Are Americans living in a fascist state?

Fascism is a label usually reserved for Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and brutal 20th century dictators. The term has swirled around Trump ever since he announced his bid for president. Now he has a record — of rhetoric and concrete policies — that makes the claim of fascism less far-fetched.

KCRW talks about this with Jason Stanley , philosophy professor at Yale, and author of “ How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them .”

KCRW: What is the easy definition of fascism or a fascist?

Jason Stanley: “Fascism is based on power, loyalty, and fear of the other. The fascist leader is infallible. And anyone who opposes him is immediately a traitor to the nation.”

Do you think Donald Trump is a fascist?

“I think that we get caught up in this question when we shouldn’t. The question is: Are there fascist forces in America today that are ascendant and threatening our status as a democracy? Is Trumpism a fascist, social, and political movement? I think it is. 

Trump represents himself as infallible. Many of his supporters see him as infallible. There's the denial of reality that is characteristic of fascism, as if reality is just a construction. And that's how he seems to see the world. And his supporters seem to see the world through a prism. Are you with him or against them? And the connection he has forged with his supporters ever since he first ran, remember the comment, ‘I could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight and I wouldn't lose a single supporter?’ That's a fascist connection of total loyalty. His rallies are classic fascist rallies. 

So if you look in Donald Trump's heart, he cares about power first and foremost. But fascism is about power. Fascism is about the leader crushing everyone else, and dominating others, and creating a movement that's all about him.”

You are saying you don't want to call Donald Trump a fascist. But it appears that he's practicing fascism.

“He's definitely practicing fascist politics. But we've seen this morph into policy, most clearly surrounding immigration. And of course, immigration is the calling card and central element of any fascist politics. The idea is there's a conspiracy to destroy the nation by bringing foreigners in, by elevating minorities [and] women's rights; there's a conspiracy to destroy the nation and its traditions. 

And what we've seen is this goes into policy. Our immigration system has been entirely warped and changed to the point where we are imitating precisely the policies that Hitler admires in “Mein Kampf.” He's talking about our immigration policies, and those are the immigration policies that we've moved towards. We've moved towards sealing our borders. He's attacking universities, which is a calling card of these far right movements. 

And most disturbingly, of course, what happened in Portland, where we had militia or military — it was unclear what they were — arresting protesters on the streets.”

Jason Stanley is author of the book “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.” Photo courtesy of Random House.

President Trump says in his Mount Rushmore speech, “There is a new far left fascism that demands absolute allegiance. If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished. Not going to happen to us.” What do you hear in that? He's accusing the other side of being fascist, while portraying himself as a victim.

“Absolutely. So this is classic fascist tactics. Fascist tactics always involve projection. The fascists are always accusing their opponents of being the totalitarians. The fascists are always accusing their opponents of being the  threat to the nation that they in fact are. The fascists are the most corrupt people, like the Nazi party was incredibly corrupt, incredibly lawless. But they accused their opponents of being corrupt. 

Recall Trump, who is the most corrupt president in American history, ran an anti-corruption campaign in 2016. …He's projecting he's the one who's trying to crush dissent, he's the one who's going after the press. But what he's doing is he's representing his political opponents as the forefront of a kind of left totalitarianism. And he's saying, ‘You will need me to defend you from this threat to our freedom.’ And that is classic fascist tactics. … It's calling your opponent what you yourself are.”

Talk about the iconography and visual messaging that surrounds this. Trump has a white campaign t-shirt on his website with an eagle on it. The eagle is representative of America, but it's also representative of Nazi imagery.

“Yes. … Take ‘America First.’ The America First movement, whose spokesperson was Charles Lindbergh, was a movement to get us to ally with the Nazis. So this administration has repeatedly been playing with the vocabulary and symbols here. 

Obviously, you have an American exceptionalism and a history of American empire that we can tap into without having to be European. We do have a fascist past. And we have a past of racism that Hitler admired. So we don't need to borrow German symbols. 

But we are finding a lot of meming. We're finding a lot of hand gestures that online, internet, white supremacists and far right are trying to spread. And so, there's a lot of winking going back and forth. But fascism is always [a] spectacle. It's always the images of the nation. 

[Jair] Bolsonaro in Brazil, who's the most clearly fascist leader in a democratic country, has appropriated for himself the national soccer jersey. So now if you're wearing a Brazilian national soccer jersey, people think you support Bolsonaro.

So that's what these leaders try to do. They try to appropriate the flag. They try to appropriate the eagle. They try to appropriate the images of the nation and make them into representations of themselves.”

The U.S. has a system of checks and balances.  The  House of Representatives is controlled by the opposing party and an independent judiciary.  Is that enough to prevent a full-scale slide into fascism?

“It's gradual, right? You gradually see the erosion and deterioration of these democratic institutions. They're already eroded and deteriorated by the influence of money. We've long not had a truly democratic society because some of these institutions are not democratic. 

And finally, you have a kind of open bragging about making the courts partisan. And again, we have projections, this is what they say the democrats want to do. But I see them wanting to seize control of the courts with a far right ideology, and use the courts to fight back against any kind of progressive legislation that might emerge from a future democratic House and Senate. That's my concern.

Hopefully that can be beaten back. Hopefully, we can get Republicans of goodwill retaking the Republican party, people like Mitt Romney, but we have yet to see that happening.”

Fascism doesn't appear overnight. It doesn't appear with the emergence of one person five years ago. There's a lot leading up to it. What do you think paved the way for Donald Trump and  his version of fascism?

“I think both political parties, the Democrats and Republicans, played footsie with racism, like Clinton in the 1990s ending welfare as we know it. The constant demagoguing about crime. We've a long history of keeping racial politics alive with both parties. And that paved the way for a politician to come and be openly racist, because it seemed like he was authentic. He wasn't trying to pretend. He was just telling it like it is. 

We then had a series of catastrophic failures by elites. We had the Iraq War. We had the financial crisis. These showed that the elites were susceptible to the charge that they were self dealing, corrupt and lying. When you have a failure of government rule, you allow someone to arise who can say correctly, ‘The system is rigged and broken.’ 

And then we have a media environment that leaned into scandal and entertainment, opening the way for a kind of swaggering show man to take over. And the literature on fascism tells us that Mussolini and Hitler were swaggering show men.”

If America votes Trump out of office in November, would that be the end of it?

“No, it will not be the end of it. What we've done is we've normalized figures like Stephen Miller. We've normalized a certain kind of way of talking and being. We've normalized so much. We normalized open corruption. 

So when you look at younger Republicans, they're not the Republicans who were part of the democratic process and not white supremacists. So we have this toxin in our body politics. We've always had this toxin, but it's much more normalized. And how we're going to combat that and make sure that it recedes is a question for all of us.”

We’ve had worldwide protests in the wake of George Floyd's death. Donald Trump's approval ratings are at their lowest level ever. Even his core supporters are wavering due to his handling of coronavirus. People are trying to figure out how to make the system work better. Do you see some hope in all of that?

“I do see tremendous hope in all of that. I'm hopeful that Americans will see in this moment: Yes, the police have gotten out of control, we've lost all sense of our priorities, and something in our society has left us open to a certain kind of politics. So maybe this is a moment where people can see that and going forward, address those long standing problems. Because if we don't, the next figure, President Tucker Carlson, or President Tom Cotton is going to be much worse.”

— Written by Jennifer Wolfe and Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Law and Order 

        In 1989, five black teenagers—the “Central Park Five”—were arrested for the gang rape of a white woman jogger in New York City’s Central Park. News-papers at the time were filled with breathless accounts of “wilding” black lawless teens rampaging and raping white women. At the time, Donald Trump took out full-page ads in several New York City newspapers, describing them as “crazed misfits” and calling for their execution. Subsequently, it emerged not only that the Central Park Five were innocent, but that they were known to be in- nocent to many of those involved in their prosecution. Years later, all five were completely exonerated and given a cash settlement by the City of New York. 

        In November 2016, Jeff Sessions, now the U.S. attorney general, praised then president-elect Donald Trump’s 1989 comments about the Central Park Five as demon strating his commitment to “law and order.” This is a striking understanding of law and order, not only because the teenagers were, in fact, completely innocent, but be- cause Trump’s words left no room for due process in the case. Norms of law and order in a liberal democratic state are fundamentally fair. Sessions’s use of the phrase “law and order” instead seems to refer to a system of laws that declares young black men to be, in their very existence, violations of law and order. 

        A healthy democratic state is governed by laws that treat all citizens equally and justly, supported by bonds of mutual respect between people, including those tasked with policing them. Fascist law-and-order rhetoric is explicitly meant to divide citizens into two classes: those of the chosen nation, who are lawful by nature, and those who are not, who are inherently lawless. In fascist politics, women who do not fit traditional gender roles, non- whites, homosexuals, immigrants, “decadent cosmopolitans,” those who do not have the dominant religion, are in their very existence violations of law and order. By describing black Americans as a threat to law and order, demagogues in the United States have been able to create a strong sense of white national identity that requires protection from the nonwhite “threat.”