It was in 1990, not too long after the collapse of the repressive Soviet Union-dominated regimes across Eastern Europe, that we were assigned to read Bertram Gross’ Friendly Fascism. The book was first published in 1980; shortly after the United States (amongst other nations) exited a rather tumultuous decade. In political science circles at the time, it was popular to reflect upon such questions as “How can America best govern itself?” and “Can the current form of ‘representative, small-l liberal democracy’ endure?”
Gross, as one might have gleaned from the title, was skeptical about the direction in which he perceived the United States to be headed. His core argument was that corporatist interests, tired of market upheavals and other societal forces that threatened to disrupt their continued aggregation of economic power, would use their wealth to exert even greater, direct influence over and through our policymaking bodies (Federal, state, and local). Furthermore, they would not do so Augusto Pinochet-style, by mounting a military coup against a legitimate elected government. No, that would be too obvious. Instead, they would use far more insidious tactics and (generally by constitutional means) exploit our existing governmental structure, legal and electoral systems, and divisions within our country to enact and sustain policies that would protect their accumulation of capital and political clout. Fascism with no bullets but with a smile, aka “Friendly Fascism.”
Gross passed in 1997, at the height of neo-liberalism in the United States and the United Kingdom – where even the mainstream “left” that was in/coming into office (the Clintonian New Democrats and the Blair-led New Labour) had essentially accepted the economic arguments of the leading right-wing parties in their respective nations.
And here we stand in 2018, with a U.S. Administration that:
Ø employs ethno-nationalist policies intended to discriminate against racial minorities (example: forcing undocumented migrant children into detention centers),
Ø twists language and reality to defend sexist individuals, systems, and practices (example: attempting to belittle and run smear campaigns against women who are rape survivors),
Ø ignores election tampering (as it benefits them) and/or uses the law to restrict access to the ballot (see: many states with GOP Secretaries of State),
Ø attempts to bust/weaken unions and the rights of working women and men (example: the executive orders issued this summer that impact the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE),
Ø adopts proposals to roll back environmental protections, leading to more pollution and negatively impacting public health so as to benefit their corporate cronies (example: plans to gut the Clean Power Plan).
Ø flouts the Constitution (example: violates the emoluments clause)
This is a very short list of what could be a very long list of their transgressions against decency, against the rule of law, and against small l-liberal democracy. While some of their methods might be “friendly,” in a Gross-ian sense, such as persuasion/propaganda disseminated by supportive (read: “affiliated”) media outlets, their outcomes are most assuredly corrosive. Beyond that, frankly, sometimes they don’t even bother to employ “friendly fascist” tactics, but ones that are openly contemptuous of those who are, from their perspective, “others.” A U.S. citizen living in Puerto Rico and your home was decimated by Hurricane Maria and you need help? This Administration, aside from tossing some paper towels, is apparently quite indifferent to their suffering. Employed in the agricultural or manufacturing industries? If you are a CEO, you might benefit from some tax cuts. If you are an employee who is earning an hourly wage, on the other hand, you might be living in fear of losing your livelihood as a result of Trump’s tariff policies. Do you think Donald Trump, a person synonymous with selfishness, with avarice, and being part of the "elite," really cares about you? Really?
The Trump Administration is perhaps the inevitable consequence of a broken political and economic system. That doesn’t mean that this result should be accepted. We don’t have to succumb to fascism, friendly or otherwise. It remains within our power to end the current affliction. Simultaneously, we should find and put into place structural solutions that will prevent “malefactors of great wealth,” to borrow a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, and their fellow travelers from impinging upon the rights of everyday Americans to exercise their liberties.
When exploring the “fragility of democracy” (a reality already well-known to many of our citizens), Sinclair Lewis wrote, “It Can’t Happen Here.” We need to know that “it” [fascism in some form) can, but we can stop it…and choose a different path, another way of living together. Hopefully, November 6 will offer a step in the right direction.