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

“…Speculations about the future depend upon an accurate analysis of the past…” [1]


Sweeping our country today is a serious menace. 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; 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 with the declaration by the present occupant of the White House 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 (WW) 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 now seen. An attack in which the ruling, 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; is this so? The ethnic and religious minorities of our country have felt these cold currents for decades. What may be different is that what we now sense is not limited to the few; it blows over all – or most – of us.

Clearly, there is more than one way to analyze the events “…of this time and destiny”.[2] Here, however, the direction we will take is as follows: If this moment is different and dangerous, what makes it so? As, by naming something, we may be better able to understand it, what name do we give to what is happening? Perhaps most importantly, at least for this analysis: How did we get here?

What do we call this behavior of Trump and his enablers? Authoritarianism? Fascism? Some uniquely American synthesis of these? Hasn’t authoritarianism and fascism come and gone from the world stage, at least in the “developed world”? Marx – claiming that the idea comes from Hegel – notes: “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…”[3] So, perhaps these toxic ideologies aren’t yet gone.

More than simply a word of opprobrium, fascism describes – defines – a political manner of being, a political outlook. What makes a country, as opposed to the actions of a political leader, fascist? Herein we will briefly discuss this, then, using whatever term we choose to define this moment – whether authoritarian or fascist, or something else – we will ask: How did we get here? This matters to us because without understanding how we arrived at this place, we will never determine a successful exit strategy.

Tragedy or farce, we live in a world-historic time. 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 in 2009, in the Obama Presidency, 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…”[4]. 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 to, or discomfort with, or inability to, look at what we have done and learn from our mistakes.

It might be argued that fascism is merely a variant of authoritarianism, the undemocratic rule of traditional elites attempting to prevent change in a society or even to turn back the “historical clock”. Yet fascism, while incorporating elements of authoritarianism, is different. As an ideology, it is populist and even “revolutionary”. There are, indeed, variants 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 each invoked a (possibly mythical) shared past, with the symbols and ceremonies/rituals to reanimate this past. Racism may be a part of the individual fascism – as was the case in the Hitler variant. However, Mussolini’s Italian fascism appears to have been, at least initially, much more inclusive. Indeed Mosse notes that there were Jewish members of the Italian fascist movement for a part of its history.[5] So while extreme nationalism is a necessary element of fascism, racism may not be.

Fascist movements do not consider themselves “antidemocratic”. Rather, they oppose parliamentary/representative democracy, arguing that a more “proper” form of democracy is “direct democracy” mediated through the Leader. The limitations of this style of “democracy” are self-evident. Fascism is an anti-democratic movement in-as- much as it is opposed to a representative democratic process not directly mediated through the Leader with the “People”.

As noted above, fascism requires a glorious (mythic) past – Make America Great Again – to which the “Leader” promises us he (always a male, so far) will return. Along with this, remora-like, 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 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 military, porous borders, China, and perhaps most importantly, the country’s “loss of whiteness” enabled by immigration. We don’t win any more. 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, to do so is beyond the scope of this paper. Not-withstanding this limitation, the point of the “myth of victimhood” is made.

A Government can be fascist if the institutions of government have taken on fascist 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, lies, and racism; 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. To what “greatness” would Trump have us return? That of a nation fighting to end slavery and keep the Union together, as during the Civil War, or that of a country of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan, as during the 1920s to 1960s?

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 our American 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, and 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. The conservative political movement of the time believed they could use and control Hitler, much like our Republican Party appears to believe they can control Trump. Hitler used the democratic process to attain power, then outlawed 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, as I note above. Again, he exhibits fascistic tendencies and has 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 have sounded the alarm that we have, perhaps, a decade to prevent massive destruction due to climate change; he 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 now uses the budget deficits created to insist that the – already weak – social safety net needs be further weakened. This man, but more importantly, what he stands for, is a threat to all we hold dear.

Trump has been referred to by former President Barak Obama as but a symptom – a serious one but a symptom none-the-less – of our political system gone awry.[6] 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 was hopelessly corrupt and would not prevail. The response of Washington to these reports – as disenchantment with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) morphed into the Cold War and anti-communism became the ticket needed for success in the US political system – was several-fold. Firstly, the reports were disbelieved. Chiang had become something of a cause célèbre 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 ideological 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 – and remains – a proud country that had been colonized and humiliated by Europe, Japan and the US, and wanted no more of this relationship.

Who were these men?[7][8] In doing their jobs, they were destroyed by our governmental leaders. We must repeat their names, remember them for, even though most are now dead, it was they who could have, perhaps, in a circuitous manner 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.

These public servants, and there were many more, were replaced by men willing to play fast and lose with the truth in the name of anti-communism. The price paid for the political conformity demanded: 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 skills 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. 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 governments – and for decades, those that followed – we can trace the outcomes resulting from the absence of these skilled individuals. Their replacements were often smart, but not wise; perhaps not quite smart enough. They might challenge received wisdom, but carefully, not too aggressively. They understood that the Stalinist version of communism was a threat of sorts, but they knew neither 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 our precision is limited, and counterfactual history is at best, guesswork, we can see where we ended up. Removing some of our best from US Government service, along with the chill that followed for those who stayed, meant that no one would risk asking difficult questions: Does our policy on China – isolation and furious hostility – make any sense? To have done so 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. As relates to our involvement in Viet Nam, we never really considered that China and the USSR might not be able to maintain their unity. We never considered that 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 “monolithic communism” attempting to spread its reach.

The United States supported the French financially in their war to re-colonize Viet Nam. 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 and Viet Minh fighters, and some two million Viet Namese civilians. The 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. As a country we never demanded that our leaders be held accountable for the lies, the deaths, the economic dislocation. Instead, we created a myth that somehow we, the United States, were the aggrieved party. A myth that claimed if we had just “unleashed our military”, kept the “hippies” and the anti-war movement in check, we would have won.

A myth not too far removed from the German Dolchstoss (stab in the back) myth.[9]

Loss of critical and thoughtful voices in the US Government, beginning with those OSS Officers and USSD experts who foretold the victory of the Chinese Revolution left us bereft of individuals who would seriously challenge received wisdom. This had consequences for our lives and for our country.

When the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars came into view, there were, outside the Government, massive protests against invasion, ignored by the Government of George W. Bush. Inside our Government? Silence, complicity. Seventeen and 15 years later, respectively, these wars have done nothing for our security, have killed thousands of our soldiers and marines and hundreds of thousands of civilians, have embittered our society, and – as the $5 trillion cost for waging the wars was borrowed – 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. It starts with the loss of critical voices; this began, at least, in the late 1940s.

Our people feel lost. The leaders from both the Democratic and Republican parties seemed to focus only on the wealthy, not-withstanding the occasional nod to workers. In this situation, re-invigorated racism, economic concerns, and anti-immigrant sentiment have given us our present Government. Are we a fascist country? No. We are not Putin’s Russia or Erdoğan’s Turkey, nor even Orban’s Hungary. Do the present leader – Trump – 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.

As I have tried to show, 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 – if ignorant – 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 a pretension – that our United States, 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.

[1] Mosse GL. The Fascist Revolution. Howard Fertig Publishers, New York. 1999. p 44.

[2] Jara Victor. Cuando voy a trabajo (When I go to work). Last accessed 6 November, 2018.

[3] Marx K. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Die Revolution. 1852. New York. Last accessed 4 November, 2018.

[4] Johnston D, Savage C. Obama Reluctant to Look Into Bush Programs. New York Times. 11 January, 2009. Last accessed 4 November, 2018.

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

[6] Reints R. Obama says ‘Trump is a symptom, not the cause’ of political unrest. Fortune. 7 September, 2018. Last accessed 5 November, 2018.

[7] At this time in our history, they were ALL men

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

[9] Mikics D. The Jews who stabbed Germany in the back. (Book Review). Tablet. 9 November, 2017. Last accessed 6 November, 2018.

United States Holocaust Museum. Antisemitism in History: World War I. Last accessed 6 November, 2018.


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 served as a Physician in the Surgical Group with Médecins sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors without Borders) through 2018 and is presently an intensivist in Florida, struggling through the SARS-CoV-2 crisis. 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". Follow on Twitter @ajlayon
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