Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/8/2020 (413 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The HBO television series The Plot Against America, based on Phillip Roth’s 2004 novel of the same name, presents an alternative reality in which famed aviator Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election.
Upon assuming the presidency, Lindbergh signs a neutrality treaty with Nazi Germany, assuring Adolf Hitler that the U.S. will not intervene in the Second World War. He also embraces anti-Semitic policies and advances the American government toward fascism.
In other words, as James Poniewozik of the New York Times wrote when the show debuted in March, "HBO asks the audience to imagine the outlandish idea that the presidency might have been won by a celebrity demagogue new to politics who appeals to bigotry and fear, who ran on the slogan of ‘America First,’ who boasts of having ‘taken our country back,’ who sees fine people on the most reprehensible side of history, who cosies up to despots and behaves as if he were their puppet."
In real life, Lindbergh, who became a revered hero after he flew solo from New York City to Paris in 1927, never ran for president. But from 1939 to late 1941, as a staunch isolationist and the chief spokesman for the America First Committee, he did advocate U.S. neutrality in the war in speeches that were tinged with pro-Nazi sentiments and anti-Semitism. Lindbergh’s perceived racism was widely denounced and his popularity faded.
Not so with Donald Trump, however. The members of his diehard base inexplicably remain loyal to a president who has done next to nothing to improve their lives; in fact, quite the opposite, as his terrible mismanagement of the coronavirus shows.
It is not surprising that many political commentators are wondering if the country is veering toward fascism and authoritarianism.
"I have held off using the ‘F’ word for three and a half years, but there is no longer any honest alternative," former secretary of labour Robert Reich, who served in Bill Clinton’s cabinet, tweeted on June 2. "Trump is a fascist, and he is promoting fascism in America."
In truth, Trump is not so much a fascist as an authoritarian; or more accurately, a would-be tin-pot dictator: "An autocratic ruler with little political credibility and delusions of grandeur." He declared last year that article II of the U.S. constitution — which defines the powers of the president — gives him the right "to do whatever I want."
In an interview a few months ago, he claimed that as president his "authority is total." It is not, but by his impulsive actions Trump has shown time and again that he has no understanding or will not abide by the "checks and balances" system of American government if he can help it.
During the COVID-19 crisis, he has denounced the actions of mostly Democratic governors stating he has the absolute right to determine the country’s health and economic policies, only to be told that he does not. He admires authoritarians such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un and has insulted democratic leaders, including Justin Trudeau and Emanuel Macron.
In the wake of the recent protests, he has portrayed himself as a "law and order" president, ready to stand beside the police and to quash all resistance; protesters against racism and police brutality whom he has labelled "domestic terrorists" — or alleged proponents of "toe-tally-terry-tism" as he called them in his July 3 speech at Mount Rushmore — who need to be treated harshly.
Moreover, like a classic dictator, he and his attorney general William Barr, who sees almost no limits on executive power, have manipulated the justice department to do Trump’s bidding. On the pretext of defending federal property, Trump, in a transparent ploy to boost his faltering re-election campaign, has dispatched — without being asked to do so by state or city officials — heavily armed federal Department of Homeland Security agents to Portland, Ore.
Dressed in military fatigues, they have surreptitiously patrolled the streets and arbitrarily arrested and assaulted protesters. According to Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown, their actions have exacerbated the situation. Nonetheless, Trump has threatened to send the DHS agents to other cities.
He regularly castigates the media as the "enemy of the people," declaring all reporting and analyses critical of him and his administration as "fake news." He has concocted imaginary threats, the so-called and unnamed "radical left mob" who are allegedly engaged in a "merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children."
He has promoted ridiculous conspiracy theories and generally ignored medical experts during the COVID-19 pandemic, foolishly insisting that he knows more than they do about the spread of the disease (and everything else). And he has lied nearly every day of his presidency, adhering to the well-known fascist dictum that the bigger the lie and the more you repeat it, the greater the likelihood that it will be believed as the truth.
Yet the news is not all bad, and there are limits to support for Trump’s authoritarianism. In March 2018, a survey by the bipartisan Democracy Fund Voter Study Group found that close to 75 per cent of Americans continue to support democracy and democratic institutions, while about 25 per cent would embrace a powerful leader who would not have to heed Congress or worry about elections.
That 25 per cent is vocal and worrisome, but not large enough to keep Trump in office for four more years.
Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context. His next book, Details are Unprintable: Wayne Lonergan and the Sensational Café Society Murder, will be published next month.