You live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed.
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NBC News reported this week that Donald Trump is not only still leading the GOP field, but that his margin is growing:
Former President Donald Trump has expanded his lead over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the rest of the Republican presidential field since Trump’s latest indictment on federal criminal charges, according to a new national NBC News poll.
Another national survey, reported by NBC on Monday, shows a toss-up in a Trump-Biden matchup; Joe Biden’s small lead is within the margin of error.
All of which raises the question: What would America be like if Trump or a similarly fascist Republican were to take the White House in 2024? What would the dire warnings about American fascism, were they realized, mean in real life?
My wife Louise and I have been in Spain all this week while Jefferson Smith fills in for me on my radio/TV show, and we’ve learned more than a little that might answer those questions.
Most Americans, when they think of fascism, think of goose-stepping Nazi soldiers and death camps, and believe that that whole system of government was totally crushed by the Allies in 1945 at the end of World War II. But Spain was fascist right up until dictator Francisco Franco’s death in 1975 at the age of 82.
There are still many people here in Spain who regard the Franco time fondly; if you were on his side, supported his Falange party — later called simply “The Movement” — or were assiduously nonpolitical, life could be relatively normal.
Just this morning a Spaniard we spent a few hours with told us how most people simply avoided politics back during Franco’s time — and are still, to this day, reluctant to discuss the horrors of his regime. “There is talk of reparations for his victims,” she said, “but it is very contentious. Mostly, people avoid discussing those times.”
If you weren’t political, life went on like in much of the rest of “free” Europe. People worked, went to theater and dance clubs, raised their kids, vacationed, cared for pets, engaged in hobbies, fell in love or got divorced: As long as Franco’s regime wasn’t mentioned in a negative light, life was good.
As in most fascist or neofascist countries throughout history and today, the wealthy were the most well taken care of, but even working people and the poor enjoyed a reasonable social safety net. In 1942, Franco mandated a national health care insurance program, for example, and throughout his reign expanded the number of hospital beds and clinics across the country; in 1951 he led a movement through much of the Spanish speaking world to establish what became something like American Social Security.
But… if you spoke out against his fascist movement, job opportunities vanished, you could be imprisoned, or even “disappeared,” as happened to tens of thousands. One of the people we spoke with here told us how the media was entirely in the bag for Franco with pro-fascist slogans and news shorts airing constantly, along with commentary praising him even interspersed into music and programs on radio and TV.
Trump and his followers have given us numerous insights into how he’d transform American society to resemble something like Franco’s regime. As with Franco, loyalty to Trump and his cult was a far more important factor in rising through the ranks of government and even private industry.
Trump has promised — most recently just a few weeks ago — that he would use the awesome police powers of the federal government to target his political enemies for persecution, imprisonment, and possibly even death.
Several former DOJ officials, men Trump has suggested could lead the agency if he again becomes president, have endorsed stripping our federal police agencies of their independence and making them armed factions of Trump’s movement.
Republicans don’t talk about it out loud very much, unlike Nixon’s man G. Gordon Liddy, who used to love on fascism back in the day, when he signed memos using Adolf Hitler’s SS symbol.
But MAGA Republicans have a model for a future America and it grows both closer and clearer every day. What could it be? What would it look like? How will it most likely come about?
First, and essential to American fascism, Republicans envision a strong-man Leader who will hold power for as long as he (it’s almost always a “he”) chooses, with the transition to the next Leader determined by The Leader himself.
This has been the primary characteristic of every fascist-type of government to emerge in the 7,000-year written history of the modern world.
When Trump was running for reelection, at rallies in both Nevada and Wisconsin, he came right out and said that not only would he win the 2020 election but that he’d also be reelected in 2024 and 2028. He was dead serious. Sure, our Constitution says a president can only serve two terms: so did the Russian constitution, until Putin got it amended. Trump was planning the same, and his followers were — if the response at the rallies when he announced it is any indicator — ecstatic at the prospect.
That single strongman Leader, and his hand-selected toadies at every secondary or tertiary level of government, are the key to understanding everything else that happens when a country flips from democracy to oligarchy to fascism.
For example, in a fascist state the way that you as an average citizen ensure your own advancement and economic, personal, and political security is by sucking up to that one man (albeit often through one of his factotums). You either become an acolyte/follower or you find yourself on the outside looking in.
If you think this sounds extreme, just look at today’s Republican Party, which has become the prototype for how these MAGA Republicans will reinvent the United States if they gain power.
Liz Cheney spoke against Trump, and the Wyoming GOP expelled her while Trump supported a primary challenger. Four Republicans who voted to impeach Trump faced such a backlash that they decided to retire from politics: Adam Kinzinger, Anthony Gonzalez, John Katko, and Fred Upton.
Not only is fealty to The Leader required for political advancement, it’s also a requirement for individual economic advancement. Employers eager for state contracts or The Leader’s endorsements of their products or services demote or fire those insufficiently loyal to The Leader.
Psychologist Dr. Bandy Lee was fired from Yale University for writing that Trump was dangerously mentally ill. Schoolteacher Leah Kinyon was fired from her job for saying “I hate Donald Trump. … He is a sexual predator. He’s a literal moron.” Juli Briskman was fired from her job with government contractor Akima for giving Trump’s motorcade the finger.
Rebekah Jones was fired by DeSantis for telling the truth about his covering up Florida COVID-19 statistics. Florida’s Orange County Health Director Dr. Raul Pino was removed for encouraging his staff to get vaccinated.
When companies defy The Leader they are brutally punished, as DeSantis is doing right now to Disney and the Tampa Bay Rays. Soon companies don’t even try to stand up to The Leader, including media companies.
And now Trump mini-me DeSantis has signed legislation giving him the authority to “hold accountable” college professors, reviewing their politics every five years so those who aren’t totally on board with his agenda can lose tenure and be fired.
The headline at Salon says it all:
DeSantis signs bill requiring survey of Florida students, professors on their political views. Colleges could lose funding if survey of “ideas and perspectives” fails to satisfy state’s GOP-run legislature.
You end up doing things on The Leader’s behalf, whether you’re supporting his party, working at a private corporation, or engaged in the nonprofit sector like teaching at a university or medical center.
Defying or challenging The Leader brings opprobrium; supporting The Leader is the path to career advancement. The Trump White House and DeSantis Governor’s Office are filled with examples.
Everything is done for The Leader because The Leader is the state. The state and The Leader have become one.
If you challenge The Leader, you’re challenging the state, and that’s treason. As Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) once said of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA):
She took an oath to protect American citizens and uphold our laws. And she gives aid and comfort to our enemies who illegally invade our land. That’s what treason is. And by our law, representatives and senators can be kicked out and no longer serve in our government — and it’s a crime punishable by death.
Whatever The Leader says becomes the law. This is called “rule by decree” and it’s where every fascist in history — including those for the thousands of years before Benito Mussolini “invented” the word — has ended up.
The power to rule by decree goes back to the days of kings and is also embedded in our laws about the president’s emergency powers. Trump came close to invoking it with an “emergency declaration” when he lost the election. Gen. Michael Flynn begged him to do it and “temporarily suspend the Constitution.”
It now appears that the reason Trump was showing classified Iranian battle plans to reporters at his Bedminister, NJ, club was to trash-talk Gen. Mark Milley as “revenge” for Milley’s refusal to use the military as Flynn wanted to complete the January 6 coup.
Next time, he won’t be so restrained and he will have surrounded himself in advance with people like Flynn who will make it happen.
Yet, while it will change how power is distributed in our government, things will still look much the same, just as during Franco’s reign here in Spain. If a fascist like Trump or DeSantis rises to power again in the United States, there will still be all the trappings of democracy.
The House and Senate, state houses and governors, bureaucracies and political systems will remain intact. Everything looks normal on the surface.
But when you peel off the top layer, you discover that all of those people in all of those offices, whether elected or bureaucratic, are serving only one principle and one person and that is The Leader.
Be they governors, secretaries of state, US senators, members of the US House, state representatives, or even a part-time guy working at a polling place in Michigan, they might get a call at any time from The Leader demanding that they do something for him, whether it’s legal or not.
There will still be opposition parties and political candidacies in a Republican fascist America, although if any of them seriously challenges The Leader or shows the ability to disrupt the status quo, they’ll be discovered to have a secret drug habit or get imprisoned for corruption or other made-up charges.
Nobody will really notice, though. People will just shrug their shoulders and assume another crook got caught. The swamp is being cleaned up.
The prosperity of the company you work for will depend in part on how well it supports the politics of The Leader. Today we see this writ large in Russia and the GOP’s new role model, Hungary.
The Leader helps a few dozen oligarchs he knows are loyal to him seize control of the nation’s major industries, and every smaller company in each of those industries must directly or indirectly answer to its oligarch.
Those who fail to are bought out, shut down, or simply cannot find customers or supplies because nobody will do business with them. The tentacles just keep growing.
The industry where this is most visible at first is the media.
Some media organizations will be absorbed by the government itself, as Vladimir Putin has done in Russia; others will be bought out and run by The Leader’s oligarch buddies, as is the case today in Hungary and Turkey (among others).
Soon opposition voices vanish from all but the most obscure media, and those few opposing voices that are tolerated are pointed to by The Leader as proof the nation “is still an open democracy.”
Jews and people of color may find a rougher time maintaining a job or staying safe from vigilantes, abuse, and discrimination but white conservatives will be just fine, particularly white conservative men.
The majority of Americans, so long as they pay attention to football instead of politics, won’t even notice how the nation has changed.
There will still be Christmas parties, although people celebrating Hanukkah or Muslims praying may want to pull the shades closed.
Hate crimes and murders by vigilante groups start happening with such frequency that the media doesn’t bother to report them anymore.
Within a few years a little bit of every business activity in the country ends up in The Leader’s pocket. And The Leader uses that revenue to enrich himself, his inner circle, and those who are part of his military entourage, his private military.
That’s right: The Leader’s private military.
It’d be put together like what DeSantis is organizing in Florida right now, a state-sanctioned militia that answers only to The Leader, in this case DeSantis. Trump tried the same in 2020, flying 700+ Customs and Border Protection and other federal officers into Portland, OR, where they hit the streets without identification on their uniforms to beat and kidnap people protesting George Floyd’s murder.
When the private militia is created at the federal level it’ll become a substantial national military force with hundreds of thousands of soldiers under The Leader’s direct command. Hitler’s was called the SS and answered only to The Leader himself. Mussolini and Franco had theirs, as Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Mohammed bin Salman, and others do today.
Citing “national security,” The Leader’s private militia will have an undisclosed and therefore vast budget. Outside of times it’s called on to intimidate people or make a public display of power, it’ll largely operate in secret.
Its members won’t have to obey the law because, as agents of The Leader who’s above the law, they are, too. If they have to kill somebody, there will be no investigation unless it’s to cover up the crime. If they need to make somebody disappear, that person disappears. At first it’ll be done by stochastic terrorism: lone wolf actors not directly connected to The Leader but answering his general call to punish political evildoers.
Just ask Nancy Pelosi or Mike Pence.
The Leader’s oligarch buddies and their media machine, along with his well-indoctrinated followers, promote a law-and-order crime ideology that results in high levels of incarceration, heavily militarized police, and a disregard for the general rights of the average citizen, particularly racial and religious minorities.
As “future dystopian” as all this may sound, there are more governments in the world run this way today than there are democracies. It’s “normal.” And once established it’s almost impossible to dislodge without a crisis like the death of The Leader or an actual revolution. Just ask any Russian. Or Spaniards who were alive in 1975.
Some of the governments around the world that are structured like this were democracies that turned fascist, like Russia, Turkey, and Hungary. But many have been this way for centuries, including the hereditary kingdoms in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
So, how do the democratic countries that make the transition to fascism allow that to happen? And what is life like in those countries, both during and after the time that it’s happened?
We can’t say we weren’t warned by our own people, our own politicians, the most senior members of our own institutional power structure.
In a speech that was hysterically criticized by Republicans and Fox “News“ pundits, former President Barack Obama in December of 2017 came right out and said it:
You have to tend to this garden of democracy, otherwise things can fall apart fairly quickly. And we’ve seen societies where that happens.
Yes, the former president of the United States invoked Nazi Germany six years ago while Donald Trump was president, adding:
Now, presumably, there was a ballroom in Vienna in the late 1920s or ’30s that looked and seemed as if it ― filled with the music and art and literature and the science that was emerging ― would continue into perpetuity.
And then 60 million people died. And the entire world was plunged into chaos.
And now the president of the United States warns Americans that a fascist movement within our own nation is at our door, and will either be soundly defeated in the next election or will seize power and end our form of government:
What we’re seeing now is [either] the beginning or the death knell of an extreme MAGA philosophy. It’s not just Trump, it’s the entire philosophy that underpins the — I’m going to say something, it’s like semi-fascism.
Biden’s comment got only a passing mention in the news.
But, still, how do we know? Is there a sudden proclamation by The Leader that the nation is now “officially fascist”?
After World War II, a Chicago reporter named Milton Mayer struggled to understand how Hitler was able to flip one of the world’s most stable democracies into fascism.
An American Jew of German ancestry and a brilliant writer, Mayer went to Germany seven years after Hitler’s fall and befriended 10 “average Germans,” asking each how the Nazis rose to power in an otherwise civilized nation.
His book, They Thought They Were Free, is his story of that experience. Intertwined through it — first published in 1955 — are repeated overt and subtle warnings to future generations of Americans: to us, today.
A German professor who made it through the war by avoiding politics told Mayer:
But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.
And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying “Jew swine,” collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose.
The warnings have been there all along. I wrote of this in 2005, quoting Mayer and going off on Bush and the PATRIOT Act as the prequel to fascism.
In the next election, many of us will no longer be able to know if our voices, our attempts to vote, will actually decide who leads our nation.
Many Americans will show up at the polls to discover they are no longer registered to vote. Many of our mail-in ballots will be “challenged” by Republican vote “observers” and we won’t learn about it until after the election is long over.
Five Republicans on the Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that you can be purged from the voting rolls on a whim. In the majority of US states Republicans can take over electoral precincts, install their people (as we just learned they are doing right now) and run them under whatever rules they want.
Already in some states the GOP inflicts 10-hour lines to vote on people in Democratic districts, for example, and you go to jail if you bring them water. If you make a mistake on your voting registration or ballot, or help another person register to vote, in multiple red states the governors can choose to send you to prison for five years or more.
Somehow, of the many people from both parties who are busted for this, it seems only the Democrats end up going to prison.
And yet everything seems “normal.” As Mayer’s professor friend told him, when The Leader finally seizes control of all the levers of power, from political to economic to spiritual, everything changes but everything also stays the same:
The world you live in — your nation, your people — is not the world you were in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays.
But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed.
Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God.
We’re already quite a ways down this road, which is why both our media and our democracy have been rated by numerous international groups as being “at risk” or similar designations.
Voter suppression, gerrymandering, the proliferation of phony media selling right-wing propaganda as “news,” armed militias on our streets (and the GOP recruiting them for “election monitors”) are the visible tip of the proverbial iceberg.
“How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men?” Mayer’s friend asked rhetorically.
And, without the benefit of a previous, recent, and well-remembered fascistic regime to refer to, Mayer had to candidly answer: “Frankly, I do not know.”
That was 1954; this is 2023. We now know.
We know how the poisonous hate that animates fascism seeps into a society because we saw it ourselves during the four years of the Trump administration.
We’re watching it in red states across the country as MAGA Republicans replace honorable Republicans like Cheney and Kinzinger.
We know how easily a government can be toppled and how close we came on January 6, 2021: If just five Republicans hadn’t refused to go along with Trump we’d be well into this fascist dystopia today.
MAGA Republicans across the country are calling for a Franco-like government as you’re reading these words. They believe so long as they’re loyal to The Leader and Party everything will be good for them and theirs, and, generally speaking, they’re right.
As President Biden said last year:
We can’t take democracy for granted any longer. … Make no mistake. Democracy is on the ballot.
The only way we can avoid repeating the experience of Spain, Germany, Hungary, Russia, and Chile (among others) is to overwhelmingly repudiate — defeat — Trump and the MAGA Republicans’ movement at the polls.
And the first step to that is to wake up everybody we know. As the storied blues-folk-master Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, famously said, “Stay woke!”
Reprinted from The Hartmann Report with the author’s permission.
Thom Hartmann is a four-time Project Censored-award-winning, New York Times best-selling author of 34 books in print and the #1 progressive talk show host in America for more than a decade.