Recourse to an "oath of loyalty" electrified the stage at the final presidential debate. Minutes before that we heard scary talk about the Kremlin. I checked my calendar. The year is 2016, not 1953. Yet these are currency of the Cold War. Why do such gestures still grip us?
Here is a simple answer. For the typical American citizen -- who never went abroad and never saw a Russian -- the Cold War was built on political manipulation of a threat. Cold War behaviors have a long half-life and continue to plague us. Donald Trump looks like a threat to democracy. We Americans have limited resources of mind and imagination to grapple with threats real or imagined. We reflexively recur to Cold War gestures.
But to understand the scene before us we need to take a broader view. Focus on the personality Donald Trump is a potentially fatal error. What matters more is the widespread and fanatical support for his candidacy. This support fits into a pattern already evident several thousand years ago (to Polybius and others): mature democracies tend to be profoundly self-destructive, degenerate into mob rule, and eventually seek to restore order by elevating a demagogue. Americans -- raised as we are under banners like "exceptionalism" and "individualism" and "imperial presidency" -- typically fail to see when political disorder is systemic and impersonal. We are quick to scapegoat and have few good ideas about how to forestall pressures towards monocracy.
This elementary truth is sobering. Americans are shockingly ignorant about democracy. We extol it but do not really know why. We sense its risks but cannot name the threat. We know neither where to pitch a defense nor exactly against what the defense should be pitched.
This is a profound predicament. It produces a lot of missteps and gibberish. One now infamous minute from the final presidential debate is a good place to begin repositioning ourselves as citizens. Here are fourteen points that may help.
1. In essence, Chris Wallace demanded that Donald Trump swear an oath of loyalty. This was a powerful rhetorical gesture. Its shock waves will be felt through election day. Yet it has no basis in law. Connections between this demand and American political history are much more obscure than the pundits would have you believe. Notice, for example, that Wallace's question was not "will you accept the result?" He actually asked Trump "will you make an oath?" No one seemed to be surprised by this. To understand why, consider an obvious fact of your own experience. Every morning almost every child in our country is by force of common practice and peer pressure required to make a "pledge of allegiance." Parents and children alike ignore that this little sing-song testament emerged from popular culture and largely reactionary social movements between the 1880s and World War II. The pledge, however, is not of or in favor of the constitution. Indeed, the Supreme Court has ruled that children may not be compelled to say it (see West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 1943). Nonetheless the utterly common practice of reciting the pledge creates powerful habits. Corresponding expectations weigh heavily on our national political life. We believe -- actually, we feel in our bones -- that "pledging allegiance" is part of what "one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all" requires. Nowhere is e pluribus unum more vivid. Nowhere is it more misleading. And what turned us this way? As a matter of history and culture it was the Cold War, the "culture wars," and "civic war"after 9/11.
2. As to content, the oath of loyalty demanded of Donald Trump by Chris Wallace was this:
"But, sir, there is a tradition in this country - in fact, one of the prides of this country - is the peaceful transition of power and that no matter how hard-fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign the loser concedes to the winner....and that the country comes together in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you're not prepared now to commit to that principle?"
Even the parts of this that ring true fit uneasily together. For example, a tradition is not a principle. Turning the former into the latter -- as Wallace tacitly does -- is a way to make the demand seem more legitimate and obligatory than it actually is. In any case, taken as a whole Wallace's demand is nonsense. It offers what are really two things as if they were one: the "tradition" of a "peaceful transition of power" and the "principle" that "the loser concedes."
3. As to America's "peaceful transitions," those quick to relay what Wallace said seem to have forgotten their history. What about the days after the election of 1860, when military manoeuvering accompanied abandonment of political process? Or the attack on Fort Sumpter that followed close on Lincoln's inauguration? Even if few recall events like the Alabama Election Riot of 1874, every person raised in America today has in mind powerful images of the terrorist violence that suppressed African-American voting in the Jim Crow South.
4. Nonetheless, with a bit more modesty it is not unreasonable to bracket such consequential events and to celebrate America's more than two centuries of relatively little electoral violence. That does not change the basic fact. "Being peaceful" is not at all the same as "the loser conceding to the winner." So why run them together? The conflation hides a more acrid problem that few will speak out loud. The brutally simple fact is that many people are afraid of Trump's supporters. They are afraid that a large number of those supporters will not concede their own failure to acquire political power. They are afraid that this denial of process and reality will amplify ambiguity about Clinton's victory. They are afraid that this in turn will further de-legitimize the electoral process, that it will heighten civil unrest, and that all this will be used to spur and justify violence.
5. In other words, the motive force across the board -- from the confusion of concepts to the civic core of elections -- is the fear of civil war. It trembles just beneath Chris Wallace's words. Without that fear no one would care whether little Donald was left on November 9th pouting in his golden bathtub in a building built from Chinese steel.
6. This masked fear of civil war is what Hillary Clinton referred to with the word "horrifying." It is not an irrational fear. The reason behind it is simple enough. For, the fundamental issue coming before America's aging democracy is not that Donald Trump is a sick, illiterate, narcissistic, serial-abuser sociopath. Rather, every American should be asking is Donald Trump a fascist?
7. "Fascist" is not an insult. It is a description. It does not point to personal features of the candidate. It refers to the political facts those candidates represent and ignite. Thus, what I mean is that Americans should be asking is Donald Trump effectively propagating a substantial and active movement among our compatriots dedicated to the group-think that sustains monocracy and a cult of unilateral violence?
8. Viewed from another angle fascism is the uncontrolled conflation of public and private power. It may be helpful to recall Trump's inflammatory allusions in this light. Take the ringing claim that "the media" has "poisoned the minds of the voters." Trump is not wrong to say this. But he is quite misguided in casting his stone. Recall for instance the now widespread and profoundly anti-democratic belief that "running a business" is comparable to and qualifies an individual for "running the government." No one in American politics has benefited more from rubbish like this than Trump himself. And where does it come from? It was drilled into the public mind by "reality" TV shows like The Apprentice.
9. But the core political question merits an uncluttered answer. Yes, Donald Trump is a fascist. You may quibble about the term itself but not with the fact that he is a authoritarian anti-democratic monocrat riding on a politics of hate and a culture of private violence. Anyone who loves this country and its experiment with democracy should be worried by that.
10. But how? For some sorts of worrying make the problem worse. This is where the universally praised Wallace needs to take some heat. It was a mistake to disguise well-founded fear under a personal demand that Trump "commit himself now in principle to conceding defeat." It was a mistake because the ones who count when it comes to civil war and fascism will ignore the demand and even the response; fascists on the rise do not care for principles or promises. Should we cross the narrowing chasm from civic war into civil war, nothing important will hinge on such contradictions.
11. However odious, the key point here is that Trump was perfectly correct to reject the oath demanded of him. No such thing can either qualify or disqualify anyone to run for President. The constitutional conditions for candidacy refer only to citizenship, age, and residency. When it comes to Federal office, felons can run and criminals can serve. Faced with evasive bluster of Wallace's sort, the fascists will mock our traditions just as Trump did the minute he left Las Vegas. At a mass rally in Ohio, he trumped his critics like this:
"Ladies and gentlemen,....I would like to promise and pledge to all of my voters and supporters and to all of the people of the United States that I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election - if I win."
Of course Donald Trump is a bold-faced liar of epic proportions. But even with guns holstered those who support him are unfazed by the explosion in his face of every fact he puts forward. When then he speaks a mote of truth it catalyzes his fictions.
12. The fact is that talk of "disqualification" is not really addressed to Trump or even to his followers. It represents a fantasy in which something other than the citizens of the United States -- something mechanical and self-enforcing, an obscure agency not a neighbor or a sibling or a friend -- determines whether or not fascism has its beacon in the White House.
13. But guess what? America is still a democracy. No machine will decide who becomes President. The voters will. And, as we learned with Weimar in 1933, democracies can go down with their voters. Before more shots are fired we have one last chance to remain within bounds proper to civic life. Speech and persuasion are our only masters. It matters, deeply, that we call things by their proper names. Don't make up "oaths" that don't exist. Don't call the candidate "unqualified" in a context where election is the only qualification that counts. The root of fascism is the people, not the leaders. Be clear that whether or not this candidate is qualified you would be doing a grave disservice to yourself and your fellow citizens to vote for him. Have the courage to say this to everyone you know and meet.
14. Trump with unexpected transparence responded to the issues raised here. He said "I will look at it at the time." This timeliness of the circumstances of power is in fact the very essence of politics. We should say exactly the same thing to him. The time is coming on November 8th. We will look at you, Donald. And we will give back a resounding no! never Trump!