An increasingly popular word to describe Donald Trump is "fascist." That's unhealthy. The best way to strengthen Trumpism is to pretend or reassure oneself that Trumpism is all about unreconstructed bigotry, and not about deep and serious issues that impact a significant slice of the American public.
New Republic editor Jeet Heer once said that Trump isn't a fascist because he doesn't have a coherent ideology, which is doubly backwards. Fascism is precisely an anti-ideology, and Trumpism does have specific ideological contours: Whatever you think of immigration restrictionism, protectionism, and nationalism, they represent a coherent ideology, the ideology of the radical middle.
But it raises an interesting question: How plausible is fascism in America? Could we really have it? Is it possible that Trump, or somebody else, could not just be a populist windbag, but an actual fascist?
Fascism is a very loaded term, but something closer and more concrete is what one might call "Putinism" : an authoritarian, autocratic regime, one that maintains the contours of pluralistic democracy, but where the true reality of the regime is a combination of economic and political crony rule, a police state, and an atmosphere of nationalistic political propaganda with political views sidelined. Putinism is mild fascism.
The first thing to say about that is that it's possible to be complacent. Everybody is complacent about the decline of democracy. Everybody always thinks that maybe it can happen over there, but it can't happen here — until it does.
The second thing to say is that the pieces are there. The first piece is that America has a tremendously powerful security apparatus, probably even more advanced in its sophistication and reach than China's. The government can, and does, read your email and your texts and your everything else. And it's almost certainly the case that it has the technological know-how to control the American internet the way Chinese internet is controlled. Alphabet soup agencies have troops very well trained with very good guns who can reach any place in the United States and ensure the government's monopoly on the use of force is maintained, not to mention militarized police are practically everywhere. There's not much that's wrong with that in principle, but it's a fact. If you wanted to get a police state started in Luxembourg, you probably wouldn't even know where to begin. If you want to start a police state in the United States, well, the tools are here. And already economic cronyism is becoming the rule in an increasing number of sectors in the American economy — defense and security, of course, but also sectors like healthcare and energy.
The third thing is that, well, there are scenarios. It might be impossible to imagine a march-on-Rome-style scenario. But the American people are already very angry at their elites, and already contemptuous of independent institutions like Congress and the Supreme Court. There is already a very strong precedent of the president of the United States simply disregarding the law and acting outside it, including in matters that involve the use of force. This precedent may have begun under President Bush, but it was carried to new extremes by Obama, and would almost certainly be extended even further by a President Hillary Clinton.
If you put all those things together — the slide-towards-Putinism scenario, say, in an environment where we go through another recession, and repeated terrorist attacks, and further Congressional fecklessness — that scenario doesn't look that crazy.
I guess what I'm saying is: Make America great again!