The leading candidate to carry the Republican Party banner for the 2016 Presidential campaign in the United States is Donald Trump. A man who says that if he is elected he will authorize torture, because “they deserve it.” A man who would exclude people of one religion from entering our country. A man who would deliberately kill innocent people on the battlefield. A man who encourages violence against protestors and threatens people, almost daily, for speaking out against him and his views.
Trump’s rise to infamy in the Republican primaries surprised many political observers. But Trump, Cruz, and the Tea Party have roots in a set of common experiences that echo the causes of European Fascism a century ago. Trump is an American Authoritarian. American Authoritarianism has some similarities to European Fascism, but it has purely American attributes as well.
What is American Authoritarianism?
American Authoritarianism differs from European Fascism in one critical way: European Fascism demeaned the individual and elevated the state–or (as in France) the family–while American Authoritarianism demeans the (current) state and elevates (in theory) the individual or family. This difference, however, is more rhetorical than real. American Authoritarians are not in control, and if they ever seize the government they would likely use the power of the State to enforce their cultural vision. Both European Fascism and American Authoritarianism are anti-Enlightenment, anti-cosmopolitan, chauvinistic, nationalist, pro-business, anti-socialist, demean civil equality, and extol militarism and violence.
There are four cultural conditions that have given rise to American Authoritarianism which echo the conditions that allowed European Fascism to metastasize a century ago.
European Fascism grew from the upheaval resulting from World War I. Germany, which lost the war, saw civilian morale collapse, domestic chaos, and Leftist uprisings. Some German soldiers, including Hitler, believed that a military victory denied them and concocted a “stab in the back” theory (Dolchstoßlegende) to explain their defeat. It was, they believed, not the military but the Left and non-Aryan traitors who lost the war. Italy was victorious in The Great War but did not receive the territorial gains or colonies they expected as a result. Nationalists considered this a mutilated victory (vittoria mutilata) and supported Fascism to restore Italian military power and prestige.
America’s military has been at war for over a decade with very few positive results. The Obama administration followed the aggressive Bush Administration with a less interventionist military doctrine and withdrew ground troops from combat. Instead, the President emphasizes stand-off military operations in support of local ground forces. The Right claims Obama allowed what little success the Bush Administration had on the battlefield to be lost through appeasement and military withdrawal. The Right continues to believe that American military might, if unleashed from humanitarian rules of engagement, could defeat the country’s adversaries swiftly and decisively. Many on the Right openly laud Putin’s strongman behavior and his use of military might–without regard to civilian casualties–to achieve political goals.
AN ALIEN THREAT
Communist revolutions and Soviet expansionism terrified the European civilian after World War I. Advancing Soviet forces were stopped at the gates of Warsaw, and Communist revolutions in Germany were suppressed with the assistance or right-wing paramilitary forces. Many Germans saw the Communist as outside (non-German) agitators whose goals were the destruction of German independence and German traditional virtues. The Nazis exploited this fear by linking Jews to Bolshevism in their propaganda. Catholic nations, such as Austria and Italy, also felt threatened by Communisms’ materialist views and its often violent opposition to religion.
Similarly, many Americans view Islam as a totalitarian ideology bent on the destruction of their country. Unable to distinguish between everyday Muslims and the most violent Islamic offshoots, bills have been passed (unnecessarily) to outlaw the use of Sharia law in various states, and some Americans view even outward expression of Islamic faith as threatening. Hate crimes against Muslims are increasing. Armed militia have stationed themselves outside of mosques and harassed congregants. Republican Governors reject Syrian refugees fleeing that nation’s civil war claiming they are terrorists in disguise. Right-wing leaders spread rumors that the President and his advisors are secret Muslims. Nearly half of all Republicans believe the President is a Muslim. Others on the Right claim he is Gay, an Atheist, a Communist, or a combination.
Fascism was also partly a response to economic conditions that left people fearful could never recover, or even survive, economically. Post-World War I Europe was severely damaged by the Great Depression and war destruction, and Germany was further burdened with reparations that were impossible to repay. Much of Eastern Europe, once united in the great Austro-Hungarian empire, was divided by new borders making trade and economic growth more difficult.
The American economy had little competition after World War II. Most other western industrialised countries were devastated by occupation, bombing, and combat. From 1945 to about 1970 the U.S. worker had security within a powerful manufacturing base. After 1970, the American middle class lost ground as companies, seeking cheaper labor, exported of U.S. manufacturing jobs overseas and denuded whole regions of employment opportunities. Medical costs soared, and housing–marketed as both a social virtue and a good investment–collapsed in 2008. Costs for an education that would have helped the next generation climb the economic ladder increased. Personal debt rose, and senior members of the middle class were left without pensions and in many cases sufficient savings.
Meanwhile, demographics and economics were putting unique pressures on the White lower and middle classes. White Americans were slowly losing their majority status to Hispanics and other minorities, groups they often associated with crime and social ills. They feared the increasing influence of minorities and resented social programs that they believed benefited minorities over their own families. Illegal immigrants, they believed, competed for their jobs and depressed wages and benefits. With stagnant or declining wages, many in the White middle class perceived they were being deliberately left behind while the “undeserving” gained through government programs. The despair and hopelessness felt within this cohort may in part account for the “epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.”
U.S. society has another attribute that, like Europe, pushed it towards an authoritarian response: A culture that glorifies violence. Postwar Europe was inundated with youth who had become inured to brutality at the Front. The postwar periods of chaos encouraged violence in reaction to political opponents, and it was not unusual for lethal street battles to break out. The military, however, retained the respect of the general population.
The U.S. has similar attributes that encourage violence. The National Rifle Association has promoted a weapons culture with everyone armed. Disgruntled veterans have joined extremist right-wing groups. Laws have been passed making it difficult to charge individuals using to weapon with a crime if they claim self-defense. Media abounds with narratives that extol violent action to achieve security and political goals. Trump supporters and others critical of the current administration are not shy about threatening opponents and even the Federal government.
How to Respond
The U.S. should heed the lessons of Europe. American Authoritarianism poses a genuine threat to American democracy. However, it is exploiting several strains within American culture that can, and must, be addressed to remove the foundations of the movement. These issues–immigration reform, redevelopment of former industrial regions, providing the middle class greater economic security, education and healthcare affordability, promoting civility, fighting bigotry, and reducing America’s obsession with violence–must be addressed by both parties effectively if our institutions are to retain legitimacy. Most of all, the middle class must perceive that the existing political structure will ensure a brighter future for themselves and their children.