Did the fascist mantle just pass to Ron DeSantis?
The elections appear to be a mixed bag, with young people and women, in particular, rejecting the rightwing Supreme Court Dobbs abortion decision. The early youth vote in Wisconsin, for example was 360% higher than in 2018 according to Ben Wikler, the chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party.
It’s a good start toward returning sanity to our nation, although even in Wisconsin that state’s House, Senate, and delegation to the US House of Representatives all remain in Republican hands because of massive gerrymandering.
And Donald Trump says he’s going to make a “major announcement” next week. If Republicans seize control of the House—as it appears they will do when all the election results are in—the January 6th Committee will be shut down and with it much of our nation’s ability to publicly hold Trump accountable for his crimes in office.
This may be the political end for Donald Trump—although that proclamation has been made prematurely many times before—but if Trump collapses because so many of his candidates failed yesterday, Ron DeSantis is now in the strongest position ever to inherit Trump’s fascist mantle.
And make no mistake about it: DeSantis has been a careful student of Donald Trump’s successes and imitates him right down to wearing similar suits and using identical hand gestures and rhetorical flourishes.
Because of our flirtation with Trumpism, we now have two systems of government in a duel with each other in America today: Trump/DeSantis fascism and democracy.
In those mostly-Blue states whose leadership believe in democracy, a primary goal of government is to make it as easy to vote as possible for the largest number of citizens.
In those mostly-Red states whose leadership believe in Donald Trump’s American version of fascism, the goal is to prevent as many people as possible from voting, reserving that right exclusively to a specific in-group.
Democracy holds that the will of the people—as expressed through free and fair elections with the widest possible participation—should determine how a nation is governed and who does the governing.
Fascism holds that the will of the people—as expressed by a single powerful leader and his local subordinates—should determine how a nation is governed and who does the governing.
This is why Tennessee law prevents 21 percent of all Black people in that state from voting.
It’s why DeSantis created a new “election police” force and then paraded 15 Black Florida voters before the cameras in shackles, successfully driving down the Black vote and guaranteeing his own reelection.
It’s why Brian Kemp put a new law into place that reduced the mail-in vote in Georgia this year by more than a million people over 2020.
It’s why yesterday it took the threat of a lawsuit to stop white poll workers in Beaumont, Texas from turning away Black voters and, when a few got through, looming over them to watch them fill out their ballots.
Those Republican politicians who’ve embraced fascism as their governing philosophy understand that fascist followers don’t really care about policy. Instead, it’s about which group has power and which group is powerless.
Republicans want to ban abortion, gut Social Security, and give another trillion-dollar tax cut to billionaires, all while killing the right to unionization and quality public schools? Fine with GOP voters; they’re really not noticing policy.
And they’re not noticing because they’re not interested in policy: that’s secondary in the fascist follower’s mind. First and foremost, in every case, is The Leader and their relationship to him.
And America’s fascist followers aren’t going anywhere: if Trump stumbles, they’ll simply attach themselves to the next fascist leader, who appears at this moment to be Ron DeSantis.
Fascist followers, sometimes referred to as authoritarian followers, want a strong leader to whom they can surrender all those messy details of governance and statecraft. They reinvent their personal identities around their fealty to The Leader. They literally love The Leader.
The Leader regularly demonstrates his power and authority by displays of brutality. As Adam Serwer wrote four years ago for The Atlantic, “The Cruelty is the Point.” Followers swoon at The Leader’s displays of arrogance, mercilessness, and his defiance of society’s norms.
Like Christ, The Leader in a fascist government is worshiped as all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-powerful. The Leader is to be respected and feared, like a god. The Leader can do no wrong, even when his crimes and mistakes are laid bare.
The Leader is the state, and the state is The Leader. Everything else is subordinate. All policy comes from The Leader who is the state; without his approval there is no policy, no deviation from doctrine, no “unusual” religion possible. Without loyalty and subservience to The Leader, no resident can be a true citizen of the state.
This is what Mussolini meant when he said:
“Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.”
In his 1932 thesis The Doctrine of Fascism, Mussolini laid it out. While the language is a bit archaic, you’ll see Trump and DeSantis’ version of Trumpism echoing in every sentence:
“In politics Fascism aims at realism; … [it] accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State, which stands for the conscience and the universal will of man as a historic entity….
“Liberalism denied the State in the name of the individual; Fascism reasserts the rights of the State as expressing the real essence of the individual. And if liberty is to be the attribute of living men and not of abstract dummies invented by individualistic liberalism, then Fascism stands for liberty, and for the only liberty worth having, the liberty of the State and of the individual within the State.
“The Fascist conception of the State is all embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value.”
In democracy, the people choose their leaders; in fascism, The Leader chooses his people. To avoid revolts or uprisings, “his people” are always members of the largest racial and religious grouping. In America, as in Germany in 1933, that’s white Christians.
As Robert Kagan wrote about Trump just months before he won the Electoral College in 2016:
“His public discourse consists of attacking or ridiculing a wide range of ‘others’—Muslims, Hispanics, women, Chinese, Mexicans, Europeans, Arabs, immigrants, refugees—whom he depicts either as threats or as objects of derision. His program, such as it is, consists chiefly of promises to get tough with foreigners and people of nonwhite complexion. He will deport them, bar them, get them to knuckle under, make them pay up or make them shut up.”
The Leader uses his power and position to constantly reassure his People, his fascist followers—all of the same race and religion—that they truly are the ones chosen by their god, by history, by destiny.
The Leader reinforces their sense of unity and purpose with a daily (literally) dose of outrage. A new enemy is discovered. Perversion is at work. Evildoers are indoctrinating the children of The People. The family, home, and faith are facing an existential threat.
Only The Leader can protect The People from those threats, those degenerates, the depravity they are using to corrupt the state and its only true citizens. Every conflict is portrayed as a struggle, as good-against-evil, as a gladiatorial contest.
Jason Stanley noted:
“The key thing is that fascist politics is about identifying enemies, appealing to the in-group (usually the majority group), and smashing truth and replacing it with power.”
And The Leader will never, ever compromise. It’s unthinkable. Compromise reveals weakness, and The Leader is never, ever weak.
As a result, normal democratic governance becomes impossible. The Leader’s party acts in total lockstep with The Leader; all who fail to do so are banished. The rule of law is ignored.
Even small things, like violating the Hatch Act law by using federal buildings for campaign events, or illegally putting cronies into positions like Chad Wolf’s “acting” job at the head of the Department of Homeland Security, are considered mere inconveniences to be flicked away like gnats.
Ivanka Trump reveled, in fact, in defying the law to promote products from the White House. As did her husband in setting up his $2 billion payday with Saudi Arabia while working for our government. Fascism, after all, is all about power, and nothing shows power better than laughing at laws and getting away with it.
It’s a short step from violating these dozens of “small” laws to attempting to smash the existing government altogether to replace it with The Leader’s fascist state. It took Trump a mere four years to get from the first to the last.
And now he’s saying that if he becomes president again, he’ll be imprisoning reporters, politicians, and putting “a bullet” into the heads of drug dealers “within two hours” and then sending that bullet to their families.
At the moment, our nation itself—the federal government—is not yet fascist, although it would be today if Trump had succeeded in murdering Vice President Mike Pence and thus throwing the 2020 election to his followers in the House of Representatives.
But fascism is on the march in state after state.
These fascist state leaders revel in their grandiosity. They manipulate the lives of powerless people for sport, putting children in cages and sending refugees to Martha’s Vineyard. They arrest innocent people as grand theater. They defy the courts and impose illegal election maps on their people.
They strut (or wheel) and preen before the cameras and live for opportunities to defy social and political norms, something they call “owning the libs.” Their goal isn’t democracy or consensus or even the greatest good for their people: it’s the singular accumulation and exercise of raw power on behalf of their racial and religious in-group.
And their People love them for it. They are the miniature versions of The Leader himself. They bask in his glow and amplify his power, to the delight of his followers.
Looking at history, it appears that the only way fascism is cut out of a nation’s body politic is by crushing defeat. Hitler and Mussolini at the end of WWII. Pinochet wiped out at the polls and then dragged before the Court in Spain.
The Leader must be exposed as a fraud, as weak, as a sniveling coward. His crimes to promote fascism must be revealed, particularly including the damage they inflicted on his very own people. He must be torn down from his self-exalted platform and thrown into political purgatory.
Sometimes it comes about by popular uprising at the ballot box. Sometimes by the media exposing his weaknesses. Sometimes by law enforcement revealing his crimes and punishing him for them.
This is the only way to rid a nation of fascism once it’s taken deep root, as it has here in the United States.
Mussolini’s own lieutenants threw him to the wolves, leading to his desperate (and unsuccessful) attempt to flee Italy with his mistress. Hitler’s generals refused his orders to destroy Germany for its failure to win the war. Pinochet thought he could ace another election, maintaining the façade of democracy in Chile, but miscalculated the furor of the people.
As Democrats work to expand the number of people who can vote—regardless of party affiliation, ethnicity, race, or the rural/urban divide—Republicans are doing everything they can to make elections irrelevant, both through voter suppression and extreme gerrymandering.
Far worse, the GOP continues to function as if it were seized by members of an extremist, neofascist, religious cult. Even if they abandon Trump and moved to DeSantis, the message will be the same. He is The Leader.
I can’t predict what the Justice Department or other law enforcement agencies—from the New York Attorney General to the Fulton County District Attorney—will do about Donald Trump’s many crimes.
And with all the billionaire money circulating in our politics since the Supreme Court legalized political bribery in 2010, it’s hard to know exactly how elections will turn out over the next few years.
Ron DeSantis, for example, is lining up right wing billionaires to support his claim to the presidency in 2024 as you read these words.
But the one thing I know for sure is that history tells us a nation that fails to excise fascism before it seizes full control is doomed to a generation of chaos and pain.
And those nations that have soundly rejected fascism and purged their ranks of fascist collaborators—as did most of the nations of Europe after WWII—can look forward to generations of peace and prosperity.