The rise of Donald Trump from purveyor of a brand without substance and reality television star to president has elicited comparisons with the periods in Italy and Germany in the early twentieth century in which fascism was on the ascendancy. There are certainly parallels, given the nationalism, bigotry, and cult of personality at the core of Trump’s movement, but we have factors in modern-day America that can act as a brake on the race toward tyranny — if we will use them.
As with Germany, we have suffered military calamity and economic turmoil. But our embarrassments in Afghanistan and Iraq have not been internalized as a national defeat. This is especially so since matters in those conflicts have not yet been settled, and hope remains as long as there is doubt. And while the middle class is disappearing and wealth is increasingly being transferred to the already wealthy, the social services created in response to the Great Depression and in the days of Lyndon Johnson have kept desperation enough out of common experience and consciousness so as to preserve economic stability.
We also benefit from a much longer history of democracy. Both Italy and Germany were a collection of principalities and city-states until they were unified in the middle of the nineteenth century. The experience of being one nation was only some fifty years old during the time that fascism took hold, and the sense of the people as the origin of political power was a foreign concept. By contrast, the United States has more than two centuries of being a democracy, and we built upon the English cultural value of personal liberties that was hundreds of years old at the time of our founding as an independent country.
And we’ve had one go at internal horror already, the Civil War. A sizable percentage of Trump’s supporters deny the lessons of that conflict. They assert notions of states’ rights on the belief that a central government will rob them of their family and religious traditions. What they don’t realize is that while they may not like having to acknowledge the marriage of a gay couple, the real harm being done to them is the exploitation of their labor and political voices by the powerful few who are using Trump as a tool to preserve their status.
While slavery was the particular point of contention, the essential dispute was over the supremacy of the federal constitution. And it’s this document that offers a check on Trump, as has already been shown in the blocking of his executive order banning entry to the United States by citizens of seven nations. The Constitution divides power among three co-equal branches. While Congress has proved too willing to comply over the last two decades, the courts act as a reminder that the rule of whim is not the American system.
But constitutions and laws are merely pieces of paper unless we all put them into action. We’re already seeing the push back against the Trump agenda. Republican members of Congress are being confronted by angry citizens in town hall meetings around the country. This is an encouraging trend, a confirmation that our elective representatives work for us and must answer to us. And this is how we will defeat Trumpism, by saying no to the movement’s destructive policies and curtailments of rights and by reminding politicians that their jobs are at stake. We are blessed with the machinery of democracy, and it’s our duty to use it to stop this latest threat to democracy’s existence. We must resist, refuse, and reject Trump and the hateful ideology that has accumulated around him. Unlike Italy and Germany in the last century, we have everything we need to do this.
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