I recently returned from an international seminar where one of the scholars argued a point that is very important for every American to hear before November 8th.
He said that democracies come in many different forms with various structures and systems. But authoritarian regimes all have four characteristics in common:
- Grievance-Driven Nationalism.
- The narrative that the majority of people have been victimized by enemies – foreign and domestic.
- The legitimation of conspiratorial thinking.
- The argument that only the one strong man can come to the people’s rescue.
These things are true whether they describe the authoritarian regimes of history like Mussolini and Stalin, or those of the current period, like Kim Jong-un in North Korea, or Putin in Russia – both of which Donald Trump apparently admires.
And those four characteristics practically define the Trump political message. Trump argues that he will make America “Great Again” — that he will address the legitimate grievances of those whose incomes have stagnated by throwing out the immigrants, the Muslims, the “others” that have made it so — none of which has anything whatsoever to do with the economic pain he alleges to address.
Many Americans have seen what happens when a strong man blames the “other” for a nation’s sense of victimization. It always ends in tragedy, whether for the Jews of Europe or the Tutsis of Rwanda.
Trump has no compunction creating and legitimating conspiracy theories such as his “birther” fantasy that President Obama was born in Kenya and is not the “legitimate” President.
And Trump makes it clear every day that only he can fix the country’s problems — apparently through the force of his own will.
The so-called Alt-Right Movement championed by Brietbart.com, whose CEO is now directing the Trump campaign, is the face of right-wing authoritarian nationalism in the United States.
But it is critical to understand that Trump and his Alt-Right, white supremacist colleagues are not an isolated phenomenon. Right-wing nationalist parties are once again growing stronger and stronger in Europe as well. They too have fed upon the discontent spawned by wage stagnation and growing income inequality that — while not as severe as it is in the United States — has created fertile ground for the revival of grievance-based nationalist fervor. In Western Europe, their villains are the flood of immigrants from the Middle East that have fled the violence of the Syrian civil war, and workers emigrating to the West from Eastern Europe.
In fact, the leader of the British right-wing nationalist party, Nigel Farage, spoke at Trump’s rally last night in Jackson, Mississippi.
Of course, the right-wing nationalists of Europe ignore entirely the fact that the major cause of income stagnation is the fact that billionaires like Trump have taken an increasing share of their country’s economic output, just as they have in the United States.
Incomes are not flat for most Americans because the economy as a whole has failed to grow. In fact, per-person gross domestic product in the United States has increased 48 percent over the last 30 years. America is wealthier per person today than at any other time in its history.
Incomes are not flat because immigrants and poor people have taken money from the pockets of ordinary workers. Incomes are flat because billionaires like Donald Trump have siphoned off virtually every dime of that per-person economic growth and kept it for themselves.
They have used their political influence to manipulate the tax system, and cut their own taxes so they often pay lower tax rates than their secretaries or janitors. One of the few Trump tax returns that ispublicly available showed that in the early seventies he paid virtually no taxes.
Now, he has steadfastly refused to disclose his more recent tax returns — either because they too would show how little he has paid, or because they would show he is not as wealthy as he claims, or because they would lay bare his deals with oligarchs and other unsavory business schemes — or all of the above.
And Trump has made a tax proposal that would give himself even more tax breaks.
A tiny fraction of wealthy Americans have siphoned off most of the increased income generated by our economy over the last three decades, and at the same time they have managed to avoid paying taxes on much of that increase. That has left most ordinary Americans with three bad options:
- Slash the quality of their schools, roads and other public services;
- Pay more in taxes out of stagnant incomes;
- Borrow money from the very wealthy people who have refused to pay their fair share to cover a deficit – and pay them interest for the privilege.
This is not rocket science. If the increased economic growth had been equally distributed, we would all be 48 percent better off economically today than we were 30 years ago. But wages for most workers have remained stagnant. That growth went somewhere — and we know from the data where; it is no mystery. It did not go to immigrants. It did not go to the poor. It did not go to pay “lazy workers.” Virtually all of it went to the Donald Trumps of the world.
Right-wing authoritarian narratives may not be supported by the facts — but they have a deep emotional appeal to ordinary people looking for someone to blame for their own economic frustration. And that makes those narratives very dangerous.
Right-wing authoritarian nationalism ripped apart the world 75 years ago in the form of World War II. It once again poses a threat to democratic societies. If it is allowed to succeed, it will endanger the democratic institutions and values in the United States and Europe.
Worse, if it is allowed to grow unchecked, authoritarian nationalism has one logical conclusion: violence and war.
Just ask the people of Europe and East Asia — and the American Veterans of the “Greatest Generation” — how well the rise of authoritarian nationalism worked out in the 1930s and ‘40s. Ask the relatives of the literally millions who died.
The Marshall Plan, the European Union and NATO were all created following World War II to prevent the nightmare recurrence of authoritarian nationalism in Europe. The EU and NATO have both begun to show the strains of pressure from resurgent right-wing nationalists’ forces. And most Europeans are terrified at the prospect that Trump might become President of the United States — destroy these critical institutions — and fan the flames of xenophobia.
We can already see what fanning the flames of xenophobia can do. Several months ago David Petraeus, former U.S. Commander in Iraq and head of the CIA, wrote a piece in the Washington Post with the headline: “Anti-Muslim Bigotry Aids Islamic Terrorists.”
The piece was explicitly aimed at Donald Trump.
Experts on the Middle East and radical jihadist terrorism are virtually unanimous in their view that Donald Trump’s victory would be a bonanza for ISIS. In fact, ISIS is already using Trump’s pronouncements in its recruiting videos.
The entire ISIS narrative — and its appeal to young Muslims — rests upon their argument that Islam is engaged in a massive historic struggle with the United States and the West. They argue that the U.S. is leading a great final “crusade” to take Muslim lands, Muslim oil, Muslim’s heritage — to destroy the Muslim religion.
Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric does more to legitimate that narrative than all of their clever social media work — all of their horrific violent videos — put together.
Just as bad, Trump makes it infinitely more difficult for the United States to engage moderate Sunni Muslim countries to join with us in the battle against ISIS.
And his rhetoric even plays into the hands of Iran’s hard-line Shias that are engaged in a struggle for power with the growing moderate Muslim and secular elements of Iranian society.
The Shia religious and Republican Guard leadership in Iran completely despises ISIS and radical Sunni jihadists like Al Qaeda. To bolster their position they spin out conspiracy theories of their own — that ISIS is actually the creation of the United States that was organized to check Shia power and legitimate the presence of the United States in the Middle East.
Then comes Trump, who actually says President Obama founded ISIS.
In his recent “national security” speech, Trump claimed that the United States should have occupied Iraq’s oil fields — completely legitimating the Jihadist narrative that the United States wants to take Muslim resources.
The logic of Trump’s rhetoric about ISIS — and for that matter his approach to Iran and his proposed abrogation of the agreement to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon — will, if he is elected, inevitably lead to another major ground war in the Middle East.
That is exactly what ISIS is praying for. They desperately want to draw the U.S. into that kind of conflict on the ground throughout the Middle East — a conflict that they believe will allow them to recruit thousands of young people and ultimately end in an apocalyptic defeat of the West.
As Petraeus put it in his Washington Post article: “….those who flirt with hate speech against Muslims should realize they are playing directly into the hands of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.”
Trump has become the leader of a right-wing, authoritarian nationalist movement that could be a grave danger to our own democratic institutions and to any hope we have for a more peaceful world.
But we can stop him. Sound the alarm. Make sure your friends and neighbors understand that Trump is not just another conservative candidate. Donald Trump is dangerous. And the one thing that could allow him to succeed is complacency and low voter turnout in the most important election of our lifetimes.