Can we call it fascism yet?
"Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers," George Orwell wrote in 1944, "almost any English person would accept 'bully' as a synonym for 'Fascist'. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come." Although political scientists have crafted more precise definitions in the ensuing years, the enduring image of fascism is that of the hate-fueled bully.
In a September 2020 interview, Joe Biden called his then-opponent, Donald Trump, "sort of like [Joseph] Goebbels," a reference to Hitler’s propaganda chief during the Nazi regime. "You say the lie long enough, keep repeating it, repeating it, repeating it, it becomes common knowledge," Biden explained. One aspect of fascism is repeating the lie until your followers come to believe it, accepting it as an obvious truth, something Trump is the master of.
In 2018, Madeleine Albright said in an interview: "We can't have a leader that feels that he is above the law. The law and the rule of law is the most essential part of a democratic system.” Trump subsequently advocated for his supporters to use violence but sent federal forces to curb Black Lives Matter protests in American cities. He used the nationalistic slogan “Make America Great Again” and aligned himself with Christian nationalist groups that have little to do with Christianity.
Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power in advance of the 2020 election and tried to overthrow it after he lost, claiming it was rife with fraud—it wasn’t—while trying to install fake slates of electors to preempt duly elected ones and running an intimidation campaign against his own vice president to try and secure his cooperation. With the dismissal of his court cases and all his other plans coming apart, Trump tried to subvert DOJ and came close to installing as attorney general an unqualified environmental lawyer whose only credential was his willingness to throw the might of DOJ behind Trump’s claims of election fraud. It was a putsch attempt and Trump sulked like a child when it failed. Instead of ensuring a smooth transition to the new rightful president, he balked and obstructed and, apparently, took classified documents with him on the way out of the White House. He has continued ever since to act as a divisive force, motivated only by self-interest.
So reporting this week that Trump intends to target prosecutors and agents involved in the special counsel’s investigation of him if he regains the White House, identifying and firing them, comes as no surprise. But it seems to have mostly gotten lost in the shuffle of news about developments in the Mar-a-Lago case, despite the fact that it is equally deserving of our attention. Rolling Stone reported, “In recent months, the former president has asked close advisers, including at least one of his personal attorneys, if ‘we know’ all the names of senior FBI agents and Justice Department personnel who have worked on the federal probes into him. That’s according to two sources with direct knowledge of the matter and another person briefed on it.” There you have it, the party of law and order, preparing to exact revenge on people pledged to work for law and order.
If law enforcement officials who are upholding their oaths to the Constitution and doing their job won’t be safe in a new Trump regime, then really, who will be? No one. Because in a country overtaken by a cult of personality, you never know on any given day when you’re going to run afoul of the leader’s whims. You could be the shop assistant who doesn’t have the right size shirt in stock or the chef whose meal Trump doesn’t like. You could be a grandchild’s teacher who gives an accurate but low grade. Really, you could be anyone. It doesn’t matter because once we install a leader who rejects a rule of law system of government in favor of one where all that matters are the momentary desires of the head of the cult, we are beyond the protections the law has traditionally offered people in this country from overreaching leaders. Trump has made abundantly clear his intent to dismantle that system if he gets another opportunity.
More from Rolling Stone’s reporting: “Trump has...privately discussed that should he return to the White House, it is imperative his new Department of Justice ‘quickly’ and ‘immediately’ purge the FBI and DOJ’s ranks of these officials and agents who’ve led the Trump-related criminal investigations, the sources recount. The ex-president has of course dubbed all such probes as illegitimate ‘witch hunts,’ and is now campaigning for the White House on a platform of ‘retribution’ and cleaning house.” Trump is the quintessential bully who doesn’t believe in the rule of law.
Trump has leveled specific criticism against FBI Director Chris Wray, his 2017 appointee, objecting to Wray’s failure to engage in a wholesale purge of people who are not loyal to Trump and threatening to fire him on his first day back in the White House if he wins in 2024. But Trump’s sights aren’t set exclusively on DOJ. He has gone beyond that, promising that top of the list for his revenge and retribution campaign against federal employees whose loyalty is to the Constitution, not Trump, is reinstituting “Schedule F.” Schedule F is an executive order that would make it much easier for him to fire federal employees across the executive branch, while also offering the ability to replace them with Trump loyalists (despite longstanding protections for civil servants against just this type of action).
From his earliest moments in office, Trump targeted employees whom he thought were insufficiently loyal to him, personally. The first one was then–FBI Director Jim Comey, who declined to give Trump the personal loyalty oath he sought, saying that his loyalty was to the Constitution. Comey was, of course, fired. The bookend at the conclusion of Trump’s presidency was his top cybersecurity official, Chris Krebs, who issued a statement calling the 2020 election “the most secure in American history” despite his boss’s claims of pervasive fraud. Trump fired Krebs on Twitter for contradicting The Big Lie.
Special counsel Jack Smith’s attention appears to have turned toward the Krebs firing, but it may have more to do with establishing Trump’s state of mind—proof he knew he’d lost in a fair election—than any new substantive lean in the direction of that investigation. It is nonetheless another significant marker on the path toward the possibility of an authoritarian America.
Personal loyalty oaths to the president aren’t how our country is supposed to work. Career federal employee jobs aren't spoils of war for a president to hand out like party favors. There are political appointments like judgeships and executive agency leadership, but the folks who move the ship of state forward from administration to administration are career professionals. Like the prosecutors and agents temporarily detailed to special counsel investigations into Trump, they are supposed to have civil service protections. In a normal world, Trump would be unable to walk in and fire them. His plans to do so are sinister. Trump is threatening to fundamentally change the structure of our country so that it runs in a way that serves him and not the people. That, of course, describes Trump in a nutshell.
What’s still more sinister is that little, if any, attention is being paid to Trump’s clear intentions to lead us away from democracy if he gets another shot at the White House. Is it fascism yet? Even asking the question can draw criticism these days. But we have on our hand a bully who repeats his lies until they become accepted as fact, at least by his followers, and who eschews the rule of law in favor of personal loyalty to him. It’s a frightening picture for the future, a future it’s critical that we prevent.
We’re in this together,
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