Author of "How Fascism Works": Pandemic offers Trump a dangerous opportunity to seize power

Yale philosopher Jason Stanley on how Trump can "use the pandemic to rule by decree" and consolidate his power

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 11, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump | Lockdown Protest in Michigan (Photo illustration by Salon/AP Photo)
Donald Trump | Lockdown Protest in Michigan (Photo illustration by Salon/AP Photo)

A moment of reckoning is here. America must have committed great wrongs to be afflicted with the coronavirus pandemic and Donald Trump at the same time.

Authoritarians like Trump love disasters. Because they can only destroy and not create, authoritarians use such moments of misery and fear to expand their power.

Donald Trump is announcing that fact when he proclaims himself to be a "war president." Such language is not just the superficial trappings of Trump wrapping himself in the flag and using empty words about "sacrifice" and "bravery" and "heroism." It is something far worse and more sinister. As a "war president," Trump is putting himself above the law and proclaiming the country is in a state of emergency.

I recently spoke with Yale University philosophy professor Jason Stanley, author of the books "How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them" and "How Propaganda Works." He warns in this conversation that the coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity for the Trump regime to further advance its campaign against the Constitution, democracy, human rights, human dignity and freedom across all areas of American society.

Stanley also explains how the fake coronavirus "protests" staged by Trump supporters in Michigan and other parts of the country exemplify the kinds of forces that have brought fascist and authoritarian movements to power, including Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.

Stanley explains that he sees America's colleges and universities as key sites for teaching critical thinking and engaged citizenship — which is why gangster capitalists, neo-fascists and other right-wing forces are using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to further undermine the country's system of higher education.

You can also listen to my conversation with Jason Stanley on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

At this moment there are rent strikes and other forms of protest taking place all across the United States in response to the economic calamity and destruction brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and the Trump administration's response. Discontent is most certainly in the air.

If discontent isn't in the air now, when is it going to be? Consider what has happened with the stimulus. Trillions of dollars have been given to the wealthiest individuals and the largest corporations. Did they think that people would not notice?

A vast fortune has been transferred to the richest Americans under so-called trickle-down economics — a theory which has been disproved, by the way. The idea is that giving money to the richest Americans is supposed to help average people. Let us see what happens when the average people determine if that is in fact the case. Hopefully, that moment will be one when people mobilize.

The 2020 election is quickly approaching. Nearly four years into Donald Trump's rule, how is American democracy doing? Where are we in the story of Trump and American authoritarianism?

Propaganda is the denial of reality. For example, when Donald Trump says, "I've done the best job ever." His surreal press conferences are another example. Trump has been able to use the coronavirus pandemic to transfer the country's news media environment into one big authoritarian spectacle. He was able to be on television for two and a half hours a day for a month. Such a thing happens in authoritarian societies. Trump's authoritarian rule is really a sign of the problem with the Republican Party. The United States is now in a situation where the minority party, in terms of representing the people's will, has a lockdown on many of the nation's institutions.

The problem with the United States is that it is already a flawed democracy. When there is such extreme partisan capture of our country's institutions, does there really need to be a fascist or authoritarian takeover? With gerrymandering, voter suppression, control of the courts and making voting difficult in other ways, one does not need an explicit takeover and overthrow of democracy by an authoritarian movement to exercise almost the same level of power and control.

How do you make sense of this nightmare confluence of events, with the combination of an authoritarian regime and the coronavirus pandemic?

The concept of "emergency" is essential to fascism. Trump is able to use the pandemic to rule by decree. Another example of authoritarian takeover through "emergencies" is a Reichstag fire moment, such as how Hitler and the Nazis took control in Germany, where one manufactures the "emergency" and then claim a need to seize full power.

By comparison, the coronavirus is a real emergency. Authoritarian governments all over the world are using the pandemic as an excuse to seize more power. In the United States this has taken place with Trump and the Republicans using the pandemic as protective cover for massive corruption. With Trump's purge of inspector generals there is really no independent oversight of his administration.

The public does not know, for example, where the money from the coronavirus relief bill is really going. As with other authoritarians, the coronavirus emergency is a way for Trump to enact his goals and policies much faster and with less oversight and possibilities for resistance.

Trump and his news media and representatives are consistently using the language of "war," and describing Trump as a "war president" during this pandemic. Most mainstream commentators and analysts have failed to understand the true meaning and origins of that language. "War president" is another example of a logic where democracy no longer applies. Carl Schmitt — a political theorist and jurist whose thinking was foundational for the Nazi regime — described this condition as one of "exception," where the leader can ignore the rule of law and other norms. How can we better explain what Donald Trump and his agents really mean when they talk about him as a "war president"?

You are absolutely correct. When an authoritarian or like-minded leaders and regimes want to suspend democracy, they use the language of "war." Trump calling himself a "war president" enables him to do drastic things such as rushing bills through Congress without proper debate, hearings and public scrutiny.  An emergency is a very dangerous time, and the fact that the coronavirus pandemic is a real emergency makes matters much more perilous and complicated.

Trump, the Republicans and many of their supporters have argued that older people and others who are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus should be willing to face death as an act of "loyalty" and "patriotism" to save "the economy." How does this relate to authoritarianism and fascism?

This coalition of the business elite, right-wing Christian evangelicals, and white nationalists and other white supremacists is very dangerous. Fascism is ultimately a death cult.

Social Darwinism is the heart of fascism as well as the heart of capitalism. With the pandemic, and the way capitalism is a type of religion in America, the Darwinian idea of "survival of the fittest" is made even more central. The notion that "Life is always a struggle, the weak will die" is central to fascism. That idea is also common to certain ways of thinking about capitalism. Remember, Adolf Hitler's book was called, "My Struggle" — that "struggle" was survival of the fittest. That is exactly what we are seeing in this moment with Trump, the Republican Party and the coronavirus pandemic.

Crisis is an opportunity for Donald Trump. Several weeks ago, Donald Trump announced via Twitter that the United States was ending all legal immigration because of the coronavirus emergency. Of course, that is part of Trump adviser Stephen Miller's white supremacist agenda.

Notice Trump's verbiage when he describes the coronavirus: He calls it the "invisible enemy". That language is an allusion to Jewish people. For centuries anti-Semites and other hate mongers for centuries have used such eliminationist, conspiratorial language. Trump's announcement "banning" legal immigration — which was likely written by Stephen Miller — was also made on Hitler's birthday. Miller has repeatedly signaled through his policies, language, emails and use of codes such as "14" and "88" in government documents and announcements a deep affinity with Nazis and other neo-fascists.

It is obvious that the Trump administration was going to move from stopping "illegal immigration" by nonwhite people and other stigmatized groups to then finding a way to stop legal immigration. Now Trump and Miller are using the coronavirus as an excuse to do just that. That Trump announced such a change on Hitler's birthday should have been much bigger news. That the news media did not pick up on that date and the announcement, quite frankly, is shocking to me.

Who is Trump's real audience? What other ways is he signaling his intent to them?

This goes back to the philosopher Carl Schmitt. The friend-enemy distinction is at the heart of fascist ideology. By summoning the logic of the friend-enemy distinction during a war or other type of dire emergency, then all actions by the leader or ruler are justified. The truth does not matter when you are fighting an enemy. There is no democratic way of dealing with the enemy or resolving the crisis or emergency. Science is not a solution. One must use any means available, be it fair or not fair. That's what the friend-enemy distinction does. Again, it is Social Darwinism. Kill or be killed.

The anti-lockdown "protests" have featured armed right-wing paramilitaries and militias. What is their role in failing democracies and the emergence of fascism and authoritarianism?

Fascism involves the typed of paramilitary forces we have seen in Michigan and elsewhere during Trump's time in office, and before as well. Trump has constantly called for his supporters to use force against their and his "enemies." Trump is trying to organize armed paramilitary groups on his behalf if there is a contested 2020 presidential election or some other outcome he does not like.

Trump's paramilitary forces are making violent threats against Democratic elected officials and other lawmakers. The armed militia that tried to take over the Michigan state capitol building by blocking the governor's door is an example of such a threat.

Right now, we are seeing how many men with guns can be called out on to the street by Donald Trump and his administration. The United States military is controlled by civilians. But with Trump's paramilitary forces and other armed groups, he can give them orders and then claim some type of plausible deniability. These types of armed militias and paramilitaries are given license to act by Donald Trump and other authoritarians.

The official leaders in a full-on authoritarian regime or failing democracy then deny responsibility for the violence. The history of fascism repeatedly shows that leaders such as Donald Trump inspire these militias and paramilitaries to act, and then Trump can say, "No, that violence and those groups have nothing to do with me. They're not the government. Those are some random people on the street!"

What is the role of higher education in resisting fascism and authoritarianism, especially during this emergency? 

One must locate the attack on colleges and universities within an international perspective. If you look at the other countries which are under the control of far-right leaders, such as Brazil, India or Hungary, they all have featured incredible attacks on universities and other sites of higher education and learning. Academic freedom has been overturned. Schools have been defunded. Universities and their professors, staff and students have been targets of right-wing violence. In these regimes, universities are being attacked for supposedly being hotbeds of left-wing ideology.

In the United States such attacks are being mainstreamed by the right wing, in terms of attacking colleges and universities by slurring them as sites of "cultural Marxism."

In terms of dismantling resistance to fascism, how does that work?

If we cannot physically gather together it makes it harder to resist. Universities are sites of resistance, which is why they are always targeted by fascists and authoritarians. Universities are places for free speech, questioning the government and engaging with challenging ideas about the relationship between power and society.

What happens when there is an educational system which does not teach critical thinking and engaged citizenship? What types of citizens are being produced by such an educational system?

Those citizens will not be democratic, capable of understanding, nurturing, participating in and protecting a healthy democracy. Democratic citizens criticize the powerful. That is what they do.

The goal of these authoritarians and right-wingers in the United States is to reduce and replace critical thinking that is taught and learned in the humanities and social sciences with just a "great books" curriculum and job training. Any other type of education and thinking is to be vilified as "cultural Marxism."

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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