Revisiting 1930s authoritarianism through Donald Trump

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Give this to Donald Trump: he helps us picture how the anti-democratic, right-wing, personality-driven movements of the 1930s came to power. Those movements are usually characterized as fascist though they were diverse, and the term itself is hellishly hard to define. As time passed, they faded into an inexplicably "evil" moment in history which thankfully couldn't happen here or now.

In fact a satirical 1935 novel set in the U.S. was titled, It Can't Happen Here. When it was adapted for the 1980s TV series, V, homegrown authoritarians seemed so unlikely to network execs, they were turned into alien invaders. But, though Trump's certainly no fascist, he helps us revisit the spirit of that distant era.

He's relatively indifferent to democracy. Very early, he said he'd like to "expedite" the election, i.e., get it over with and on to taking power. This week in Iowa he said he wished the vote was tomorrow. His policies are utterly vague; there's no point articulating them, it's all in his head. He'll get the best people, make the best deals, "you're gonna love it." It amounts to trusting him absolutely, the strong leader, whose brilliance, success, even his physical beauty, are undeniable. There's no concrete participation. He "loves" his base and will look after them; their only role is to love him back.

He's about his own strength and power, as were those movements. His favourite word is strong; the "guys" he'll recruit to beat back the Chinese and Japanese are "killers," it's an upbeat version of Nietzsche's will to power. He mocks weakness in opponents; his code word for it is "low energy." He'll restore national greatness, which was lost due to "stupid," weak leaders. He's not racist in any explicit sense -- quite the opposite -- but there's clear racist appeal in his attack on evil, murderous Mexican "illegals" in "our" midst.

What about the unmistakably comic element? Jon Stewart was tempted to stay on when Trump declared. That fits the model too. There was often something odd and funny in those figures -- till they took power. In Charlie Chaplin's film, The Great Dictator, the Hitler figure is paralleled by a Jewish barber. In Brecht's play, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, he's a Chicago mobster. In the Trump case, you get an irrepressible salesman -- it's so American. It's only when the individual meets a desperate demographic which embraces him, that catastrophe erupts. Otherwise, he might've remained an amusing eccentric.

In that sense, this isn't a '30s moment. Trump has found his demographic. It's overwhelmingly white, demoralized and vindictive. They come to rallies and tell the New York Times, "He's a person who gets things done" -- as Mussolini got the trains running. But they're not a dominant, homogeneous majority, while U.S. minorities today are large and organized. In Hitler's Germany, Jews were a tiny minority, easily targeted among the majority. So it's not the same.

Does that mean Trump has nothing to teach about the present? I'd say the counter-democratic, or minimally democratic element in him (I love democracy, he'd surely say) is especially instructive. We forget how brief and tentative the democratic moment has been. We tend to think when other societies are ready to forego it, it's because they're shallow, or lack character and yearn for someone to make their decisions.

But Trump shows that people go soft on democracy when it's not delivering and they and their families are suffering. It's not an easy choice but some make it. In a time of rising inequality and diminishing fortunes for most people, a kind of democratic despair could occur here, though probably in response to a figure more inclusive than Trump.

There's also a lesson about History, which our society adores: history channels, theme parks, commemorations. But we tend to see it as something in the rearview mirror, that couldn't have been other than it was.

In another U.S. novel reimagining those years, Philip Roth depicted a proto-fascist, Charles Lindbergh, defeating Franklin Roosevelt for president in 1940. Roth said he wanted to challenge the sense of History as inevitable. Everything could've been other than it was, in which case everything would be other than it is. Nothing is immutable, and nothing decent is destined to last forever.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr

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