Blog No 100. Robert Kagan on Donald Trump and Fascism in America

Occasionally we believe that  a column or editorial in the media is so cogent and compelling that it deserves reprinting in full for the benefit of readers who may not have seen it. The column below by Robert Kagan from The Washington Post is such a writing.

Robert Kagan is a historian, author and foreign policy expert of broad experience who has served several administrations in varying capacities. Although Kagan is best known for neoconservative views of foreign policy, the column below does not deal with foreign policy. Rather it concerns the candidacy of Donald Trump and its implications for not only the Republican Party but the country. According to Wikipedia, Kagan was a Republican until this year and is now an Independent.

This is how fascism comes to America

By Robert Kagan, May 18, 2016, The Washington Post

 

The Republican Party’s attempt to treat Donald Trump as a normal political candidate would be laughable were it not so perilous to the republic. If only he would mouth the party’s “conservative” principles, all would be well.

But of course the entire Trump phenomenon has nothing to do with policy or ideology. It has nothing to do with the Republican Party, either, except in its historic role as incubator of this singular threat to our democracy. Trump has transcended the party that produced him. His growing army of supporters no longer cares about the party. Because it did not immediately and fully embrace Trump, because a dwindling number of its political and intellectual leaders still resist him, the party is regarded with suspicion and even hostility by his followers. Their allegiance is to him and him alone.

And the source of allegiance? We’re supposed to believe that Trump’s support stems from economic stagnation or dislocation. Maybe some of it does. But what Trump offers his followers are not economic remedies — his proposals change daily. What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence. His incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: They provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger. His public discourse consists of attacking or ridiculing a wide range of “others” — Muslims, Hispanics, women, Chinese, Mexicans, Europeans, Arabs, immigrants, refugees — whom he depicts either as threats or as objects of derision. His program, such as it is, consists chiefly of promises to get tough with foreigners and people of nonwhite complexion. He will deport them, bar them, get them to knuckle under, make them pay up or make them shut up.

That this tough-guy, get-mad-and-get-even approach has gained him an increasingly large and enthusiastic following has probably surprised Trump as much as anyone else. Trump himself is simply and quite literally an egomaniac. But the phenomenon he has created and now leads has become something larger than him, and something far more dangerous.

Republican politicians marvel at how he has “tapped into” a hitherto unknown swath of the voting public. But what he has tapped into is what the founders most feared when they established the democratic republic: the popular passions unleashed, the “mobocracy.” Conservatives have been warning for decades about government suffocating liberty. But here is the other threat to liberty that Alexis de Tocqueville and the ancient philosophers warned about: that the people in a democracy, excited, angry and unconstrained, might run roughshod over even the institutions created to preserve their freedoms. As Alexander Hamilton watched the French Revolution unfold, he feared in America what he saw play out in France — that the unleashing of popular passions would lead not to greater democracy but to the arrival of a tyrant, riding to power on the shoulders of the people.

This phenomenon has arisen in other democratic and quasi-democratic countries over the past century, and it has generally been called “fascism.” Fascist movements, too, had no coherent ideology, no clear set of prescriptions for what ailed society. “National socialism” was a bundle of contradictions, united chiefly by what, and who, it opposed; fascism in Italy was anti-liberal, anti-democratic, anti-Marxist, anti-capitalist and anti-clerical. Successful fascism was not about policies but about the strongman, the leader (Il Duce, Der Führer), in whom could be entrusted the fate of the nation. Whatever the problem, he could fix it. Whatever the threat, internal or external, he could vanquish it, and it was unnecessary for him to explain how. Today, there is Putinism, which also has nothing to do with belief or policy but is about the tough man who single-handedly defends his people against all threats, foreign and domestic.

To understand how such movements take over a democracy, one only has to watch the Republican Party today. These movements play on all the fears, vanities, ambitions and insecurities that make up the human psyche. In democracies, at least for politicians, the only thing that matters is what the voters say they want — vox populi vox Dei. A mass political movement is thus a powerful and, to those who would oppose it, frightening weapon. When controlled and directed by a single leader, it can be aimed at whomever the leader chooses. If someone criticizes or opposes the leader, it doesn’t matter how popular or admired that person has been. He might be a famous war hero, but if the leader derides and ridicules his heroism, the followers laugh and jeer. He might be the highest-ranking elected guardian of the party’s most cherished principles. But if he hesitates to support the leader, he faces political death.

In such an environment, every political figure confronts a stark choice: Get right with the leader and his mass following or get run over. The human race in such circumstances breaks down into predictable categories — and democratic politicians are the most predictable. There are those whose ambition leads them to jump on the bandwagon. They praise the leader’s incoherent speeches as the beginning of wisdom, hoping he will reward them with a plum post in the new order. There are those who merely hope to survive. Their consciences won’t let them curry favor so shamelessly, so they mumble their pledges of support, like the victims in Stalin’s show trials, perhaps not realizing that the leader and his followers will get them in the end anyway.

A great number will simply kid themselves, refusing to admit that something very different from the usual politics is afoot. Let the storm pass, they insist, and then we can pick up the pieces, rebuild and get back to normal. Meanwhile, don’t alienate the leader’s mass following. After all, they are voters and will need to be brought back into the fold. As for Trump himself, let’s shape him, advise him, steer him in the right direction and, not incidentally, save our political skins.

What these people do not or will not see is that, once in power, Trump will owe them and their party nothing. He will have ridden to power despite the party, catapulted into the White House by a mass following devoted only to him. By then that following will have grown dramatically. Today, less than 5 percent of eligible voters have voted for Trump. But if he wins the election, his legions will likely comprise a majority of the nation. Imagine the power he would wield then. In addition to all that comes from being the leader of a mass following, he would also have the immense powers of the American presidency at his command: the Justice Department, the FBI, the intelligence services, the military. Who would dare to oppose him then? Certainly not a Republican Party that lay down before him even when he was comparatively weak. And is a man like Trump, with infinitely greater power in his hands, likely to become more humble, more judicious, more generous, less vengeful than he is today, than he has been his whole life? Does vast power un-corrupt?

This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party — out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear — falling into line behind him.

18 thoughts on “Blog No 100. Robert Kagan on Donald Trump and Fascism in America

  • Thanks Andy. I’ll take the devil one knows, bearing in mind H.L. Mencken’s words that all politicians are liars and crooks. Who but an extreme egoist would want to be president — especially in the mad, mad world we live in today? Thus we must choose the one who is competent and has a wealth of experience in world affairs. The Donald apparently is good at making money, but that is his only credential. Regrettably, the GOP and independants went off the rails in the crazy primaries. The GOP is now working to change the primary rules (as reported in today’s NY Times) to prevent a similar fiasco in 2020. Best wishes, Roger

    PS The polls (to be taken with a grain of salt) reflect that the vast majority of registered Republicans are extremely unhappy with the Party’s presumptive nominee. No one yet fully understands how or why we ended up with a crass loudmouth from New York as the GOP nominee.

  • Yea, Trump and Kim Jong are a perfect fit. Let’s play Russian roulette with the future of our country. Get down and dirty. Pull out of NATO. Start trade wars. Insult all Muslims. Call Mexicans rapists and murderers. Freeze lawful immigrant payments to relatives in Mexico unless it pays for a wall. Brag about the size of his jack. Mass deportations. Pick any issue and Trump gets it wrong. Good judgment?!!! A colossosal fool and circus clown. Never Trump.

    • I agree with you Roger, those positions are offensive to many people (apparently not all), but we’re stuck with him and maybe I am an optimist and I am reading more into him than what’s there, but it’s just that he has been so damn effective, incredible so, even now he has caught up with Hillary in supporters. Incredible. So it seems to me that the question is: is he a calculating genius or a deranged man?

      If his positions and manner is calculating and not serious but designed to win the primary and set negotiating positions, then that is the kind of mind I would rather have as President than the holy ideology that currently holds the office and is driving America into a second rate power while simultaneously driving the world into chaos by projecting weakness to the ruthless dictators of the world.

      As regards to Hilary and Bill, never has there been two politicians in memory that has been so corrupt, amoral and self-serving. We know who this couple is and they are as sick as the Donald seems to be but they just lie better, so will it be the devil one knows or the devil one does not?

  • Right on Monica. Trump is a nut case. My wife and I lived in Brooklyn Heights in the 70s. Trump was crazy back then and has not improved with age. Hillary, at least, is competent and has worked to help children and working families her entire caeer. She may prove to be a good prez. Never Trump. Best wishes, Roger

    • Thanks Roger (and wife). I lived in Bklyn too (1979-2009), so I certainly got a full-load of Trump over those years, and knew a few people who knew him (and one who worked for him). But I never took Trump seriously…always thought he was repulsive/ridiculous, and not even one of the biggest developers in NYC; he just had the most aggressive PR.
      Hillary would very definitely be a more competent prez than Trump…as would others too numerous to mention.
      Best,
      Monica

  • Doug……..your article to support a third party (Republican) to make sure Trump NEVER would be elected seems to have gotten lost……..where do you think this matter rests?? I am aware that getting someone to run has proven to be difficult but certainly it is not impossible….it is such an important item……get That person to run and Trump loses…….it also puts Kagan’s concerns away for awhile

  • While I am no fan of Robert Kagan’s advice, remembering his strong neocon background during the lead up to the Iraqi War, he seems to me to be right on in his assessment of Trump. That said, his opinion may be skewed by the fact that he is married to Victoria Nuland, who worked closely with Hillary Clinton while she was Secretary of State and is now considered by some to be Hillary’s protege who would play a key part in her administration’s foreign policy. Nuland in Hillary’s administration would be for me a reason to support anyone but her, but in any choice between two negatives, NEVER TRUMP!

    • Just other examples of people with questionable morals and ethics, don’t forget JFK’s affairs while in office, his illegal wars I.e. Bay of Pigs, his ramp up of the Vietnam war and Ronald Reagan with the Contranesta scandal, Star Wars, etc. We live in a dirty, messy world only Presidents who know how to get dirty can best deal with it. Those of that are to pure, fail.

  • I think we’re all jumping the gun (no pun intended) here on the Donald and in some cases the dislike of Thrump is almost becoming a Neurosis with some people. What we should be doing is giving him the benefit of the doubt and see how his policies develop over the next few months.

    He has appealed to the a group of people in the US that have been let down by the Elites and has used their anger to progress his candidacy–not unlike a lot of candidates do with other groups of the electorate. Yes his demeanor has not been that attractive to college educated types, neither he does not seem to know that much about foreign policy, trade policy or any policy at all. His ethics are debatable as are his morals but for one I’ve had enough of self-righteous individuals who think more about some abstract ideology than they do about the best interests of the United States e.g. Obama, Jimmy Carter, other democratic and some Republicans who have all the “correct” morals and righteous ways and go about screwing up America.

    I say let’s give the presidency to those with dubious morals, realpolitiks that will do what it takes to fight for American interests e.g John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and others.

    • Having dubious personal/business morals may not be crucial in evaluating a candidate’s suitability for the Presidency (although, in my view, not entirely irrelevant), as long as such candidate articulates coherent, substantive public-policy goals, and demonstrates a grasp of the actions required to realize those goals and his/her ability to achieve them. (See FDR and LBJ, whom you omitted from your list.)
      You say we should give the proudly amoral Trump, whom you concede knows nothing about “any policy at all,” the “benefit of the doubt,” and time to “see how his policies develop over the next few months.” Say what? He’s already the effective GOP nominee! What are you waiting for…and why? More attacks on Hillary for Bill Clinton’s dalliances, while Trump has for decades publicly bragged about his own (real and imagined…just ask Carla Bruni, for one, about the latter), and arranged to have Melania, his then-girlfriend/now-wife photographed in soft-porn poses on his own jet for British GQ magazine, back @ 2000?
      Trump is not only amoral, he is nothing other than amoral…oops, not quite true, he’s also a fabulist. He’s going to be 70 in 3 weeks…and in my judgment he’s not remotely interested in “fighting for American interests,” he’s just desperate to pump-up his own fading interests (and winning the Presidency would certainly do the trick).
      Robert Kagan’s piece was chilling…but spot-on.
      Monica MacAdams

      • Well we’ll see won’t we. I am not a Thrump guy nor do I particularly like him so far, but I don’t think knowing “Policy” starting off is all that important for a President, it is more important to have judgement, an understanding of human nature and gamesmanship–all things that cannot be taught. There are plenty of policy wonks in every administration that can inform even the most ignorant “community organizer.” That does not mean that the nice guy President has the judgement to pick the best course for the U.S.

        Sure, It would be nice to have an articulate, attractive, ideologically pure soul in the Presidency but how many of those have been successful. The President has to deal with the Putins, Kim Jong-uns, Xi Jinpings of the world and he or she needs to know how and when to get dirty. Not some pure ideological world they are trying to make while this one goes to hell.

  • Nice piece by Robert Kagan. There are neo-Nazis among Trump’s hard core supporters but mainly ignorant people who are filled with hate and anger at what America has become: a multicultural society in which all people are free to pursue their dreams. Many of his older supporters grew up in a society where blacks were treated as inferior, denied access to good schools, public playgrounds, restaurants and restrooms. A society that discriminated against Jews and Catholics, Italians and Poles. Where gays were ridiculed or beaten up. Other supporters are affluent and have college degrees and believe Trump will preserve their wealth and privilege. In fact, his regressive, anti-trade and isolationist policies will hurt all Americans, rich and poor, white and black, Christians and Jews. So, yes, Trumpism does represent a threat to democratic institutions and is feared by all enlightened people including our major allies. But, at the end of the day, Donald Trump, real estate tycoon turned reality TV star, will not fool enough people to win election to high office. His hateful and America First program will be be perceived for what iit truly is: the ranting of an egomaniac whose only aim is to enrich himself and gain the adulation of everyone around him. A man so insecure that he constantly brags about his sexual prowess and billionaire status. Trump is a creature of the news media, a freak who drove up TV ratings and advertising revenues. The news media, acting as responsible journalists, will now bring him down, making more money highlighting his stupidity and incompetence, failed Atlantic City gambling casinos, mistreatment of workers, insults of women, crooked business ventures. The Republcan party will be tainted by his candidacy and have to find its way back to respectability. Those in the Party who stood firmly against Trumpism will lead the way to a bigger and better GOP, the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.

  • As I recall, Mr. Kagan, endorsed Ms. Clinton last February.
    I further remember that Mr. Kagan was either appointed or reccomended by Ms. Clinton , for an important position in the US Government several years ago.
    Perhaps his remarks are cogent and timely, but not surprising, or unexpected.
    By becoming an “independent” he has forfeited his right, as a Republican ,
    to vote in any Republican primary and be part of the candidate selection process.
    He now will have to vote for someone else’s choice that made the effort, took the time, and voiced their opinion. Perhaps, some day, the “Independents” will have their own primaries. Wow!
    Lastly, does his reference suggest that only 5 percent of the total eligible voters chose Trump, or is it 5 percent of all voters in primaries, or only 5 percent of the voters in the Republican primaries.
    I am a very enthusiastic reader of Rhinocracy. The forum you provide is always interesting, timely, fair, and exceptionally well composed .
    Even old foggies like me, find it stimulating and often challenging.
    Thank you!
    Bob Curry

    • Hay Bob. It’s 5% of all eligible voters. Don’t think Kagan is any less entitled than anyone to call out Trump — bad for every American, not just registered Republicans. Best.
      -Roger

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