We no longer have to speculate whether fascism, in Sinclair Lewis’ famous words, would come to America wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross. We already know what its beginnings look like in the form of Trump rallies, which are carrying an increasingly violent, overtly racist, authoritarian aura strongly reminiscent of the 1930s in Germany or Italy.
Those comparisons were once the province of liberal activists or traffic-seeking headline writers. No longer. The incipient racist violence has reached such a fever pitch that a Trump rally in Chicago had to be canceled entirely. It’s one thing to talk in theoretical or strictly political terms about Trump’s authoritarian behavior, his effect on the Republican Party generally or the potential feasibility of Trump’s policy proposals. But the influence of Trumpism on the country is already so obviously toxic and dangerous that it must be called out and mitigated before people start getting seriously hurt or killed.
That’s just the basic decency aspect. Politically, the Republican Party knows that it has to do something to separate itself from the wildfire of racially charged violence or else lose the votes of every minority constituency for a generation. It’s not just for temporary personal advantage that the other GOP presidential candidates are calling on Trump to act to mitigate the rabid passions of his flock. Those who still have careers to make in Republican politics know that this a point of no return for the entire party and everyone connected to it.
But try as they might, they will not be able to escape from Trumpism. Even if the Republican establishment does somehow manage to subdue Trump, another will likely come to take his place later on. The genie is out of the bottle, and hucksters of all kinds now realize that the populist GOP base can easily be cleaved from its corporatist handlers with enough brash promises of independence and open bigotry under the guise of truth-telling.
That’s not the fault of Donald Trump. It’s the fault of the GOP itself, for three main reasons.
First, the Republican Party abandoned the notion of shared truths and shared reality. They set up an alternative media empire and convinced their voters that every set of authorities from journalists to scientists were eggheaded liberals not to be trusted. They peddled conspiracy theories and contrafactual dogmas of all stripes–from the notion that climate scientists were all lying about global warming in order to get more grant money, to the notion that tax cuts for the rich grow the economy and pay for themselves. Their base became convinced that no one could be trusted except for the loudest and angriest voices who told them exactly what they wanted to hear. Fox News, talk radio and the Drudge Report became the only trusted media sources. But at a certain point those outlets stopped becoming the media arm of the Republican Party; instead, the Republican Party became the legislative arm of those media outlets. It should come as no surprise that when the Republican establishment seemed unable to deliver on its promises to their voters, conspiracy theory peddlers new and old from Breitbart to Drudge would turn on the establishment and convince the GOP masses that Fox News was the new CNN, just another liberal arm of the media not to be trusted.
Second is, of course, the Southern Strategy of exploiting racial resentment. That worked just fine for Republicans while whites were the dominant majority under no particular threat. It was a great way to win elections in much of the country while discounting voters who couldn’t do them much damage. As long as the rhetoric remained, in Lee Atwater’s words, “abstract” enough, the tensions created wouldn’t boil over into anything much more damaging than the slow, quiet destruction of generations of minority communities via legislatively enforced instituional racism. But as whites have become a smaller and smaller part of the electorate, that Southern Strategy has not only cost the GOP elections by throwing away the minority vote; it has also heightened the fears and tensions of the formerly dominant white voters it courts. What was once quiet and comfortable racism has become a loud and violent cry of angst. That, again, isn’t Donald Trump’s fault. It’s the Republican Party’s.
Third and most important is the effect of conservative economics. For decades laissez-faire objectivism has hurt mostly the poorest and least educated communities in America. Due mostly to institutional racism, those have tended in the past to be communities of color. The deregulated economy simply didn’t need their labor so it tossed them aside, leaving squalor and a host of social problems in its wake. This was convenient for those peddling racist theories, as it laid the blame for drug and family problems in those communities directly on the individuals involved–and by extension on their racial background.
But now a combination of globalization and automation, buoyed by intentional deregulatory corporatist policies, have rendered large swaths of white America also useless to the capitalist economic machine. And lo and behold, drug use, suicide and other social problems have followed in tow. Huge numbers of white Americans now find themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty and despair once reserved for the minorities they despised, without even the psychic wage of perceived racial superiority to maintain their dignity. That, too, is a recipe for violent tension.
Don’t blame Donald Trump for any of this. He’s merely the symptom, not the disease. The Republican Party owns this phenomenon. Its media, economic and political strategies guaranteed Donald Trump’s rise. And they guarantee that regardless of Trump’s electoral success or failure, Trumpism will continue to dominate among their voters.