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‘It can’t happen here?’ Fascism is now on the ballot

Reuters/Mike Segar

Our Constitution is not only broken, but we need a Donald Trump to show some authoritarian power in our country and bring back the rule of law.

– Paul Le Page, Republican governor of Maine, October 12, 2016.

Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends, and her donors.

– Donald J. Trump, October 13, 2016

Within the past week we have fallen from pussies to Nazis.

Since the Access Hollywood tape dropped, Trump has spun from boorish behaviour to express threats at rallies over the past couple of days to “lock up” Hillary Clinton.

Now, Trump is complaining that he is the victim of a “conspiracy” by political elites, the media, and agents of “globalisation”. In so doing, he is using anti-Semitic tropes of the sort favoured by his “alt-right” supporters who use neo-Nazi imagery along with expressions of support for their “Glorious Leader”.

Usually political scientists point to Hitler analogies as the sign of a weak, hyperbolic argument. But what happens when you reach the point where comparisons are unavoidable?

Trump is the first instance in decades in which the American media and body politic have had to respond to a real reservoir of support for anti-democratic authoritarianism. The last time was prior to American entry to the second world war, when explicitly fascist rallies filled arenas like New York’s Madison Square Garden, and pro-Hitler isolationists also urged voters to put “America First”.

As I write this I’m thumbing through my copy of the 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here by the renowned American novelist Sinclair Lewis, which – with some justification at the time – anticipated a 1936 election defeat of Franklin Roosevelt by a candidate who marshalled folksy populist economic anger in an expressly racist and anti-Semitic campaign with armed militias at his rallies.

One of the new regime’s first accomplishments is to make good on its campaign song, sung to the tune of Yankee Doodle, (which most readers in Australia would recognise as the tune used for the Hawthorn Hawks club song):

The snakes disloyal to our Buzz We’re riding on a rail, They’ll wish to God they never was When we get them in jail!

Fascism was discredited in America after Pearl Harbour, but an examination of popular culture in the post-war years shows it did not disappear.

Take a scene in the 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, which swept the Oscars with its realistic portrayal of the difficult readjustments faced by returning servicemen. The disabled veteran played by actor Harold Russell, who actually had lost both hands in the war, is told by a stranger with fascist pamphlets containing “nothing but good old-fashioned Americanism” that the US had erred by fighting Germany, which had been “only trying to stop the Limeys and the Reds”.

The 1955 film A Face in the Crowd starred Andy Griffith as a sleazy performer, literally pulled out of jail to become a TV star because of his winning way with the microphone.

In addition to his abuse of women, the audience discovers that he is using his platform to successfully promote authoritarianism, and his principal sponsor is described as “the last of the isolationists”. He is ultimately undone by the timely release of unseemly comments recorded while his show was on commercial break.

You can’t make this stuff up.

There are undoubtedly dark streaks of chequered populism that have marbled American political culture since before the founding of the Republic. Actually, the federal government was created in part because of a spate of violent uprisings in post-revolution America.

The US is not worse than other countries in this respect. Certainly there are other Western countries right now where xenophobic electorates rail against globalisation, or where governments use military force to seal their borders against unwanted economic migrants.

But the fact that 40% or more of Americans appear prepared to vote for a candidate espousing unveiled authoritarianism with Nazi linkages – who is already claiming he will only lose because of a rigged system – has pundits asking what will come next. Fears of armed violence around election time appear to be growing in opinion columns.

Trump himself is exceedingly unlikely to ever have his fingers on the nuclear trigger. But what comes next? Trumpism is poised to be factor in American politics for some time, but some variant has always been there.

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