Today’s Washington Post (7/27/19; link) makes explicit what has been evident for a very long time: Donald Trump is deliberately and perniciously using racist attacks on various individuals (including especially members of Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Elijah Cummings, etc.) as a deliberate political strategy to engage his base. He and his staff, according to the Post article, have decided that “Send her back” is good politics.
But Trump’s advisers had concluded after the previous tweets that the overall message sent by such attacks is good for the president among his political base — resonating strongly with the white working-class voters he needs to win reelection in 2020. (Olorunnipa and Parker, Washington Post 7/27/19)
Words cannot fully express how contemptible and dangerous this strategy is. It is an expression of white supremacy. It is a deliberate effort to inflame hatred and even violence towards these individuals, including members of Congress, and to countless other Muslims, African-Americans, Latinos, and other Americans of color. The president’s strategy is fundamentally divisive, encouraging the worst emotions and hatreds of our fellow citizens against their peers. Our country’s most fundamental civic values are corroded by these words and actions. The president is plainly beyond shame — none of his prior expressions of racism and misogyny have caused him a moment of regret. And equally shamefully, this is largely true for the enablers from his party who continue to defend ever-more terrible expressions and outbursts of racist antagonism.
The most fundamental duty of any public leader, any president, is to represent all the people with equal vigor and concern. It is to deliberately cultivate the civic emotions of acceptance, mutual respect, and inclusion. Our country depends upon strong bond of civility and mutual respect if we are to thrive. Abraham Lincoln expressed these ideas in his first inaugural address:
The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
President Trump and his enablers have decisively turned their backs on these values and their associated duties in favor of a cynical politics of hatred, suspicion, and divisiveness. This is fundamentally shameful. And it is tragic to recognize that members of the president’s party have shown their own lack of commitment to our most basic values in their brazen and single-minded efforts to retain power.
This divisiveness, racism, and incitement of hate must end. As citizens we need to demonstrate that we reject wholly and fully the racism, division, and hatred involved in the president’s approach to politics and government. The lessons of history are clear: democracy requires the commitment of its citizens to its preservation. In The Conversation (link) Richard Gunderman, a distinguished professor at Indiana University, reminds us of the tactics used by Mussolini in his rise to power, and the racial attacks and incitement of racial hatred that were a very important part of this history. The piece is worth reading in full, but here are the key lessons that Gunderman emphasizes:
First, the strongest protection against one-man rule is deep and widespread respect for democracy. Mussolini undermined free speech and freedom of the press. He weakened the legislative and judicial branches of government. He tried to control what people saw, heard and read.
A second lesson from fascism is to prevent the manufacture of emergencies. By creating a widespread sense that times were desperate, Mussolini, like Hitler, was able to suppress democratic institutions and tyrannize the population.
Another lesson is the danger of racism. In arguing that whites are superior to Africans and Asians, Mussolini laid the groundwork for exploitation, oppression and even extermination.
Ironically, it is quite possible that had Italy’s military and economy prospered during the 1940s, Mussolini would not have fallen.
Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s recent book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, underlines the risks we face, both in the United States and in Europe, by a renewed life for fascist political theories. He draws attention to the justly forgotten Russian fascist thinker of the 1920s and 1930s, Ivan Ilyin, now regularly quoted by Vladimir Putin:
The fascism of the 1920s and 1930s, Ilyin’s era, had three core features: it celebrated will and violence over reason and law; it proposed a leader with a mystical connection to his people; and it characterized globalization as a conspiracy rather than as a set of problems. Revived today in conditions of inequality as a politics of eternity, fascism serves oligarchs as a catalyst for transitions away from public discussion and towards political fiction; away from meaningful voting and towards fake democracy; away from the rule of law and towards personalist regimes.
These features of political life now seem worryingly familiar in both Putin’s Russia and Trump’s America.