Is the Current Momentum Toward Fascism Irreversible?

In his inimitable fashion, Donald Trump continues to engage in projection when it comes to autocratic threats to the rule of law in the US (and, if he has anything to say about it, in Europe and everywhere else).  He says, for example, that the Democrats are rigging the election and will do anything to steal it, which is certainly galling and shameless.  He also gleefully tosses in the word "fascist" on his laundry list of insults (see, e.g., his wailing about the "radical left Democrats, Marxists, communists, and fascists" who torment him so).

Escalating the projection, Trump recently said this: "If we don't win this election, I don't think you're going to have another election in this country."  He has also added this variant: "I don’t think you’re going to have another election, or certainly not an election that’s meaningful."  And in his signature "tell" (much like his "Trust me" line whenever he is telling a whopper of a lie), he says: "I truly believe that."  Yes, the man who would end elections accuses his opponents of planning to end elections.

There is nothing new here, of course, because Trump's strategy all along has been to drain words of meaning by over- and misusing them.  He knows that what he is eager to do is unpopular, so he asserts that it is Democrats who do those unpopular things, such as "weaponizing" the justice system against their political rivals.  Anyone who wants to know what Trump plans to do need only listen to what he falsely claims others are doing (or would like to do) to him.

As an aside, we should note that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is now also in on this game, claiming earlier this week that "I can make the argument that President Biden is a much worse threat to democracy, and the reason for that is President Biden is the first candidate in history, the first president in history that has used the federal agencies to censor political speech, to censor his opponent."  Yes, Mr. Kennedy, you can say that.  And you can spread misinformation about vaccines as well.  That you can say such things, however, does not make them true.

The point is that, no matter how much Trump or anyone else tries to muddy the water, there is a looming threat of fascism in the US, and it is from Trump and Trumpists.  I will again go on record as predicting that Trump will lose the election but will pull off a successful coup -- possibly nonviolent, but with that possibility very much on the table -- and become President for Life starting in 2025, doing all of that with the full cooperation of the Republican Party.  Even if Trump somehow were kept out of the White House, however, he has so broken the norms of constitutionalism and so radicalized his followers that there would surely be no peace during a second Biden presidential term.

All of which is to agree with what I took to be the most important point (among many) in Professor Dorf's column yesterday.  He wrote that any supposed equivalence between an "activist" liberal Supreme Court (the not-truly-apt but popular example being the Warren Court) and the radical activism of the Roberts Court is that "the driving force behind Warren Court activism was the shoring up of democracy through what [John Hart] Ely called representation-reinforcing judicial review," whereas "the most egregious Roberts Court decisions--gutting the Voting Rights Act, invalidating bipartisan campaign finance regulation, rendering challenges to partisan gerrymandering impossible, and much more--seem designed to make government in the United States less democratic" (emphasis in original).

What I have written thus far adds up to yet another rendition of anti-bothsideism, but my larger purpose in this column is to ask whether what is happening is reversible -- now, or at some point in the future.  Professor Dorf's argument is, after all, not only a reply to anyone who falsely equates two very different types of judicial activism.  It is that the Roberts Court's particularly cancerous form of activism is part of a self-reinforcing political strategy.  I continue to predict that the US is a "dead democracy walking" because the Democrats will continue to play by the rules, even as those rules are being deliberately manipulated to make it impossible for Democrats to hold power in the face of truly rigged elections.

Recall, as merely one example, that Texas's Republican governor imposed a one-dropbox-per-county rule in 2020, specifically to disenfranchise Houston's largely non-White voters, and Trump-appointed judges approved the scam.  (Roberts and his radical colleagues, of course, declined to intervene.)  Texas's Republican politicians then had their state join in now-Speaker Johnson's effort to try to tell Pennsylvania how to run its elections, which proves that even chutzpah is bigger in Texas.

The problem with this degradation of constitutional democracy is that it builds momentum, slowly but then at an accelerating pace.  As a relatively innocuous analogy, consider the path that leads to various tax giveaways.  Section 132 of the Internal Revenue Code is a collection of maddeningly unprincipled provisions that allow people to exclude various types of compensation from their income.  In almost every case (such as the treatment of employee discounts), a tax evasion technique was initially too small to worry about -- for either the IRS or Congress -- but then ineluctably became so widespread that it was soon too popular to stop.  In the end, as the casebook that I use puts it, Congress declared a "ceasefire in place" and simply gave in.

And this dynamic is easy to see in other situations, though often there are identifiable turning points.  The recently intensifying degradation of college sports has been ongoing for decades, for example, but the court decisions and state laws that allowed "name, image, and likeness" payments to be made to athletes turned out to be the beginning of the end, even though NIL seemed to be a minor sideshow at the time.

More seriously, recent increases in our extreme levels of income and wealth inequality have also followed this pattern of slow buildup followed by accelerating disaster.  There, however, the problem becomes self-reinforcing precisely because the people who have become billionaires have the means to change the rules and prevent any serious challenges to their supremacy.  They can buy the politicians -- in both parties, if necessary -- and fund the think-tanks to say that, say, wealth taxes are "class warfare" and similar nonsense.

Of course, the quickening slide toward fascism alongside the new Gilded Age is hardly a coincidence.  Billionaires -- not all, but more than enough -- will back Trump, just as industrialists backed the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy in the 1930's.  The slides into plutocracy and totalitarianism are mutually supportive, making it even more difficult to stop either one (much less both).

Even so, calling something irreversible is a serious claim.  Nazism was stopped, eventually.  There was a serious retrenchment from Gatsby-era opulence, and we did see more than three decades of relative equality after World War II.  But those examples suggest that reversals come at a very high cost and are not inevitable.  Without the Great Depression, Jay Gatsby and his class would not have lost their grip on wealth.  And anyone who might try to take the long view and say that, well, Hitler was ultimately defeated has no concept of loss.

There are examples of democracy being lost and regained, including in Spain and some countries in Central and South America.  The Soviet Union did come to an end, but its effort to create post-dictatorial democracy was brief and seems fully lost once again.  If anyone can offer any reason to think that China is going to throw off its totalitarian shackles any time soon, I would be surprised in the extreme (but obviously pleased).

Although it does seem too late for the US to save its (imperfect) constitutional democracy, I will be rooting from the land of maple syrup and poutine for those who try to prove that my prediction is wrong.  But once it is lost (again, if it is lost), there are few if any historical examples of extreme concentrations of either political power or wealth -- and certainly not both at the same time -- that end without a cataclysmic intervention by the gods.  Literally irreversible?  No.  Is that supposed to make us feel better?