Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Trump, Militarism, and Fascism

Steve Johnston is Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah and has just completed a book manuscript entitled Tyrannicide: Trump, White Nationalism, and Democratic Resistance.

On July 4th Donald Trump, pronouncing himself the country’s “favorite president,” commandeered annual Independence Day festivities on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Inspired by spectacular commemorative occasions abroad, France’s Bastille Day in particular, Trump militarized America’s 4th of July celebration by saluting the nation’s military forces to the point of worship and brandishing its lethal war machinery to the point of fixation, promising to produce “the show of a lifetime!” While Trump’s speech was cheered in some quarters for focusing on the country and its achievements rather than appealing to his white nationalist base for personal political gain, as if his base does not thrill to the sight and sound of American military might, his political interest informed the day’s events. Trump established a troubling precedent for what has traditionally been considered a non-partisan holiday as the military became the president’s performance prop. Dispatching the Pentagon’s hardware to the streets of the nation’s capital for no legitimate reason crossed an American Rubicon (my thanks to Simon Stow for this characterization). 

What will July 4th 2020’s presidential election year show look like? Trump’s strategic willingness to make himself appear, contrary to fact, to be a patriotic force of national unity who rises above divisions renders him especially dangerous as he pursues his white nationalist agenda. Should his aspirations meet with undue frustration or defeat, he may, given his contempt for constitutional limits and norms, decide to act in the “good” of the country as he alone defines it regardless of the democratic consequences. For this possibility he set the stage neatly. Trump insisted that American freedom derives from the military and presented himself as their champion. He does not offer professions of presidential affection and loyalty gratis. He may not have asked for anything this year and he may not do so next year, but he has positioned himself well were he to call on the military for their support to reward his fidelity, especially in a moment of (alleged or manufactured) constitutional crisis. In short, why not try to seduce and corrupt the military? Given its willingness to wage George W. Bush’s illegal Iraq war (name a top general who resigned rather than aid and abet the charade), its republican credential are dubious at best. Given his low popularity he may not be able to maintain his self-conception as America’s “favorite president,” but this performance might help him guarantee that he is the military’s favorite president.

The disconcerting symbolism of the armored vehicles and tanks surrounding Trump possessed a menacing feel, as did the flyovers he ordered for the occasion. He was demonstrating the vast destructive power that he can summon from above willy-nilly. (He ordered a similarly gratuitous flyover of F-35 fighter jets to impress the Polish president when the latter visited the city on June 12.) The ostentatious displays suggested vigilance not so much against foreign enemies of American freedom but Trump’s domestic enemies. (The Bradley fighting vehicles were pointing at the crowd.) And Trump is nothing if not an agent of enmity. He thinks in no other terms. As Bill Connolly has been saying for several years now, Trump’s presidency has made the possibility of a fascist dictatorship all too real, a possibility he and his co-conspirators in the GOP cultivate not just on national holidays but every day of the year.

Thus, Trump and the GOP’s self-affirming Confederate character declared itself in Trump’s calculated 2020 re-election diatribe of July 14 against four Congresswomen of color, telling them to “go back” from where they came because they “hate America.” This kind of racist invective is fodder for xenophobic hatemongers, and calls to mind American efforts to purge the continent of African-Americans through colonization in the 19th century. It also give the lie to the claim that Trump and his minions are against only illegal immigration. The House of Representatives formally condemned Trump’s racist tirade, but only four Republicans, a pitiful but telling number, joined the disavowal. Trumps linguistic erasure of four American citizens, three of whom were born in the United States, constituted an act of violence in and of itself, proving once again the illegitimacy of Trump’s presidency: it’s not just that he cannot represent America as a whole; he has no intent to do so. His is a government of and for whites, especially white males who adopt his bellicose ethos. Thus, at a campaign rally in North Carolina on July 17, Trump responded to the House’s rebuke by escalating his racist attacks, bordering on incitement to violence, urging his supporters to “tell them [the four Congresswomen] to leave.” The crowd, in frighteningly fascist fashion, duly complied and serenaded an obviously satisfied president with racist chants of “send her back!,” a targeted reference to one of the Congresswomen, Ilhan Omar, an American citizen born in Somalia. These three words cannot be retracted or denied. Hitler would have approved his apprentice.



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