How Did We Get Here? – Violent Authoritarianism or Fascism in America?

“…Speculations about the future depend upon an accurate analysis of the past…[*]

Sweeping through our country today is a serious menance. One of racism and its brother, anti-Semitism; abuse of refugees and their children; separation of children from parents – horribly reminiscent of German rail-head camps in the 1940s in style if not practice; placing children in cages; “losing” the children so that they cannot be re-united with parents in compliance with Court orders; encouraging violence against opponents and our press; the use of terms such as “fake news” (lügen presse) and “enemies of the people” to refer to our press, similar to such use by Hitler and other fascists; and the undermining of the rule of law through the degradation of our Department of Justice (DOJ), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Courts, the Special Prosecutor’s Office, and most recently, the Constitution of the United States itself (the declaration that by Presidential Executive Order the 14th Amendment can be abrogated).

We have seen, in our United States, previous episodes of Moral Panic/Governmental over-reach – the Red Scares post-World War I; Japanese Internment at the outset of the US entry into WW II; McCarthyism at the beginning of the Cold War and so forth. Yet, in living memory, there has never been an attack on American institutions such as we are now seeing. One in which the ruling party – the Republican Party – has totally abrogated its’ responsibility to “…protect and defend the Constitution of the United States…” Many of us, myself included, sense that what we are seeing is something new and threatening; this is not our “mother’s Oldsmobile”. Is this so? The ethnic minorities in our country – Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Middle Easterners, Jews – have felt these cold currents for decades. What may be different is that the specter we now sense is not limited to the few; it blows over all – or most – of us.

There is more than one way to analyze these events, one can, for example, look back to the early years of our country and find some of the same divisive behavior related to ethnicity that we now see. Here, however, a slightly different direction will be taken. If this moment is different and dangerous, what makes it so? What do we call what is happening? For in naming something, we may be better able to understand it. How did we get here?

What do we call this behavior of Trump and his enablers? Authoritarianism? Fascism? Some uniquely American, yet different, face of authoritarianism? For as Marx asserts – claiming that the idea comes from Hegel – “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear…twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce…”[†] More than simply a word of opprobrium, fascism describes – defines – a political manner of being, a political outlook. What makes a country fascist, as opposed to the actions of a political leader? Then, wherever we find ourselves – with an authoritarian or fascist leader or something else – how did we get here? This matters to us because without understanding how we arrived to this place, we will never determine how to get out. Tragedy or farce, we are present in a time of world-historic events. Again, this is not the first iteration of such events; it is that we have refused to squarely confront them in the past. Indeed, one of the most disturbing events of the new Obama Presidency in 2009 was his speech in which – in the context of the illegal war in Iraq – the newly elected President stated that we would “…look forward, not back…”[‡]. This is merely an example, a mistake, perhaps, in the tenure of a decent man working to hold our country together. It is, none-the-less, emblematic of a larger problem that we Americans have: Our unwillingness, or discomfort with, or inability to, look at what we have done and learn from our mistakes.

One might argue that fascism is a mere variant of authoritarianism, the undemocratic rule of traditional elites to prevent change in a society or even to turn back the historical clock. Yet fascism, while incorporating elements of authoritarianism, is populist and even “revolutionary”. There are different “strains” of fascism, for example the Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Belgian Rexist variants have elements that are similar to, as well as different from, one another. All of these, as cultural movements and as a political ideology, are ultranationalist, antidemocratic, and in their need for action, undermine the rule of law. They are nationalist in as much as there is a (possibly mythical) shared past, with the symbols and ceremonies/rituals to invoke this past. Racism may be a part of this – as was the case in the Hitler variant. However, Mussolini’s Italian fascism appears to have been much more inclusive originally. Indeed Mosse notes that there were Jewish members of the Italian fascist movement for a part of its history.[§] So while extreme nationalism is a necessary element, racism may not be.

Fascist movements do not consider themselves “antidemocratic”. Rather, they might argue that the form of democracy they engage in is a “direct form” mediated through the Leader. None-the-less, fascism is an anti-democratic movement in as much as it is opposed to a democracy that is not mediated through the Leader with the “People”.

As noted above, there is a glorious (mythic) past – Make America Great Again – to which the “Leader” promises us he (always a male so far) will return. And there is some sense of victimhood, with a mythology that, for the Germans as Hitler was rising, went something like this:

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was multiethnic and democratic. That there were so many races [sic] made us weaker. Democracy made us weaker. The Germans were winning the war [WW I] until we were stabbed in the back by the (here you may fill in the blank) Leftists, Jews, Leftist-Jews, Gypsies, democratic politicians….

Trump has declared a myth as well:

America has been made weak by bad treaties, loss of industry, bad budgets, an underfunded [sic] military, porous borders, China, and perhaps most importantly, the country’s "loss of whiteness" enabled by immigration. We don’t win. And only he, the Leader, can fix this.

There is often some truth to the mythology and, while this can be drawn out in much more detail than done here, this will suffice to make the point of the myth of victimhood.

A Government can be fascist if the institutions of government have taken on these characteristics. On the other hand, a leader can have fascist tendencies and the government, not yet "taken” by the fascist leader and his party, may still be democratic. In our present, we have a leader with fascist tendencies, utilizing fascist tactics: he preaches an ultra-nationalism that is replete with threats of violence and lies; attacks the pillars of democracy including the press, our ability to vote, and organs of the Government, the DOJ, FBI, CIA, among others; he attempts to sell, as the snake-oil salesman he is, the myth of a lost “American Greatness” and his – only his – ability to bring it back.

So far, however, we do not have a one-party state; we have not seen, at least not yet, the institutions of government “taken” by this fascist ideology. We have a resistance, all of whom see Trump and his followers as a threat, even if not all of whom would define this threat as fascist. This resistance includes elements of the governmental apparatus, much of the press, the Democratic Party, and something approximating 70% of our population. What is truly amazing is that the electoral machinery of this Republic has conspired to allow minority rule.

It may seem that, not-withstanding these definitions and the events since the election of 2016, utilizing the term “fascist” to refer to Trump is overdrawn. After all, Trump is a liar, a misogynist, racist, ignorant, self-absorbed, functionally uneducated, but he is no Hitler. At least that is how one line of thinking goes. Trump is, indeed, not Hitler if, by the comparison, one refers to the latter’s ultimate murderous anti-Semitism and/or his act of plunging the world into war. However, by this logic, even Hitler wasn’t Hitler until these acts were initiated. Until then, Hitler was “merely” a right-wing thug, a liar, a misogynist, racist, ignorant, self-absorbed, and functionally uneducated politician who connected with the German people – culturally and politically – at a particularly problematic historical moment. He used the democratic process to attain power, then crushed democracy. Everything else came later, slowly.

Trump came to power utilizing the democratic process, claiming it was “rigged” against him all the while, and has used the past two years attempting to undermine important pillars of our Republic: the press, democratic process, structural elements of the government such as the DOJ and agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Health and Human (DHHS) services, and so forth. Again, he exhibits fascistic tendencies and used fascist tactics, but our government is not yet – and with the resistance writ large never will be – fascist. The danger this man poses to our country, and world, is important to note, however. While not the place to discuss in detail, and while these are but a few examples of his misanthropy, we note that Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement at a time when scientists note we have, perhaps, a decade to prevent massive destruction due to climate change; has threatened nuclear war with North Korea; has destabilized an already unstable Greater Middle East with his abrogation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the Iran Nuclear Treaty) and moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, effectively short-circuiting an already moribund Palestinian-Israeli Peace Process; has enacted a massive tax cut benefitting the wealthy at a time of profound income inequality; and has pushed legislation threatening to strip Americans of their already-weak social safety net. This man, but more importantly, what he stands for, is a threat to all we hold dear.

Trump has been referred to by none other than Barak Obama as but a symptom – a serious one but a symptom none-the-less – of our political system gone awry.[**] Thus, we must ask: How did we arrive at this place? Lost wars, economic dislocation. Yes. But how?

As WW II ended, Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the forerunner of the CIA) officers and State Department China experts, having been embedded with both Mao Tse Tung’s (communist) and Chiang Kai-Shek’s (nationalist) armies as they fought the Japanese, were reporting to Washington that the former were winning both the military battle and that for the hearts and minds of the Chinese population. The latter were hopelessly corrupt and were not going to prevail. The response of Washington to these reports – as disenchantment with the USSR morphed into the Cold War and anti-communism becomes the ticket needed for success in the US political system – was several-fold. Firstly, the reports were disbelieved. Chiang had become something of a celebrated cause within the Beltway, so it was easy to assume that the experts on the ground – and they were extremely skilled and well-trained experts – were just intellectuals who were wrong and could be ignored. When the facts on the ground no longer allowed disbelief to trump reality, the Officers and experts were hounded from their jobs. They must have been communists themselves, otherwise how could this have happened? “This” being that China was lost to Mao’s communists. Of course, missing from this embarrassment of an “analysis” is another fact: China was never ours to lose. Rather, it was a proud country that had been colonized and humiliated by Europe, Japan and the US, and wanted no more of this.

Who were these men, and at this time in our history, they were ALL men?[††] In doing their jobs, they were destroyed by our leaders, our Government. We must say their names, remember them for, even though most are dead now, it was they who could have, perhaps, saved us from the situation in which we now find ourselves. John Carter Vincent, Chief of the China Division of the US State Department (USSD) in 1945, a China and Asia expert, said to be a charming, social, pleasant Georgian with empathy for Asian nationalism; a man who could see where the future led. Attacked for having “left-wing sympathies”, his career was destroyed. John Stewart Service, China Desk expert who correctly predicted that Mao’s rebels would prevail, destroyed by McCarthyite anti-communism. Service was arrested for espionage in 1945, later cleared, but was fired by Secretary of State Dean Acheson. John Paton Davies, Jr, political advisor to General Joseph Stillwell in China, fired by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to calm Congress. His “crime” had been to realize – along with Stilwell – that Mao’s forces would prevail. He was destroyed by McCarthyism, ending up in Peru manufacturing furniture. All these public servants, and more, were replaced by men willing to play fast and lose with the truth in the name of anti-communism; a high price to pay for political conformity: the integrity of the State Department.

The elimination of these men from US Government service did, minimally, two things. The first was to serve as an example to others: Buck the system at your peril. Better to go along with what is wrong than to challenge orthodoxy. This would ill serve us throughout the Cold War and beyond. The second was to strip our Government service of the very experts needed if we were going to be able to deal with the challenges of the post-war world.

It is hard to know with precision how severely the example of these lost men damaged us. Halberstam, in The Best and the Brightest, notes in chapter after chapter both the men who WERE in Kennedy’s – and after his assassination, Johnson’s – government, as well as those who WERE NOT in the government. He also details why, with the reasons returning again and again to some taint related to the “loss of China”. One does not think of the United States as being bereft of brilliant men and women; indeed, we are not. Yet in the Kennedy/Johnson government – and for decades those that followed – we can trace the absence of these skilled individuals, with their replacements often being smart but not wise, no quite smart enough; willing to challenge received wisdom, but not too aggressively; understanding that the Stalinist version of communism was a threat of sorts, but neither knowing enough about socialism to understand the weaknesses of Stalinism, nor the history of the countries in which we intervened to stop the spread of “monolithic communism”.

So while precision is not had, and counterfactual history is at best, guesswork, we can see where we ended up. Removing some of our best from US Government service, and the chill that followed for those who stayed, meant that no one would risk asking if our policy on China – isolation and furious hostility – made any sense. To have done so would have risked being labeled “Soft on Communism”, with subsequent shunning resulting in political irrelevance. Yet as no one asked this question, and others, we proceeded along a pathway that – as Halberstam notes – progressively closed off alternatives to us. We never really considered that China and the USSR would not be able to maintain their unity. We never really considered that the next country in the area we considered at risk, Viet Nam, had a long and conflictual history with China. We seemingly forgot that Ho Chi Minh had asked the US for help with decolonization; that there were letters – unanswered – to Truman requesting our assistance in removing the French occupiers and joining the community of nations. Instead, we saw only monolithic communism attempting to spread its’ reach.

After the French defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, with Vietnam divided at the 17th parallel, the Geneva Accords set a 1956 date for nationwide elections to re-unite the country. These were not held; the US and the leader we imposed upon South Viet Nam refused to hold free elections: We knew Ho Chi Minh would have won. Instead, we continued down a path that led to our defeat in 1975, after the deaths of 58,220 US soldiers, 1.1 million North Viet Namese soldiers and Viet Minh fighters, and some two million Viet Namese civilians. That war shredded American society and broke our military. Yet as a society, we never paused to look back and determine how the war happened – the Pentagon Papers not-withstanding. Instead we attempted to put it behind us, deal with the inflation and civil strife within our country, and punish Viet Nam.

When Afghanistan and Iraq came into view, there were massive protests against invasion, ignored by the Government of George W. Bush. Both wars, 17 and 15 years later, respectively, have done nothing for our security, have embittered our society, and – as the $5 trillion was borrowed, they were not paid for – have made us poorer.

Free trade agreements, automation, and a concerted attack on the Union movement have put thousands of workers either out of work or into low paying jobs without benefits; wages have been stagnant essentially since 1970, corrected for inflation. Education has deteriorated, a College/University education is out of many people’s reach without going into significant debt. There is massive income inequality, racially motivated killings, and a health care system that is as inadequate as it is overpriced.

With all of this, from China to Iraq, with other misadventures – Guatemala, Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras – in between; with our uncritical support of Israel as it’s government makes a mockery of any semblance of a peace process; and with the deterioration of living and health standards in our United States, one can see coming into view the reasons for our precarious political position.

Are we a fascist country? No. We are not Putin’s Russia or Erdoğan’s Turkey, nor ever Orban’s Hungary. Does the present leader and his enablers have fascist tendencies? Yes. Are we at risk for serious trouble, from another war and/or climate degradation and significant destruction? Yes. Did this, more or less, just happen? No.

I have tried to show, above, that this is neither accidental nor the result of evil men doing evil things. The place in which we find ourselves is the result of multiple decisions made, often in good faith, over about 70 years. If we are to reverse our “parlous state”, we will, finally, have to stop and take notice of these decisions and their consequences. We will have to stop pretending – for it is pretension – that our United States, as wonderful as it is, is somehow exceptional in a manner that precludes error.

We will have to realize that we are merely humans, trying as best as we can to make sense of a world that is often sense-less. That we will have to work with others, friends as well as enemies, to ensure that, as we try to do better, we have a world left to inhabit.


[*] Mosse GL. The Fascist Revolution. Howard Fertig Publishers, New York. 1999. p44.

[†] Marx K. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Die Revolution. 1852. New York. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ Last accessed 4 November, 2018.

[‡] Obama Reluctant to Look Into Bush Programs. New York Times. 11 January, 2009. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/12/us/politics/12inquire.html Last accessed 4 November, 2018.

[§] Mosse GL. The Fascist Revolution. Howard Fertig Publishers, New York. 1999. pp. xiii; 31; 37.

[**] Reints R. Obama says ‘Trump is a symptom, not the cause’ of political unrest. Fortune. 7 September, 2018. http://fortune.com/2018/09/07/obama-trump-speech/ Last accessed 5 November, 2018.

[††] Halberstam D. The Best and the Brightest. Random House Publishers, New York. 1992. pp. 77-79,  115-116, 138; 324; 379.

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About AJ Layon

AJ Layon was, for 28 years, at the University of Florida College of Medicine, in the Division of Critical Care Medicine, in Gainesville, FL. For the approximately 10 years until September 2011, he was Professor and Chief of Critical Care Medicine at UF; In September of 2011 he became System Director and Co-Chairman of Critical Care Medicine in PA; this ended in 2017. He serves as a Physician in the Surgical Group with Médecins sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors without Borders). While his interests are primarily related to health care, health care reform, and ethical issues, as a citizen of our United States and our world, he will occasionally opine on issues of our "time and destiny". You are welcome to respond to him at ajlayon@gmail.com. Follow on Twitter @ajlayon
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