By Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post Columnist, October 6, 2023.
I have pulled no punches in identifying four-times-indicted former president Donald Trump as a neo-fascist or in calling out the failure of his party and the mainstream media to act decisively in defense of democracy. In case you had any doubt, consider: Trump suggested a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff deserves execution. He has threatened to indict President Biden. And in an utterly disturbing, profanity-laced speech last week in California, he said we should shoot robbers in the back. (He also bizarrely accused Beverly Hills residents of smelling because they are supposedly forced to take short showers.)
The California Republican crowd’s laughs and applause as Trump mocked former House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband (the victim of a break-in and life-threatening beating) confirmed that Trump brings out his followers’ cruelest, most despicable traits. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, in her 2016 campaign for president, called these MAGA foot soldiers “deplorables.” Worse, they are accessories in a dangerous right-wing authoritarian movement.
No Republican official or presidential opponent denounced his rant; no major newspaper or news broadcast suggested that his mental soundness rather than Biden’s age should be a top issue in the race.
The California speech was followed by a slurred, incoherent speech Sunday in Iowa debating whether it is better to be electrocuted or eaten by a shark. His unhinged rant on Monday directed at New York Judge Arthur Engoron underscored his derangement.
And with former chief of staff John Kelly finally going on the record, we have confirmation of a dangerous narcissist for whom honor and truth are nothing but buzzwords.
This should not come as a shock. Trump routinely displays neo-fascist behavior, which his followers ape: promoting violence, shredding social mores, displaying toxic masculinity, spouting irrational conspiracy theories and mind-numbing lies, and targeting disfavored groups.
The MAGA movement rolls on, full steam ahead — not just because of his delirious followers but because of mass moral failure. Hordes of Republican officials still promise to support him if he is the nominee. They join in attacking prosecutors and reiterating the lie that he won in 2020. Legions of major media voices strain to avoid “taking sides.” (Declaring winners and losers in debates among uncompetitive Republicans. Saying things like “Well, Biden has issues, too. After all, people think we are in a recession.”) The result is virtually no scrutiny is applied to Trump’s moral, mental and emotional state.
And, worst of all, the supposedly sane conservative gatekeepers and pundits (from the Wall Street Journal editorial page to the Federalist Society to right-wing think tanks) refuse to level with Americans who might not carefully follow Trump’s public ravings. These purported pillars know that media the MAGA crowd imbibes will underplay Trump’s rants and conceal the seriousness of the four indictments and massive civil fraud trial.
As the media sleepwalks, Biden in a recent interview with John Harwood described the danger: “If the former president were to become president again, the things he says he will do are a threat to American democracy.” Regarding violence, Biden called on Americans not to “legitimize it, not talk about it like it’s appropriate. … There’s never, never, never, never a rationale for political violence in America.”
The problem for democracy goes well beyond Trump. No right-wing authoritarian has attained power without the complicity of groups and individuals who sought some personal benefit, be it as small as keeping a right-wing media audience loyal or as large as multibillion-dollar tax breaks for corporations. The enablers ignore, minimize or rationalize dangerous and grotesque conduct, telling themselves the threat is exaggerated or their own survival is more important.
Ignoring bizarrely unacceptable conduct depletes democracy’s defenses, but small acts of moral clarity can stimulate a democracy’s antibodies. Major media could seriously analyze Trump in the context of authoritarian movements, identify aberrant conduct and press Republicans to defend it. The media could level with voters that Biden’s mental and physical fitness are not at issue; Trump’s cognitive abilities are. There is no excuse to avoid highlighting Trump’s deviant behavior.
Republican officials could say they will not vote for Trump under any circumstances. They could specifically denounce calls to violence. Respectable right-leaning pundits could stop carrying water for Trump’s legal defense team (First Amendment violation! The indictments aren’t so serious!). And corporations and other special interests could refuse to trade silence about Trump’s defects for economic and political influence. (They might even cut off support to pro-insurrectionist lawmakers.)
No one should be confused: Without these enablers’ subservience and moral obtuseness, Trump cannot prevail. With a modicum of courage, they can make sure he doesn’t.