As the US celebrates the resilience of its democracy, it would be well advised also to recognise its vulnerabilities, writes Giacomo Lichtner
In July 1943, as the Allies invaded Sicily and prepared their advance on the Italian peninsula, King Victor Emmanuel III and his army chief Pietro Badoglio decided to ditch the dictator they had supported and served for two decades, one Benito Mussolini.
They did not stage a coup, but more mundanely persuaded a majority of Mussolini’s own Grand Council (a kind of cabinet) to vote against him. Anticipating a fierce reaction by the Duce, one member, Dino Grandi, famously attended the meeting with two grenades in his briefcase.
No such drama was needed, however. Mussolini was meekly turfed out in a majority vote, his own finance minister describing his defence as “weak, untidy and contradictory”. Having lost his mystique as well as power, he was arrested as he left the building that same morning.
I thought of this story as Donald Trump returned defeated from his round of golf the other day, bloated and dejected: the “obese turtle flailing in the sun”, as CNN’s Anderson Cooper had mercilessly put it hours earlier, was losing even the strength to flail.
Over the past few years, historians of European fascism have routinely faced questions about the similarities between the authoritarian streak of Trump’s presidency and the rise of fascism in inter-war Europe. For the most part, we have been appropriately sceptical of direct and simplistic comparisons, referring to parallels, echoes, analogies, and the old adage that while history doesn’t repeat itself it may rhyme – from time to time.
It’s fair to say there has been a high degree of consensus among scholars of fascism that other descriptors (authoritarian, demagogue, plutocrat, kleptocrat…) may fit both the person and historical moment better, and yet important aspects of Trumpian rhetoric bear the hallmark of fascist solutions, as do specific actions of his administration.
One could point, for instance, to the systematic use of malicious propaganda, the ritualistic cult of personality, strength and masculinity, the mocking disregard (and simultaneous attempt to seize control of) democratic institutions, the demonisation of political opponents and the dehumanisation of minorities, and of course aggressive nationalism. Yet none of these is the prerogative of fascism alone, and in spite of all of them Trump could not help losing both elections held under his watch (the other being the mid-term Congressional election).
Yet the fact Trump’s presidency may not be interpreted historically as a ‘fascist regime’ does not detract from the fact that, as has been widely suggested, American voters last week fought to save their democracy.
Two developments in particular demonstrate this: first, the escalation in violent rhetoric by Trump in recent weeks, which, combined with the exponential rise in organised white supremacist militias, raised the spectre of the paramilitary organisations instrumental to the success of 20th-century fascist regimes; second, Trump’s refusal to concede elections he lost fairly and ultimately in convincing fashion despite the impression left on observers by the red mirage on Wednesday night of last week and the subsequent exhausting wait.
Since hopes and repeated predictions for a Trumpian pivot from provocateur to statesman were (or should have been) dashed after he clinched the 2016 Republican primary, can we really express any confidence of what a second term would have entailed?
If we can indulge in some counter-history – which seems quite innocent in the context of a political movement defined by conspiracy theories and alternative facts – it is not hard to imagine a 2023 primary campaign dominated by pundit outrage at @realdonaldtrump-fuelled speculation that it is now time for the US to remove the two-term limit on the presidency, not because the leader wishes it, but because ‘many people are saying’ it is the popular will.
Emboldened by the validation of a second term, employed to enact his radical right-wing agenda and fabricate rumours about potential opponents, it is likely the administration would have built ‘the wall’, continued to pack the courts, and completed the job of colonising government departments and undermining the competence and integrity of the civil service.
In such a heady scenario, and at the mercy of a president whose personal popularity can doom almost any Republican politician’s re-election efforts, the compromise solution of electing one of the Trump offspring instead of changing the constitution would likely be welcomed by commentators and Republican lawmakers as an act of democratic responsibility.
Fear, jobs and tax cuts might have done the rest. Public opinion would – as it has done since 2016 – allow Trump’s narrative to dominate, chasing every distraction and depicting as a rampant economy a country enjoying a post-Covid recovery fuelled by sweeping deregulations and a dependent workforce without health insurance or a welfare safety net.
As half the country resisted, domestic tensions and riots would bring to the fore armed white supremacists tired of standing down and standing by; in that scenario, Trump could make easy work of appealing to law and order, as he tried to do in 2020, and both wielding and promising to rein in the militias, in a well-worn authoritarian tradition.
And all this without factoring in the possibility of international conflict and the ensuing patriotic effort, the further suspension of accountability, the emergency legislation…
Obviously, the above is far-fetched and sketchy, but not inconsistent with the past four years and therefore not implausible.
This is why the American relief of last weekend’s spontaneous celebrations, CNN commentator Van Jones’s tears and the extolling of determined voters, patient vote counters, courageous officials and the democratic idiosyncrasies of America’s fierce federalism are all well justified.
Yet even as the US celebrates the resilience of its democracy, with remarkably renewed faith in its exceptionalism, it would be well advised also to recognise its vulnerabilities.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris was inspired in quoting the late civil rights campaigner and Congressman John Lewis: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.” This ‘act’ of democracy is more than the vote, though: it is exercised every time one seeks reliable information; it is renewed every time one chooses civic responsibility over personal gain and respectful scepticism over self-centred cynicism; it is inscribed in commitment and engagement and critical thinking.
The thought goes to Twitter’s last-minute action in labelling Trump’s seditious falsehoods and then immediately to its much-longer inaction. If apathy, bystanders, opportunistic accomplices and enthusiastic enablers have been a key factor in Trump’s presidency, then the record turnout in this election was a fitting and cathartic end to it. And yet that turnout was still low compared with many other countries; it is important not to let symbolism disguise the problems that endure.
It is too early to analyse this close shave ‘historically’. But when the time comes, I suspect historians will set aside incidental parallels with the fascist regimes of the 20th century and look with more interest at the continuities that tie Trump’s America to a much longer struggle for and against democracy, inclusion and universal human rights.
When the time comes, that is, because the struggle goes on, and we should not forget that 45 days after being unseated and arrested Mussolini was being freed by Adolf Hitler’s forces for a final, pathetic but deadly twist of his tale.