If justice and the law in America were truly blind, former president Donald Trump would now be in prison.
Trump's crimes are legion. But contrary to the perpetual fiction and hope-casting in which "The walls are closing in!" and "Trump is done for!" that too many members of the mainstream news media and pundit class keep telling themselves, as seen at the annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) last weekend, Trump is publicly announcing that if he recaptures the White House he will command a national revenge tour that will destroy what remains of the country's democracy and civil society.
"If you put me back in the White House, their reign is over," Trump vowed, promising "America will be a free nation once again."
Donald Trump's fascist appeal is the "secret" of his success.
He continued: "In 2016 I declared I am your voice. Today I add, I am your warrior, I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution."
Trump's CPAC speech brings forth a century of rhetoric and agendas that have been used to destroy democracy, conjuring threats that are meant to build support for authoritarian action and leadership, starting with the idea of the head of state as a vengeful victim.
"What did Italy need? An avenger!... It was necessary to cauterize the virulent wounds...and eliminate evils which threatened to become chronic," Fascist leader Benito Mussolini wrote in his autobiography, striking a similar note to Trump as he explained why he had declared dictatorship in 1925....
But why stop at America? The true Fascist avenger fixes the world. "I will have the disastrous war between Russia and Ukraine settled. It will be settled quickly. I will get the problem solved. I will get it solved in rapid order—it will take me no longer than one day. I know what to say to each of them. I got along well with all of them. I got along well with Putin."
In fact, as Trump remarks, had he been in office now, as fearsome and powerful as a mountain, "Russia would have never pulled the trigger. This is the most dangerous time in the history of our country and Joe Biden is leading us into oblivion...Biden is a criminal and nothing ever seems to happen to him."
At the Philadelphia Inquirer, William Bunch warned of Donald Trump's Hitler-like threats and the news media's failure to properly report on the democracy crisis:
Trump's pledge, with its nearly century-old echoes of the very worst movements that modern humankind has produced, was the low point of a weekend of red flags and flashing sirens for American democracy, just when you thought that it couldn't get any worse….
There are historical precedents for all of these actions and the overheated rhetoric — among history's worst despots, genocidal maniacs, and totalitarian movements (like DeSantis' blogger bill, which is almost identical to one that Russia strongman Vladimir Putin enacted in 2014). It's been already way past time for the American media to start using the f-word — fascism — to describe this ideology that continues to transfix the core voting bloc in one of America's two major political parties. But almost all of this weekend's mainstream coverage of CPAC and related developments was too mealy-mouthed to tell the public the alarming truth.
I think way too many journalists think they can get away without naming Trump's fascism as it parades nakedly down 5th Avenue (or that of DeSantis, for that matter) because they think Trump can't win.
Donald Trump (like Gov. Ron DeSantis) is a political violence entrepreneur. In that role, he both channels and amplifies the fascist urges and collective sociopathy of his followers as the primary source of his power. It is a pathologically symbiotic relationship. Without this leader-follower dependdency, Trump, like other fascists and fake populist demagogues, would not be that dangerous. Yes, Trump would be a menace because of his vast sums of money and prominent public profile. But without his many tens of millions of cult-like followers, Trump would cease to be an existential threat to the country and its democracy. One should not overlook how, despite his 4-year crime spree and assault on democracy and society, Trump received more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016. And not to be overlooked because the much-discussed "red wave" did not fully materialize, the Republicans actually received more votes than the Democrats in the 2022 midterms.
We've all cataloged this kind of Trumpian weirdness many times, and I still feel pity for the fact-checkers who try to keep up with him. But I wonder if there is any point. By now it should be clear that the people listening to Trump don't care about facts, or even about policy or politics. They enjoy the show, and they want it back on TV for another four years. And this is a problem not with Trump but with the voters.
It is long past time to admit that support for Trump, after all that we now know, is a moral failing. As I wrote in a recent book, there is such a thing as being a bad citizen in a democracy, and we should cease the pretend arguments about policy—remember, the 2020 GOP convention didn't even bother with a platform. Instead, anyone who cares about the health of American democracy, of any party or political belief, should say clearly that to applaud Trump's fantasies and threats at CPAC is to show an utter lack of civic character. (I might say that it is no better than applauding David Duke, but why invoke the former KKK leader when Trump has already had dinner with Nick Fuentes, a white supremacist who he seems to think is a swell guy?)
The man who bellowed and sweated his way through almost two hours of authoritarian madness is still the same man who instigated an attack on our Capitol (and on his own vice president), the man who would hand our allies to Russia if they're behind on the vig, the man who thinks a free press is his enemy, the man who tried to wave away a pandemic as thousands and thousands of Americans died.
Stigma and judgment have a place in politics. There was a time when we forced people out of public life for offenses far less than Donald Trump's violent and seditious corruption. We were a better country for it, and returning to that better time starts with media outlets holding elected Republicans to account for Trump's statements—but also with each of us refusing to accept rationalizations and equivocation from even our friends and family. I said in 2016 that the Trump campaign was a test of character, and that millions of us were failing it. The stakes are even clearer and steeper now; we cannot fail this test again.
As Nichols suggested, Trumpism, like other forms of fascism and authoritarianism, is a cultural and personal failing on a societal level. The problem and crisis are much bigger than any one person or political party or "the institutions."
Donald Trump's fascist appeal is the "secret" of his success. Trump's followers support him not despite those malignant traits and evil behavior but because of them. If Trump is the 2024 Republican presidential nominee that party's voters will flock to him. Why? They hate the Democrats and being a Republican is now core to their personhood, culture, sense of community and overall identity and self.
In an interview with CNN on Monday, former Trump White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham issued this warning about her former boss and what his speech at last weekend's CPAC event portends:
This is going to be a revenge tour for the former president…. I wonder specifically with regard to what he said, who decides who needs the retribution? Who's going to decide who's been mistreated? [W]hat about all of the people who suffered or who had family members pass away from COVID. Are you going to be retribution in that? You had a hand in that.
So, I think it was, as you just said, a lot of bluster for him. But it's what his base wants to hear. And I think it's something that should be taken seriously. A lot of people right now I think are rolling their eyes and saying that's just Trump being Trump. But this is important. We need to really pay attention to what he is saying and realize that we're not getting the same Donald Trump. We're going to get a more angry and vengeful Donald Trump if he takes office.
What Grisham told CNN is not a spoiler; it is a promise and a prediction.
The mainstream news media, the Church of the Savvy, the professional centrists and hope peddlers and happy pill sellers will not tell you that unvarnished truth. You have been warned, again. What you, the Americans, do with that knowledge will determine your and the country's future.