What would an American fascist government look like?
Donald Trump adjusts his translation earpiece at a 2019 joint press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda in the White House Rose Garden. (Evan El-Amin / Shutterstock.com)

It’s time to talk about what an American fascist government would look like. The word “fascism” gets thrown around a lot, but most Americans have no idea what it would look like or how it would actually play out.

It’s critical to lay out what a fascist America would look like now because this is what is being envisioned right now by many in the Republican Party, and it might come to pass.

They don’t talk about it out loud very much, like Nixon’s man G. Gordon Liddy used to back in the day when he signed memos using Hitler’s SS symbol. But there is a model here and they do have something in mind.

What could it be? What would it look like? How will it most likely come about?

First, and essential to American fascism, Republicans envision a strong-man Leader who will hold power for as long as he (it’s always a “he”) chooses, with the transition to the next Leader determined by the Leader himself.

This has been the primary characteristic of every fascistic government to emerge in the 7000-year written history of the modern world.

When Trump was running for re-election, at rallies in both Nevada and Wisconsin, he came right out and said that not only would he win the 2020 election but that he’d also be re-elected again in 2024. He was dead serious.

Sure, our constitution says a president can only serve two terms: so did the Russian constitution, until Putin got it amended. Trump was planning the same, and his followers were — if the response at the rallies when he announced it is any indicator — ecstatic at the prospect.

That single strongman Leader is the key to understanding everything else that happens when a country flips from democracy to oligarchy to fascism.

For example, in a fascist state the way that you as an average citizen ensure your own advancement and economic, personal, and political security is by sucking up to that man. You either become an acolyte/follower or you find yourself on the outside looking in.

If you think this sounds extreme, just look at today’s Republican Party.

Liz Cheney spoke against Trump and the Wyoming GOP expelled her and Trump is supporting a primary challenger. Four Republicans who voted to impeach Trump have faced such a backlash that they’ve decided to retire at the end of this term: Adam Kinzinger, Anthony Gonzalez, John Katko, and Fred Upton.

Republican freshman Congressman Chris Jacobs, representing a district including parts of Buffalo, NY, was forced to withdraw from this year’s primary (and, thus, he’ll be retiring from the House) because after the Buffalo massacre he spoke against Trump’s and his party’s embrace of assault weapons.

Not only is fealty to the Leader required for political advancement, it’s also a requirement for individual economic advancement. Employers eager for state contracts or the Leader’s endorsements of their products or services demote or fire those insufficiently loyal to the Leader.

Psychologist Dr. Bandy Lee was fired from Yale University for tweeting that Trump was mentally ill. Schoolteacher Leah Kinyon was fired from her job for saying that “I hate Donald Trump. … He is a sexual predator. He’s a literal moron.” Juli Brisker was fired from her job with government contractor Akima for giving Trump’s motorcade the finger.

Rebekah Jones was fired by Ron DeSantis for telling the truth about his covering up Florida Covid statistics. Florida’s Orange County Health Director Dr. Raul Pino was removed for encouraging his staff to get vaccinated.

You end up doing things on the Leader’s behalf, whether you’re supporting his party, working at a private corporation, or engaged in the nonprofit sector like teaching at a university or medical center.

Defying or challenging the Leader brings opprobrium; supporting the Leader is the path to career advancement. The Trump White House and DeSantis Governor’s Office are filled with examples.

Everything is done for the Leader because the Leader is the state. The state and the Leader have become one.

If you challenge the Leader, you’re challenging the state, and that’s treason.

Whatever the Leader says becomes the law. This is called “rule by decree” and it’s where every fascist in history has ended up.

The power to rule by decree goes back to the days of kings and is also embedded in our laws about the president’s emergency powers. Trump came close to invoking it with an “emergency declaration” when he lost the election. General Flynn begged him to do it and “temporarily suspend the Constitution.”

Next time, he won’t be so restrained and he will have surrounded himself in advance with people like Flynn who will make it happen. While it will change how power is distributed in our government, things will still look much the same.

If a fascist like Trump rises to power again in the United States, there will still be all the trappings of democracy.

The House and Senate, state houses and governors, bureaucracies and political systems will remain intact. Everything looks normal on the surface.

But when you peel off the top layer, you discover that all of those people in all of those offices, whether elected or bureaucratic, are serving only one principle and one person and that is the Leader.

There will even be opposition parties and political candidacies in a Republican fascist America, although if any of them seriously challenge the Leader or show the ability to disrupt the status quo they’ll be discovered to have a secret drug habit or get imprisoned for corruption or other made-up charges.

The prosperity of the company you work for depends in part on how well it supports the politics of the Leader.

The Leader helps a few dozen oligarchs seize control of the nation’s major industries, and every smaller company in each of those industries must directly or indirectly answer to that oligarch.

Those who fail to are bought out, shut down, or simply cannot find customers or supplies because nobody will do business with them.

The industry where this is most visible at first is the media.

Some media organizations will be absorbed by the government itself, as Putin has done in Russia; others will be bought out and run by the Leader’s oligarch buddies, as is the case today in Hungary and Turkey (among others).

Soon opposition voices vanish from all but the most obscure media, and those few opposing voices that are tolerated are pointed to by the Leader as proof the nation is still an open democracy.

Jews and people of color may find a rougher time maintaining a job or staying safe from vigilantes, abuse, and discrimination but whites will be just fine, particularly white men.

There will still be Christmas parties, although people celebrating Hanukkah or Muslims praying may want to pull the shades closed.

Hate crimes and murders by vigilante groups start happening with such frequency that the media doesn’t bother to report them anymore.

Within a few years a little bit of every business activity in the country ends up in the Leader’s pocket. And the Leader uses that revenue to enrich himself, his inner circle, and those who are part of his military entourage, his private military.

That’s right: the Leader’s private military.

It’d be put together like what Ron DeSantis is organizing in Florida right now, a state-sanctioned militia that answers only to the Leader, in this case DeSantis. Trump tried the same, flying Customs and Border Protection officers into Portland where they hit the streets without identification on their uniforms to beat and kidnap people protesting George Floyd’s murder.

When the private militia is created at the federal level it’ll become a substantial national military force with hundreds of thousands of soldiers under the Leader’s direct command. Hitler’s was called the SS and answered only to the Leader himself. Mussolini had his, as do Putin, Erdoğan, el-Sissi, and others today.

Citing “national security,” the Leader’s private militia will have an undisclosed and therefore vast budget. Outside of times it’s called on to intimidate people or make a public display of power, it’ll largely operate in secret.

It’s members won’t have to obey the law because, as agents of the Leader who’s above the law, they are, too. If they have to kill somebody, there will be no investigation unless it’s to cover up the crime. If they need to make somebody disappear, that person disappears.

They, along with the Leader’s allies, promote a law-and-order crime ideology in public that results in high levels of incarceration, heavily militarized police, and a disregard for the general rights of the average citizen, particularly racial and religious minorities.

This is how the kind of government that Donald Trump was trying to establish in America has played out, over and over again, across the world and throughout history.

In our own time we’ve seen it in Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Cuba, Hungary, the Philippines, Venezuela, and dozens of other countries around the world less well known for the nature of the government.

It may call itself left-wing or right-wing, but what really matters is that all power and authority rests with the Leader. Stalin was every bit the fascist that Hitler and Mussolini were; his fascism just had a different face and brand.

As dystopian as all this may sound, there are more governments in the world run this way today than there are democracies. It’s “normal.” Once established it’s almost impossible to dislodge without a crisis like the death of the Leader or an actual revolution.

Some of the governments around the world that are structured like this were democracies that turned fascist, like Russia, Turkey, and Hungary. But many have been this way for centuries, like hereditary kingdoms in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.

So, how do the democratic countries that make the transition to fascism allow that to happen? And what is life like in those countries, both during and after it’s happened?

After World War II, a Chicago reporter named Milton Mayer struggled to understand how Hitler was able to flip one of the world’s most stable democracies into fascism.

An American Jew of German ancestry and a brilliant writer, Mayer went to Germany seven years after Hitler’s fall and befriended 10 “average Germans,” asking each how the Nazis rose to power in an otherwise civilized nation.

His book, They Thought They Were Free, is his story of that experience. Intertwined through it — first published in 1955 — are repeated overt and subtle warnings to future generations of Americans: to us, today.

Mayer quotes one of his German friends as describing what happened once the Leader seized power:

“This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter.”

Did the German people realize they’d abandoned democracy? That they would soon become international pariahs? The college professor Mayer interviewed answered:

“To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it - please try to believe me - unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop.

“Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing.

“And one day it is over his head.”

Is it possible this could happen in America? That all these “small steps” would one day lead to a dictatorial form of government that has so cowed the people, the politicians, and even the business community and media that it can’t be challenged?

Doesn’t the nation rise up and protest the destruction of its own democracy? Don’t the people pour into the streets?

Mayer’s professor gave us the answer:

“You see, one doesn't see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for the one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow.

“You don’t want to act, or even to talk, alone; you don't want to ‘go out of your way to make trouble.’ Why not? - Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.”

We can’t say we weren’t warned by our own people, our own politicians, the most senior members of our own institutional power structure.

In a speech that was hysterically criticized by Republicans and Fox “News“ pundits, President Obama in December of 2017 came right out and said it:

“You have to tend to this garden of democracy, otherwise things can fall apart fairly quickly. And we've seen societies where that happens.”

Yes, the former President of the United States was invoked Nazi Germany five years ago while Donald Trump was President, adding:

“Now, presumably, there was a ballroom in Vienna in the late 1920s or ’30s that looked and seemed as if it ― filled with the music and art and literature and the science that was emerging ― would continue into perpetuity.

“And then,” President Obama said, “60 million people died. And the entire world was plunged into chaos.”

The warnings have been there all along. I wrote of this in 2005, quoting Mayer and going off on Bush and the PATRIOT Act as the prequel to fascism.

Americans have been shouting about it lately, in venues like The New York Times and Madeline Albright’s book and from legislators like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

But how do we know? Is there a sudden proclamation by the Leader that the nation is now “officially fascist”?

Back to Mayer’s German friend in 1954:

“But of course this isn't the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.

“And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying 'Jew swine,' collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose.”

I thought about this quote yesterday when a caller to my radio/TV show told the story of his very progressive son who moved to Tennessee and married a local woman; now he’s a complete Trump-humper who uses the N-word at the slightest provocation and rails about Jews and communists. He obsessively watches Fox “News” and listens to right wing radio.

America is changing as you read these words. In this fall’s election many of us will no longer be able to know if our voices, our attempts to vote, will actually decide who leads our nation.

Five Republicans on the Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that you can be purged from the voting rolls on a whim. In most states Republicans can take over electoral precincts, install their people (as we just learned they are doing right now) and run them under whatever rules they want.

Already, when the GOP inflicts 10-hour lines to vote on a state’s people, for example, you go to jail if you bring them water. If you make a mistake on your voting registration or ballot they can choose to send you to prison for five years or more.

Somehow, of the many people from both parties who are busted for this, only the Democrats end up going to prison.

And yet everything seems “normal.” As Mayer’s professor friend told him, when the Leader finally seizes control of all the levers of power from political to economic to spiritual, everything changes but everything also stays the same:

“The world you live in - your nation, your people - is not the world you were in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays.

“But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed.

“Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God.”

We’re already quite a ways down this road, which is why our democracy has been rated by numerous international groups as being “at risk” or similar designations.

Voter suppression, gerrymandering, the proliferation of phony media selling rightwing propaganda as “news,” armed militias on our streets (and the GOP recruiting them for “election monitors”) are the visible tip of the proverbial iceberg.

“How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men?” Mayer’s friend asked rhetorically.

And, without the benefit of a previous and recent and well-remembered fascistic regime to refer to, Mayer had to candidly answer: “Frankly, I do not know.”

That was 1954; this is 2022. We now know.

We know how the poisonous hate that animates fascism seeps into a society because we’ve seen it ourselves in the 4 years of the Trump administration.

We know how easily a government can be toppled and how close we came in 2020: if just five Republicans had not refused to go along with Trump we’d be in this fascist dystopia today.

We can’t pretend we don’t know what’s happening and where it will lead if it’s not stopped.

The question is what we will do about it.