Donald Trump sounded more like a twentieth-century European strongman on Friday than the president of the American republic.
Minutes after being sworn in as president, Trump accused the congressmen and -women, senators and former presidents who surrounded him on the steps of the Capitol of sapping America’s strength and prosperity.
A property mogul and hotelier who inherited most of his wealth, Trump complained that politicians are “all talk and no action” and promised that, under his leadership, government would be given back to “the people”.
It wasn’t for nothing that the vice chancellor of Germany, Sigmar Gabriel, found Trump’s inauguration speech disconcerting.
“The only thing that was missing were terms like calling parliament a ‘talking shop’ and referring to ‘system parties’,” Gabriel told ZDF television; terms that were used by the Nazis to disparage parliamentary democracy in the Weimar Republic.
“Then we’d be in the political rhetoric of the conservatives and reactionaries of the 1920s and 30s.”
Call to action
I doubt this is deliberate. More likely, Trump is ignorant of European history.
But it’s no coincidence either than he should mimic nationalists and populists from the past. Illiberal strongmen have things in common. Politics is a nuisance to them. Once they win an election, they believe they have the right to do anything. If the nation is “weak”, it must be because it was stabbed in the back by effeminate elites. Legal niceties, like the rule of law, must always give way. So must dissent and loyal opposition.
“The time for empty talk is over,” Trump announced on Friday.
“Now arrives the hour of action.”
“In America, we understand that a nation is only living as long as it is striving.”
“When America is united, America is totally unstoppable.”
These aren’t new ideas. It may be impolite to point out, but sentiments like these are what brought the likes of Gyula Gömbös, Benito Mussolini and Primo de Rivera to power in Hungary, Italy and Spain and what nearly brought down the French Republic in the 1930s.
Nor was Trump’s portrayal of America as a crime-ridden and humiliated superpower reclaiming its rightful place among nations a rhetorical innovation. Revanchism and a thirst for greatness were the hallmarks of fascism in interwar Europe.
It always takes a single leader to revitalize the nation and Trump is not one to shirk from megalomania. When he accepted the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in July, he was unabashed: “I alone can fix this,” he said, after rattling off a series of crises — some real, most imagined.
This is the authoritarian playbook: Use an emergency to concentrate power in the hands of one man or a few. When there isn’t a crisis, create one. Or, in Trump’s case, pretend there are many.
The grim view of America he betrayed on Friday bears little resemblance to the country he now leads, which will make it all the easier for Trump to soon declare he has succeeded at making it “great” again.
It would be comical if it weren’t so serious, but Trump is not alone. Millions of Americans are ready to follow him down the rabbit hole.
Amplified by an alternative news media that spends as much time undermining the “lying press” as it does fabricating its own reality, Trump’s message of national action is one that could resonate widely.
It is even inspiring little despots in Europe — Nigel Farage in Britain, Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland — who see in Trump’s coming to power the beginning of a patriotic revival that will swipe away the vestiges of the liberal regime: from the EU and its pesky human-rights courts to critical journalists to gay prides to multiculturalists.
It is for times like these that we study history.
Trump may not round up all Mexicans, but there is little doubt his administration will be less friendly to people of color and sexual minorities than the last.
He may not jail critics, but Trump routinely attacks the press and is less accessible to reporters than presidents before him.
He may not do away with Congress, but — with Republicans controlling both houses — Trump is not likely to be held back by the legislative branch either.
This is how autocracy starts: elites are cast out; minorities are scapegoated; institutions are gutted.
America still has a long way to go before it reaches that state. Liberal elites, in the academy, media and Silicon Valley, will not give up power so readily. Blacks, Hispanics, gays and women are not going to surrender the rights it took them decades to gain. Courts, city and state governments and Democrats in Congress still have fight left in them.
But never before in American history have they faced a president so determined to defeat them all.