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W&L’s Gavaler on the Semantics of Fascism

The following opinion piece by Chris Gavaler, assistant professor of English at Washington and Lee, appeared in the Mar. 5 2017 edition of the Roanoke Times and is reprinted here by permission.

Are We Living in Nazi Germany?

By Chris Gavaler

It is of course ridiculous to call the current Republican Party “fascist.” Fascism is a historically and geographically specific phenomenon limited to the party of Mussolini in Italy of the 1920s and ’30s. As typically used, the term also encompasses Nazi Germany and other European regimes of the 20th century.

More generally, the word may be applied to any government that exercises an absolute authority of the extreme right, typically through the merging of state and business leadership, together with belligerent nationalism.

Unfortunately, Donald Trump’s campaign and election were embraced by some white supremacists, and hate crimes against non-white Christians have risen in its wake. Also, common of fascist governments, Trump employed rebirth myth rhetoric, promising a return to a golden age of nationalistic greatness. Though he campaigned on a populist, anti-establishment platform in which he criticized his opponent for ties with and an inability to control Wall Street interests, his transition into government saw an overt collusion of government and business leadership, with multiple corporate executives receiving prominent positions in his cabinet in a somewhat rushed and under-vetted process. His popularity also aligned with and further strengthened the ultra-conservative Tea Party branch of the Republican party, drawing some alt-right extremists into positions of power.

As president, however, Donald Trump does not hold “absolute power,” because the Constitution guarantees a check on authority by dividing government into three, self-regulating branches. Currently, the Republican Party controls only the White House and both houses of Congress, leaving the Supreme Court evenly divided.

Because the previous Republican Senate refused to vote on President Obama’s nominee last March, the current Republican Senate is now in the position of securing a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. If accomplished, only then will Republicans control all three branches of the federal government and, through district gerrymandering that legally protects Republican seats, control of a majority of state legislatures that promises them continuing and unchallenged control of the House of Representatives.

While it is an exaggeration to call such Republican control “absolute,” the party’s level of dominance does appear to contradict the founders’ Constitutional intentions. But Republican power is not completely unchecked. Public outcry did prevent the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee Bob Goodlatte from dismantling the Office of House Ethics — even though that itself suggest the ruling party’s inability to regulate itself within long-standing democratic norms.

Still, we should not be tempted to call the Republican government “fascist.” It is merely extreme right-wing in policy, belligerently nationalistic in tone, and business-colluding in practice, with a grip on authority that only approaches absolute.

Donald Trump is also no fascist dictator. When Adolf Hitler assumed the office of Fuhrer in 1934, it was with the approval of 90 percent of German voters. President Trump enters the White House with a 37 percent approval rating, the lowest of any President-elect in U.S. history and the same as George W. Bush during his unfortunate second term. Moreover, when Adolf Hitler ran for president in 1932, he received 37 percent of the popular vote, while Trump received 46 percent.

The future of American democracy rests safely in a president who, because of our founders’ anti-democratic fears of mob rule, was appointed by the Electoral College despite his opponent winning the popular vote by a margin of 2 percent.

Sometimes democracy needs the hand of an elitist minority to steer it through rough waters. We now may look to a leader who embodies capitalism in all of its excesses, a business tycoon who lost $910,000,000 in a single year and declared bankruptcy six times, an epicure who we trust when he assures us that he never commits but merely brags of committing sexual assault, despite allegations by over a dozen so-called victims, including one of his ex-wives. Even America’s evangelical leaders have coalesced around the moral model that he and his former erotic nude model First Lady provides our Christian nation.

As we continue to regain our financial footing after the Great Recession triggered by the last Republican administration, and as we continue to fight the battles of the middle east also begun by that same administration, it is reassuring to know that the Republican Party is once again here to aid all of America with job-creating tax cuts for the wealthy and a foreign policy of nuanced, war-mongering diplomacy.

We should take no action against Congress as it enacts extremist right-wing policies that a majority of Americans oppose. Health insurance, Social Security, abortion rights, anti-bigotry laws, environmental protection, Wall Street regulation — all can be stripped away in the coming months without lasting damage to the underlying principles of democracy. This nation is built upon bedrock. Even if Donald Trump were a tyrant and Republican control of government a fascist coup, we will always remain America proudly in name.

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