The American media continue to wrestle with the question of whether or not Donald Trump can be considered a fascist. With attacks on already vulnerable immigrant communities from Mexico, South and Latin America, and the Middle East, coupled by his blatant misogyny, Trump has shown his willingness to disregard others’ humanity. The punditry class’s illustration of the similarities between Trump and Hitler intensified after the Republican National Convention, where Trump gave an admittedly terrifying speech, most notable for its depiction of America as some sort of hellscape. He envisioned his own potential presidency as the nation’s final chance at salvation.
When his victory on November 8 was succeeded by a sudden emergence of swastika graffiti, assaults on women wearing hijabs, and aggressive confrontations between Trump supporters and those they presumed to be Mexican immigrants, fascist comparisons were repeatedly made by columnists across the US. Both the political class and a newly engaged citizenry continue to make sense of Trump through the lens of various European authoritarians. But, they would be wise to question the instinct to look across the pond for lessons on fascism, given that America’s own history provides such a thorough education on the subject.
Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign and during these early months of the Trump presidency, there has been a frequent invocation of the supposed “un-Americanness” of Trump’s politics. This is often accompanied by the phrase ‘It Can Happen Here’, suggesting America’s potential to fall victim to fascism. But hasn’t it already happened here? Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, recently made this point when she argued that our current discourse suggests that “fascism is what happens to people who don’t deserve it and racism/apartheid is what happens to people who do.”
If we are to understand fascism as a regime that subscribes to various theories of inherent racial or religious hierarchies, forcibly suppresses opposition, and actively promotes violent conduct, then we need look no further than the period following America’s Civil War to contextualize the current administration.
A brief glance at the nineteenth century America reveals considerable historical continuity with respect to America’s relationship with fascism. In the period following the Civil War, a number of policies were enacted which carry similar characteristics to those seen in the fascist states of Europe in the early twentieth century. ‘Redeemers’ were white Southern Democrats who worked to prevent Black political organisation and solidarity between poor white and Black Southerners, and comprised of both ordinary white citizens (who carried out the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan) and powerful Democratic elites. Sound familiar? The Redeemers gained political power through fraud and traumatising violence. Their success on a platform of segregation was not an isolated one, either. Later, legislation known as the ‘Jim Crow laws’ was passed, which effectively organised Southern society into an apartheid state. This is all to ignore the country’s aggressive foreign policy in the 20th and 21st centuries. Yet the only way America appears to be able to understand Trump is to look to Germany.
We should continue to make the connection between Trump’s politics and the current global rise of far-right populism. But we must also be honest about the degree to which this administration merely exemplifies the violence and oppression that many Americans have always expected from their country. Trump’s policies are not irregular or ‘un-American’, but succeed in perpetuating ideas which have long been present in American political discourse.
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