Leading historians of fascism are warning that Trump will stop at nothing to retain power, and there are ominous signs that he is preparing for violence.
What is the point of history is we do not learn from it? It’s a question that’s been very much on my mind in the aftermath of the US election.
Like millions of people around the world, I was transfixed by the drama that unfolded in America’s battleground states last week, and overjoyed as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris slowly but surely emerged as the clear victors. America’s long nightmare seemed finally to be coming to an end, and with it perhaps the ascendancy of far-right populists around the world, for whom Trump has been a role model and a figurehead. But, in the days since then, a sense of creeping foreboding has taken hold.
Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the result and recognise Biden as president elect is on one level a supremely comic spectacle – what could be more delicious than a man as vainglorious as Trump issuing ever more absurd lies in FULL CAPS tweets as his successor calmly prepares for the transition? But we would be extremely unwise to think that the deranged narcissist in the White House is not still extremely dangerous.
His legal challenges to the results in states won by the Democrats are unsupported by evidence and look pretty sure to come to nothing. But there are many indications that Trump is not going to restrain himself to legal methods – when has he ever done so in the past? – and is in fact preparing for a full-scale assault on American democracy.
Even before the election, there were signs that he was preparing for violence – not least in the shape of a huge steel fence erected around the White House, an unprecedented barrier between its occupant and the outside world. In the days after the result became clear, further dark omens have proliferated.
On 9 November, Trump announced on Twitter that he was firing his Defence Secretary, Mark Esper, who had angered the president earlier by refusing to agree to Trump’s demand to unleash troops against Black Lives Matter protesters. Speaking after his sacking, Esper – by no means a bleeding-heart liberal – warned: “ Who’s going to come in behind me? It’s going to be a real ‘yes man’. And then God help us.”
Over the next 24 hours, Trump decapitated the entire civilian leadership of the US military, installing in its place compliant Trump loyalists. The Pentagon’s head of policy was replaced by retired Brigadier General Anthony Tata, who had been nominated for the role by Trump in the summer but rejected after strong bipartisan opposition to Tata’s extremist views. A virulent islamophobe, Tata has described former President Obama as a Muslim “terrorist leader”; he has also tweeted about his belief in the “deep state” conspiracy theory that is a central component of the QAnon cult.
It is unprecedented for a departing president to make such changes during the transition period and it’s difficult to see them as anything other than preparation to use the military for the sorts of purposes at which Esper drew a line – and very possibly worse. One Defence Department official told CNN: “This is scary, it’s very unsettling. These are dictator moves.”
The US has long thought of itself as a bastion of democratic values – a “shining city on a hill”, to use an image favoured by previous presidents from John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Of course, America’s history has many far from shining strands, but it’s still hard for its citizens to believe that the values and institutions of democracy could be trashed by the efforts of a fraudulent and intellectually challenged egomaniac.
But democracies have not infrequently been replaced by tyrannies, and many leading historians are warning that America should not think of itself as enjoying magical protection from such a fate.
Federico Finchelstein, a historian of fascism and populism in Latin America, told the Washington Post: “Trump, like Bolsonaro in Brazil, does not like democracy, He admires dictators and autocrats but, so far, though he has downgraded American democracy in so many ways, institutions, media and citizens have presented barriers to his desire to open a fascist danger in the United States.”
Ukrainian-American historian Serhii Plokhy told the New York Times: “Trump’s behaviour is without precedent among leaders in Western democracies. Even in military dictatorships, the dictators more often than not honour the results of elections and retire if they lose them.”
Ivan Krastev, an expert on East and Central Europe at the Vienna-based Institute for Human Sciences, warned that far-right populists in Europe would be learning from Trump’s behaviour: “When Trump won in 2016 the lesson was that they could trust democracy,” he said. “Now, they won’t trust democracy, and will do everything and anything to stay in power.”
But the starkest warning of all came from Yale professor Timothy D. Snyder, a leading historian of Nazism and the author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. In a long Twitter thread, he spelled it out: “What Donald Trump is attempting to do has a name: coup d’état. Poorly organised though it might seem, it is not bound to fail. It must be made to fail.”
Urging Americans not “to look away, as many of us are doing,” he wrote: “Democracy is undone from within rather than from without. The occasion to undo democracy is often an election. The mechanism to undo democracy is usually a fake emergency, a claim that internal enemies have done something outrageous.”
Snyder noted that Trump, shamefully assisted by leading Republican politicians, is deliberately creating “a myth of a ‘stab in the back’ by internal enemies” of exactly the kind used by the Nazis to justify violence against citizens in interwar Germany.
“It is up to civil society, organized citizens, to defend the vote and to peacefully defend democracy,” he urged. “Dance after the wedding, not before. Take responsibility, Americans.”
We had better hope they’re listening.