In America First we saw how Donald Trump was working to undermine public confidence in three of the essential pillars of American democracy:
- an independent judiciary
- the press & media
- the voting system
And all this, it was suggested, with a view to turning America into a neo-fascist state: a dictatorship and personality cult centred on the man who described himself (in a phone conversation with the Australian Prime Minister) as “the world’s greatest person”.
He’s since begun to undermine an additional pillar of democracy: Congress itself has now become a central target in his campaign to ‘drain the swamp’.
Draining the swamp:
In July (2017) Trump said that Republican senators “look like fools” (for not doing away with the legislative filibuster). In August he blamed the Republican-controlled Congress for worsening relations with Russia, tweeting: “You can thank Congress, the same people who can’t even give us HCare!” (referring to the failed attempts to repeal and replace the so-called ‘Obamacare’ health policies).
Now he’s taken to targeting individual Republican Senators who have dared to criticise him. Take Senator Jeff Flake, for example, who is seeking re-election but facing a challenger in the primary selection process. Trump is backing the challenger, tweeting: “Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate … He’s toxic!”
His attacks on elected Republicans go much wider: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, Dean Heller and Bob Corker … all been targets for Trump’s ire in recent weeks and months.
All this serves a three-fold purpose: to undermine public confidence in Congress as an institution, to intimidate other Republican members of Congress into avoiding further critical comment; and to try and replace those critics who refuse to be cowed with more pliant Republicans crafted in his own image.
The wider picture:
In the background to all this we see his followers chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” … as if those Americans who don’t support Trump are unpatriotic and un-American.
And in the foreground we now see several ominous moves:
- Jeff Sessions, the Trump-appointed Attorney General, announcing that he’s going to review policies on media subpoenas, threatening to compel journalists to reveal their sources for stories or face criminal sanction.
- Trump tweeting (Oct. 11th 2017): “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? …”
- Trump (Oct. 17th 2017): “It is frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it.”
- The U.S. Department of Justice – headed by Jeff Sessions – demanding that an internet service provider hand over all visitors’ IP addresses (some 1.3 million) to a website that helped organise a protest on the day of President Trump’s inauguration.
- Trump encouraging the police (July 2017) to use excessive force: “Please don’t be too nice,” when guiding “thugs into the back of a paddy wagon”, speaking dismissively of the practice by which arresting officers shield the heads of handcuffed suspects as they are placed in police cars. “You could take the hand away,” he said to an audience of federal and law enforcement personnel, many of whom applauded Trump’s remarks.
Yet more … Trump appointing military or ex-military personnel to key posts:
- General John Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security (moving afterwards to become White House Chief of Staff – see below).
- General John Kelly as White House Chief of Staff (a job that has traditionally been held by civilian).
- General John Mattis as Secretary of Defence.
- General Mike Flynn as National Security Advisor. (Trump was later forced to sack him when secret communications with the Russian ambassador came to light, but replaced him with another General, Herbert McMaster).
- General Ricky Waddell as Deputy National Security Adviser.
- General Keith Kellogg as Executive Secretary and Chief of Staff of the United States National Security Council.
- Vice-Admiral Joseph Kernan as Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence.
- Vice-Admiral David Pekoske as Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security.
- Ex-Navy SEAL Ryan Zinke as Secretary of the Interior.
All in all, Trump has now placed more military commanders in top spots than any administration since President (General) Eisenhower.
- Trump firing FBI director, James Comey, essentially (according to Comey) for refusing to drop the investigation of Flynn and refusing to pledge personal loyalty to Trump.
- Trump appointing Sebastian Gorka as Deputy Assistant to the President (now no longer in this post, but working instead for Breitbart News, platform for the Alt-Right). Of Hungarian extraction, Gorka self-identifies with the Hungarian Order of Vitéz, which US Department of State lists as having been “under the direction of the Nazi Government of Germany.”
- Trump giving a highly political speech to the Boy Scouts of America – assembled for their jamboree – and thereby generating uncomfortable if faint echoes of the uniformed ‘Hitler Youth’.
- Trump appointing Steve Bannon as chief White House strategist (he has since stepped down from this post). Bannon was the head of Breitbart News, a website he described as a “platform for the alt-right”, a movement that includes the Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalist groups.
- The creation of a “shadow State Department” within the White House, with the delegation of key foreign policy portfolios to close White House aides and the hollowing out of the actual State Department (most of the top positions crucial for shaping America’s engagement with the world remain unfilled).
- Trump’s obvious liking for government “by decree” – hence the endless stream of comments and announcements of policy decisions via Twitter.
The real unmasking:
We come now to the real unmasking of Trump, when he chose not to disavow by name the neo-Nazis, white-supremacists, Ku Klux Clan members and ‘militia’ who – as part of the Trump-supporting ‘alt-right’ – recently organised a “Unite the Right” march and torch-lit parade in Charlottesville, Virginia, ostensibly to prevent the planned removal of a statue commemorating Robert E. Lee, the slave-owning South’s top general during the American Civil War. Instead, he issued weasel words condemning the “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides (my emphasis)” … as if there was some moral equivalency between hate-mongering racists and those who oppose them.
Indeed, he went even further than this, saying that those who had marched in defence of the statue had included “many fine people”.
His remarks were welcomed by David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, who tweeted:
“Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa” [Black Lives Matter and anti-fascists].
The alt-right march in Charlottesville included many in military fatigues with insignias, some carrying Swastika flags, some chanting “Heil Trump”. They came intent on aggression, intimidation and violence. They came carrying assault rifles, emblazoned shields and wearing Kevlar body armour, blurring the lines between legitimate law enforcement and a fully armed white nationalist militia.
As Tom Perriello has written (“There Is Only One Side to the Story of Charlottesville”):
“Donald Trump, who claims to be the hero of law enforcement, has issued no criticism of those who blur the line between public and private security forces, who blur the most sacred blue line between violence and force. Is there anything more vital of a commander in chief who claims to care about those who serve in uniform than to condemn those who fake the uniform?”
And the outcome of this event in Charlottesville? It led to the murder of an innocent woman, hit by a car driven an alt-right supporter who deliberately rammed it into a crowd of people.
On many occasions past and present Trump has tacitly given license to such fascists. (For example, in 2016 he initially declined to disavow support from the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke, the former Klan leader who became a Louisiana Republican politician.) And now they’re coming out of the woodwork in droves.
‘America First’? Not really, even setting aside the crass ugliness of that sentiment. In truth, under Trump it’s the alt-right first. And it’s this rising tide – white, male-dominated, racist, sexist, homophobic and populated in no small measure by a motley assortment of nutcases) – that Trump sees as the spearhead of his neo-fascist agenda.
A private army:
Apart from undermining the essential pillars of democracy, what else do you need for a neo-fascist seizure of power? You need a large and organised mass of well-armed men, operating (unlike the army or police) outside the control of elected politicians: enter stage right the National Rifle Association (NRA), the most powerful lobbying group in America, with nearly 5 million members.
In February of this year (2017), the NRA’s Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said: “Donald Trump … has no more powerful ally than the NRA”. This organisation, over several decades, has gradually built what in effect is a citizen army equipped with highly lethal weapons.
And now it seems they are getting ready to turn their militia against anyone who questions Trump, releasing a series of videos criticising both prominent liberal forces and the mainstream media, employing language that’s pretty much an incitement to violence.
Using the hashtags #counterresistance and #clenchedfistoftruth, these videos announce a “shot across the bow” and describe the left and the media as being out of control. They say that the NRA is “coming for you” and that “elites … threaten our very survival”. In short, opponents of Trump are now being cast by the NRA as something perilously close to enemy combatants.
Back in 2009, Wayne LaPierre said:
“The guys with the guns make the rules.”
The same man in 2017:
“There is no longer any difference between our politicians and the elite media who report on them. … These elites threaten our very survival, and to them we say: We don’t trust you, we don’t fear you, and we don’t need you.”
Elected politicians … “we don’t need you”. How well this chimes with Trump’s verbal attacks on Congress and his repeated calls to “drain the swamp”. How well it fits with the notion that democracy itself is the enemy … a view that Trump has carefully fostered, starting with the presidential election campaign when he several times played up the ghost of voter fraud, refusing to say that he would accept the result if he lost, and even now still claiming (without a shred of evidence) that illegal voting denied him a popular vote victory.
And Trump’s undermining of the essential pillars of democracy is working. A poll released by Public Policy Polling (February 10th, 2017) showed that Trump voters have evidently had enough of Constitutional checks and balances: 51% of them think he should personally be able to overturn decisions by judges he doesn’t agree with, to only 33% who dissent.
Meanwhile the New York Times reported (November 2016) that while 43% of older Americans thought it would be illegitimate for the military to take power if civilian government was incompetent, only 19% of those born since 1980 (the millennials) agreed.
This comes against a background in which another study (The Democratic Disconnect, “The Journal of Democracy, July 2016) found a dramatic decline in the percentage of Americans who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy: less than one-third of the millennial generation believe that it is essential.
It also comes against a background in which Secretary of Defence James Mattis has encouraged U.S. troops to “hold the line” in the face of rising political tension in the United States:
“You just hold the line — my fine young soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines — you just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it.” He continued: “We’re so doggone lucky to be Americans. We’ve got two powers, the power of inspiration, and we’ll get the power of inspiration back. And we’ve got the power of intimidation, and that’s you, if someone wants to screw with our families, our country, and our allies.”
No longer a joke:
Before he became President, Trump was widely seen as a joke – a figure of ridicule. So too was Adolf Hitler – that “man with a funny little moustache” – before he came to power.
Trump is no Adolf Hitler, though his most fervent followers call him ‘God-Emperor’. But make no mistake, his neo-fascist outlook becomes increasingly less-disguised with every passing week. The warning signs are everywhere.
Steve Bannon was the head of Breitbart News, a website he described as a “platform for the alt-right”. He recently stepped down from his post as chief White House strategist (to return to Breitbart News as its ‘Executive Chairman’), saying “I’m … going to war for Trump against his opponents”.
And in November 2016 he also said this:
“Darkness is good. … Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when they [liberals, the media] get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.”
Don’t say you haven’t been warned … it’s well past time for America to wake up and smell the coffee.