By John Krull
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is a godsend for comedians and cartoonists.
With his puffed-up soufflé of a hairstyle and a countenance that congeals into a pucker every time he tries to make a point, the Donald blurs the line between caricature and documentary. Most comics say Trump isn’t just good for easy laughs; he’s great for free guffaws, too.
The Donald is savvy enough to know that, when people tell jokes about him, they also talk about him, too. They pay attention even as they chuckle.
That’s why Trump is laughing all the way to the lead of the GOP presidential nominating process.
The problem is the things he’s doing and saying really aren’t jokes.
Fascism just isn’t that funny.
We Americans tend to think of fascism in its most extreme form – Stormtroopers clad in black uniforms goose-stepping on their way to the gas chamber, the crematorium and mass murder. Anything short of that tragic brutality can’t be the real thing.
But fascism comes in degrees, just as any other political system does.
The fascist leader who aspires to power generally begins by summoning up an illustrious (and often imaginary) past when a group of people who feel downtrodden and deprived – or even cheated by fate and history – enjoyed prosperity and respect. This aspiring leader promises to make the depressed community or country “great” or “strong” again.
This leader either ignores or treats with contempt laws and constitutional constraints as hindrances that, the leader says, keep the people from restoring their greatness once more. If the leader is informed, for example, that citizens cannot be required to carry special identification or be banned from the country based on their religious faith, the leader responds with scorn by saying that respecting such restrictions on power is one of the reasons the country is “weak.”
And the leader finds demographic groups – Jews, gypsies, Mexicans, Muslims – that are preventing the good people, the true citizens, from achieving their just status.
Sound like anyone we know?
I want to make clear I don’t believe for a second Trump and the great bulk of his supporters would countenance the worst atrocities associated with fascism. They may be scared and short-sighted, but they are not evil.
Nonetheless, we Americans have a distressing tendency to think historic forces and tragedies that have afflicted other countries cannot touch us.
That just isn’t true.
We have flirted with fascism before.
In the 1930s, Father Charles Coughlin and, some say, Louisiana’s Huey Long, like Trump, attracted millions of followers with a toxic mix of promises of strong-man government and attacks on “others” who, in their eyes, were to blame for America’s “weakness.” That time, like this time, was a period of both economic and social upheaval, an era in which a distressing number of people thought their distress could be relieved and their problems could be solved by isolating and punishing scapegoats.
The fear that gives rise to fascism, however soft, demonstrates how fragile freedom can be.
The irony of American history, a beautiful one, is that the principles we set forth in our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, challenge Americans at least as much as they reassure us. Time and time again, disenfranchised people have used America’s bedrock beliefs to indict us for not honoring our best selves.
Thus, what began as a rebellion of property-holding white slave owners against a distant monarchy has grown, over more than two centuries, to be an ongoing revolution in which those bedrock beliefs became the tools by which African-Americans, women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, immigrants and, yes, Muslims have been able to secure for themselves and their posterity the blessings of liberty.
Freedom, it turned out, by definition cannot be caged and will not be confined to any one group of people – or denied to those who desire it fiercely enough.
I’m not sure Donald Trump or his most devoted supporters understand that.
There are, I know, people who dismiss Trump as little more than a sideshow huckster, an entertainer who will say anything to draw a crowd.
I doubt that’s the case.
Trump seems to say what he believes and believe what he’s saying.
That’s the part that just isn’t funny.