Douglas Frantz is a former assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration and a former deputy secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
“Make America Great Again” is the ultimate fascist statement. It promises to restore what’s lost and panders to the urge for enemies to blame.
Day in and day out, U.S. President Donald Trump reinforces the message of his signature slogan with false accusations, half-truths and outright lies, driving the country toward the brink of fascism.
Yes, at first glance, a rise of fascism in the United States sounds outlandish. Doesn’t the country have deep-rooted institutions and civil society as bulwarks against a plunge into the authoritarianism of Hitler and Mussolini?
I fear that good Americans will trust blindly in those institutions until it is too late. I also fear that our neighbours in Canada will ignore the early signs of similar trouble in their own country – and attempts by politicians to exploit them.
Before we say it can’t happen in the United States or Canada, let’s look at what history tells us are three warning signs of impending fascism.
First, in a fascist state, democracy is a victim of economic troubles and broken social bonds. In the 1930s, Germany went from being a wealthy country to a poor one in a generation. Nearly one in three workers were unemployed, the middle class was weakened, people had lost hope and needed someone to blame.
Adolf Hitler capitalized on those fears by appealing to nationalism, bigotry and suspicion of “the others,” in that case primarily, Jews.
Flash forward to the United States today. For many Americans, the future seems diminished. Nearly 80 per cent of the population lives paycheck-to-paycheck and roughly 70 per cent have less than $1,000 in savings. As a result, seven in 10 Americans expect their children to have less.
Mr. Trump exploits those fears in the U.S. the same way Hitler did in Germany. Like Hitler, Mr. Trump promises an economic miracle that will restore the good-paying jobs and the hope that aggrieved Americans have lost. He proclaims himself a nationalist, a thinly-veiled synonym for racist, and fabricates scapegoats, in this case migrants, minorities, Muslims and political adversaries.
Second, in a fascist state, institutions that stand in the way of authoritarianism are undermined. Science and experts are rejected in favour of the all-knowing demagogue. Critical thinking is discarded in favour of simplistic solutions delivered in simplistic language. Nationalism replaces multilateralism.
Blaming Canada, Europe and China for the loss of American jobs gives Mr. Trump a double-barreled weapon: He appeals to the fear of outsiders and avoids the tough solutions to real problems. He scoffs at the multilateral institutions that have kept the world safe for 70 years and denigrates those who warn of the perils of climate change.
Third, only the demagogue speaks the truth in a fascist state. Deviations are dismissed and words lose their meaning. Think of George Orwell’s 1984, where the leaders created a language in which “freedom is slavery” and “ignorance is strength.”
How different is that from the daily tweets and rhetoric of Mr. Trump? Or from the assertions by his closest advisers that there are “alternative facts” and that the “truth isn’t truth?” In this twisted formula, the demagogue defines the truth and sows distrust in the institutions central to democracy, such as the free press and fair elections.
Today’s fascism won’t look exactly like Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy. At Trump rallies, swastikas and brown shirts have been replaced by red caps emblazoned with “Make America Great Again” and banners proclaiming, “CNN Sucks.”
Alarm bells should be going off. Certainly, dictators around the world have taken note of Mr. Trump’s disdain for rule of law and civility. The rest of us should, too.
For Canadians, the perilous path of its neighbour has already brought economic uncertainty and damaged a vital friendship. Mr. Trump’s antics have opened the door for populist politicians like Ontario Premier Doug Ford and right-wing People’s Party of Canada founder, Maxime Bernier.
What should Canadians do? First and foremost, embrace the civility and openness that are hallmarks of this great country. Canada’s acceptance of refugees, particularly Syrians, stands in stark contrast to Mr. Trump’s America.
Second, don’t ignore the national problems, particularly the economic turmoil in the working class. Nearly half of Canadians live paycheck-to-paycheck, and just 24 per cent of Canadians feel their children will be better off than they are – not much better than the U.S. figures.
Third, strengthen Canada’s position as a champion of democratic values in the international community. With the United States on the sidelines and authoritarianism on the rise in Europe and elsewhere, it has never been more important for Ottawa to lead by example.
Finally, don’t look at the deterioration of democracy in the United States and think, “It can’t happen here.” It can, unless Canadians maintain their commitment to helping each other, and build on their history of democratic values at home and abroad.