This article first appeared on Independent Australia
The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now.
~ George Orwell, 1984
People compare Donald Trump to Hitler, or Mussolini. This is a misleading and inaccurate comparison, in important ways. First of all, neither Hitler nor Mussolini were initially democratically elected to power. In both cases, they were appointed by the heads of government and subsequently assumed dictatorial power. Trump was democratically elected.
Secondly and more interestingly, both of those dictators held an ideology – a grandiose vision for their country – whereas Donald Trump is remarkable for having no clear ideology, other than that vague idea of “making America great again”.
And, again, Trump’s accession to power and modus operandi have been called “fascism”. But his rise and current activities have none of the hallmarks of 1920s-30s fascism, which was characterised by Mussolini’s “Blackshirts” and Hitler’s “Brownshirts” — with violence in the streets followed by, once in power, the physical repression of opponents.
So, should we be comfortable in the knowledge that America is still a democracy?
With cleverly amusing Youtube videos, cartoons and all kinds of social media lampooning Donald Trump, it would seem that everything is okay. If the American public don’t like Trump, well, no worries — he might be democratically dismissed in 2020, or even earlier.
In 1935, prominent journalist Dorothy Thompson wrote:
‘No people ever recognize their dictator in advance. He never stands for election on the platform of dictatorship. He always represents himself as the instrument [of] the Incorporated National Will.’
Applying the lesson to the U.S., Thompson wrote:
‘When our dictator turns up you can depend on it that he will be one of the boys and he will stand for everything traditionally American.’
Well, Donald Trump meets that first criterion for a potential dictator. He meets some other ones, too. And in these, Trump does resemble both Mussolini and Hitler.
One is the cult of personality:
“I am your voice. I alone can fix it.”
~ Donald Trump, Republican Convention, 2016.
Trump describes himself as “very stable genius”.
‘Volumes have already been written, of course, about his personality — his extreme narcissism; his incessant need for approval; his pathological lying, usually for self-aggrandizement; his authoritarianism; his need to micromanage. So, there’s no need to go there — except to point out that these characteristics are shared with most of those defined as “cult” dictators.’
Robinson quotes a small, but telling, example:
The presidential seal has been replaced by an eagle bearing Trump’s signature. The eagle’s head faces right, not left as on the seal. Isn’t that subtle? The 13 arrows representing the original states have disappeared. And the national motto, “E pluribus unum” — a Latin phrase that means “Out of many, one” — is gone.
Instead, both sides of the coin feature Trump’s official campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
Another important similarity is in Trump’s use of new media, with a simplistic, blunt and often offensive style. Trump exploits the power of “social media”, as Hitler exploited the new medium of radio. The attacks on the press, on critics, are in a style of rage and vulgar braggadocio.
For example, as he wrote in 2007:
“When somebody screws you, you screw them back in spades.”
Trump’s racism, sexism, exaggeration, sensationalism, and straight out lies, debase language in the same way that Mussolini and Hitler’s outbursts did. The distinction between fact and fiction becomes blurred. For the national leader to speak, and tweet, like this, energises racists and bigots. But, worse, it makes sloppy, confused, and offensive language no longer unacceptable — it is now normalised.
All too often, in the 1920s and early 1930s, American journalists praised Hitler and Mussolini, dismissing the importance of their grandiose and aggressive speeches, then later turning to regard Hitler as a joke. Only in the late 1930s did they realise their mistake in thinking these regimes had been in any way “normal”. They had glossed over Hitler’s outbursts of hatred, his anti-intellectual and anti-science tirades.
Donald Trump has been in power for only a little over year and has not signed off on major legislation, except for the tax cuts. However, he has managed, by executive action, to implement much of Republican policy, notably in dismantling Obama’s climate policies, undoing workers’ protection laws, environmental protection laws, targeting the Affordable Care Act, partially banning Muslims’ entering the United States. He’s called for cuts in education, clean air, clean water; his Budget makes childcare more expensive and cuts after-school and summer programs.
At present, the Trump administration is waging a war on two uniquely American institutions, the FBI and the Justice Department, with the release of a memo that supposedly discredits them.
Indeed Donald Trump has complained in recent weeks that he doesn’t understand why he can’t just order “my guys” at the “Trump Justice Department” to do his bidding.
The real significance of this attack is in its effectiveness in lessening public trust in these key democratic institutions. This is combined with Trump’s erratic hiring and firing of White House staff, his onslaught on the traditional news media, and his own contradictory and unpredictable statements. No longer can the political, the justice, the press systems – pillars of democracy – be trusted.
Yes, America is still a democracy. The Trump administration cannot really be compared to the fascist regimes that developed in Italy by 1925 and, with such speed, in Germany in 1933.
But the similarities are there. It is extraordinary that Trump has already been able to implement so much of the Republican agenda. Moreover, without the tools of repression wielded by Mussolini and Hitler, without any kind of evil ideology, Trump has been able to steadily move towards destroying civil institutions, just as they did.
Trump says that he is a “genius”. And, in a way, he is. Without the repressive political, military and police apparatus of the fascist regimes, Trump is doing what they did — changing the climate of thought. Through his extraordinary personality, Trump has imposed on the public mind an uneasy paralysis about what to do and what might happen next.