The first debate of the 2016 presidential campaign has concluded. The zingers were flying, the truths were told, the spin was spun and the dubious assertions has piled up. At long last, the pushback against Donald Trump has truly begun.
When Donald Trump began his improbable run for president 15 months ago, he offered his wealth and television celebrity as credentials, then slyly added a twist of fearmongering about Mexican “rapists” flooding across the Southern border.From that moment of combustion, it became clear that Mr. Trump’s views were matters of dangerous impulse and cynical pandering rather than thoughtful politics.
The case against Trump does not rest, ultimately, on his family life, his divorces, his casinos, strip clubs, bankruptcies, and lawsuits. It doesn’t rest on his personality: his generally mean-spirited demeanor, his lack of polish, his erratic temperament, weird hair, or vulgarity. Nor does it even rest on policy differences—his past support for Democrats, gun control, abortion, Planned Parenthood, or his generally awful foreign policy.
All these things are true, and some are good reasons for conservatives not to vote for him. A vote for Trump is a vote against the principles that Republicanism and conservatism are built on.
But I believe the case against Trump should go even further. I believe no American,conservative or liberal, should support Trump. He doesn’t simply violateconservative principles. He violates American principles. Donald Trump is a danger to self-government, civil liberties, the culture of democracy, and the ideals of a free and open society.
1. Donald Trump Admires Tyrants
In December, Trump openly admired Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling him a “strong leader.” Putin is, of course, a dictator who shut down independent media, imprisoned political opponents like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, rigged elections, and almost certainly ordered the murders of opposition figures Alexander Litvinenko and Boris Nemtsov. (Trump went out of his way to deny that anyone has proven Putin’s guilt). Russia is “not free,” according to Freedom House, which catalogs a long list of the Putin regime’s oppressions.
Putin has shut down independent media, imprisoned political opponents, rigged elections, and almost certainly ordered the murders of opposition figures.
When challenged on Putin’s record, Trump responded,
“He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.”
How can you escape the conclusion that Trump admires Putin and, if given the opportunity, intends to import Putin-style “leadership” to America through his election to the White House?
This is apparently a pattern with Trump. Back in 1990, he was asked about China’s response to the Tiananmen Square student protests. If you need a refresher, the Chinese government murdered hundreds, perhaps thousands, and arrested some 10,000 people because they asked the government to stop murdering people. Trump praised the crackdown:
“When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”
2. Donald Trump Encourages Violence and Opposes Marriage Equality
Last week a protester interrupted a Trump rally. As security escorted him out, Trump told his supporters,
“You know what they used to do to guys like that in a place like this? He’d go out in a stretcher.” He added, “I’d like to punch him in the face.”
Again, this is part of a pattern. Late last year a Black Lives Matter activist was shoved and kicked at a Trump rally. Trump told the crowd “maybe he should have been roughed up.”
Public officials and celebrities set examples and help define the culture of what is “acceptable” and what is taboo. When Obama “evolved” his position on gay marriage and came out in support of it, he made it acceptable and easy for millions of Americans to follow suit. When Trump uses his considerable influence as a celebrity and presidential candidate to praise violence, it removes a small chink from the armor of civilization.
Donald Trump has also been a consistent opponent of marriage equality. He has embraced the nation’s most odious anti-LGBTQ law, North Carolina’s HB2, and put on the ticket Mike Pence, who has become the face of anti-LGBTQ discrimination after signing a bill to allow businesses to discriminate and deny service to LGBTQ people because of who they are or whom they love. Trump has also said he would sign the so-called First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) which would enable Kim Davis-style discrimination across the country.
3. Donald Trump Wants to Police Speech
Last week Trump advocated altering libel laws to enable the government to sue newspapers for “purposely negative and horrible and false articles.” He gave several examples of media outlets he’d like to be able to sue for their coverage of him, including The New York Times and Washington Post.
Libel is, of course, an actual crime. But the courts, in deference to the First Amendment, have made it hard to successfully prosecute a libel case—and nearly impossible for public figures to do so. Freewheeling, raucous debate is an essential part of what makes democracy work. Having to look over your shoulder before criticizing a public official is exactly the kind of culture of suspicion and fear that the American Founders believed to be un-American.
4. Donald Trump Does Not Believe in Equality Under Law
After the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino last November, Trump made a series of proposals he claimed would enhance homeland security. He proposed to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. He called for increased surveillance of mosques. He called for a database to track all Syrian refugees, and did not rule out tracking all Muslims in America.
A society that protects the rights of all except the unpopular is not a truly open society.
At least one of these proposals is sound—the FBI already conducts surveillance on some mosques in the United States. But a general database and a “Muslim ban” is a blatant assault on the principles of a free and open society and of equality under the law.
Trump approvingly cited President Franklin Roosevelt, who issued proclamations severely restricting the rights and freedoms of Japanese, Italian, and German citizens living in the United States during World War II. Later investigations concluded that Roosevelt’s actions were not justified on military necessity and did not contribute to the war effort, and are usually seen as a black mark on Roosevelt’s record.
Trump is appealing to the majority of Americans—to the 99 percent who are not Muslims. But consider: one of the major concerns of The Federalist Papers was how to protect the rights of the minority. It is relatively easy to have a system of government that protects the majority. By virtue of their numbers, they usually run the government and use it for their benefit. The true test of democracy is how it treats minorities. A society that protects the rights of all except the unpopular is not a truly open society. It is a society that will gradually shrink in on itself, unbothered by outside opinions and critical voices.
There are tools for conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance against suspected terrorist targets that do not involve banning or spying on an entire minority population. The NSA’s purported Terrorist Surveillance Program was one.
5. Trump Is an American Fascist
The case against Trump, then, is that he is an autocrat in democrat’s clothing, a tyrant in the wings, a bully who admires the “strength” of tyrants and butchers, who finds a free press to be an inconvenience that he intends to tame with legal force once elected, a man who demonizes opponents and romanticizes violence, especially against minorities, who pines for the day when government could have its way with people without the trouble of constitutional law getting in the way.
You don’t have to go full Hitler to be a danger to the culture of a free society. Most dictators in history, in fact, have not stooped to Hitlerian levels of barbarism and madness.
In other words, Donald Trump is a fascist. Or, at least, as close to a fascist as America’s political culture is ever going to produce. As Wehner rightly said, Trump is “a demagogic figure who does not view himself as part of our constitutional system but rather as an alternative to it.” It is startling how few of the contributors to the National Review symposium—David Boaz and Ben Domenech excepted—got this right.
Some readers will dismiss my argument right off as alarmist nonsense. Trump is no Hitler, they say. Calling Trump a dangerous autocrat and quasi-fascist only shows how paranoid and unhinged I and other Trump critics have become.
Maybe. But you don’t have to go full Hitler to be a danger to the culture of a free society. Most dictators in history, in fact, have not stooped to Hitlerian levels of barbarism and madness. Benito Mussolini was far less bloodthirsty and megalomaniacal, but still hated democracy. Silvio Berlusconi—another celebrity billionaire businessman who rose to political power—clearly abused the legal system and his access to power to hide his criminality. There are even “good” dictators, like Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, who (claimed to) rule guided by enlightened liberal principles.
‘Trump isn’t Hitler’ isn’t a defense; it’s an excuse.
None of that excuses autocracy or fascist leanings. “Trump isn’t Hitler” isn’t a defense; it’s an excuse—a way of letting Trump get as close to the line of actual fascism without stepping over it. If we let him close to that line he will, like a toddler, slip a toe over, then a foot, to test us and see how far he can really go. We shouldn’t have to wait for someone to go full Hitler to recognize a danger to our system of government.
Besides, even Hitler wasn’t “Hitler” when he was running for office in 1928 and 1932. He hadn’t yet brought down democracy in Europe, started the most catastrophic war in all history, and murdered millions. He was just a powerful orator who knew how to connect with everyday people—mainly by exploiting their fears and anxieties over economic dislocation, racial tension, and their belief that they just didn’t win anymore.
“Hitler wanted to help make Germany great again, and Germans agreed. The rest is history.”
Research: Paul D Miller