PARIS — Think of postwar European institutions as an elaborate shield against fascism. The European Union diluting nationalist identity; the welfare state cushioning the social divisions dictators may exploit; NATO transforming the United States into a European power and the ultimate protector of democracy against totalitarian ideologies.
This was Europe’s collective response to its double suicide in the first half of the 20th century. It was not just Germany that had to resurrect itself from the rubble of “zero hour” in 1945, but the whole continent. Europeans owed it to the myriad corpses beneath their every step to build societies and institutions that were fascism-proof.
No wonder President Trump, whose dictatorial inclinations are as hard to suppress as Dr. Strangelove’s Nazi salute, hates these European institutions so much. His itch is to undermine, or even destroy, them. “I’m a nationalist,” he once said. Yes, he is — flags, military flyovers, walls, monuments and all, in exaltation of “the greatest, most exceptional and most virtuous nation in the history of the world,” as he put it on July 4.
Since arriving in France, I’ve heard a couple of French people describe Trump as “funny.” For Europeans, the novelty of America’s showman has worn off. He’s a loudmouth. He’s a fool. These observations have emerged from societies that have settled their painful scores with history and found a middling security. The United States, however, has not. In fact, I think Trump has just entered the most dangerous phase of his presidency.
It is important to see Trump in historical context. The country he took over had been through a seesawing quarter-century of trauma. First the giddy all-powerful interlude after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, with its temptations of hubris. Then the disorienting shock of Sept. 11 that shattered the idea of America-the-inviolable and propelled the nation into its wars without victory. Then the Great Recession with its indelible lesson that, as Leonard Cohen put it, “the poor stay poor, the rich get rich.” Then the fact, irrefutable with the rise of China, of America’s relative decline, a development Barack Obama, the first Black president, opted to manage with cool realism.
All this provided the perfect context for “a clumsy, lurching and undiscriminating American nationalism that would boomerang upon itself,” as Jacob Heilbrunn described it in his tribute to Owen Harries, the Australian foreign policy intellectual, who predicted such a fate after Sept. 11.
Trump, masterful media manipulator, is the vehicle of that nationalism. He exploited a pervasive sense of American humiliation. It was out there, in search of a voice. Trump is not funny. He is fiendish.
Nationalism is not fascism but is a necessary component of it. Both seek to change the present in the name of an illusory past in order to create a future vague in all respects except its glory.
One of the core characteristics of fascism is nostalgia, a pining for a culture of masculinity and monumentalism, evident in Hitler’s Nazi Party and the architecture it embraced for the 1,000-year Reich. Trump’s nostalgia is for some unidentified moment of American greatness, when white male property owners ruled alone, the nation’s global dominance was unchallenged, women stayed home, and gender was not 360. By choosing to speak at Mount Rushmore on the eve of Independence Day, Trump attempted to inscribe his nationalism in a monumental narrative of American heroism. It was straight from the autocratic playbook.
Another central characteristic of nationalism and fascism is their need to define themselves against an enemy. Trump has chosen his: China, designated as the culprit for the coronavirus debacle (and the scapegoat behind which the president can hide his own equal responsibility); and the “angry mobs” he alluded to at Mount Rushmore who constitute, Trump said, a new “far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance.”
It is Trump who demands “absolute allegiance” — look at his trembling cabinet — and whose nationalism is fascist-tinged. He has turned an uprising against racial injustice after the killing of George Floyd into a pretext to lash out against “criminal” mobs.
There have been excesses among the protests. It is always better to try to contextualize history than excise it. Cancel culture is inimical to free speech. But the overarching threat the United States faces in the run-up to the Nov. 3 election is from Trump. The fascism in the air is on the far right of the political spectrum. If Trump could identify national humiliation as his ace in the hole in 2016, he can also seize the potential of the coronavirus pandemic to muddy the waters and stir pervasive fear.
Last month, Trump tweeted: “RIGGED 2020 ELECTION: MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!” Of course, that foreign country would be China.
Trump is preparing the ground to contest any loss to Joe Biden and remain president, aided, no doubt, by Attorney General William Barr’s Justice Department.
I know, it’s unthinkable. So was the Reichstag fire. Europeans, like Americans, should focus on just how unfunny Trump is.
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