Tuesday, May 24, 2016

What Trump's Rise Means for the Future of the Country

Several months ago, there was a lot of discussion about whether Trump's campaign was edging toward fascism. Trump's incitement of the crowd to violence at some of his rallies and his ethnocentric nationalism contributed to the sense that he represented something new and dangerous in American politics.

But is it really fascism?

Throwing the word around so easily is a reflection of how unfamiliar we are with the horror of organized political violence and ethnic nationalism. Read a book about Europe between the world wars. Or better, reflect on our own history.

The practice of defining Americanness as Whiteness runs deep in American law and culture. And Whites often resorted to political violence to sustain this arrangement. During the Reconstruction era, whole states succumbed to paramilitary forces seeking the restoration of White rule. Call this fascism or something else; it was not a free country as you and I would ordinarily define it. During World War Two, African Americans launched a "Double V Campaign," seeking victory over what they saw as fascism at home and abroad. The civil rights movement achieved remarkable success in discrediting political violence and opening the way to multi-racial democracy. Unfortunately, there's now very little national memory of how White terrorism functioned politically in American history. So our unfamiliarity with fascist-like political movements is an indication both of how much has changed and of how much we have forgotten.
The NAACP compared the Jim Crow South to America's fascist enemies during World War Two
Remembering our history compels us to move from the theoretical, "It could happen here," to the quite concrete, "It has happened here and could happen again."

To be clear, Trump is not, at this stage, leading a fascist movement. Nor, in my judgment, is he ever likely to. But what is genuinely terrifying about Trump's emergence is that it shows the safeguards we thought our political system had built up are not there at all. Trump is so far beyond the pale, so manifestly unfit to exercise power, that the level of support he garners can be used to measure the health of our political system. The patient is more sick than we realized.

It's not that Trump is a fascist; it's that if people can support Trump they can support anybody. We must bear in mind that all this is happening at a moment of relative peace and prosperity. The economy is growing, unemployment is low, and Americans benefit from governance that is more efficient, responsive, and effective than in most of the world. Yet we're seeing the rise of a dangerous nihilism, a pervasive sense that we need an "outsider" to come in to Washington to blow things up. If Trump is empowered now, how much worse will it be in a moment of genuine economic crisis?

Perhaps the key question is whether Trump will act as a vaccine for our political system, inoculating it against future demagogues, or as an accelerant, paving the way for a strongman ten or twenty years down the road to seize power. Much depends on whether or not Trump wins the election. The Republican Party's cowardly falling in line has made a close election likely, and a Trump win a possibility.

My guess is that Trump will lose and that the worst possibilities inherent in his rise to power will be avoided. But the damage is nonetheless likely to be extensive and long-lasting. Trump will be both symptom and cause of a long-term degradation of our political institutions and civic fabric. In November, tens of millions of people will vote for him, a man who makes whole groups of Americans fear for their physical safety. In November, tens of millions of people will say to their fellow Americans, "we don't want you here."

Americans are not natural lovers of liberty in a way that other people aren't. We don't magically correct our course toward our constitutional foundations. We simply have a set of institutions that have worked well and have proven remarkably durable. Donald Trump is an obvious threat to those institutions. And millions of people don't seem to care, because at least he'll "shake up the system."

This is a dangerous state of mind. We must discard the assumption--at once complacent and utopian--that radical change will necessarily be for the better. Steering a course between the horrors of fascism and communism is not an inevitable condition of American life but a hard-won achievement that must be constantly maintained. Trump threatens that achievement. In staking out this ground, I find myself a truer conservative than many of the self-styled "conservatives" of the Republican Party.

Polling shows that White Americans have become deeply pessimistic about the future of the country. Whiteness does not deliver the wages it used to. The opening up of more opportunity for all is perceived by many Whites as an unfair reduction of their own position. Their resulting pessimism threatens to harden into an extremism that could power a figure worse than Trump to the presidency in the future. We must not accept the lazy belief that White pessimism is merely a function of economic hardship. Wage stagnation is real enough, but the most oppressed and economically desperate Americans have rejected Trump decisively. Most of them aren't feeling the Bern either. Instead, they're voting for the ultimate conventional politician: Hillary Clinton.

They're not doing so because they're naive. They know better than many of us how oppressive the United States can be. But they also have cultural and institutional memory of how much worse it was, and how hard-fought and precarious are their gains. In this dangerous moment, preservation is as important as transformation.

In this year when so many Americans seem to want radical change and a shattering of the "establishment," we would do well to remember that if we get our wish, picking up the pieces may not be as easy as we think. Conventional politics, with its moral compromises and frustrating incrementalism, can be infuriating. But it might be just what we need right now.

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