Seventy-one years ago, my generation’s grandparents finished a war against fascism, one of the most hideously destructive ideologies to ever seize the imaginations and lives of the world’s people. More than four hundred thousand Americans died ridding the world of this scourge. Today, we have to use the democratic tools at our disposal—freedom of speech and expression, the deployment of reasoned argument, and our vote—to ensure that fascism does not take root in our country’s institutions.
Republican Donald Trump has introduced a degree of hatred to our politics—as a substitute for serious policy—that is breathtaking for its openness. Trump, instead of focusing on solidarity built around institutions or a commitment to a shared, national interest, has turned to ethnic nationalism.
Trump has argued that citizenship, belonging, and access to the public sphere should be determined by religion and race. He has targeted black and Latino communities in our country, people whose histories have already been defined by enslavement, exploitation, and second-class citizenship.
Instead of blaming the powerful and the corrupt who have sabotaged our politics, or asking the wealthy to pay their share, Trump invites us to blame weaker, poorer, or more politically marginal members of our own community, our fellow citizens. Like the Fascists our country fought, Trump has isolated communities on the basis of real characteristics (language, religion) or imagined racial traits (Mexican migrants as criminals, black Americans as “spongers”), and marked them for targets for anger and abuse. He has proposed to use ID cards or other more visible indicators to facilitate the direction of his supporters unproductive range.
In the economic realm, Trump’s populist window dressing barely even masks his deep commitment to the populist and plutocratic power against which Americans have for years rallied. Fascists of 1920s and 1930s made similar economic promises, and they too emerged in an era when democratic governments struggled to meet political and economic challenges. Trump essentially invites us to give up our faith in democracy, and place it instead in the hands of a strong-man.
Trump has suggested “bombing the shit” out of our enemies, repudiating international rules and norms that protect our soldiers and civilians, murdering civilians, torturing captives, and dismantling international institutions. Like other Fascists, Trump’s participation in formal politics has been accompanied by subtle or not so subtle threats of violence. From the very beginning, his campaign inspired angry voters to use vigilante violence against members of the communities he attacked in speeches.
Trump has celebrated the violence and fanaticism of the worst of his supporters, bragging that he could commit murder without losing supporter. He has threatened to destroy the constitutional freedoms that protect the press and allow scrutiny into the dealings of powerful people in our country. He has launched racist attacks on members of the judiciary, and called into question the ability of Latinos to serve in civic capacities and enjoy the full extent of the rights and opportunities that accrue to citizens.
Trump has attacked the “political correctness” of our culture. But it has become clear that “political correctness” refers to nothing more than those features of our society which abhor racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of hate and bigotry.
Our country, as it exists in the 21st century, is premised on the idea that citizenship and belonging are not tied to race, language, or religion, and that we should be good to each other. I think that most people would agree that individuals in public life and public service should devote their time and energies toward devising sound public policy that creates a more just, equal, fair, and tolerant society.
Instead, Trump has invited Americans to return to a form of politics that stopped just short of our shores in the 1940s. He has invited us to turn on each other with a savagery that has nothing to do with sound public policy or the values that we like to believe define our nation. And he threatens not only the stability of our country and the livelihoods of people in it, but the security of a world that is already too dangerous because of the actions of the party he represents.
Trump and his party discuss the United Nations and international institutions as sinister foreign entities. But the hundreds of thousands of Americans who died in the Second World War knew that their government supported the creation of a United Nations. It was a collective goal, born of the recognition that the poisonous ethnic nationalism of the 1930s required not only destruction by military force, but deterrence in the future by promoting forms of solidarity that transcended the parochialism of nations. Trump is threatening to undo the fruits of the sacrifice of one generation of Americans, and the labor of those that came after.
Donald Trump, like fascists before him, has made it clear that the niceties of democracy won’t stop his jack-booted march to power. He, his campaign, and his supporters have promised to provoke a constitutional crisis or unleash a bloodbath if he loses at the polls, and the candidate has repeatedly, coyly suggested that his supporters murder his political opponent.
Trump would literally cry havoc and unleash the dogs of war in his quest for political power.
One of my grandfathers joined the American military that helped to crush Fascism in Europe. The other, 15 years younger, arrived in this country as an “illegal,” and has been an upstanding, taxpaying, moral member of our national community for more than sixty-five years. He married a woman who didn’t live long enough for me to meet her, but who was herself the daughter of migrants fleeing a tumultuous revolution in Mexico.
My grandfather—whose children and grandchildren have been uniformly praiseworthy citizens, making exemplary contributions to their families and communities—was neither a rapist nor a murderer nor a drug dealer. But he did come to this country to make a better life for himself than he could imagine in Central America, and I would fault no one for that.
As my grandfather fights a losing battle to recognize his family and his surroundings, I take some small solace from the knowledge that he cannot see the hateful fervor that grips too many of his fellow citizens, who Donald Trump gleefully invites to turn on each other.
I ask that we make decisions in this election that ensure that when people like my grandfather--a teenager when Fascism was extinguished in Europe--survey the world, they still see something of potential value and worth in the United States, rather than a smoking ruin of a nation and a cautionary tale for the world about the capacity to forget and to hate.