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Can’t happen here – or can it?

Is Trump a fascist? In his book “The Anatomy of Fascism”, Columbia University Professor Emeritus Robert Paxton defines fascism as “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”

Regarding Trump. Paxton explains “Like the fascist leaders, Trump understood the deep disaffection of parts of society for traditional leaders and institutions, and he knew how to exploit a widespread fear of national division and decline. Like Hitler and Mussolini, he knew how to pose as the only effective bulwark against an advancing Left, all the more fearful because it took on cultural forms unfamiliar to provincial rural America – feminism, Black Power, gay rights.”

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Like Trump, Hitler and Mussolini were democratically elected. Hitler’s Nazi Party had become the largest party in the German parliament in the 1932 elections and Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany by President von Hindenburg in 1933. Following a march on Rome as a show of force by Mussolini and the Fascists, King Victor Emmanuel appointed Mussolini Prime Minister.

We know what followed in Germany and Italy; Hitler and Mussolini ruled as authoritarians. Authoritarianism is characterized by a concentration of power in the hands of a single individual or a small group, with restrictions on political pluralism, individual freedoms, and checks and balances.

In their book, “How Democracies Die,” Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and David Ziblatt described four key indicators of authoritarian behavior. First is rejection of, or weak commitment to democratic norms. An American authoritarian may express a willingness to ignore or violate the Constitution. They may attempt to undermine the legitimacy of elections or refuse to accept the results.

Second is denial of the legitimacy of political opponents. They may claim their opponents are an existential threat to national security or “our” way of life. They may without basis call them criminals who violate the law, which disqualifies them from participating in politics, or suggest they are foreign agents, usually of an enemy.

Third is toleration or encouragement of violence. Authoritarian leaders may have ties to armed gangs or paramilitary forces. They may tacitly endorse violence by their supporters or fail to condemn it. They may praise or refuse to condemn violence in the past or elsewhere in the world.

Fourth is readiness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media. They may support laws or policies that curtail civil liberties through expanded laws restricting protest, criticism of the government, or certain civic political organizations.

All four characteristics can be applied to Trump.

“It Can’t Happen Here” is a novel written by Sinclair Lewis published in 1935. It’s a cautionary tale, a warning against the dangers of totalitarianism, the erosion of democratic institutions, and the ease with which authoritarian leaders can rise to power, even in a democratic society. It is a political satire about the rise of authoritarianism in the United States. The story follows the life of a Vermont newspaper editor named Doremus Jessup, a liberal who becomes increasingly alarmed by the political changes taking place in the country. It focuses on the election of a populist demagogue and senator, Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, who uses divisive rhetoric, fearmongering, and promises of economic reform to win the presidency.

After his election, President Windrip implements a series of authoritarian measures, including the suppression of civil liberties, censorship of the press, and the establishment of a paramilitary force to enforce his policies. The government becomes increasingly repressive, and political opponents are silenced or persecuted. Jessup and others become involved in underground resistance efforts against the Windrip regime. They publish a clandestine newspaper to counter the propaganda and organize against the authoritarian government. As the resistance grows, they face the dangers of arrest and persecution.

The outcome of the resistance and the fate of the characters are not explicitly explained, leaving the reader to contemplate the possible paths the story could take.

The title “It Can’t Happen Here” is meant to be ironic; it challenges the assumption that authoritarianism and the slow death of democracy could not happen in the United States. Instead, it shows that the American political system is not immune to such threats. Sinclair Lewis reinforces the importance of vigilance in defending democratic institutions and the rule of law, even in a society that believes such a change could never occur, especially considering what was happening in Germany and Italy.

Mark Berg is a community activist in Adams County and a proud Liberal. His email address is MABerg175@Comcast.net.

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