Trump and Dictatorship
Associate Professor of History
University of Rochester
As a historian of modern dictatorships I am deeply alarmed by the rhetoric of Donald Trump and many of his supporters. My own specialty is Joseph Stalin’s totalitarian rule in the Soviet Union, but I am familiar with the histories of Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Fascist regime in Italy, Spain under strong man Francisco Franco, and other authoritarian regimes. Trump has endorsed the principles of collective responsibility (all members of a group are responsible for the actions of individual members) by advocating punishment of family members of suspected terrorists and deportation of all Muslims. He has fomented religious and ethnic bigotry – if you want to understand just how disturbing his anti-Muslim and anti-Hispanic rhetoric is, try substituting the word “Jew” for “Muslim” or “Mexican” in his statements. Along with commentators like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, he has pressed the idea that political opposition is illegal and that if elected he will arrest and prosecute Hillary Clinton. He has repeatedly advocated measures that would violate the Constitution, such as restricting free speech through tightened libel laws, closing all mosques, and declaring judges unfit to judge cases based on their ethnic background. Nor will he pledge to accept a peaceful transition of power should he lose the election
These are all based on principles common to most dictatorships – political opposition is tantamount to treason, speech opposed to the rulers must be restricted, and particular groups, ethnic, religious or otherwise, are responsible for all of society’s ills.
Even more disturbing is extremist Trump supporters’ thuggish attempts to threaten their candidate’s political opponents. They regularly send vitriolic messages, including death threats to these men and women (Republicans and Democrats alike). Some have also taken to standing outside Democratic Party headquarters with weapons on display. This kind of intimidation is characteristic of Communist and Fascist regimes.
Many of Trump’s supporters state that they are voting for him because Hillary Clinton is worse. I want to focus on this claim, because just like Stalin’s insistence that his political enemies were guilty of a vast plot against the social order, it is based on false conspiracy theories. These have been circulated by extreme right-wing commentators such as Bill O’Reilly, Hannity and Limbaugh for years. The most decisive refutation of these theories is that none of these men’s dire predictions of repression under Barack Obama’s eight-year presidency have come true. Moreover, in policy terms both Obama and Hillary Clinton are Eisenhower Republicans, not the wild-eyed terrorist sympathizing, election-stealing Communist international criminals depicted by the extreme Right.
It is worth delving further into these conspiracy theories. First, fringe right-wing commentators have for years pushed the idea that vote fraud is epidemic in the United States, particularly in African-American and Hispanic areas. Yet multiple independent studies have found that voter impersonation is very rare. Commentators at the conservative Wall Street Journal have concurred. And Republican officials and consultants have repeatedly admitted that voter ID laws are targeted at Democratic and minority voters. Creating the false impression that an election is “rigged” delegitimizes democratic processes. It is a common tactic of anti-democratic political movements.
Second, there is the notion that Hillary Clinton is guilty of high crimes against the American people and government. Trump supporters often call for her imprisonment and execution on this basis. Yet the House of Representative’s Republican led investigation of the attack on US government facilities in Benghazi, Libya found no evidence of dereliction of duty by Clinton or State Department officials. The FBI investigation of Clinton’s emails while she was Secretary of State found no evidence of wrongdoing or illegal activity. The recent FBI statement with regard to emails on former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s computer indicated that these emails have not even been thoroughly read yet, much less that there is probable cause to reopen the investigation of Clinton.
Some would argue that Clinton’s (and by extension all liberals’) conspiracy to undermine American society is so vast and top secret that no evidence of that conspiracy will be discovered. This is a classic argument deployed in Stalin’s kangaroo courts. There are two problems with it. First it cannot be falsified. Lack of evidence for a conspiracy becomes evidence of a conspiracy. Secondly, vast conspiracies inevitably come to light, because there are so many participants.
Donald Trump and his more extreme followers are a dire threat to the American republic. There are many reasons to oppose Hillary Clinton and her proposed policies, but she is not such a threat. America needs conservatives and liberals both, but it does not need Donald Trump.