Trump’s shredding of democracy:A turn toward American fascism
Bob Sheak, May 31
In this post I argue that Trump and his allies are supporting and instituting policies that are weakening our already tenuous democracy. Much of what he and his supporters are doing have fascist aspects. Trump is an authoritarian leader with grandiose notions about himself, who has the unquestioning support from a major political party, from support of most segments of the business sector, and from an unquestioning following among a massive number of Americans. However, this is not yet a full-blown fascism.
The president is not yet a dictator. There is not yet a one-party political system. The corporate-dominated economy is not controlled by the central government. Corporate CEO’s make decisions largely on what is good for their bottom lines and shareholder value. The current president and his administration have not fully achieved their hyper nationalist, America First, goals. They give great emphasis to building up an already bloated military to intimidate other countries. They have not yet eliminated diplomacy altogether in their dealings with other countries, but it is antagonistic to multilateral arrangements. There are racist and xenophobic elements in the discourse emanating from the administration. There are millions of Americans who follow the leader-president seemingly without question and armed contingents ready to act to eliminate the “liberal” opposition. And the president and Republican Party are still limited in how far they can go in weakening the social safety net and government regulation. However, if Trump is reelected in November, and if the Republicans retain control of the Senate and hold their own in state and local elections, while there is a right-wing majority in the Supreme Court, then the United States is likely to sink more deeply and unequivocally into the swamp of fascism.
In making this argument, I refer to how there have been powerful fascist groups before in American history, and then draw on wide-range of evidence to make the case that the Trump administration has been exhibiting the characteristics associated with fascism. Trump is a narcissistic, power-hungry leader, who demands loyalty and loves to tell his adoring crowds at rallies of why they should oppose, tweeting continuously to his followers, and appearing on right-wing media, purveying often unsubstantiated and hateful broadsides against his opponents, immigrants, minorities, and group the President designates an enemy. Journalists at The Washington Post have counted 18,000 lies or misleading claims by Trump during the first 1,170 days of his presidency. Additionally, Trump has the support of the Republican Party in Washington, often viewed as the president’s enablers, and has gone out of his way to consolidate his support from the corporate community and rich with his tax and deregulatory policies.
He and his advisers have sowed confusion and chaos amidst the pandemic, ignoring or sidelining experts, putting forth a continuous stream of disinformation, and now subordinating efforts to contain and curtail COVID-19 to a quick and careless reopening of the economy. In anticipating the presidential election in November, Trump and the Republican establishment want to limit voting as much as they can (e.g., opposing mail-in voting as an option), floating ideas or reinforcing rumors that Trump may somehow use his presidential power to postpone the election of there are indications that he may lose , and recklessly fueling conflict and division, even excusing violence or threatened violence against state officials, that could stir the conditions for “a civil war.” In short, Trump and his allies appear ready to sacrifice democracy and do anything almost to retain political power.
Fascism on the rise
Sasha Abramsky argues in an article for The Nation on May 15, 2020, that the strategy of Trump and the Republicans in the US Congress is fascist or has many fascist elements. The president’s rhetoric, tweets, executive orders, bills signed into law, along with the supportive or complementary actions of the Republicans in the US Congress, have weakened democratic values and institutions and created yet more opportunities for the mega-corporations and the rich. Abramsky writes, “the US is on a public health, political, and economic precipice.” Responses to the pandemic have been chaotic and divisive and threaten to reinforce authoritarian aspects of the Trump administration and, unless defeated in the November elections, will leave the country with an even more corporate-dominated economy, even higher levels of inequality, an even greater surveillance capitalism, even greater environmental devastation, even greater threats of war and nuclear war than existed prior to the pandemic. Abramsky aptly titles his article “If They Walk Like Fascists and Talk Like Fascists…” (https://www.thenation.com/articles/politics/trump-gop-coronavirus-fascism).
Not the first time
The concern about the dangers of an emergent fascism in the US is hardly new. Henry Wallace, who served as Secretary of Agricultural and Vice-President under Franklin D. Roosevelt, identified the growth of an “American fascism” in the 1930s and 1940s. John Nichols provides a brilliant analysis of Wallace’s role in the political debates of the period, his support for progressive politics, and how over the years the progressive influence in the Democratic Party has been marginalized by party insiders, southern Democrats, big city bosses, powerful business interests, and the general movement up to today away certainly from groups that call for structural reforms (e.g., progressive taxes, universal health care, phasing out fossil fuels, greater regulation of the mega-banks).
The title of Nichols’ just published book is The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace’s Antifascist, Antiracist Politics. Wallace’s progressive viewpoint emphasized the need to break up the “monopolies,” create a full-employment economy, end poverty, support civil rights and racial justice, strive for “peace” in international relations, and strengthen democracy. However, there were power forces in the country and in both major political parties who resisted such goals. On April 9, 1944, Wallace published “a landmark essay” in the New York Times Sunday magazine, a media outlet that was generally critical of Wallace, entitled “The Danger of American Fascism.” Nichols quotes from the essay.
“If we define an American fascist as one who in case of conflict puts money and power ahead of human beings, then there are undoubtedly several million fascists in the United States. There are probably several hundred thousand if we narrow the definition to include only those who in their search for money and power are ruthless and deceitful.” He also wrote: “They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interests,” with a final objective of “using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously” so “they may keep the common man in eternal subjugation.”
Nichols notes again that Wallace “saw the prospects of an American fascism in the predictable machinations of big business,” writing: “We all know the part that the cartels played in bringing Hitler to power and the rule the giant German trusts have played in Nazi conquests.” He worried that, in the US, “some monopolists would sacrifice democracy itself” to protect their economic and political power. At the same time, Wallace thought that US political elites, including mainstream Democrats, were too deferential to big business interests.
What is the situation today?
Consolidation of power at the top: The “Leader”
Trump the “leader”
What are the characteristics of this unfolding fascism in America today? Among the basic elements, there is the presence of a powerful, authoritarian president, with the unquestioning support of a right-wing political party. In this situation, the government is less and less constrained by democratic values, the constitution, political norms, or the federal court system. The leader, the embodiment of the unifying and purified national spirit, is especially important in a fascist state.
Federico Finchelstein, professor of history at the New School of Social Research, posits that the leader represents what many people yearn for. He writes in his book A Brief History of Fascist Lies: “the reality that their fundamentally authoritarian lies and racist fantasies about the world become constantly normalized and supported by a wide segment of the population, as well as major party figures. Most pointedly, Finchelstein writes the following about Trump: “He does not lie because he is a crazy cheater; he lies because he belongs to a political tradition that proposes an alternative notion of truth that emanates from the sacred infallibility of the leader” (p. 104). He continues: “…Trumpism represents an extreme form of… antiliberal, and often anti-constitutional, authoritarian democracy with a political rationale of its own. This is a political formation with a mythical notion of the truth,” so he replaces “historical truth with fake ideas about the glorious past that their leaders promise to revive,” with expressions such as “Make America Great Again.” For his tens of millions of followers, he promises to restore to life “a past that never existed” (p. 105). But it must be added, Trump also behaves as he does so as to advance a relatively unfettered, neoliberal-oriented capitalist system and to protect the interests of the mega-corporations, the rich, and his own family’s wealth.
Self-glorification: illusions and hyped business practices
In Donald Trump, we have a president who believes that he himself is a “stable genius,” thinks the constitution gives him the last word on government actions, insists he knows more than the scientists while also denigrating the verifiable evidence that scientists generate, and even has said that he became president with the help of a higher power. On the latter point, Alexandria Petri reports: “Glorious news, everyone! Donald Trump is God! Everything makes sense now, and the final purpose of all things is at last clear. Donald Trump on Wednesday proudly quoted a messenger who said he was ‘the second coming of God,’ and he described himself as ‘the chosen one, looking up at the sky” (https://washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/08/21/oh-good-donald-trump-is-god-now).
Over the three plus years Trump has been in the White House, one can easily see that he loves to be in the spotlight. His tweeting gets him continuous media coverage and attracts a huge following of 80 million followers. His pre-pandemic rallies before thousands of seeming unquestioning followers provided a kind of validation of Trump’s often divisive and hateful diatribes. He presents himself as a successful businessman, a billionaire, though this claim is challenged by the evidence. According to David Cay Johnston, the “public record shows that he is an income tax cheat,” citing the findings of two administrative trials held by New York state and city officials” In going through public records on his 1984 tax records, David Cay Johnston finds they “reveal he is an income tax cheat” (It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration is Doing to America, p. 79). Trump University turned out to be a scam on students.
On Trump’s business record, David Enrich writes in his in-depth book, Dark Towers: Deutsche Bank: Donald Trump, And an Epic Trail of Destruction, that Trump “defaulted on loans to finance his Atlantic City casinos and [stiffed] lenders, contractors, and business partners in other projects.” He continues: “Quite a few banks – including Citigroup, Manufacturers Hanover (a predecessor of JP Morgan, the British lender NatWest, and…Bankers Trust – had endured hundreds of millions of losses at the hands of Trump” (p. 74). For nearly two decades, Enrich notes, “Deutsche had been the only mainstream bank consistently willing to do business with Trump.” Deutsche “bankrolled his development of luxury high rises, golf courses, and hotels. The bank had doled out well over $2 billion in loans to Trump and his companies; at this moment in 2016, he owed the bank about $350 million, making Deutsche his biggest creditor” (p. 5). Enrich adds: “There was more to Trump’s relationship with Deutsche than money. The bank was…trying to establish its brand in the United States, and despite his financial woes, Trump – whose hit TV show The Apprentice had debuted on NBC – provided splashy publicity for the bank” (p. 118).
Consolidating the power of the mega-corporations and the rich
The president, his advisers, and allies debunk science and the media, while creating mythical, false, or misleading assertions about reality exemplified in their rejection of the science on climate change, or the notion that Trump alone was responsible for the robust economy prior to the pandemic, or that Iran – not the US – violated the multilateral nuclear agreement, or that all undocumented immigrants should be forced to leave the country because they take jobs away from real Americans, or that liberals are un-American. They use their power in attempts to rewrite history. For example, their attempts to blame prior administrations for their own inept and slow responses to the pandemic falls into this category.
They are adept at finding scapegoats to explain away any missteps by the president or his administration: China, immigrants, past administrations, the fake news, Democratic governors, any public critic. They are motivated to replace the concept of a common or public good with the idea that economically everything is about investments, production, and consumption as determined by the mega-corporate-dominated market is good. In this way, they fully endorse neoliberalism and its emphasis on deregulation, regressive taxation, privatization, and the need to severely reduce government programs for workers and the poor. Virtually anything goes if it sells. The administration has little interest in breaking up the mega corporations. They believe that employers should have the power to rule their workplaces and are content to have labor policies that make it difficult for workers to unionize. Indeed, they want to quash all opposition or potential sources of adverse criticism in the government by finding ways to punish whistle blowers and firing inspector generals and others who they find to be untrustworthy, regardless of the evidence.
Such an anti-democratic agenda/process is also aided by the growth of the surveillance state and the use of federal forces to harass and deport undocumented residents….The Trump led state is also one that is hyper-nationalistic, as reflected in Trump’s slogan “America First.” His foreign policy is guided by the idea that the country needs to maintain the world’s largest military force, with the goals of creating a kind of “fortress America.” He has withdrawn the US from military/nuclear treaties with Russia, withdrawn from the international Paris agreement in 2015 to create a framework to reduce worldwide carbon emissions, withdrawn from the multilateral agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons, and refused to join with the European Union in coordinating actions against the pandemic. He is now in the process of escalating tensions with China.
Corporate power prior to the pandemic
The crises in the United States are rooted in our economic and political systems that are creating existential-level problems. At the same time, economists Anne Case and Augus Deaton don’t want us to go too far in this critique. They argue that some people have gotten rich, not through exploitation and environmentally harmful policies, but by inventing new tools, drugs, or gadgets, or new ways of doing things, and benefit many not just themselves.” They contend that some form of managed or reformed capitalism that takes into account public interests and justice is possible (Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, p. 12).
But the US capitalist economy is undisputedly dominated by mega-corporations in every sector, along with some privately-owned, multi-billion-dollar companies, like Cargill and Koch Industries. The principal driving force of these giant enterprises, and other business enterprises, is to always put profits and the interests of the top executives and shareholders ahead of all other considerations. The focus of corporate executives is on increasing the size, sales, revenues, and profits of these corporations and doing so in ways that disregard the interests of most employees, the environmental impact of their operations and the effects on communities, and the quality or durability of the goods and services they provide. The corporations are constantly faced with the problem of insufficient consumer demand and the saturation of markets. So, they spend enormous sums of money on pervasive, sophisticated, and manipulative sales efforts to goad consumers to buy their products and services, often on shaky, high-interest credit.
There are guardians of the system to ensure profits remain paramount in the calculations of CEOs. They have little or nothing to do with the “common good,” and much to do with capturing profits for the wealthy. Wall Street bankers decide whether a given corporation’s profitable outlook is good enough to obtain financial support and how much it will cost. Private equity funds, sometimes referred to as vulture funds, are the contemporary corporate raiders, always poised to mount takeover efforts when a corporation is viewed as not operating profitably enough or is sitting on too much cash. After taking over a company, some raiders then often sell off assets, drain employee’s pension retirement systems, reduce wages, and maximize profits while letting the company eventually go out of business. Others may revive a distressed company, however, usually at the expense of workers’ wages and benefits. Eileen Appelbaum and Rosemary Batt provide a comprehensive analysis of private equity firms in their book, Private Equity at Work: When Wall Street Manages Main Street. The authors describe how these business enterprises operate.
“Private equity firms have emerged in the last three decades as part of a group of new financial actors – or ‘intermediaries’ – that raise large pools of capital from wealthy individuals and institutions for investment funds. These funds undertake risky investments that promise to deliver higher-than-average returns. Private equity funds buy out companies using high-levels of debt – referred to as ‘leverage’ – that is loaded onto the acquired companies. The use of debt to take over ownership of mature operating companies leveraged buyouts and actively manage them are the characteristics that distinguish private equity funds from venture capital or hedge funds. Venture capital and hedge funds are also investment funds that mobilize private pools of capital, but their business models differ substantially from that of private equity” (p. 1-2).
Hedge funds use the investments of wealthy people to speculate on anything that is deemed potentially profitable, from changes in commodity prices on international markets to changes in interest rates, to the prospects of government spending on the stock value of a given corporation, to buying real estate securities and selling them as their value rises, before it falls. Trades are made at incredible speed based on complex algorithms. They represent a kind of parasitical form of capitalism. Les Leopold analyzes hedge funds in his book, Million Dollars an Hour: Why Hedge Funds Get Away with Siphoning off America’s Wealth.
Coming back to the center of U.S. capitalism, the mega-corporations use their control over vast resources to influence state governments as well as the federal government, through trade associations, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the Business Roundtable, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, massive lobbying efforts, campaign contributions distributed through various types of political action committees (some anonymous or secret), political ads that favor their preferred candidates, and through a revolving-door in which corporate executives are appointed to important government positions for awhile and then return to their corporate or other private-sector jobs, and vice versa. While corporations have historically supported both the Democratic and Republican Parties, they have increasingly favored Republicans.
Nancy MacLean’s analysis takes us further into one of the principal dynamics of contemporary capitalism
But even all this does not capture the full extent of corporate and business power. Nancy MacLean, author and scholar, delves penetratingly into this issue in her book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. With extensive documentation, she unveils how a radically libertarian view of society, with strong Social Darwinist overtones, has come to have great influence on corporations. This is a view that wants to “undo democratic governance” and majority rule with a system of governance that is controlled by those of great wealth, who define themselves as being superior in accomplishments and perhaps genetically to most others and thus who deserve to – indeed must -lead the country. They claim that the wealth they create will trickle down, but that people should not expect much – unless they have education and skills that are identified as being important to those in charge.
MacLean traces such views to an obscure but tenacious economic philosopher named James McGill Buchanan who from the 1950s on advanced a “revolutionary” right-wing economic and political philosophy that included, at one time or another, the following proposals: end progressive taxation and replace it with a flat tax; end government intrusion and regulation of the property of the wealthy(personal or business); end the right of workers to collective bargaining; end guaranteed pensions; end occupational and safety laws; end affirmative action laws; privatize Social Security, Medicare, the Veterans’ Administration; reduce spending on and access to public assistance programs (e.g., Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers); privatize virtually all functions of government (e.g., education, welfare, prisons, public media, infrastructure, transportation ….). Additionally, according to MacLean, Buchanan argued that state’s rights should take precedence over federal law and local initiatives because it’s easier to for corporations to control state governments. What Buchanan and his wealthy backers want is, MacLean writes, “a return to oligarchy [and] to a world in which both economic [and] effective political power are to be concentrated in the hands of a few.” She continues that the dream of the leaders of this movement is:
“to reinstate the kind of political economy that prevailed in America at the opening of the twentieth century, when the mass disfranchisement of voters and the legal treatment of labor unions as illegitimate enabled large corporations and wealthy individuals to dominate Congress and most state governments alike, and to feel secure that the nation’s courts would not interfere with their reign” (p.xxxii).
Along the way, as Buchanan held various academic positions, joining with and supported by like-minded ideologues in academia and with funding by wealthy backers, he argued that the long-term goal was “a constitutional” revolution that would end majority rule. This will be a stealth movement that through incremental successes undermines democracy. MacLean says Buchanan’s efforts have, unfortunately, borne fruit. She writes in her Introduction: “Pushed by relatively small number of radical-right billionaires and millionaires who have become profoundly hostile to America’s modern system of government, an apparatus decades in the making, funded by those same billionaires and millionaires, has been working to undermine the normal governance of our democracy” (p. xxxi).The most influential force in this movement has been the Koch network, which, MacLean reports, “’operates on the scale of a national U.S. political party’ and employs more than three times as many people as the Republican committees had on their payroll in 2015” (p. xxxi). She summarizes the achievements of the Koch network as follows:
“It was occupying the Republican Party, using the threat of well-funded primary challenges to force its elected officials to do the cause’s bidding or lose their seats. It was pushing our radical right laws ready to bring to the floor in every state through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). It was selling those laws through the seemingly independent but centrally funded and operationally linked groups of the State Policy Network. It was leveraging the anger of the local Tea Party groups to move the legislative agenda of Americans for Prosperity and Freedom-Works. Its state affiliates were energizing voter turnout with deceitful direct mail campaigns. Its elected allies were shutting down the federal government; in effect, using its employees and the millions who rely on it as hostages to get what they otherwise could not – and much, much more” (p. 210).
In his book, The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time, Gordon Lafer offers this description of the Koch network.
“…rather than simply contributing to candidates’ campaigns, the Kochs have established a uniquely broad network of related organizations – candidate selection and funding vehicles, think tanks, data firms, communication strategists, and grassroots organizers – that together constitute and integrated and formidable political force. In 2014, Americans for Prosperity alone spent $125 million and had five hundred full-time staffers to organize supporters in target states. Finally, the Kochs not only spend their own money on an unparalleled scale; they also serve as organizers and directors of a network of corporate and private donors. In 2016, this network aimed to spend $1 billion, significantly more than the Democratic or Republican parties raised in the 2012 election cycle” (p. 16).
Now, Amidst the pandemic, “Letting Big Corporations Get Away with Whatever They Want”
This is the title of an article by Ralph Nader (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/05/16/trump-letting-big-corporations-get-away-whatever-they-want). He makes his basic argument as follows. “Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump has allowed large corporations to run rampant, exploit people, and get away with it. Trump considers himself above the law, boldly claiming, ‘I have an Article 2, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.’” Nader views Trump’s presidential record as one that “embraces American-style fascism and nepotism.” He makes five points in documenting his argument.
One: “In 2017, Trump betrayed his own voters by giving the corporate rich a nearly two trillion-dollar tax cut instead of fulfilling his promise to invest in repairing infrastructure and expanding well-paid-job opportunities.” As widely reported, the “tax cuts for the rich and big corporations, which benefited the Trump family, ran up the deficit for our children and were largely used to give executives bonuses and let CEOs waste money on stock buybacks. In short, the corporate bosses lied to the Congress, saying they wanted these tax cuts to invest and create jobs, but actually used them to enrich themselves.”
Two: Trump has gone a spree of gutting health and safety law enforcement, with resultant “harm to workers, consumers, and defenseless communities. He refers in documentation of this point to a New York Times article that reported 98 lifesaving regulations were revoked, suspended, or simply replaced with weaker versions. What remains on the books is not enforced.” He notes, further, that “Trump has worked to further punish student borrowers; diminish workplace and auto safety; and remove safeguards against banking, credit, and payday loan rackets.” And: “With vicious madness, Trump pushes for federal deregulation of nursing homes where residents are dying from Covid-19. He pursues court cases in attempts to end Obamacare, the result of which would be throwing 20 million Americans off their insurance during a lethal pandemic. He is cravenly freeing corporate emitters of life-destroying mercury and coal ash in our air, condemned pesticides and toxins in drinking water, and whatever else is on the deadly wish list given to him by his corporate paymasters.”
Three: Trump has given his corporate allies “more loopholes for tax escapes ($170 billion buried in the $2.2 trillion relief/bailout legislation).” He elaborates: “Big companies such as banks, insurance companies, real estate behemoths, and Silicon Valley giants have so many tax escapes and cuts that they’re moving toward tax-exempt status.”
Four: Trump and his Republican allies in the Congress want legislation “giving big companies immunity from lawsuits by victims for their negligently harmful products and services.” For example, Nader writes: “Trump’s agencies actually announced that they’re putting their law enforcers on the shelf. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) astonishingly told foreign importers of food and medicine that inspections overseas are suspended. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signaled similar retreats, as have other enforcement agencies. Why would the Trumpsters signal green lights for corporate crooks? Especially since corporate scams and other corporate crimes—some crude, others sophisticated—are exploding as trillions pour out of Washington.”
Five: There has been under Trump a steep decline in the number of corporate prosecutions and fines. Nader writes: “A year ago, Public Citizen reported a steep decline in corporate prosecutions and fines under Trump. Now, compared to the size of the previous corporate crime wave, they’ve fallen off a cliff. You can ignore the stern warnings by Attorney General William Barr. He is a phony. He has neither allocated nor asked Congress for a budget that will provide the Department of Justice the capacity to crackdown.”
Removing federal government regulations on businesses
There is now wholesale deregulation under the Trump administration. Jake Johnson reports on how “Trump’s corporate-friendly executive orders aimed at rolling back even more regulations that protect the public is just the latest sign that his solution to the pandemic is the opposite of what the public needs” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/05/20/corruption-full-display-trumps-executive-order-directs-all-agencies-gut-business).
On Tuesday, May 20, Trump “signed an executive order directing the heads of every federal agency to ‘waive, suspend, and eliminate’ all regulations that they consider unnecessary obstacles to economic recovery from the coronavirus crisis.” This means more pollution from fossil fuel corporations, more drilling on public land, less regulation of toxic chemicals, less safety on the job for American workers, less protection for consumers, fewer drug regulations. Johnson quotes Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen to capture the essential thrust of Trump’s executive order, namely: that “instead of real, direct help for the tens of millions of Americans struggling financially due to the pandemic, or a real plan to reopen the economy safely based on the best public health expertise, Trump wants to keep giving handouts to corporate interests.”
Consolidating an electoral base of support
At the same time, support for the president and his political party requires an electoral base of support as well. Hence, support has been garnered among a variety of right-wing groups, including, those who want unlimited gun ownership, evangelical groups that favor the end of reproductive rights for women and an end to the separation of religion and the state, groups that want a virtual end to most or all categories of immigration, groups that want to preserve white supremacy and reject as myth the racist and discriminatory history that is so central to the dark side of American history. Trump has a friendly relationship with far-right, sometimes armed, groups support the reopening of the economy, who demonstrate for white supremacists’ values or a reactionary concept of “freedom.” But beyond the particular interests, Trump is also viewed by these supporters as having the ability to transform the government in a way that will make “America Great Again,” put an end to the intrusion of government bureaucrats in their lives, and protect their communities from a secular culture.
Rural America is, by and large, for Trump
Robert Wuthnow, professor of social sciences at Princeton University, has studied rural communities in America, one of Trump’s sources of support. He and his assistants have visited hundreds of these communities, “studied their histories, and collected information about them from surveys, election results, exit polls, censuses business statistics, and municipal records” (The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Small-Town America, p. 3). He points out that “30 million Americans live in small towns with populations of fewer than 25,000 residents.” The US Census tallies 44 to 50 million people in what it labels “rural communities.” Exit polls in the 2016 election “showed that 62 percent of the rural vote went to Donald Trump” (p. 1).
Wuthnow finds that the “moral outrage of rural America is at the basis of support for Trump – and involves a mixture of fear and anger. The fear is that small-town ways of life are disappearing. The anger that they are under siege. The outrage cannot be understood apart from the loyalties that rural Americas feel toward their communities” (p.6). They are concerned about declining populations, school closings, businesses leaving, and jobs disappearing. But it is more importantly about cultural issues. They are angry about government bureaucrats who promote diversity, about “moral decline” reflected in the bank bailouts, the sexual promiscuity available on the Internet, the prevalence of crude language on television, about their opposition to reproductive and LBGTQ rights and immigration. Withal, they will vote for Trump again because they like his patriotic slogans, his militaristic foreign policy, his denigration of the media and liberal elites, his anti-immigrant policies, his Christian/evangelical connections, and the misperception of him as a political outsider. It remains to be seen whether the COVID-19 pandemic, now increasingly affecting rural communities, will change their minds about Trump.
Reactionary Populism gains new life under Trump
Along with all the rest, Trump and the right-wing political forces supporting him have gained strength from the growth of a reactionary populism since the 1990s, including “local militias, Christian fundamentalists, and the Tea Party among them.” Carl Boggs, professor of social sciences at National University in Los Angeles, points to how Trump benefited, as 35 percent of his presidential vote come from evangelical constituencies (Fascism Old and New: American Politics at the Crossroads, pp. 12-13). His presidency has “apparently lent new legitimacy to the evangelical movement, especially the selection of Mike Pence as vice-president and Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. As American society moves ever rightward,” Boggs writes, “evangelicals have grown in numbers, organizations, media presence, and general influence. They work indefatigably through state legislatures, PACs, think tanks, conferences, and medical outlets to carry out ‘God’s work, hoping to Christianize secular institutions, beginning with education, bringing ‘family values’ and patriotism to the forefront.” Boggs thinks that they “could help to solidify a social bloc behind fascistic tendencies….” (p. 13).
Historian Kathleen Belew documents the growth of another source of Trump’s “popular” appeal in the American white power movement in her book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Here is some of what she found.
“While white power featured a diversity of views and an array of competing leaders, all corners of the movement were inspired by feelings of defeat, emasculation, and betrayal after the Vietnam War and by social and economic changes that seemed to threaten and victimize white men. White power also qualifies as a movement through its central features: the contiguous activity of an inner circle of key figures over two decades, frequent public displays, and development of a wide-reaching social network.
“White power activists used a shared repertoire of actions to assert collectivity. Public displays of uniformed activists chanting slogans and marching in formation aimed to demonstrate worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment to both members and observers. Activists encouraged dress codes and rules about comportment and featured the presence of mothers with children, Vietnam veterans, and active-duty military personnel. Members showed unity by donning uniforms and by marching and chanting in formation. They made claims about their numbers. They underscored their commitment with pledges to die rather than abandon the fight; preparing to risk their lives for white power; and undertaking acts that put them at legal and physical risk. A regular circulation of people, weapons, funds, images, and rhetoric – as well as intermarriages and other social relationships – bound activists together” (pp. 10-11).
And they thrive.
“The state and public opinion have failed to sufficiently halt white power violence or refute white power belief systems, and failed to present a vision of the future that might address some of their concerns that lie behind the more diffuse, coded, and mainstream manifestations” (p. 239).
The white power movement, ultra-nationalistic, racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, armed, opposed to progressive values and ideas, poses no threat to the power elite. They represent the potential street fighters against those who criticize the existing power structure from progressive and leftist points of view.
Creating an unaccountable presidency
A President that tolerates no dissent in his administration
Trump demands absolute loyalty from his staff, advisers, cabinet officials, and those across the executive branch
Elizabeth Shackelford was a U.S. diplomat until December 2017 when she resigned in protest of the administration. Until then, she had served in Somalia, South Sudan, Poland, and Washington, DC. She is presently a fellow with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and author of ‘The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age, to be published in May 2020. In an article published in Common Dreams, she analyzes Trump’s recent “inspector general purges” and how they are aimed at suppressing any dissent or criticism of the administration (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/05/19/trumps-inspector-general-purge-and-death-dissent). The purges were carried out to coverup fraud and abuse at the highest levels of the Trump administration.
“For six weeks,” she writes, “the Trump administration has executed a stealthy attack on oversight, knee-capping inspector general offices of their apolitical leadership. Most have been quietly revealed late on a Friday night, in hopes of skirting under the radar and avoiding scrutiny.” In early April, Trump ousted Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general, first gained Trump’s ire when in September of 2019 he notified Congress of the whistleblower complaint, an action “he was legally obligated to do.”
Continuing, Shackelford reminds us that “only days later, Trump removed the acting inspector general of defense, who had been tapped by Congress to oversee the distribution of funds under the coronavirus relief measures.” Then in early May, “Trump fired Christi Grim, the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, while the deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response was in the process of filing a whistleblower complaint over the corrupt and hapless pandemic response.”
Most recently, on May 15, “Trump notified Congress of the removal of Steve Linick, the State Department’s inspector general.” The reasons: “This was reportedly done at Secretary Mike Pompeo’s urging to ensure a friendlier IG was at the helm so Pompeo could avoid accountability in at least two investigations Linick was pursuing into his actions. The investigations reportedly reveal bad behavior at both a personal and policy level — from Pompeo’s misuse of State Department staff for family errands, to his approval of arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the objection of Congress (Pompeo now denies he knew about the investigations).
The purges have the desired effect of stifling independent action by inspector generals throughout the administration. Wrongdoing in government departments will go unreported by potential whistleblowers. The sacked inspector generals will be replaced by political sycophants. “Their impact, Shackelford writes, “will reverberate with damage to the very structure of oversight throughout these agencies at every level, as ‘no civil servant will feel comfortable reporting any form of abuse or violations at all.’”
There are no “populists” in Trump’s administration
Trump’s pre-election promise to “drain the swamp” have been disregarded in Trump’s efforts once in the oval office to surround himself with Wall Street financiers, generals, and former CEOs from across the economy. John Nichols documented, as many others have, the recruitment process of the first year of Trump’s presidency in his book, Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse. He gives the reader an overview of his analysis in the following words: “This book groups the Trump circle into rough categories: ideological messengers, political hacks, military-industrial complex generals and dollar diplomats, and privateers and corporatists” (p. xv).
Confusion and chaos amidst the pandemic
Ignoring or sidelining the experts
The reopening of the economy must in Trump’s view take precedence over the risks of having a spike, or a second wave, in the number of Covid-19 victims, though he hedges his call be claiming that state governors are the ones who will make the decisions. Abramsky (cited earlier) offers several examples on this point. Trump is calling for the reopening of the economy before the pandemic is under control, which, as Dr. Anthony Fauci has warned, has the risk of making a bad situation worse.
In addition, Trump is ignoring the World Health Organization’s call “for a globally coordinated response to tame Covid-19.” He is now cutting off all US funds to WHO. The president ignored the warning of Dr. Rick Bright, former head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, who “warned that if the country didn’t soon get a proper handle on the pandemic and coordinate a vast national testing and tracing effort, the United States would experience a winter of death unlike anything seen in modern times.” He adds: “Trump’s response: to throw more red meat to his base by calling on Pennsylvania and other blue states to open up for business; to denigrate Fauci for warning about the dangers of prematurely reopening schools; to attack, in racially charged language, a Chinese-American journalist for asking him about the inadequacies of America’s testing regimen.” Such actions by the president create confusion and chaos, fear and uncertainty, rather than “shape an effective strategy to contain the coronavirus. And this is precisely his aim.
Mike Ludwig, staff writer for Truthout, opens his article by referring to how Russian operatives spread conspiracy theories online in 2016 “in an attempt to sow political chaos and sway the presidential election.” He continues: “Now, the misinformation and conspiracy theories swirling around the COVID-19 pandemic provide a grim reminder of how disinformation continues to shape public discourse, with the 2020 elections only months away. Media watchdogs say homegrown disinformation is now a much bigger problem than foreign interference, thanks to President Trump, his reelection campaign and right-wing extremists fueling viral media content shared widely by the president’s supporters”
(https://truthout.org/articles/trumps-covid-19-disinformation-campaign-is-a-preview-of-the-2020-elections). Ludwig refers to some examples to illustrate his argument.
One, Trump sent a letter to on May 18 to the World Health Organization (WHO), accusing the UN organization of, as Ludwig puts it, “bungling its initial response to the Covid-19 outbreak due to is alleged dozy relationship with China.” Ludwig reports that Trump’s letter contains “an obvious falsehood,” that WHO “ignored credible reports of a virus spreading in Wuhan in December 2019,” referring for example to a report by Lancet, a highly respected medical journal. There was no such report. Ludwig reports that “Richard Horton, The Lancet’s editor, quickly pointed out that the journal did not publish any such reports in December. The first report detailing a viral outbreak in Wuhan was published a month later on January 24 by Chinese scientists. By then, the WHO had dispatched teams to China and convened an emergency meeting to determine whether the outbreak should be declared an international emergency.” Ironically, Trump himself was praising the Chinese for their efforts in January. Nonetheless, Trump’s letter, covered extensively by the media (especially Fox News), allowed Trump “to inject some of his fans’ favorite erroneous coronavirus narratives deeper in the public discourse: COVID-19 is a ‘Chinese virus,’ and the rising death toll can be blamed on China and ‘global elites.’” Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign “is spending $10 million on ads blaming China for the virus and painting former Vice President Joe Biden as “China’s puppet.” The pro-Trump super-PAC, American First, “is also spending $10 million on ads in three swing states accusing Biden of being soft on China.”
Two, anything that Trump says is considered news and “can fuel disinformation with a simple comment or retweet.” Ludwig points to the president’s “legions of supporters [who] work together on social media platforms to boost disinformation and conspiratorial memes.” They amplify whatever he says, without fact-checking, and they are a good way to gin up campaign fund raising.
Three, Trump and his allies have continuously played down the seriousness of COVID-19. And, according to a Harvard survey conducted in mid-March, “29 percent of respondents believed the threat of COVID-19 was exaggerated to damage Trump,” while “an even greater share – 31 percent – said the virus was purposefully created and spread.” These beliefs were “strongly correlated with political support for Trump and his early statements downplaying the dangers of the virus.”
Four, the disinformation flowing from the Trump administration has intensified partisan divisions. It has helped to sway large majorities of Republicans to “support reopening schools, parks and businesses, while large majorities of Democrats say people must stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19.”
And now, the president has generated schisms in the American population over whether it is necessary to wear masks, a symbol of whether COVID-19 pandemic is rising or falling. Trump’s actions have encouraged those who don’t wear masks, who want the economy reopened without any reservations, and who view mask-wearers as unmanly and/or liberal fools.
Promoting harmful medical information
In an article for Common Dreams, staff writer Jake Johnson reports on how Trump’s claim that the drug hydoxycholoroquine can provide relief, if not protection against Covid-19 infection, is repudiated by an article in the Lancet, a respected medical journal (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/05/22/lancet-study-hydroxychloroquine-shows-trump-usual-dangerously-wrong-covid-19).
The study, published on May 15, “found that the anti-malarial drug President Donald Trump claims he is currently taking—and has repeatedly urged others to take—is not effective for treating Covid-19 and could increase risk of heart problems and death in coronavirus patients.” The Lancet article is based on the examination “of 96,000 hospitalized coronavirus patients on six continents and found that ‘drug regimens of chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine alone or in combination with a macrolide was associated with an increased hazard for clinically significant occurrence of ventricular arrhythmias and increased risk of in-hospital death with Covid-19.’”Specifically, patients “who were given hydroxychloroquine and an antibiotic, a combination Trump has touted, had a 45% increase in risk of death and a 411% increase in risk of heart arrhythmias, the study found. Patients who received hydroxychloroquine alone had a 34% increase in mortality risk and a 137% increase in risk of irregular heartbeat.” The authors found “no evidence” of benefits from using the drug, which “is most commonly used as a treatment for malaria, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis.”
What are the implications of Trump’s nonsense? It’s consistent with the public health experts who view his behavior as a symptom of “malicious narcissism” (see the book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess the President). It’s consistent with the view that he is a con man who care little about the evidence-based truth. It raises questions about his competence. On this point, Mark Green and Ralph Nader report on how Trump “consistently makes verbal gaffes and asinine comments unprecedented for an Oval Office occupant, a person whose words are beamed to the world and speak for America” (Fake President: Decoding Trump’s Gaslighting, Corruption, and General Bullsh*T, p. 108). Green and Nader also have this example of his narcissism:
“Mika Brzezinski, MSNBC: ‘Given the dire foreign-policy issues percolating around the world right now, who are you consulting with consistency so that you’re ready on day one [of your presidency]?
“I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things… My primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for that stuff (3/16/16).
Trump pronounces the economy will stay open whatever the Covid-19 trend
Chris Walker reports that, whatever the scientists recommend, Trump will not again call for shutting down the economy again even if there is a second wave of the coronavirus with infections surging (https://truthout.org/articles/trump-says-he-will-not-close-the-country-if-second-wave-of-virus-hits). Trump made these remarks while touring a Ford Motor factory in Michigan on Thursday, May21. The president said: Bottom of Form“We are going to put out the fires. We’re not going to close the country,” Trump explained. “We can put out the fires. Whether it is an ember or a flame, we are going to put it out. But we are not closing our country.”
The position of most experts is that there will be a second wave of Covid-19. Walker cites an interview with The Washington Post this week had with Anthony Fauci, who is a well-known “member of Trump’s coronavirus task force and the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauchi says that a second wave is inevitable, it is not going to disappear, and it is highly transmissible. And, contrary to Trump’s position, Robert Redfield, “the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), did not rule out the possibility of implementing another round of shelter-in-place rules across the country if and when a second wave came about.” There is also concern that the United States is “not ready for another spike in coronavirus cases when it comes,”according to Walker’s quote from Megan Ranny, an emergency physician and researcher at Brown University. Walker refers to an NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll published in late May that finds “77 percent of American adults say that they worry about a second wave of coronavirus happening as more businesses across the country reopen. Less than a quarter of the American populace said they weren’t that concerned about it.” Perhaps this is a sign that most Americans are beginning to recognize Trump’s incompetency and real priorities. If so, this bodes well for the Democrats and some progressives in November.
Creating the conditions for the continuation of Trump’s presidency
Opposition to a mail-in voting option
There is growing concern about how people can safely vote in the November election and this has highlighted in recent public discourse the need for a mail-in voting option. However, Julia Conley, staff writer for Common Dreams reports on how on May 26 Trump “alarmed pro-democracy advocates once again by elevating his attacks on voting rights by falsely claiming that mail-in ballots are inherently ‘rigged’ and suggested the results of the November general election would be illegitimate if a vote-by-mail system is used”( https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/05/26/scared-what-will-happen-if-he-lets-people-vote-rights-groups-know-why-trump-panicked).
While Trump has long railed against supposed “voter fraud,” Conley refers to “multiple studies showing cases of fraudulent voting are ‘vanishingly rare’ and nowhere near common enough to swing election results.” Trump’s recent spate of tweets on the issue were apparently in response to an executive order issued earlier in May by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, requiring that mail-in ballots be sent to every registered voter in the state for the November election. Trump’s opposition to mail-in ballots is based on his fear that they will lead to more votes for his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, than himself in the November election. This is a fear shared by the Republican Party. The Republican National Committee and other GOP groups that have filed a lawsuit challenging the California plan. Conley points out that mail-in balloting is not some new technology. She quotes activist Delilah Asterales who tweets: “They’ve been used for decades. The Military uses them. Entire states use them. YOU [Trump] used one. Get a grip.”
The reality is that they are scared that if voting is not made harder, then more people vote will vote but against them. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Colorado, Washington, Hawaii, Oregon, and Utah all conducted elections via mail-in voting. “In recent weeks ,” Conley adds, “other states including Michigan, Maryland, and Ohio have arranged to send paper ballots to voters for upcoming elections, following last month’s in-person primary election in Wisconsin which was linked to dozens of Covid-19 infections.” The implication of the opposition to mail-in voting by Trump and the Republican Party is that they would prefer to make voting difficult and hazardous amidst the pandemic than to have risk losing the elections in November. In this debate, one thing is clear, that is Trump thinks that less democracy will benefit him and the Republican Party.
Postponing the November election?
For example, “the vapid little princeling Jared Kushner” told Time magazine “that he refused to rule out postponing the November election.” Abramsky adds: “That extraordinary statement could have been a trial balloon; if it was ignored or got positive feedback, Trump could advance the idea. If it got significant blowback, the administration could deny that Kushner was speaking officially and say that he simply tripped over his words.” But “they might not need to postpone the election if they can convince enough GOP state leaders to curtail mail-in voting so much that they make it all but impossible for citizens in densely populated urban neighborhoods to vote in person without risking their lives. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton kicked off the strategy by announcing this week that he would seek to bar the Lone Star State’s big cities from counting voters’ fear of Covid-19 as a valid reason for their being allowed to vote by mail. That adds a new layer of ugliness to the GOP’s years-long voter-suppression tactics” (https://www.thenation.com/articles/politics/trump-gop-coronavirus-fascism).
Reid J. Epstein reports on how the White House messaging on the 2020 election has many Democrats worried (https://nytimes.com/2020/05/24/us/politics/trump-2020-election-voting-rights.html). Some “worst-case scenario planners – mostly Democrats, but also some anti-Trump Republicans – have been [computer] gaming out how to respond to various doomsday options for the 2020 presidential election.” Their concerns “intensified in recent weeks as the president continues to attack the integrity of mail voting and insinuate that the election system is rigged, while his Republican allies ramp up efforts to control who can vote and how. Just last week, Mr. Trump threatened to withhold funding from states that defy his wishes on expanding mail voting, while also amplifying unfounded claims of voter fraud in battleground states.” For example, Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor “convened an informal group of Democrats and never-Trump Republicans to brainstorm about ways the Trump administration could disrupt the election and to think about ways to prevent it.”
Marc Elias, “a Washington lawyer who leads the Democratic National Committee’s legal efforts to fight voter suppression measures,” worries “that the Trump administration could act in October to make it harder for people to vote in urban centers in battleground states — possibilities, he said, that include declaring a state of emergency, deploying the National Guard or forbidding gatherings of more than 10 people.” Elias has been “engaged in multiple lawsuits aimed at making it easier to cast absentee ballots by mail and making in-person voting more available, either on Election Day or in the preceding weeks.”
Ian Bassin, “the executive director of Protect Democracy, a nonprofit group dedicated to resisting authoritarian government, last year convened the National Task Force on Election Crises, a bipartisan 51-member group…that considered 65 possibilities that might wreck the 2020 presidential election. The group narrowed the possibilities down by January 2020 to “eight potential calamities, including natural disasters, successful foreign hacking of voting machines, a major candidate’s challenging the election and seeking to delegitimize the results, and a president who refuses to participate in a peaceful transfer of power.” After the Covid-19 pandemic emerged, the group published “pandemic-related recommendations for state governments to follow.” However, the question remains of just how much power does Trump have and how recklessly will he use it.
Inciting “a new civil war”
In an article published in Truthout on May 18, 2020, Chauncey De Vega refers to how on May 14 “the Michigan state legislature announced it would not convene because of threats of violence and chaos by armed right-wing militias and other paramilitaries, as previously seen during the recent anti-lockdown protests” (https://truthout.org/articles/far-right-extremists-hope-to-incite-new-civil-war-amid-political-chaos-of-covid). Such protests have been encouraged by statements coming from the White House. She writes:
“In what could be construed as an act of treason, President Trump recently ordered such paramilitary groups and right-wing thugs to take up arms and to threaten Democratic-led state governments such as Michigan’s in order to force them to ‘reopen’ their states. De Vega reports: “On Twitter, Trump actually told the pandemic ‘protestors’ to take up arms and force the Michigan state government and others to cease public health measures designed to slow down the coronavirus pandemic.” She adds: “Trump has been threatening to put Barack Obama and other prominent Democrats in prison for participating in a ‘conspiracy’ to overthrow him” [and he] continues to call Democrats and journalists ‘human scum.’”
One implication of such twitter streams is that armed militias and paramilitaries have allied with the Republican Party in its efforts to delegitimize and undermine democracy.
De Vega spoke with investigative journalist David Neiwert, a contributing writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center” and author of several books on the radical right, hate talk, and their conspiracy theories. Neiwert believes that the anti-lockdown protestors have been integrated with other right-wing groups like the Tea Party, the Patriot Movement, the Oath Keepers, and the Three Percenters. And they have been joined recently by the anti-vaxxers [those who think vaccines are harmful]. They are all obsessed with conspiracy theories, that is, views that are rooted in myths rather than verifiable evidence. He says: “The full integration of these right-wing militia groups and the Tea Party took some time to happen, but with Trump it is complete.” They have the back of some rich radically right-wing families like the DeVos family and the Koch Brothers. A lot of “the organizing is being done online on Facebook and elsewhere.” Neiwert said: “They see the pandemic as societal breakdown and therefore an opportunity to get out their guns and finally shoot all those liberals that they have wanted to kill for a very long time.”
According to Neiwert, these extremist groups are “waiting for a spark.” He asks the following question. “If Donald Trump loses the 2020 presidential election, will that be a signal for right-wing militias and paramilitaries to launch attacks against their enemies?” He also refers to Eric Prince, Betsy DeVos’ brother, who commands a “private army of mercenaries” that could potentially “cause a great harm to the country.”
De Vega finishes her article on an ominous note: “I have been writing about these dangers for more than 10 years. People said I was ‘alarmist’ back then. I don’t think they would say that about me anymore. Everything that I have warned about has exactly come true. In fact, under Trump things are worse than I predicted. America is at a key turning point right now in terms of surrendering to fascism. America must decide if it is going to become a damned and foul demon of a country by full surrendering to fascism and Donald Trump in the upcoming election.”