Most of you Americans on the left were gobsmacked when Trump won the election. You did not see it coming at all; you thought that common sense would prevail in the end, but it didn’t. You completely underestimated the allure of Trump.
Also, from the beginning of Trump’s run for president to the present, pundits have tried to compare Trump to various fascists. Trump is like Hitler. No, Trump is not like Hitler, he’s more like Mussolini. No, he’s like Goebbels… None of those comparisons matter, but if you want my two cents, I think he’s most like Peter Sellers’ character in Being There.
In Being There, a movie based on the novel by Jerzy Kosinski, an intellectually challenged man who’s led a sheltered life as the gardener of a rich recluse is thrown into the bustle of New York City when his employer dies. A minor accident lands him in the house of a powerful senator, who tries to find out who he is. All the man can say is that he’s “a gardener”, and when the senator and his wife ask his opinion about political matters, he says that in the spring you have to sow the seeds, that the garden grows in the summer, then starts to die in the autumn and lies dormant in winter… Everyone is impressed with this Mr. Gardner’s deep, insightful allegories and the senator thinks he is just the man they’ve been looking for to replace the president, who’s on his deathbed.
“Mr. Gardner” in Being There is quiet and people interpret his silence and his sparse words about gardening as wisdom. Trump is strident; most of the time he’s obviously just projectile-vomiting random words, and pundits try to make sense of what he says, try to discern some policy. Nevertheless, the idea is the same: in both cases an intellectually challenged man unexpectedly finds himself the president of the United States, with others either thinking he has ideas and that he’s just not good at putting them into words, or knowing he’s an idiot and thinking they can use him for their evil purposes.
My point is that ultimately Trump doesn’t matter. Sure, he needs to go, as soon as possible, and preferably Pence as well, but assuming they’re out before Trump has been able to unleash nuclear Armageddon and assuming there’s a normal person in the White House again, who respects the democratic process and the separation of powers, that doesn’t mean you can sit back, breathe a sigh of relief and say, phew, crisis avoided. The crisis will still be here. I hope I’ve been successful in laying out, in this series of posts, the degree to which American society has always been living with fascist elements, and that I don’t mean just neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
Authoritarianism permeates American life at all levels. This country has been built on racism and slavery and the justice system was created to keep “the dangerous masses” in check, rather than to ensure a harmonious society. The police have always been unnecessarily aggressive and in relation to people of color downright brutal; American public schools are like prisons and prisons are like slave labor camps instead of rehabilitation centers. The country is always involved in war somewhere and soldiers and generals are revered as unquestionable heroes (except when they need (mental) healthcare) and half the country is out for blood when someone refuses to stand for the national anthem, because that supposedly disrespects the troops.
You have been made to believe in American exceptionalism, which on the one hand leads to incredible international arrogance, and on the other hand to dangerous naiveté. You have been indoctrinated for more than a century through the Pledge of Allegiance in schools and the national anthem at every possible occasion, to avoid actual questioning of the doctrine of American greatness, to avoid investigating the statements made in the Pledge wondering about those that are left out, to avoid curiosity about the outside world. The Pledge and the national anthem were introduced with the specific purpose of developing unquestioning nationalism in the population. (“The Pledge and its movements should be made mechanical and without mental effort.”) I’m not saying that that indoctrination has been successful with everyone; obviously not, but is has been successful with a much larger portion of the population those of you who were shocked at Trump’s election thought.
You have a country where gun ownership is normal, where daily gun violence is normal, where armed militias are normal. Combine that with a lack of education and critical thinking skills and you have a large portion of the population that is heavily armed and way too easily manipulated. You have lax libel laws, so you have always had people on television and radio, in newspapers and now on Internet spouting absolute nonsense and malicious lies and passing them off as news. Fox “News” and companies like Sinclair Broadcast have been the right-wing propaganda networks for years, and people like Alex Jones with his Infowars website create and perpetuate the most outlandish conspiracy theories and scaremonger the easily influenced and then make millions off the survivalist products they sell. They’re laughing all the way to the bank, but in the meantime they have riled up a lot of potentially dangerous folks with their talk.
You have a political system that isn’t really democratic, with a few rich people and large corporations pulling the actual strings, which causes disillusionment with government. You have a poorly educated population, relative to the rest of the industrialized world, and what education your children get about history skips over the actual lessons learned. You have a relatively small but loud and powerful group of Christian fundamentalists on school boards making sure that critical thinking skills are not part of the curriculum in several states. You now have, thanks to Trump and Pence, Christian fundamentalists, who are climate-change deniers and in general anti-science, in key government positions, dragging the country backwards at a time that we can ill afford it.
Propaganda and indoctrination not only spread and implant certain ideas and hatreds– they also create public tolerance, passivity and acceptance of violence against those the public is supposed to hate. Not only that, they create tolerance, passivity and acceptance of abuse against yourselves. I hope I’ve been successful in pointing out to what degree–because of America’s long history of authoritarianism, violence and manipulation–American society tolerates excessive violence and abuse of powers by government officials, and to what huge degree you are passive and accepting of it, compared to other western democracies.
None of that will have changed once Trump is gone. Trump has paved the way, by normalizing violence and hatred even more than it already was, for a person like Steve Bannon (but with more charisma) to come along and do the job right. Trump has the support of the NRA and all the second-amendment folks. The folks who claim that an armed society is a polite society would love nothing more than to be Trump’s Nazis. At his rallies armed militias show up, supposedly to defend Trump and his supporters from protesters, and many of these folks are already saying that there will be civil war if Trump is impeached. We’ll see about that, though either way I’m sure they’ll do a lot of damage, and these groups are now emboldened and more organized and will be on the lookout for the next fascist leader.
How do you prevent that? I don’t have all the answers. (Shocker, right?) It will require some real soul-searching about a lot of different aspects of American life, and some of that is indeed happening, thanks to Trump.
Back when I was battling my four-year-old’s Montessori teacher, trying in every way I knew how to explain why the Pledge of Allegiance–especially at such a young age–was a very bad idea and the complete opposite of what Maria Montessori wanted for children, I never thought I’d see the day when Americans would begin to question whether students should be made to stand for the Pledge, or if the Pledge should be said at all. I also never thought I’d see the day that Americans would more closely examine the national anthem and question whether it reflects modern-day American values. For every hysterical Trumper having a hissy fit because an NFL player kneels during the national anthem there’s another American who is beginning to question these rituals that have always been automatic. That’s a good start.
But in order to prevent fascism from ever really taking hold in America, drastic changes would have to be made, in politics, in education, in the justice system and in the social safety net.
For politics to be inclusive, for people to feel that their voices are heard, you need more than two parties. It’s ridiculous that a country as big as America, with so many different issues and so many different opinions on each of them only has two options in every election: Democrat or Republican. Sure, there are a few other, tiny, parties, but they would never get enough donors to win, and if they don’t win, they’re nothing. For starters, money would have to be taken out of politics. And you will have to somehow change to proportional representation. Right now, only the winners are represented.
If it’s not a win or lose game, more parties could spring up, with lots of different agendas, and people could make nuanced choices during elections. Do you like one party’s policy on foreign affairs but not on energy? Look for a party that has policies on both that are closer to yours. And if your party “only gets fifteen percent of the vote”? Then it gets fifteen percent of the seats in Congress, and it will vote on every bill, so that’s a voice. If there are no big donors, the representatives don’t answer to them, but to the constituents, so they could actually keep the promises they make on the campaign trail. Or on the campaign website, since trails are expensive and money would be largely gone. If politics is no longer a win or lose game, politicians will also be more willing to work on long-term goals instead of on short-term victories that will help them get re-elected.
In education, there would have to be a serious change in attitude towards children. Whenever someone applies for the job of public elementary school principal in America, they immediately bring up discipline. How strong they are on discipline. How discipline is a big priority for them. Am I wrong? Somehow schools have to go back to being about education. I see videos on Facebook on a regular basis now about the education system in Finland and how it went from being somewhere near the bottom ranking in Europe to being at the top, with a completely new way of teaching that keeps the children engaged. Do serious research into their system and other successful national systems, determine what it would take to implement them here.
It would take higher salaries, among other things, so you attract dedicated, quality teachers who don’t get burned out after a couple of years and decide to go to law school. Education classes at the universities will initially have to be taught by the Europeans who have worked in those education systems. Teachers who are unwilling or unable to change can become teaching assistants for the same miserly salary they have now. Where would the money come from? How about not having sports arenas and three of four sports coaches and everything that comes with all that. And textbooks should be written by experts, without interference from school boards.
The justice system would have to be overhauled. To start with, police would have to understand that they serve their communities, that those communities want to live in harmony and that it’s the police’s job to help make that happen. Money from tickets should not be a part of a city’s budget, prisons shouldn’t be privatized and prison labor shouldn’t be free, so the police don’t have the pressure or the incentive to write as many tickets or to arrest as many people as possible. That would dramatically change their attitude toward the public right there. And communities should come together to determine what they want from their police, and those wishes should be taken into account when developing police training, which should not be done in house, but by training schools that are independent from the politics, the prevailing police culture and the possible corruption in individual police departments. And of course America could look to other countries to see how to change their prison system into a system of meaningful rehabilitation.
If you could change your libel and slander laws so that people would be held to account for lies, that would go a long way to getting rid of blatant propaganda in the media and during election campaigns. It would probably require changing your freedom of speech and of the press a little. The same goes for the right to bear arms. I think it’s about time that those two rights are re-examined from the standpoint of the spirit of the Bill of Rights. The first amendment, with its freedom of speech and freedom of the press were meant to protect civilians when they speak out and criticize the government. The right to bear arms was actually the right of a well-organized militia–which at the time of writing meant a kind of national guard–to bear arms.
Let’s not lose sight of the forest for the trees. With the Bill of Rights, the Founding Fathers first and foremost wanted to protect America’s citizens. Many–more modern–European constitutions actually spell out some variation of the right to a reasonably safe existence. I don’t feel reasonably safe if I can get shot for inconveniencing someone in the slightest of ways, so it’s not unreasonable to want some gun safety laws. And freedom of speech and of the press was never meant to include the kind of lies and propaganda that Fox “News” spouts to manipulate the public into acting against their own interests the way working class white people always do. I don’t think it’s that outlandish to require that if someone says they’re about to bring you the facts, that they actually give you the facts and not lies. That protects your citizens from evil manipulation.
And finally the social safety net. I haven’t actually mentioned that in any of the posts in this series, but a lot of white working class people feel disenfranchised because yes, they’re racist and they’ve been led to believe that they are being discriminated against, and yes, because they feel unheard in politics, but also because they are often dirt poor and they have no financial security. So they have nothing to lose. People who have nothing to lose will be first in line to follow a fascist leader.
Give everyone health insurance. And put limits on the amounts doctors and hospitals and pharmaceutical companies can charge. Then health insurance wouldn’t have to be so expensive and you could make insurance companies actually pay out 100% of medical bills and prescriptions. It’s more than disgraceful that in one of the richest countries on earth people have to choose between a round of chemo and paying the utility bills. And give everyone a minimum income. It’s a myth that if you give people enough money to live on, that they will then not do anything. Some people won’t, but lots more will use that stability to go to school, get an education or professional training and a (better) job. And an educated population is not that easily manipulated by evil forces.
How to pay for all of this? Take all the billions that are now spent on politics. Consider just the millions one ultra-rich person donates now to one politician so he’ll vote for more tax cuts for the rich. That’s how much that person can pay extra in taxes without even blinking.
How to make the drastic changes in legislation? I wouldn’t know; I’m not a politician or a public policy person or even a person who likes being part of action groups. Some things would have to change from the grassroots, some from the bottom down, like health care and the justice system, I imagine. My goal with this series is to hold up a mirror and make you Americans see what makes this country so susceptible to fascism, from my Dutch perspective. I hope to make clear that it won’t end with the end of Trump. This is just the beginning of America’s descent into fascism unless it’s the beginning of some serious positive change.