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John Nichols: Josh Kaul is right to decry Donald Trump’s fascist tactics

John Nichols: Josh Kaul is right to decry Donald Trump’s fascist tactics

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul responded appropriately to the news that President Trump intends to dispatch federal agents to Milwaukee, even as Trump’s forces are creating chaos in Portland.

Kaul used the “f” word.

“During this administration, and especially in recent weeks, we have witnessed the president employing fascist tactics, including his demonization of immigrants, his attacks on communities with large minority populations and the elected representatives of those communities, the blatantly illegal use of force against protesters near the White House, and the deployment of secret federal police to Portland over the objections of state and local officials,” the attorney general said.

Trump and his apologists claim that the federal forces simply seek to restore order to American cities that have been the scene of mass protests against police violence and systemic racism. Or that they are being deployed to fight crime. But the news reports from Portland, where agents have used excessive force against peaceful protesters and arrested people without probable cause, invite incredulity. Especially when Milwaukee is not just any city, but the site of the upcoming Democratic National Convention.

“Under ordinary circumstances, I would welcome the announcement of additional federal resources to help solve and prevent violent crimes in Wisconsin,” Kaul said. “Unfortunately, the Trump administration has made it abundantly clear that it’s happy to politicize law enforcement; the administration’s actions must be met with great skepticism.”

It was a concern about the politicization of law enforcement that led Kaul to reference fascism. “I don’t use the phrase ‘fascist tactics’ lightly,” he explained. “But there is no more accurate way to describe this administration’s repeated resort to and incitement of racism, xenophobia, and violence.

Perhaps it is jarring for some to hear the chief law enforcement officer of an America state accuse the president and his aides of employing fascist tactics. But Kaul, as he noted, chose his words carefully. He knew what he was saying, and he was right to say it. As Mehdi Hasan observed on MSNBC last week, “the growing authoritarianism and state-sponsored violence in this country should worry you.” Warning that “the scenes from Portland, Oregon, should set off alarm bells,” Hasan asked, “Are we still saying this is not at all reminiscent of fascism?”

There should no longer be any question that we have reached a point in our history when it is necessary and appropriate for officials to call out fascist tactics, and fascist threats. They do not have to suggest that we have reached full-blown fascism. Rather, they should acknowledge, as does Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder, that, “It can happen in the United States, and some of it has already happened, but the rest of it need not.”

Snyder argues, “Trump cannot take fascism all the way, not because he has any virtues but because he has too many vices.” The author of "On Tyranny and The Road to Unfreedom" counsels, “His administration needs enough fascism to get by, enough to weaken the state and society so that the people Trump admires, be they in the Kremlin or in his circle, can stay out of prison and do well for themselves.”

But Snyder does not shy away from the use of the “f” word — he recently penned an essay headlined, “In Portland, the Baby Fascists Have Shown Their Face” — and neither should the officials who are changed with upholding the rule of law.

There will always be those who claim the mere mention of “fascist tactics” and “tactics of neo-fascist division” goes too far. But they fail to recognize that fascism takes many forms, as former Vice President Henry Wallace explained in his groundbreaking 1943 essay, “The Danger of American Fascism.” Writing during World War II, Franklin Roosevelt’s second vice president warned that, “The worldwide, age-long struggle between fascism and democracy will not stop when the fighting ends in Germany and Japan.”

Fascist thinking would remain a threat, even in the United States, explained Wallace.

“The American fascists are most easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact,” he observed. “Their newspapers and propaganda carefully cultivate every fissure of disunity, every crack in the common front against fascism. They use every opportunity to impugn democracy. They use isolationism as a slogan to conceal their own selfish imperialism.”

Wallace was not an alarmist. He was a realist. He used the term “Americanized fascism” to help people recognize that authoritarian tactics and threats were not merely a foreign concern. Indeed, as I explain in my book on Wallace’s fight against fascism — abroad and at home — the real danger comes when Americans refuse to believe that what they are witnessing is, indeed, a domestic manifestation of a worldwide disease.

How would American fascists be identified? Wallace wrote, “They claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest. Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection.”

What Wallace wrote about Americanized fascism in 1943 remains true today. Americanized fascism, Wallace warned, “is an infectious disease, and we must all be on our guard against intolerance, bigotry and the pretension of invidious distinction.”

John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times. His new book is "The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace's Anti-Fascist, Anti-Racist Politics"(Verso). jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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