It is no longer controversial to speak plainly about the authoritarian shift of the Republican Party, led by Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton was dragged in 2016 for saying, “You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.… The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it.” When Biden described the “extreme MAGA philosophy” as “semi-fascism” earlier this year, hardly anyone blinked. This is in part due to a shift in the conventional wisdom about Trump and partly due to Trump and the GOP not even bothering to try to hide their authoritarian aims anymore.
Trump has referred to his opponents as “vermin” who are trying to “destroy America and to destroy the American dream,” and claimed that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our nation.” The Hitlerian overtones have not gone unnoticed. And yet, the man who promises to be a dictator on “day one” leads the GOP primary by 50 points. How could this be? The horrifying conclusion is that there is plenty of appetite within the party for this sort of rhetoric and it doesn’t turn many people off.
Surveys back this up. A recent poll of likely Iowa caucusgoers found that 42 percent of them were more likely to vote for Trump based on his assertion that immigrants are “poisoning the blood” of the country. Twenty-nine percent said the comments don’t matter, and 28 percent responded that it would make them less likely to vote for him. In a national poll, 42 percent of Republicans identified themselves as “MAGA” conservatives.
Which is to say, Hillary was correct. About half of Republicans hear Trump’s rhetoric and think, “Yes, this exactly what I want.” These are the Americans who believe they should be forever atop the social and political order because of their race and/or religion and are angry at society for changing in ways that have leveled the playing field even a little. Trump promised these voters that “I am your retribution,” and they are planning to hold him to it.
Which is to say, an unbreakable plurality of the GOP explicitly wants fascism. Another 29 percent are OK with it as long as it doesn’t directly affect them (though I expect a lot of them are going to unexpectedly get their faces eaten by leopards). And of the remaining 28 percent who don’t like it, Trump’s approval ratings within the GOP as president suggest that most who don’t like what he is saying will pull the lever for him anyway in November 2024.
Some might point out that only 28 percent of U.S. voters are registered as Republicans. True, but Republican-leaning independents constitute another 17 percent, and actual swing voters are relatively rare. So the best-case scenario is that only 14 percent of voters are really dedicated to installing a fascist dictatorship. However, history tells us that that is a sufficient critical mass to send a country spinning into horror. When Milton Mayer visited Germany in the early 1950s to interview former low-level members of the Nazi party, he concluded that perhaps only a million out of 70 million Germans were “Fanatiker” (fanatics or true believers)—the rest were just along for the perks or to simply avoid unwanted scrutiny for lack of ideological purity.
In my own experience as an analyst in U.S. Central Command who studied insurgency, I estimated that you only needed 10 to 15 percent of the population to be supportive of the insurgents to get a situation like what I saw in Iraq in 2005–2006. In short, you don’t need all that many people dedicated to dictatorship, theocracy, or any other awful possibility to absolutely collapse a country into barbarism. (I have few other words for the horrors I saw committed by insurgents in Iraq over that time period.)
Which leaves us where we are today. One party is dedicated to bringing about a dictatorship that plans to seize power for “a generation or two,” purging society of the enemies that are purportedly destroying the nation from within. The other party is a vaguely center-left coalition, too weak to bring about effective change because the country’s Constitution and societal fragmentation make it politically and legally impossible.
As bad as this is, I haven’t even gotten to the really depressing part. Most people assume that if fascism came to America, we would recognize it as individuals and refuse to go along with it. In reality, very few people are directly affected by living in an authoritarian country; life is mostly “boring and tolerable” for the majority. “Yes,” most people would say, “but if asked to do things I know were wrong, I would refuse to comply. Because I’m an American, and I know better.”
Except, we’re already testing this every day in red states, and failing miserably. Let’s discuss a scenario that is already happening frequently.
A woman goes into the E.R. She’s 18 weeks pregnant, her water broke, and she’s miscarrying. There’s no way to save the fetus. She’s likely to either bleed out or die of sepsis if left untreated. A doctor assesses her and quickly reaches this conclusion. But because there’s a heartbeat (for now), he can do nothing. The doctor calls hospital administrators. They pass it along to general counsel. Counsel comes back with the determination that there are greater civil and criminal liability risks if they perform a D&C than if the woman dies from lack of treatment. This is passed to the administrators, who passes it to the doctor, who tells the woman to go wait in the car until she’s nearly dead and then maybe he can treat her, if there isn’t a fetal heartbeat.
The doctor knows this is wrong at a fundamental level. The hospital administrators probably do as well. The woman is very likely to die, painfully and slowly, from gross neglect. But the doctor is just following orders from the administrators. The administrators are just following orders from counsel. Counsel is acting on the raw calculus that the state attorney general will never grant a life of the mother exception, and that there’s less risk if she dies in the parking lot than if she’s alive in the hospital. Neither the state legislators nor the attorney general can be held criminally or civilly liable for the suffering and death that they cause. Nor can the legislators ever be removed from office, because of gerrymandering.
Ultimately, when the power of the state comes to bear on people, including Americans, the vast majority will not do the right thing. Most (sane) people admire Martin Niemöller, but when confronted with the reality of how fascism corrupts ordinary men, almost no one emulates his willingness to do the right thing by defying the state. When Trump takes power and turns the full might of the government against anyone who might resist, the guardrails of individual conscience will evaporate faster than a snow flurry in hell.