, and would otherwise enjoy the benefits. White working classes would see little or no material improvement, but would be made to feel like “someone on top cares about them” – especially if they win the lottery to go golfing or appear on Apprentice. Crest-fallen intellectuals – especially teachers and professors – would debate the meanings, lose their jobs in the name of austerity, or feel the stress of greater job insecurity. Despairing Democrats would call for community-based action and rally around constitutionalism. Bernie-or-Busters would blame those who didn’t vote Green, withdraw into “internal exile” and keep their fingers crossed for impending revolution. White, church-going women would buy into a new “dignity of motherhood” narrative, as fewer of them would be found in the workforce and the White House would chatter about subsidies for having babies. Trump’s demagogic rallies would keep white nationalist anger simmering, with occasional flashes heating it to optimal temperature.
Black and brown Americans? Their daily lives would be marked by increasing hostility from strangers and increasing indifference from neighbors, as the refrain that “something has to be done” would become a government-backed mantra. Drawing back civil protections on a range of issues – voting rights, antidiscrimination laws, housing laws, the ACA, welfare laws, environmental laws, education and community development spending – would all target and effect black, Latino and other communities of color disproportionately. Here too, for many critics this would at first appear like “nothing new.” Resulting social dislocation would mean increased jail time as the carceral-industrial complex, once having worried about possible government scrutiny, sees a renewed flourishing. Increased ethnic expulsions, combined with increasingly open and violent expressions of white nationalist hostility, would lead to profiling and then cleansing on local and state levels when people of color fight back. The initial targets would be Mexican citizens, first those without residency and then increasingly those with. Passive and then active resistance would be used as pretexts to ramp up government action. As individuals went underground to save themselves from deportation, increasingly militarized resources would be brought to bear on rooting them out. Families would be destroyed, and to the shouts of “anchor baby,” the legality of the citizenship of children of such families brought under suspicion.
Muslims would be increasingly targeted, as government registries would be employed to impugn their patriotism, their integrity, and then their safety. A long-held promise to block entry for Middle Eastern refugees would be redeemed almost immediately – first as a “temporary” measure and then permanently – with attention then turning to those already here. With less legal recourse on hand, non-citizens would be targeted first – and then gradually citizens. Leaders of Black Lives Matter and comparable civil rights groups that would take up protest against the Trump administration would be confronted with a national wave of “Blue Lives Matter” laws, modeled after Louisiana’s, followed by a renewed campaign of seemingly randomized killing and incarceration. Legal protections that government agencies and the judiciary once provided would be eroded or chipped away, until eventually entirely gone. Civil rights groups would fight a losing battle with shrinking resources. Episodes of “Islamist terror” or “Black Lives Matter terror” would serve to clear road blocks from the judiciary or legislative branches. People of means, or with families abroad, would start to emigrate under the pressure of increased hostility, unemployment and social exclusion. Isolated whites would eventually wax contrite with “I said nothing because I wasn’t Mexican” or “I thought the demagoguery was just for show.”
The possible road map of a Trump administration. No armbands, no shirted night rallies, no goose-stepping, no statues of Trump in town squares – nothing that would strike the viewer as exotic or un-American. Instead of sudden or abrupt changes, a gradual tightening of the screws that would be constant and unmistakable. In their eagerness to cope and aware that most of these actions, taken in isolation, would have a sad antecedent in America’s past, many would get accustomed to the gradual shift after two years. Meanwhile, anyone visiting the United States after an absence of two years would be startled to see a much bleaker, authoritarian, legally racist society. Like the fascist leaders of mid-century Europe, Trump would at first find common cause with conservative elites on a host of social and economic issues, while amplifying the dualistic narrative of a “legal America” versus a “real America” that would turn people of color and their allies increasingly into pariahs and dissidents, and his white voters increasingly “redeemed.”
Not a prediction that Trump will win – but of what would happen if Trump won. To many readers, this scenario may seem too ridiculous to contemplate. Let us hope never to find out how accurate a prediction it is.