Home > Uncategorized > Shock Treatment As a Way To Fascism – posted 4/23/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 4/29/2017

Shock Treatment As a Way To Fascism – posted 4/23/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 4/29/2017

I would be lying if I did not admit that one reaction I have had to the presidency of Donald Trump is a paranoid fear that he represents a new form of American fascism. I know I am not alone in that view.

Part of what makes Trump hard to understand is that he is not a normal Republican. He is something different and it is hard to peg that difference. He has often praised dictators. During the campaign, at one time or other, he praised Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Bashar al-Assad, Muammar Gaddafi, and Saddam Hussein. He retweeted Benito Mussolini. I would acknowledge though that it is hard to say he believes in anything including fascist ideology.

While there are certainly ways Trump is not like other famous fascist leaders, it is impossible to ignore his megalomaniacal, authoritarian, and racist tendencies. At the same time it would be wrong to look at him statically rather than as evolving. Like all past presidents, Trump’s presidency is subject to changing circumstances. What remains unclear is how Trump will respond to some as yet unforeseen crisis.

My own paranoid fear has been a scenario where a terrorist attack, a war, or some other disaster acts as a catalyst and justification for Trump to consolidate power and suspend rights previously taken for granted by Americans. The emergency would allegedly require greatly expanded executive powers to manage the public fear and terror.

Such a crisis could also be used as a vehicle to impose a speeded-up transformation of the economy more to the liking of the 1% – tax cuts, privatized services, cuts to social spending, and deregulation.

Manipulating terror is now a time-tested strategy in the authoritarian leader playbook as exemplified by Putin.

In her book, The Shock Doctrine, the writer, Naomi Klein, presents many examples of this type of scenario. For example, Klein looks at what happened in Chile after the military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. In that instance, the trauma of the coup acted to facilitate the political adjustment to sudden, dramatic changes pushed by Pinochet. Klein calls it shock treatment.

Real American fascism would likely include: suspension of freedom of the press, speech, and assembly; dissolution of opposing political parties; the end of checks and balances; no more due process of law; no right to a fair trial; and the arrest and imprisonment of activists hostile to the new regime.

Whatever the dramatic event or series of events that would shock the public, the process of becoming fascist is about removing obstacles to more centralized power.

The historical example that I have seen most cited to describe the process is the German Reichstag fire in February 1933. The Reichstag building housed the German parliament. No one ever learned who set the fire but the German Nazis used the fire as an excuse to suspend the rights of all German citizens.

In a very short time, the Nazis used the emergency to preventively detain political opponents including Jews, liberals, social democrats and leftists of all stripes. They arrested thousands on no specific charges. The security forces put many into Dachau concentration camp and disappeared others. Even in the early Nazi years, hundreds of labor leaders, leftists, and Jewish prisoners died in custody.

On March 23, 1933, a new Nazi-led parliament passed an enabling act which allowed Hitler to rule by decree. For the next twelve years until the end of World War II, Germany was a dictatorship and it remained in that state of emergency. The Reichstag fire had opened that door.

I would also mention the role of a German government campaign called Gleichschaltung which means “coordination” or “synchronization”. With astonishing speed, in an act of anticipatory obedience, many Germans willingly placed themselves under the Nazi rule and command. Almost overnight, millions fell in line.

The best dramatization of this type of coordination is the play Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco. In the 1930’s Ionesco had watched the growth of the fascist Iron Guard movement in Romania. He saw many former friends transform into vicious anti-semites. The Iron Guard was xenophobic, strongly nationalist, and it claimed all Jews were illegal immigrants in Romania. In the absurdist play, Ionesco had people turn into mindless, rampaging rhinoceros.

The coordination campaign was reflected in the new Nazi salute. By 1933, the expectation was that everyone would give the Hitler salute. The German public widely embraced the salute and people incessantly saluted each other.

I think it would be a mistake though to see German fascism as entirely sudden. Fascism evolved and worsened through multiple incremental steps, a cumulative radicalization.

Americans need to discard the notion that a fascist-type state could never happen here. Authoritarianism is very alive in the world. I expect many Americans have believed we were immune from the awful things that have happened elsewhere. It is an American conceit that somehow we are beyond history.

On the positive, we do have far stronger democratic institutions than existed in Germany. Also, the American people are more rebellious, have a stronger tradition of dissent and will not be so easily coordinated as evidenced by all the anti-Trump demonstrations since his election.

Still it is sobering to know how few people in Europe actually opposed the fascists during their rise. I have seen historians estimate that only 2% of the French population or 400,000 people engaged in armed resistance during the Occupation.

How will Americans respond if fascism becomes real here? I think that remains an open question.

I admire the honesty of the response of Toivi Blatt, a Holocaust survivor, when he was asked about the human response to fascism he saw. Blatt, who was a Polish Jew, saw his whole family die in Sobibor extermination camp. At the age of 16, he was one of 300 prisoners who participated in an uprising at Sobibor. 200 escaped. Of those, 150 were captured and killed. Blatt was one of 50 Sobibor prisoners who survived the war. After the war he moved to the United States. This is what Blatt had to say about his experience:

“People asked me “What did you learn?” and I think I’m only sure of one thing – nobody knows themselves. The nice person, on the street, you ask them, “Where is North Street?” and he goes with you half a block and shows you, and is nice and kind. The same person in a different situation could be the worst sadist. Nobody knows themselves. All of us could be good people or bad people in these situations. Sometimes when somebody is really nice to me I find myself thinking, “How will he be in Sobibor?”.”

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Patricia Dawson
    April 23, 2017 at 2:11 pm

    Given the advisors President Trump has around him, his retaliatory nature and the way the world appears to be going, it’s not a far-fetched nightmare to believe we could face the scenario you present. Nor am I as comfortable hoping the public will rise up. Look at how easily we gave up our rights under the Patriot Act.

    Saw an interesting quote by Joyce Carol Oates the other day: “Patriotism is the first defense of the scoundrel. ‘In the interest of national security’ is the second. “

  2. paul2eaglin
    April 23, 2017 at 3:43 pm

    Some of it will and can happen much easier than you would expect. Look at the present Congress and consider the notion of checks and balances. Is this Congress going to check or balance the Executive?
    Compare the congressional resistance to Pres. Obama’s stated intention to bomb Syria for a chemical attack on its own people that killed scores more people than the recent attack. Many in that GOP Congress insisted it was beyond his powers to act without Congress exercising its exclusive war powers declaration. And so Pres. Obama put the matter to Congress (while insisting he could act w/o its declaration as part of his inherent powers as C in C). So much for his “red line” and his restraint is now not being reported accurately because the meme has set it in that he was a weakling who lost his nerve. Now consider the reaction to Trump’s recent strike on Syria in circumstances that are indistinguishable in principle or in fact from Pres. Obama’s situation. Many of those who criticized Pres. Obama’s stated intention as tyrannical praised Pres. Trump’s actions as “presidential.” Some went so far as to insist that he “became president” in some sort of Rite of Passage–very odd that someone thinks it’s “presidential” to bomb preemptively some other country–whereby he proved himself at long last as worthy to hold the office.
    Trump’s admin will concoct some controversy and overreact, then try to silence or suppress effective media oversight by their “fake news” accusations. There will be no oversight from Congress because the GOP has no interest in carrying out its constitutional role of protecting the country from an out of control Executive.

    Paul Eaglin

  3. paul2eaglin
    May 1, 2017 at 2:03 pm

    News reports over the weekend (end of April) relate that Pres. Trump has invited for a state visit Philippine Pres. Rodrigo Duterte. He’s the guy who has dispatched execution squads throughout the Philippines to murder citizens who are suspected of drug activity or even drug use. These are no-due-process summary executions on his say-so as president.
    How does Duterte differ significantly from Bashar al-Assad of Syria who gassed his own people? Surely it can’t be explained by the fact that Assad bombed his people with nerve agents while Duterte’s killers shot them with bullets.
    Why is our President honoring a thug and a murderer by sponsoring him for a state visit? This is one more step down the path about which you caution, Jon. It’s the normalization of violence in the name of state security, particularly when it is extrajudicial killings at the behest of the Philippine president based on his notion of what is a capital offense. Our president regrettably has cast the lot of the US with the fate of a mass murderer in Duterte who is no different than Assad.

    Paul Eaglin

    • May 7, 2017 at 12:54 am

      Hi Paul, I had not checked the blog this week. Just very busy. I posted your comment. I certainly agree that Duterte is a thug. He is all about vigilante action – not the law at all. I totally agree with your comment.

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