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How fascism works: Watch expert explain how Trump fuels racist violence and chaos

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Trump supporter defends Kyle Rittenhouse at rally in Kenosha, Wisconsin (Twitter/screen grab)

As President Trump openly embraces the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon and promotes “law and order” while refusing to condemn armed followers of his who target antiracist protesters, we speak with Jason Stanley, Yale philosopher and scholar of propaganda, author of “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.” Stanley says Trump built a cult of personality within the Republican Party, as evident during the Republican National Convention, and has moved the United States steadily into authoritarianism during his term. “Fascism is a cult of the leader who promises national restoration in the face of supposed threats by leftist radicals, minorities and immigrants. He promises only he can save us,” Stanley says. “In the RNC, what we saw is we saw a cult of the leader.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

DELEGATES: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years! Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Now, if you want to really drive them crazy, you say “12 more years.”

DELEGATES: Twelve more years! Twelve more years! Twelve more years!

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Because we caught them doing some really bad things in 2016. Let’s see what happens.

AMY GOODMAN: “Twelve more years.” That was how Donald Trump kicked off the Republican National Convention from North Carolina last week, where he flew for the roll call vote. The convention came amidst a nationwide uprising against police brutality, just days after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and while people continued to demand justice for Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in the streets. But Vice President Mike Pence did not say their names when he addressed the RNC; instead, he focused on the killing of federal security officer David Patrick Underwood in Oakland, California.

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VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: We will have law and order on the streets of this country for every American of every race and creed and color. … President Trump and I know that the men and women that put on the uniform of law enforcement are the best of us. Every day, when they walk out that door, they consider our lives more important than their own — people like Dave Patrick Underwood, an officer in the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service, who was shot and killed during the riots in Oakland, California. Dave’s heroism is emblematic of the heroes that serve in blue every day. And we’re privileged tonight to be joined by his sister Angela. Angela, we say to you, we grieve with your family, and America will never forget or fail to honor officer Dave Patrick Underwood.

AMY GOODMAN: But Vice President Pence left out a key part of the story. The man charged with Underwood’s death was not a Black Lives Matter activist, but a man with ties to the far-right “boogaloo” movement, which has used protests against police brutality as a cover to carry out violence.

Pence did not mention Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old white vigilante who killed two protesters in the streets of Kenosha last week. On Monday, President Trump refused to condemn Rittenhouse, saying the gunman probably would have been killed had he not attacked the protesters.

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This comes as Trump has openly embraced supporters of the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon, describing them as “people that love our country.” Last month, he refused to question the central plank of the conspiracy theory when questioned by a reporter.

REPORTER: At the crux of the theory is this belief that you are secretly saving the world from this satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals. Does that sound like something you are behind?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I haven’t — I haven’t heard that, but is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing? I mean, you know, if I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it.

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AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this week, in an apparent reference to the QAnon conspiracy theory, Trump claimed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is being secretly controlled by people in the, quote, “dark shadows.” He made the comment during an interview with Laura Ingraham of Fox News.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don’t even like to mention Biden, because he’s not controlling anything. They control him.

LAURA INGRAHAM: Who do you think is pulling Biden’s strings? Is it former Obama officials?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: People that you’ve never heard of. People that are in the dark shadows. People that are —

LAURA INGRAHAM: What does that mean? That sounds like conspiracy theory: “dark shadows.” What is that?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No, people that you haven’t heard of. There are people that are on the streets. There are people that are controlling the streets. We had somebody get on a plane from a certain city this weekend, and in the plane, it was almost completely loaded with — with thugs wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms, with gear and this and that. They’re on a plane.

LAURA INGRAHAM: Where was this?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I’ll tell you sometime, but it’s under investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump provided no evidence to back up his claim about thugs on planes. He initially claimed the plane was headed to the Republican National Convention. On Tuesday, he told reporters the plane was going from Washington to, quote, “wherever.” NBC reports Trump’s claim is very similar to a conspiracy theory started in June by a man in Idaho that went viral within far-right circles on social media.

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Well, to connect these dots, from the Republican National Convention to white supremacists in the streets of U.S. cities to the president’s embrace of fringe conspiracy theories, we’re joined now by Yale professor Jason Stanley. He’s a renowned philosopher and scholar of propaganda who wrote the book _How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them). Professor Stanley is the child of refugees of World War II. He’s a professor of philosophy at Yale University, joining us from New Haven, Connecticut.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Professor Stanley. You were on when the book was first published two years ago, right in the middle of the Trump presidency. And now either we’re nearing its end or he will be reelected again. But talk about what you just listened to, and why you feel your book, How Fascism Works, is more relevant than ever.

JASON STANLEY: So, fascism is a cult of the leader who promises national restoration in the face of supposed threats by leftist radicals, minorities and immigrants. He promises only he can save us. In the RNC, what we saw is we saw a cult of the leader. The Republicans didn’t even bother to provide a platform. They just said, “Whatever Trump wants.” We saw four of the six long speeches given by Trumps.

So, Hannah Arendt, in Origins of Totalitarianism, warns that the first step towards authoritarianism is when a political party starts to value party over parties, meaning one political party treats other political parties not as legitimate opposition but as traitors to the country. The next step is when that political party, that engages in this kind of behavior, just becomes taken over by a social and political movement devoted to one leader. And that, I fear, is what we’re seeing.

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When I published my book two years ago, people accused me of hysteria, of exaggeration, and they listed reasons why we shouldn’t be afraid of fascism in America, despite its deep roots in this country. And the reasons they’ve given, I’m afraid, have fallen to the wayside. They’ve given reasons like, you know, the institutions remain independent, the Justice Department remains independent. They’ve given reasons like there are no right-wing militias tacitly endorsed by the administration. So, Arendt calls our attention to the fact that the Nazi government refused to condemn the violence of right-wing — right-wing, far-right violent people on the streets attacking Jews. They refused to condemn them. They didn’t endorse them; they just refused to condemn them. And Arendt said that was giving them permission.

So, you know, we’ve seen four years of chaos here, and yet we’re being told that this is law and order. So, we’re seeing militias on the street endorsed by the president. We’re seeing the administration echo a conspiracy theory that looks, really, a great deal like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is the early 20th century conspiracy that Judeo-Bolsheviks were behind liberalism and controlled the media, controlled the cultural institutions, where bankers were in cahoots with media and the art world to bring about world communism. We saw that at the RNC. Senator Tim Scott talked about Manhattan elites and Hollywood moguls supposedly trying to bring socialism to the United States. This mixture of a wealthy elite and communists is reminiscent of some of the worst conspiracy theories of the 20th century. So I’m very concerned here.

We’re seeing — people said, “It’s not fascism, because they’re not attacking democracy.” Well, what are the attacks on the elections about, if not attacks on democracy? So, while I don’t think Trump himself has a vision, has some kind of grand vision, as the fascists of yore has, as Timothy Snyder has called it, this is “not-even fascism.” I think we’re seeing a structure emerge, with figures like Stephen Miller, with all the sort of white supremacist ideologues in this administration, that could bring about, definitely, a turn to authoritarianism. It’s definitely an attack on democracy that the RNC represented.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to — back to the Republican convention, to President Trump formally accepting the nomination before a crowd of about 1,500 people crowded onto the South Lawn of the White House. During his acceptance speech, Trump made no reference to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, or the killing of the two protesters that had just happened in Kenosha by a 17-year-old white Trump-supporting vigilante.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: When there is police misconduct, the justice system must hold wrongdoers fully and completely accountable. And it will. But when we can never have a situation where things are going on, as they are today, we must never allow mob rule. We can never allow mob rule. In the strongest possible terms, the Republican Party condemns the rioting, looting, arson and violence we have seen in Democrat-run cities all, like Kenosha, Minneapolis, Portland, Chicago and New York and many others. Democrat-run. There is violence and danger in the streets of many Democrat-run cities throughout America.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Professor Stanley, as you have a white officer shooting at point-blank range seven times in the back Jacob Blake just days before, and then two Black Lives Matter activists shot dead in the streets of Kenosha by a Trump-supporting gunman, no mention of them, but talking about mob rule in the streets somewhere of cities that are run by Democrats.

JASON STANLEY: OK. So, there’s two chapters in my book — my book is a 10-part characterization of fascist tactics. There’s two parts in my — two chapters in my book that are deeply relevant for what is happening now: obviously, chapter seven, “Law and Order,” and chapter nine, “Sodom and Gomorrah.”

What is meant by “Sodom and Gomorrah”? Chapter two of Hitler’s book Mein Kampf is called “My Study and Struggles in Vienna,” and he talks about his time in Vienna, a city, the capital of Austria, filled with foreigners, dirty, diseased, all sorts of different languages, filled with immigrants, and then the hated minority group, which for him were Jews. So, what we see is a repetition of this tactic: an attack on cities. Hypocritical, of course — Trump is from Queens. But what Trump is doing is trying to represent cities as filled with foreigners, minorities and disease. Earlier, he described New York City as filled with — as disease-ridden. And I think yesterday or, I think, in the last 24 hours, he said he blamed the COVID deaths on New York City. So, the idea is an attack on — you know, cities are dens of iniquity and foreignness. Real Americans live in rural areas outside the cities. And the cities are where you have mobs out of control, immigrants. There’s sanctuary cities. This is a classic tactic of this kind of far-right fascist politics.

And then law and order. What’s meant by “law and order” here? Not when — you know, Kyle Rittenhouse is not a violation of law and order. Kyle Rittenhouse, who murdered two people, who killed two people, is — he’s a radicalized 17-year-old. He’s not a violation of law and order, because white Trump supporters are law-abiding by their nature. The Trump rally we saw in Portland, shooting paintballs, aggressive against the counterprotesters, that was law-abiding. They were peaceful protesters, because on this notion of law and order, young Black men are, in and of themselves, violators of law and order. Leftist protesters against Trump can be doing nothing but rioting and looting.

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Now, any protest — almost any protest is going to have elements with bad apples that become violent. Look at the Hong Kong protests. The Hong Kong became much more violent than anything we’ve seen here. Nevertheless, the Republicans did not denounce the Hong Kong protests as riots. Do you know who denounced the Hong Kong protests as riots? The Chinese government. What we’re seeing here is our government behave like the Chinese government, representing largely peaceful protests, with some bad elements that grow violent and should be condemned, as riots. And that’s a counterinsurgency, authoritarian tactic.

“Law and order” here does not mean law and order. Does this feel like law and order? Do the last four years feel like law and order? That very speech that we witnessed at the RNC was a violation of law and order, because it was given from White House grounds in violation of the Hatch Act, so, you know — and proudly so, because this administration revels in its violation of law and order, because, in fascism, “law and order” means whatever the leader says, and “law-abiding” means whoever the leader is, and “lawless” means the men of the minority group and leftists and radicals, supposed leftist radicals.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump has said New Jersey’s first African American U.S. senator, Cory Booker, will help Joe Biden destroy peaceful suburbs by bringing low-income housing and crime. This is Trump speaking to Fox News Monday night.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You have this beautiful community in the suburbs, including women, right? Women. They want security. I ended where they build low-income housing project right in the middle of your neighborhood. I ended it. If Biden gets in, he already said it’s going to go at a much higher rate than ever before. And you know who’s going to be in charge of it? Cory Booker. That’s going to be nice. OK?

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AMY GOODMAN: Cory Booker, the president says. Professor Stanley?

JASON STANLEY: So, there’s no evidence at all that Cory Booker, a senator, an African American senator from New Jersey, is going to be running any such program. He throws his name in.

He mentions women. Why does he mention women? Well, this harkens back to what Langston Hughes called “our native fascisms.” This harkens back to the worst moments in American history, the history of lynching. Ida B. Wells, in Southern Horrors, the great Ida B. Wells, the great anti-lynching activist and intellectual and journalist, said, “Look, racism and sexism go together.” They’re treating white women as victims who need to be protected from marauding Black men by a strong leader, by — you know, by white militias, the KKK.

Trump is directly harkening back to that horrific time in American history, which is this sort of lynching in the late 19th, early 20th century to mid-20th century. This is something that Du Bois, in Black Reconstruction, calls fascism, so American fascism. This is the aspect of America that influences Hitler, that influences the Jim Crow laws, the racial subordination.

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Here, so I have a chapter in my book called “Sexual Anxiety.” You know, in Germany, the idea behind both Nazi Germany — Nazi German ideology and the Ku Klux Klan, often called the first fascist organization, was that Jews, Marxist Jews, were trying to promote a race war to get Black Americans to — to get Blacks and immigrants to overthrow the white Christianity. And the idea, you know, Hitler fomented this, as I document in my book. It’s also the case that you had this propaganda, that overlaps between here and QAnon, that we need to protect our women and children from these predators, pedophile rings.

But this echoes the classic American, supposed and completely fictional Black male rapist fiction, fictional narrative, that underlay lynching. And the random evocation of Cory Booker is a case in point. Ida B. Wells is, sadly, more relevant than ever.

AMY GOODMAN: During the Republican convention, speakers used apocalyptic language to describe the dangers of a Biden presidency. This is Charlie Kirk, the founder of the right-wing student group Turning Point.

CHARLIE KIRK: We may not have realized it at the time, but Trump is the bodyguard of Western civilization. Trump was elected to protect our families from the vengeful mob that seeks to destroy our way of life, our neighborhoods, schools, churches and values. President Trump was elected to defend the American way of life.

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AMY GOODMAN: Charlie Kirk, the founder of the right-wing student group Turning Point. Professor Stanley, respond to this and also people raising their eyebrows and saying, “Oh, come on, Nazi Germany, you’re comparing this to?”

JASON STANLEY: That speech is highly evocative of a speech that Goebbels, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, gave in 1935 called “Communism with Its Mask Off.” In Goebbels’ speeches, including that speech, which I encourage people to look up, he regularly represents the threat as being a threat to Western civilization. He says the Nazi Party is going to protect social conservatives, Christians from the Armageddon of communism, which seeks to destroy civilization as such. Goebbels says the communists are in cahoots with the international underworld. So, that’s that link between communism and crime and supposed lawless crime.

So you have the same idea here. There’s Trump, on the one hand, protecting Christianity, protecting Western civilization, and anyone opposed to Trump is a lawless mob in cahoots with communists seeking to destroy civilization itself. And this is the friend-enemy distinction that is so antithetical to democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: What about science? How does the denial of science, all over, that Trump is doing, from pushing hydroxychloroquine, despite all the studies, to now, apparently, with warp speed, as the operation might well be accurately named, pushing a vaccine just in time for the election, when scientists all over this country are saying this is dangerous and is undermining people’s belief in science?

JASON STANLEY: So, I had to get the preface for the paperback of my book in by March 14th, and it was very unclear which countries would do worst with COVID. But you started off this program by listing the countries that have done worst: Brazil, the United States and India, and Russia, as well. So, I listed those countries. I predicted those countries would do worst, even though some said,
“What? They have strong — supposedly strong leaders.”

Well, I predicted they would be worst because these leaders reject science. They reject science as, you know, the attitude — I’m not comparing here these leaders to Hitler. Hitler did have a grand genocidal vision that these leaders lack. But these are hypernationalist leaders that see the world in friend-enemy distinctions. And as Hitler says in Mein Kampf, science is just a tool for national glory. So, the only way such leaders are going to drag scientists up to the podium is if these scientists are yes men for the leaders, praise the leaders, because that’s all this kind of politics is: You’re either with us or against us. And science, by its nature, facts, by their nature, do not have a side. They do not pick a side. So, science is incompatible with these leaders. These leaders are going to pick scientists that just praise the leaders and tell the leaders what they want to hear. And what we have underlying this is an ideology of social Darwinism: Well, let the weak and old die. That is an ideology that is very clear in Bolsonaro in Brazil’s response to COVID-19.

And finally, we have the weaponization of everything, like there is no America, or this is no — there’s just us and them. And as we’ve seen, the Trump administration backed off from really focusing on COVID-19 when they came to believe that it was largely a disease of essential workers — that is, largely Black and Hispanic Americans — and they believed it was relegated mostly to Democrat-run cities. So, you know, this kind of thinking, there’s just friend and enemy. And when there’s just friend and enemy, well, science has no role. It is really just a tool of national glory.

AMY GOODMAN: Jason Stanley, I want to thank you for being with us, professor of philosophy at Yale University, author of five books, most recently, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.

Next up, 50 years ago today, Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile. We’ll speak with his former adviser, Ariel Dorfman, who at the time was dancing in the streets of Santiago. Stay with us.


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