I’m still not sure it’s 100 percent clear that Donald Trump really understands that he’s a neo-fascist. He may not know enough history to be fully aware of the now-undeniable odor of his rhetoric and campaign. He may think a member of a racial minority being beat up and called a “n***r” by his racial-majority supporters at a rally, and his own joking about it, is just a little incident; something for which there’s no larger historical context. I know he allegedly had the book of Hitler’s speeches by his bed, but I still think he’s doing most of this on instinct rather than with intellectual intention because I doubt he knows enough about fascism for it to be the latter.
But stop and think about this: I just wrote a paragraph musing on whether the leading candidate for president of the United States from one of our two major parties is knowingly fascist. We’re at the point where we’re debating whether the Republican Party frontrunner is or is not objectively a fascist.
His admirers would surely take issue with the term, but I should note that it’s not just liberals using it. A Jeb Bush adviser posted a tweet using the word. Erstwhile presidential candidate Jim Gilmore referred to Trump’s “fascist talk.”
Gilmore’s willingness to say what’s what is admirable, but let’s face it: He’s running 17th in a field of 17. And an aide is an aide, at the end of the day—and to boot, he’s an aide working for a flailing campaign. Who’s really going to listen to them?
And that brings us to the question: Who in the Republican Party is going to step up here? Because this is A Moment for the GOP, make no mistake. It’s a historical moment, and when your leading candidate is joking about his supporters beating people up at rallies and musing about religious ID cards for around (ahem) 6 million of your citizens, it’s time to say something.
Reince Priebus, after the last election, called on his party to be more inclusive. Is this what you had in mind, Reince? How about the other leading candidates? Is this where you want your party to be taken? Karl Rove and others in the professional political class—will they say anything, if not out of moral principle then at least to try to protect their party’s candidates from down-ticket disaster?
And most of all, what about the party’s graybeards and elder statesmen? Looking at you, John McCain. How about a little “Straight Talk” now, about a man who proposes to come into your state, where there are an estimated 300,000 or so unauthorized immigrants, and break up families because one of them’s illegal and the other is not?
I would suspect that this week we’ll start to see a little of this. Marco Rubio might make a statement that’s very carefully worded, as most of his statements are. Lindsey Graham may have it in him to say something interesting and semi-honest. But for the most part, I’d suspect that what we’re going to hear will be the rhetorical equivalent of wallpaper—they’re going to try to cover up the ugly exposed surface and nothing more.
And why would they do more? If they admit that Trump is a fascist, they’re calling one-third of their voters fascist. Will they do that? And this predicament raises the interesting question of how one-third of their voters came to admire a neo-fascist and open racist in the first place. Gee, it can’t have anything to do with the kind of rhetoric and “harmless jokes” about the current president and about the 47 percent that Republican leaders have winked at for seven years, can it?
There’s precedent for the courageous path, should anyone choose to take it. On Feb. 9, 1950, Joe McCarthy gave his famous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, charging that communists were working in the State Department. The months that followed were very much like these last five months of the Trump ascendancy, as the official party stood mute in the face of the hysteria created by one of its number.
Then in June, one Republican senator said “enough.” Margaret Chase Smith of Maine was a freshman senator, having taken her husband’s seat. She took to the Senate floor and gave a 15-minute speech (PDF), which has gone down in history as her “Declaration of Conscience,” that all of us, starting with leading Republicans, ought to be reading this week. Two choice excerpts:
“As a Republican, I say to my colleagues on this side of the aisle that the Republican Party faces a challenge today that is not unlike the challenge which it faced back in Lincoln’s day. The Republican Party so successfully met that challenge that it emerged from the Civil War as the champion of a united nation—in addition to being a party which unrelentingly fought loose spending and loose programs.”
“The Democratic administration has greatly lost the confidence of the American people… Yet to displace it with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to the nation. The nation sorely needs a Republican victory. But I do not want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.”
Six of her Republican colleagues signed with her a statement of principles that began: “We are Republicans. But we are Americans first.” So that’s what people can do in the face of extremism, if they want to.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how much history Trump knows. All that matters are his words and the ugly actions his words encourage. I don’t expect him to know history. But we have a right to expect certain others to. It’s time for the GOP to choose.