Allegations of involuntary hysterectomies conducted on people in a migrant detention center? Record numbers of children going to bed hungry? It’s futile to pinpoint when exactly President Donald Trump’s America left the community of civilized peoples. It’s more important and useful to explain how we kid ourselves about the fascist impulses of his “ordinary” supporters that hide in plain sight.
Under some delusion, many Democrats and liberals have expected each new whistleblower’s report, each insider’s memoir to expose Trump’s corruption so shockingly, so unequivocally, as to make his supporters see the light. But the sooner these politicos understand that Trump’s supporters don’t care about his autocracy, the better the liberals can go about the business of trying to win this election.
Just pay attention to the urgent MSNBC, NPR, and New York Times exposés on each incriminating revelation into Trump’s misconduct or read the liberal nonprofit industrial complex’s battery of watchdog reports, and you will witness liberals acting as though a lack of information is damning our democracy, as though one more smoking gun would save it. If only they knew, the mantra goes. Nope, neither Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” nor John Bolton’s “The Room Where It Happened” nor Mary Trump’s “Too Much and Never Enough” have clarified Trump’s reputation to his followers or undecided voters. A major commentator just suggested: Bob Woodward’s book is the one that will land “like a hydrogen bomb.”
In order to win this presidential contest, liberals need to accept that Trump supporters do not care if he were to scrap millions of mail-in votes or to welcome, and even solicit, Russian interference for his cause. Not only do some Trump supporters understand that he is an autocrat who will cheat the rules to stay in power, that’s precisely what they like about him. The left should understand that many Trump supporters inherently believe that they would fare better under an autocratic system of white supremacy than under a multiracial democracy.
In order to win this presidential contest, liberals need to accept that Trump supporters do not care if he were to scrap millions of mail-in votes or to welcome, and even solicit, Russian interference for his cause.
So many white liberals and moderates are invested in the idea that authoritarianism can’t happen in America, because to question whether authoritarianism exists here is to question what they’ve achieved. Such white people, figuratively and literally, have so much money, property, social status, and self-image invested in the mirage that this country is based on merit and fair play. They have so much invested in the illusion that their political institutions and white cohorts are good actors that will keep everything nicely afloat.
Questioning all that fervent, widespread Trump support would force them to question how their neighbor, their cousin, their uncle, their co-worker, their favorite vendor is complicit to a regime that prioritizes their well-being and social privilege as white people, second only to Trump’s greed. To acknowledge your aunt’s or your own complicity in Trump’s nationalist autocracy might make you feel accountable for what this country is. And that accountability to the problem damns you to an accountability to the solution.
Exposing the breadth of Trump’s proto-fascist moves becomes more necessary and urgent every day in the run-up to this election
Leading up to November’s vote, Trump’s appointed Homeland Security chief ordered nonpartisan intelligence officers to stop conducting risk assessments on threats posed by Russia, because doing so could harm Trump’s campaign. The security chief also tried to suppress the words “white nationalists” from experts’ analysis of threats, in order to minimize how much this administration has inflamed the growing white nationalist security threat. So Trump’s most senior, unqualified appointments are trying to politicize, manipulate, and censor the security community’s intelligence — especially concerning Russia and violent domestic white nationalists — in order to stay in power. Powerful Republicans in Congress and governorships made barely a peep.
The multi-headed hydra of Russian collusion, tear gas for photo-ops, and Trump deliberately lying about the deadliness of a virus that directly led to 200,000 deaths are not confirmation enough of the president’s unworthiness to his supporters. Nothing ever will be.
Translated for Democrats, this means standing in the way of combatting fascism are the millions of his proponents who inherently welcome it.
History, here, is telling. Historical comparisons should not be thrown around haphazardly or promiscuously, but this careful comparison between the past and the present needs to be made. One of historians’ most confounding tasks has been to explain what made supposedly honorable, civilized Germans actively participate in the killing of millions of people. In his seminal, if hotly debated, book, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust,” Daniel Jonah Goldhagen disputes all the myths that historians previously offered to explain Germans’ willing participation in such an atrocity.
Goldhagen debunks the explanation of situational pressure, that hard times rendered Germans incapable of saying no. He disproves the myth of sheer self-interest, that ordinary Germans were just trying to get by. He dismisses the theory of bureaucratic myopia, that toiling Germans were too busy focusing on the minutia of survival to be aware of the Nazis’ larger systemic killing. He refutes the caricature of cultural predisposition, that Germans were automatons, inclined to mindlessly obey authority. And he dismisses the prevalent impulses to exaggerate the sway of misinformation, that Germans were seduced into submission by Leni Riefenstahl’s magic-making or their führer’s charisma.
Like Goldhagen does with Nazis, we have to avoid pat answers.
Could present Americans participate in slaughtering millions as Germans did? Hardly. And there are no useful comparisons to be made between Hitler’s political methods and Trump’s. Significant differences distinguish the political impacts of the Third Reich versus the Trump administration. This country is no Nazi Germany. But America under Trump demonstrably treads into fascist territory.
America under Trump demonstrably treads into fascist territory.
Ours is a country where the president can witness 5-million-plus acres burn, millions of residents flee their homes, miles of toxic air blight the sky, blackouts, triple-digit heat waves, and literally not be bothered. We have a leader who knew the deadliness of a virus, lied about his awareness, and still indifferently presides over the subsequent deaths of 200,000 and counting. Even during the country’s bleak distress, Trump supporters — from his cabinet down to ordinary, diehard voters — put his money and their collective political power ahead of human life, undoubtedly a fundamental feature of autocracy.
So I can’t help but reveal how the excuses made on behalf of Nazi-era Germans resemble the collective naïveté — the delusional pass — afforded to roughly 40 percent of our people. America’s democratic free fall is not just Trump. Ours is a nation full of mini-fascists: Trump’s Willing Executioners.
The investigative reports and the common depictions of Trump supporters at dinner-table conversation deny or radically minimize those perpetrators’ ideology, compromised values, and complicity in Trump’s autocracy. Fox News is the most widely watched cable network in this country by a factor of five. Though Fox News primes its viewers for their absolutist outlook, Trump voters are active agents in this drama.
We can’t dismiss Trump’s Willing Executioners as mindless victims to the president’s charisma and Fox disinformation, or as practical taxpayers who are just voting in their economic interest. We have to take their cognition and values seriously. We have to name their political alignment for what it is: a very conscious choice. They are not automatons sleepwalking through history and helpless to the reigning propaganda: They understand the massive incentive structures that draw them to willingly and actively support this autocratic regime.
Wealth redistribution to the top, privatization, extreme incoming inequality, and ruling kleptocracy: Such are the hallmarks of this regime’s totalitarian capitalism, one that exploits catastrophe to further undercut a fair economy, a robust middle class, and truly representative democracy.
Most authoritarianism that exploits corruption is hatched in ethnic favoritism — and this one especially so. Whiteness motivates this autocracy, even as it blinds Americans to its behavior. Democracy has been such an uncontested tenet of this country, an unquestioned norm, that we naively assume that all Americans still love it. In fact, its favorable traits — “good,” “fair,” “orderly,” and “stable” — are implicitly associated to whiteness in itself.
White Americans like to think of fascism as a calamity that happens only to third world countries or to dismiss its Western examples as historical exceptions. One of the reasons Americans minimize the vile depths of Trump supporters is that we are inculcated to believe that Westernized and modern men and women are incapable of holding prejudices that devalue human life. We are indoctrinated to the idea that people who are modern and white and Christian surely do not have the same barbaric proclivities as the Cambodians who sent millions to the killing fields, or the Chileans who ratted out their neighbors to Pinochet’s police. Our fantasies about white Christian exceptionalism whisper to us that Americans are bound by “the rule of law,” by decency, that all “normal” Americans operate with “common sense” A nation of “civilized people” is incapable of falling for an autocrat or annihilating its fellow citizens.
Autocracy isn’t just a question of censorship and violence; it depends on an exclusionary definition of homeland that suppresses ethnic dissent.
Yet the modus operandi of Trump’s Willing Executioners is to code America, this land, its heart, its patriotism as white and Christian, and as having “common sense.” Those codes gloss over all the Black military vets from the Midwest who’ve died in combat; they gloss over the Tuskegee experiment; they gloss over the Justice Department’s statistical findings of widespread race-based police brutality. Those codes dehumanize.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., like many Trump apologists, once asserted that football players linking arms for racial equality was browbeating middle America. In reality, protest is “middle America.” Autocracy isn’t just a question of censorship and violence; it depends on an exclusionary definition of homeland that suppresses ethnic dissent. God forbid that Black people should protest for human rights in middle America. Were we in Hong Kong, the Republican Party would be praising us.
New research reveals the extent to which authoritarian impulses have found a significant grounding in the Republican base. According to new survey data from Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt University, slightly over half of Republican voters — both self-identified Republicans and independents who lean toward the party — strongly or somewhat agree with the statement that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” And roughly 2 in 5 Republican or independent voters agree that “a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.” And a whopping three-fourths agree that “it is hard to trust the results of elections when so many people will vote for anyone who offers a handout.”
Which Republicans are most ready to scuttle democratic norms? Harboring hostility toward the nation’s growing racial and ethnic diversity was the single best predictor of respondents’ readiness to desert democratic principles. Age, education level, geographical location: None of these markers was a key factor to authoritarian impulses akin to hostility to growing diversity.
To deny the link between fascism and Trump’s Willing Executioners is to absolve yourself from having to confront the sabotaged census count; the unprecedented financial graft and the worsening economic hardship; the Russian targeting of Black populations for social media manipulation; and the 17 million Americans, mostly Black, purged from U.S. voter rolls between 2016 and 2018, with especially alarming voter purges in former Confederate states now governed by Republicans.
As many white people toggle between the existential threats to their bank accounts, to their family’s health, meanwhile deeply distracted by the banal details of housebound life — so much Netflix, so many memes — they do not want to feel accountable to fixing a fascist state supported by a president’s Willing Executioners.
This article was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Correction: September 29, 2020
An earlier version of this story included a reference to a news report about Trump ignoring intelligence about Russian bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. The reference was removed because the news report is disputed.