When Donald Trump delivered his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 2017, the touchstone for his speech was “American Carnage.” Now that four years have passed, and Trump has suffered defeat in his re-election bid, we can assess the carnage that this failed real estate billionaire and one-time reality TV star has inflicted on our nation.
From the very beginning when Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015, he railed against Mexican “rapists and murderers,” signaling his election strategy to identify scapegoats that would be blamed for the failings of America’s economic system that has witnessed record levels of inequality, unaffordable health care and higher student debt. Upon taking office, Trump’s list of designated scapegoats grew to include Muslims, the media, African Americans, women, intellectuals and the liberal elite.
In Trump’s words and actions, we can clearly hear and see echoes of authoritarian and fascist leaders of the past. With his almost daily break with democratic norms, defiance of constitutional checks and balances and calls for his supporters to commit violence against his political opponents, many across the U.S. and the world became alarmed at what was feared to be the rise of a uniquely clownish, but threatening form of American authoritarianism. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Christopher Vials, director of American Studies at the University of Connecticut and co-editor of “The U.S. Antifascism Reader.” Here, Vials summarizes the points raised in his recent Jacobin Magazine article titled, “Here’s What We Learned About the Far Right From Donald Trump’s Presidency.”
CHRISTOPHER VIALS: I think the danger of fascism in Donald Trump and some of his supporters, is not so much that he in office created a fascist state. If he did, we would not be having this conversation right now. He didn’t come close to making the United States a “fascist” country, nor does he command some kind of coherent fascist movement that’s unified. But he does have a fascist rhetoric and a fascist personality. And I’m saying fascist more pointedly, because what separates “kind of fascism” from say, conservatism is it’s not so much like conservatism invested in kind of just simply preserving tradition or tax cuts or deregulation or any of these kind of, you know, more libertarian deems around kind of elite rule. It’s more this middle-class movement based around this rhetoric of nation, action, violence, race. it’s hyper-nationalistic, it’s driven by a warrior ethos, it’s highly militaristic, or it’s just really invested in kind of law and order all of these things.
And it’s driven by kind of usually middle-class activists, right? So with that in mind, what Trump’s rhetoric has shown us is that that fascist rhetoric of nation, race, action, violence that is electable, right? And so that’s scary. He didn’t have the kind of discipline or the temperament or the really the organizational know-how to really convert that ethos into a new form of state, nor did he probably, you know, even want that fully. He’s just thinking specifically about himself at all times. But you know, what we do have to look out for is what if you get somebody like that who has that rhetoric, but has the discipline and the organizational know-how to kind of follow through on converting the state into something very different from what it is now.
SCOTT HARRIS: Half of Republicans believe President Trump won the election. A recent Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll found that 52 percent of Republicans believe that Trump won the election compared to just 29 percent who believe Biden won. And more than two-thirds of Republicans, 68 percent were concerned about rigged vote counting and the vote counting that favored Biden. What does this portend for our future in terms of a large number of Republican voters who don’t believe our system is legitimate?
CHRISTOPHER VIALS: Well, I’m going to be honest. It means that basically a large number of Republican voters are willing to go along with authoritarian rule. And that’s really frightening and we’ve come to that place really far more rapidly than I thought, right? So those are the stakes. I’m almost positive Biden will be seated as the next president, but if you want to preserve democracy, whether you see yourself as like liberal left, moderate, none of the above — even conservative, that large group of people willing to kind of get rid of democratic rule is something that we all have to deal with. And I know I’m stating the obvious there.
SCOTT HARRIS: What was the fertile ground that you think Donald Trump took advantage of in winning the Electoral College and the presidency in 2016 that must be addressed or we’re going to have another demagogue arise to take advantage of legitimate grievances that people across the country have, whether it’s a declining living standard, the expense of healthcare or higher education — any number of things that really flips off people all across the country that don’t seem to get addressed by other Democratic or Republican administrations. Therefore, people often look to a “Donald Trump,” someone seen as an outsider to solve these intractable problems.
CHRISTOPHER VIALS: Yeah. I mean, what the probably the biggest problem facing most people in the United States is the fancy term, neoliberal capitalism, right? It’s a laissez-faire capitalism on steroids, increased inequality, increased racism that comes from this. The 2016 results — to address your question directly — to me were as much of anything about the failure of the Democratic party and really becoming a technocratic party and not really addressing existential concerns of people that have to do with their daily lives. Right? And so, basically — and it’s important to not kind of talk about all Trump voters monolithically as if they could never be kind of won back because Trump voters in 2016 voted for Biden in 2020, right? Or in some of those Trump voters voted for Obama in 2012. Right?
So it’s important not to treat that part of the population as some kind of monolithic block. There’s a lot of motivations there. But the Democratic party basically has to go populist. It has this natural tendency to ignore all of the millions of people who showed up to basically save democracy and as always, a lot of working class people of color showed up to vote for the Democratic party. And their natural tendency is to ignore that base so that they can kind of just pay attention to the suburbs. Right? And if they do that again, we’re going to basically get another Donald Trump 2.0 in 2024. They cannot ignore the populist elements of their own party. The Democratic party has to be a big tent, not just a kind of, you know, Obama administration 2.0.