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Tomgram: Bob Dreyfuss, Will The Donald Rally the Militias and the Right-to-Carry Movement?

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

You must have noticed the Hitler comparisons, right? Amid the recent "Nazi" controversy (over whether those right hands raised in a pledge to vote for Donald Trump at his "movement" rallies are actually copycat Sieg Heils), a bevy of pundits, commentators, and other figures, including the Mexican president and Anne Frank's stepsister, have been comparing The Donald to Adolf Hitler. But have you noticed that others are pointing to Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, Argentinian caudillo Juan PerĂ³n, right-wing Italian newspaper magnate, billionaire, and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, present head of the far-right National Front Party of France Marine Le Pen or her father, the founder of that party and Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen (who endorsed Trump recently), and even left-wing Venezuelan President Hugo Cha'vez? And that's not to speak of President Richard ("Tricky Dick") Nixon, segregationist Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace, senator and Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, Louisiana governor and populist Huey Long, and former car manufacturer, presidential possibility, and notorious anti-Semite Henry Ford, which is just to begin a list of history's potential Trump impersonators, not end it. (And don't even get me started on mentions of "fascism" and "authoritarianism" in the media these days!)

If nothing else, such a strange and varied list of comparisons tells us one thing: that Trump has taken the American political system and white working class voters in particular into territory uncharted in recent memory. Hence all those fingers pointing to whatever extreme figures come to mind. Of course, since at least the Clinton years, the Democratic Party has been slowly melting down, leaving a political structure lacking much of a base as the power of the unions has evaporated, big city political machines have largely been relegated to old Thomas Nast cartoons, and "neo" has been added to those liberal politicians who have started making their off-hours money by preaching the good times gospel to the big banks rather than regulating them. Of course, that meltdown is mostly ancient history these days, as Bernie Sanders takes many of the party's voters on a trip elsewhere. On the other hand, the Grand Old Party is melting down right now, before our eyes, and it couldn't be a more dramatic spectacle. There was, for instance, that recent assault on Trump as a failed businessman, con artist, and fraud by 2012 losing presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the casino capitalist who had a knack for pillaging companies and jobs. A recent poll now tells us that his verbal assaults and tweets on Trump actually helped increase both The Donald's voters and their commitment (as last Tuesday's primaries seemed to indicate).

So perhaps it's time to start writing those GOP obituaries. After all, we're talking about the party that, from Nixon's southern strategy to that infamous George H.W. Bush ad linking Willie Horton to Michael Dukakis, used racially coded appeals to attract voters. In the meantime, its leadership mainlined into a new billionaire class and a Supreme Court-approved world of funding in which everything political seemed to be up for sale for sums beyond imagining. So how can the Romneys, Ryans, and others not feel the bitter sting of a runaway billionaire who has used open racial taunts and appeals to steal their party while rejecting their money?

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On such a darkened and racially charged stage, some speculation is certainly in order. What else is there to do, after all, when the future seems more unknown than usual? So TomDispatch has called on Bob Dreyfuss, author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, who knows a thing or two about extremists and authoritarians of various sorts, to give some thought to where Trumpism, with or without The Donald, might actually go. Tom

It Can't Happen Here... Can It?
Trump's Storm Troopers and the Possibility of American Fascism
By Bob Dreyfuss

Can it happen here?

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That's the question circulating now that Donald Trump, the nativist, rabble-rousing xenophobe, and billionaire, is threatening to capture the Republican nomination for president of the United States -- and it's a question that isn't being asked only on the left. It's been raised by a New York Times editorial, which claimed that Trump has brought the GOP "to the brink of fascism," and by Republicans, ranging from neoconservative pundit Max Boot to Virginia's centrist former Governor Jim Gilmore. Conservative Times columnist Ross Douthat was reasonably typical in a piece headlined "Is Donald Trump a Fascist?" While he allowed that The Donald may not be Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini, he added, "It seems fair to say that he's closer to the 'proto-fascist' zone on the political spectrum than either the average American conservative or his recent predecessors in right-wing populism."

For figures ranging from comic Louis C.K. to right-wing commentator Glenn Beck, making direct Hitler-Trump comparisons has become the fashion of the moment. I must admit, however, that "proto-fascist" sounds about right to me. Certainly, the rise of Trump has caused many voters to take notice -- the question being whether the real estate mogul (who further stirred the pot recently by retweeting a quote from Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini) could cobble together enough of a coalition of nationalists, Angry White Men, "poorly educated" working-class backers, the disaffected religious right, Islamophobes, immigrant-bashers, and others to wield the figurative pitchforks in a march to victory in November.

If indeed Trump is a mere "proto-fascist," then what ingredients, if any, are still needed for the emergence of an authentic twenty-first-century American fascist movement? To think about that question, I recently read Richard J. Evans' book, The Coming of the Third Reich. It spans the era from 1871 to 1933, describing in exquisitely painful detail the gestation and growth of the Nazi party. If you decide to read the book, try doing what I did: in two columns in your head draw up a list of similarities and differences between the United States today and Weimar Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s.

In this edgy moment in America, the similarities, of course, tend to jump out at you. As Trump repeatedly pledges to restore American greatness, so Hitler promised to avenge Germany's humiliation in World War I. As Trump urges his followers, especially the white working class, to blame their troubles on Mexican immigrants and Muslims, so Hitler whipped up an anti-Semitic brew. As Trump -- ironically, for a billionaire -- attacks Wall Street and corporate lobbyists for rigging the economy and making puppets out of politicians, so Hitler railed against Wall Street and the City of London, along with their local allies in Germany, for burdening his country with a massive post-World War I, Versailles Treaty-imposed reparations debt and for backing the Weimar Republic's feckless center-right parties. (Think: the Republican Party today.) As with Trump's China-bashing comments and his threats to murder the relatives of Islamist terrorists while taking over Iraq's oil reserves, Hitler too appealed to an atavistic, reckless sort of ultra-nationalism.

The Second Amendment Society

But don't forget the differences, which are no less obvious. The United States has a long-established tradition of democratic republicanism, which 1920s Germany did not. The economy of the planet's last superpower, while careening into a near-depression in 2008, is incomparably too strong to be put in the same category as the hyperinflation-plagued German one of that era.

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There is, however, another difference between Donald Trump of 2016 and Adolf Hitler of 1921 (when he took over the leadership of the fledgling National Socialist German Workers Party) that overshadows the rest. From the beginning, Hitler wielded the support of a brutal, thuggish armed paramilitary wing, the notorious Sturmabteilung (SA), the Storm Detachment (or storm troopers). Also known as the Brown Shirts, the SA often used violence against its opponents in the streets of Germany's cities, and its sheer presence intimidated Germans across the political spectrum.

And that got me thinking. Would it be possible for Donald Trump or some future Trump-like figure to build an armed following of his own? Frighteningly enough, the answer is certainly: yes. And it might not even be that hard.

Bear with me a moment here. Back in 2010, in Alexandria, Virginia, radical partisans of the Second Amendment right to bear arms, bolstered by Virginia's egregiously anything-goes open-carry laws, held a Restore the Constitution Rally in Fort Hunt Park on the Potomac River -- and they came armed. The event was, by the way, scheduled for April 19th, the anniversary of Timothy McVeigh's 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. At the time, I lived a mile or so from that park, and the combination of fear, anger, and disgust that such a weapons-displaying political demonstration could happen in the virtual shadow of the Capitol was palpable.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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