I attended a symposium on authoritarianism a week or so ago. Two of the presentations implicitly compared Trump to Adolf Hitler and Hugo Chavez. The parallels are striking. Jay West, retired from teaching Russian history at Middlebury College, spoke about Nazi Germany and the temptations of fascism, something that naturally accompanies Russian history. Charles Shapiro, American ambassador to Venezuela during the Chavez years, spoke about his experience with Chavez.
Hitler, Chavez, and Donald Trump were all elected. Portions of the electorate disapproved of them for one reason or another, but they supported them because they thought they shared common goals and that those elected would be controllable. West and Shapiro gave much longer lists.
Trump has removed the people who might have braked his worst inclinations: the generals and legal staff and cabinet members who have carried out his orders imperfectly in his judgment. He has hollowed out government agencies designed to provide the president with information. He is behaving increasingly erratically; he now opposes his own State Department on Libya. Policy on North Korea and Russia is equally confused. This is the way wars start. Trump has threatened legal action against his enemies. Mitch McConnell is packing the courts with judges who will approve Trump’s agenda. Trump’s rhetoric uses hate and fear to divide the country.
We are in a sequence of events similar to those of the 1930s in Germany or the early 2000s in Venezuela. We must do something that the Germans of the Weimar Republic and the Venezuelans failed to do: stop the progress toward fascism and destruction.
I can’t think of a historical example of a country this far down that road that turned back, but that may be my limitation. Populism had some successes in the United States in the late 19th century, so there may be some examples there. If you’ve got an example, please send it along; we need to look at the historical successes as well as the disasters that rivet our attention.
Today’s situation, while analogous to points along the way to those historical disasters, has significant differences. The courts have struck down a number of Trump’s initiatives, most recently Trump’s reversal of a moratorium from the Obama administration on federal coal leasing. According to the Mueller report, members of the administration have slowed or thwarted actions Trump desired. Voters mobilized sufficiently in November 2018 to turn the House of Representatives Democratic. The system is partly holding.
With the Mueller report, the press seems to be turning from its reflexive “both sides do it” and the overwhelming desire to see Trump become a “normal” president. It’s not clear whether this change in direction will last.
Trump is far from giving up. He has shown extreme persistence in trying to find a way to build a wall along America’s southern border, legal or not. As French Ambassador to the US, Gérard Araud, said
[Trump] once criticized the French president [Emmanuel Macron], and people called me from Paris to say, “What should we do?” My answer was clear: “Nothing.” Do nothing because he will always outbid you. Because he can’t accept appearing to lose. You have restraint on your side, and he has no restraint on his side, so you lose. It is escalation dominance.
Trump and his minions are now touting the Mueller report as a success for them. How far that fiction will go is not clear.
A segment of the population will continue to support Trump no matter what; they will see information unfavorable to him as a test of faith. Another segment has been strongly opposed to him since he began his presidential campaign. A middle segment that supported him may have reservations about his behavior in office that are now reinforced by the Mueller report. Elected Republicans are totally committed to him or have felt that they need to support him to avoid primary challenges.
Most analyses of the possibility of impeachment look at those divisions and commonplace sentiments about how voters are likely to behave. There is no reason to believe that any of that basis is lasting. It is very early for polls, but an Ipsos-Reuters poll shows a decrease in Trump’s support. The Mueller report is wide-ranging over Trump’s malfeasance. It will continue to make news, which is likely to continue to erode his support. Senators Mitt Romney and Susan Collins have expressed concern about Trump’s behavior. Yes, they have expressed concern before in empty ways. Let’s see how this goes.
My point is that a static analysis of impeachment is a mistake. Opinions will change as investigations continue in the House of Representatives. Trump will likely become more incoherent and unhinged in his tweets, which even many of his fans express doubts about. Opinions will change.
We don’t know the direction of that change, of course, but I suspect it would be largely against Trump. It’s possible there would be a reaction in his favor, although that seems unlikely as more of his malfeasance is revealed. There will be little change if things continue as they are. But if we are to stop the descent into fascism, we must change direction.