Never mind his latest Twitter storm of complaints and threats. Or do mind them, because their very desperation proves that it’s dawning on the Undapper Don that his chances of staying in the White House much longer are, as the mayor of Munchkin City put it, morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably, and reliably dead. He’ll see for what will probably be the first time in his life that there’s no judge he can buy (including the one he assumed he was buying, who has at least shown herself to be above mob-style corruption; hey, we’ll take it), no fixer he can bribe, no idiot cousin he can put on the payroll to fix things.
For the first known time in 74 years, Trump morality has met normal morality, and normal morality has won.
Which raises the question: With his legal options all but exhausted (we’re waiting on this Texas case, which seems more insane than most of them), what will Trump do next? Perhaps more concerningly, what will his followers do? Until this week, Trump and they could keep entertaining the fiction that some brave soul would step forward and, within the parameters of “the system,” somehow fix this and save him.
I’ve been writing lately that Trump foes should see him as a figure of derision and take joy in mocking him, and I believe that. That kind of moral cleansing is mentally healthy and necessary, after what he’s done to our brains for four years. But in saying that I don’t mean to make light of the threat Trump and his backers pose. That threat is still terrifying, both over the next 40-plus days and further into the American future than I’d care to admit. We’d better be ready.
When they start writing histories of the Trump era, I think the one-line summary will be something like this: While some portion of his appeal was based on legitimate grievances of working-class people against elites, he awakened an authoritarian impulse among the citizenry that was far larger and more rabid, and more easily triggered, than most of us ever imagined.
That is, if you’d asked me back in, oh, 2013, when Donald Trump was still just the foolish corrupt narcissist most everybody knew he was, what portion of the American public would fall for neo-fascism, I’d have said 25 percent tops. But events have shown us that it’s more like 40. At least 35. That’s pretty frightening.
What do I mean by neo-fascism? It’s a fairly obvious set of criteria. Here are five essential ones, though there are others: blind loyalty to a leader who’s really more of a national father figure; belief that the leader is the state; belief that opposition to the leader is opposition to the state, and thus treason; conviction (instilled or ignited by the leader) that the source of the problems facing the good wholesome ethnic majority is some Other or collection of Others who must be ostracized if not banished; agreement that the rules and constraints of democratic order are sometimes useful and should be obeyed as long as one can obey them and win, because doing so confers a certain legitimacy, but if they have to be cast aside to hold power, then cast aside they must be. These principles animate every fascist regime in human history. They are at the heart of Trumpism, and they have drawn many more adherents than I’d have thought possible in this country.
Among advanced democracies, the United States is, if not unique in this regard, certainly more susceptible now than most. If a Trump came along in Denmark, say, would Denmark elect him? I doubt it. Ditto most European countries. Some would. Some have: Hungary, Poland, and Turkey. But I think most would not.
We, however, did. And now that that impulse has been awakened, putting it back to bed will be the work of a generation. Or two. The main thing that has to happen is that the system has to work well for enough working- and middle-class people again such that neo-fascism’s allures are diminished.
That means doing things that will help working-class people: a decent minimum wage, infrastructure, public investment in rural areas and small towns, and yes, the building of a greener economy that might be able to bring some new hope to places like my native West Virginia.
But the confounding irony of course is that the working-class people have been convinced that those things, or most of those things, are socialism, and so they don’t want them. Their voting patterns tell us they’d rather stay with a set of ideas and priorities that are frankly failing them. So the hope of changing this dynamic in the long term is slim. But we have to try.
And in the short term, by which I mean until Jan. 20? A lot of it depends on the father-leader. Given that we’ve already seen armed protesters surrounding a Michigan state official’s house, and the Arizona GOP suggest that its members should be ready to martyr themselves for Trump, it’s hard to say. One casual comment from the father-leader could set something off. Or he might not even have to say a thing. If people are willing to die for him, anything is possible.
Go back over my list above of the five criteria of neo-fascism with special focus on number five. That’s exactly where we are now.
Democratic trappings were of use to Trump as long as he was the winner as he was in 2016. But this time around, he lost. Then he tried everything he knew to try within the democratic system (the recounts); then he tried audacious and outrageous things that no one has ever tried before but still were not against any democratic law (pressuring Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, summoning those two Michigan legislators to the White House). None of it worked. So there are no more democratic options.
Which means other options might now be pursued. So yeah, be on your guard. And, uh, why did Trump replace all those people at the Pentagon anyway? Remember that? Could be nothing. But it could be… something. The one thing we know is that he has no conscience holding him back.