Professor Annemarie Sammartino of the Oberlin College history department gave a wonderfully organized and lucid lecture at Kendal at Oberlin on the afternoon of Feb. 23.
Her topic was “Historical Lessons from Germany: How Fascist States Consolidate and How to Defeat Them.” She began with a quote from Yale historian, Timothy Snyder, who said, “History does not repeat. But it does offer us lessons and patterns and thereby enlarges our imagination and creates more possibilities for anticipation and resistance.”
As a scholar, Sammartino did not try to arrive at a definite answer but she laid out the parallels with the situation in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s and allowed the audience to reach its own conclusions. Many of us worry about the effect that President Donald Trump’s administration might have on our American democracy, so it is important that we recognize the initial symptoms of a potential fascist regime, and then to know how to resist its consolidation and growing strength.
Unlike the communist states of the former Soviet Union and China, a fascist nation has no well-defined ideology such as Marxist-Leninism but develops propaganda to appeal to the mood of the nation at the time. As a result, there is no doctrine that defines a regime as fascist. But it is in the regime’s actions that we see that a nation most clearly fits the fascist mold. Sammartino listed some of Trump’s words and actions that already parallel a number of these characteristics of fascism:
• Focus on the nation: “Make America great again” (comparable to “Deutschland uber alles”).
• Exploitation of ethnic stereotyping and use of scapegoating racial and ideological “others” (Muslims and Mexicans).
• Obsessive focus on decline and humiliation of the nation; Donald Trump is the first person to run openly for president without apology on a platform of American decline.
• Focus on its leader as a savior figure (“I alone can fix it”).
• Use of chaos in ruling.
• Encouragement of violence at rallies and in solving national problems.
• Ideology of cleansing violence (“You are in danger, and I will do what it takes to protect you”).
Sammartino emphasized the need for citizens to stick together and to offer resistance early. On the day after Trump’s inauguration, 52 members of the Oberlin community climbed on a bus around midnight to join with 500,000 other American citizens in the Women’s March on Washington. In my opinion, this powerful political statement has helped to curb some of the likely excesses of Trump’s regime and led to continuing acts of resistance.
Unfortunately, the need for resistance is not going to diminish anytime soon. As can be read in the media, the Trump administration is populated with ideologues in key positions who are determined to undermine our rights to a clean environment, open borders, a free press, and actual national security. The apparent chaos of the Trump administration might seem to be a weakness, but this sense actually encourages the yearning for a strong leader. This idea is further advanced by a constant emphasis on the supposed failures of President Barack Obama’s administration. Moreover, there is the ever-present danger of a terrorist attack or civil disturbance that will provide the excuse for Trump regime to crack down on our civil liberties. The Nazi reaction to the Reichstag fire in Germany in 1933, and the actions of the George W. Bush presidency following the 9/11 attacks, warn us how quickly regimes can take advantage of the fear generated by such attacks on a nation’s homeland.
Sammartino pointed out that applying this sort of analysis to any nation is complicated. However, the power of the state, even in Nazi Germany, was limited by collective and concerted action by its citizenry. Whether or not one chooses to label Tramp’s regime as fascist, this is a time of considerable peril for America’s democracy. So all of us need to be aware of the dangers and be prepared to act.
Solidarity in these times is essential.
Al Carroll is a retired nuclear physicist living at the Kendal Retirement Community in Oberlin. He has helped to establish and support the Peace and Conflict Studies program at the college. He is the facilitator for Community Peace Builders.