“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross,” goes the aphorism commonly attributed (perhaps mistakenly) to Sinclair Lewis. The election of soon-to-be president Donald Trump suggests the prediction may turn out to have been only half-true.
As Trump opponents nervously await his inauguration, many are wondering about how to discern the potential signposts of American fascism in the making. What legislative markers should we look for as the government trundles toward authoritarianism, dragging the world’s foremost attempt at democracy into at least four years of retrograde policy and pronouncement?
With 2016 drawing mercifully to a close, it’s worth looking towards eastern Europe for a sense of what Washington, and those who would unravel liberal (as opposed to illiberal) democracy in America, may have in store. In a way, it is fitting that autocracy in the US might most closely mirror the government with the most political capital invested in Trump’s election. Putting aside concerns about potential future friction between Trump and Vladimir Putin, the president-elect’s victory has dealt a staggering blow to the West’s efforts to counteract Russia’s influence.
To be sure, the Kremlin-directed hacking drive against both the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, to say nothing of Moscow’s work on Congressional-level cyber campaigns, was not the sole reason Trump was elected. Indeed, making sure Russia is held accountable should not absolve Trump voters of their own agency in electing the first “illiberal democrat” to ever occupy the White House.
But Russia’s post-Soviet model of autocracy seems to appeal to the president-elect. Indeed, if there is one trait that tethers Trump to the post-communist autocrats he claims to admire, it is the inherent need for dominance. Both men aim for victory at all costs, and use pure subjugation and unadulterated degradation as indices of their success.
The initial moves toward an American autocracy—toward an “Ur-Fascism,” as Umberto Eco described it some 20 years ago—have already begun. These range from the threatened delegitimization of election results to a continued refusal to recognize the ethical guidelines to which American politicians have ascribed for the past 150 years.
To wit, the North Carolina General Assembly led an effort to effectively neuter the incoming (and liberal) governor-elect Roy Cooper, with state-level Republicans deciding they’d rather castrate an office than hand it over to a democratically elected successor. There’s every reason to believe other state legislatures may try to copy North Carolina’s precedent if given the chance. (It’s worth noting that large swaths of the US population—namely, those whose segregation regimes lasted through the mid-1960s—have only known liberal democracy for a generation or two.)
Trump, meanwhile, has four years—or longer—to determine how he can neuter his successor should America manage to oust him. In the interim, there are a slate of policies on his docket that would entrench not only his kleptocratic interests, but also allow him, together with the GOP, to create an internal empire less responsive to the plurality of voters and more responsive to wealthy and regressive special interests. Think of this as a redux of the Hungarian experience over the past few years, which has seen prime minister Victor Orbán inject his self-labeled form of “illiberal democracy” into the European Union.
For instance, Trump could expedite executive oversight of domestic media organizations, public or otherwise. We’ve already seen moves to dissolve the editorial independence of outfits like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America. While the US has far more robust speech protections than, say, Belarus had in 1994, or Poland had in 2015, a chief executive bent on undercutting assorted publications need but follow a Thielist model, combined with the assorted levers of state, to jump-start his propagandist goals.
Following a clampdown on media (coupled with expanding media acquiescence), a fascist Trump executive branch would likely turn to America’s lattice of civil society networks. Again, the US’s domestic network of human rights and pro-democratizations organizations are far more vigorous than anything Russia had in 2012. But as we’ve seen from Budapest to Baku to Belgrade, a few carefully selected pieces of regulations can have a big impact. For example, Russia has successfully stymied organizations involved with human rights, the environment, LGBT issues, and health issues by stigmatizing or cutting off their foreign funding. Pair such policies with a few campaigns against specific organizations, and the consequences could be even greater.
As for the US’s simmering opposition, whether among Democrats or the dwindling Never Trump contingent, the Trump administration is entering an executive branch with enormously expanded powers, thanks to the most recent Democratic and Republican administrations. For Trump, a few key placements on the Supreme Court could enable any number of GOP power grabs, whether through expanded gerrymandering or state-wide court-packing schemes, to say nothing of the state-level voter identification legislation that is already affecting minority constituencies. Just look at a recent GOP proposal in the state of Washington to bring the charge of so-called “economic terrorism” against protestors.
A truly brazen Trump administration might even invite “election monitors” from assorted overseas autocracies to observe our polling places. After all, a wholesale industry of fraudulent “election monitors”—many of them Western—already exist, willing to whitewash fraudulent elections if the price is right.
It’s a tempting range of options for a president as obviously power-hungry as Trump, as well as for the nationalists whispering in his ear. And the fact that we’ve seen Trump swoon over the slightest praise from Putin is even more reason to worry.
American democracy has stood relatively untested in the years following the Civil War. Now it may be facing its greatest challenge in roughly 150 years. We are witnessing the ascendancy of a demagogue who carries all the trappings of a post-Soviet strongman. And a series of men from Moscow to Minsk are ready and willing to welcome him into their brotherhood.