The Trumpist right drifts toward fascism

Fox and flags

Citation Andrea Austria / Media Matters

It’s frustratingly typical for conservatives to fraudulently cloak themselves in the mantle of Abraham Lincoln and the Union. But what Fox News host Ben Domenech did on Tuesday night -- describing the progressive left as “the inheritor” of “slave power” with its “fixation on the hierarchy of race and caste” and his viewers as ideological descendants of the paramilitary pro-Lincoln “Wide Awakes” of 1860 -- wandered perilously close to a call for a new Civil War.

Domenech presented U.S. politics as an existential fight between “the enemies of everything this nation has ever been” and “the patriots, the Americans, the men and women who will do anything to preserve it, because they know what civilization requires.”

The host closed by directly addressing his millions of viewers. “You are the heart of a nation that has slept for so long,” he said. “But now at last, you are wide awake. So now I ask you again: What are you willing to do?” Domenech didn’t give an answer to the question -- but his rhetoric suggests that it isn’t casting votes for candidates who share your values.

Domenech is not alone. Donald Trump’s propagandists warned last year that his supporters would face apocalyptic consequences if he was not reelected. Since he left office, they have increasingly preached the benefits of living under an authoritarian strongman. Only such a figure, they suggest, can defeat their leftist foes and protect “the patriots” from the threats of multiculturalism, globalism, and the immigrant “invasion.” If the verdict of multiracial democracy results in their defeat, their solution is an end to multiracial democracy. 

Tucker Carlson is broadcasting his prime-time Fox show this week from Hungary, which became a case study for how a democracy backslides toward authoritarian rule after Viktor Orbán, a Christian traditionalist and ethnonationalist, was elected prime minister in 2010. Orbán used his party’s strong majority that year to lock it into power, rewriting Hungary’s constitution, aggressively gerrymandering its parliamentary districts, and expanding its constitutional court with party loyalists. He has since taken a hammer to its civil society, persecuting universities, journalists, and dissidents while stoking fears about Muslim immigration and LGBTQ people. 

Fox’s viewers are getting a glowing presentation of Hungary’s authoritarian nationalism. Carlson, who previously touted Orbán’s leadership, said on Monday, “If you care about western civilization and democracy and families and the ferocious assault on all three of those things by leaders of our global institutions, you should know what is happening here, right now.” On Wednesday, he called Hungary a “powerful” example and defended it from “lies” that its government is authoritarian.

In addition to airing his show from the country, Carlson is meeting with Orbán, speaking at a far-right conference in its capital of Budapest, and joining other U.S. conservatives who applaud Hungary’s illiberal governance as a potential model.

It’s chilling to see perhaps the most powerful figure in the right-wing media talking up the benefits of a state that is slipping out of the democratic orbit. But Carlson actually represents the moderate strain of the right’s antidemocratic discourse, praising a country whose authoritarian drift came through constitutional means while blaming the U.S. left for pushing the right toward fascism by “undermining the system that kept extremism at bay.” Further out on the fringes, discussion has turned to the merits of military coups.

Earlier this week, the Trumpist commentary site American Greatness published a piece by Christopher Roach contemplating the merits of “The Salazar Option,” a reference to António de Oliveira Salazar, the repressive Portuguese dictator who ruled for decades following a military coup that crushed Portugal’s nascent republic. 

Roach praised Salazar for taking “necessary steps to preserve the economic freedom, national sovereignty, and family life on which a civilization depends.” He acknowledged that Salazar’s regime was “undoubtedly authoritarian,” but excused that as “less damaging to society than the alternative,” i.e., a republic in which the left won elections, and seemed to applaud Salazar for hurting the right people. After ominously explaining that Trump’s presidency shows the limitations of mere “electoral success,” Roach wrote that one lesson for the U.S. right is that Salazar’s movement “did not treat its enemies with kid gloves”:

They were not limited by self-defeating notions of “principle.” Hostile and revolutionary elements—whether domestic Communists, fascist syndicalists, internal political factions, or international high finance—were treated as equal potential dangers. 

Roach concluded: “To survive, we need to be committed to acquiring and using power in the service of a counterrevolution.”

This is not the first time American Greatness has published a piece lauding foreign coups and their implications for U.S. governance. In May, retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, a Carlson favorite appointed as a senior adviser to the acting secretary of defense in the waning days of the Trump administration, also wrote for the site. In the piece, he highlighted the possibility that a French military coup might force President Emmanuel Macron from office to protect the nation from “globalists” who want a “Marxist dystopia” and increased immigration. Macgregor described the French army -- rather than France’s elected leaders -- as “the last, true repository of national identity and French values.”

Macgregor concluded that the U.S. will face similar circumstances soon and that while U.S. senior military leaders “are committed to globalism and multiculturalism,” service members and first responders may rise up and overthrow the government to halt “chaos and disorder.”

Michael Anton, who authored the influential September 2016 essay “The Flight 93 Election” and served in Trump’s National Security Council, is also coup-curious. The Week’s Damon Linker wrote up a late May podcast Anton hosted for the Trumpist Claremont Institute with self-described monarchist Curtis Yarvin “about why the United States needs an ‘American Caesar’ to seize control of the federal government, and precisely how such a would-be dictator could accomplish the task.” (It involves federalizing the National Guard and deploying supporters to coerce recalcitrant federal agencies.)  

Linker concluded, “On the starboard side of American politics, the Overton window has now shifted far beyond the boundaries of democratic self-government to a place broadly coterminous with fascism.”

These antidemocratic sentiments are unnervingly popular among the Republican base.

The context for this right-wing shift against democracy is an election cycle that concluded with the right’s presidential candidate using the lie that the election had been rigged to try to remain in power after his defeat -- as his media supporters and his party largely cheered him on. 

Trump’s strategy included not just court fights, but efforts to subvert election results in state legislatures and in Congress. He contemplated invoking the Insurrection Act to use the military to rerun the election and tried to get the Justice Department to weigh in on his behalf and declare the election “corrupt.” 

While much of the conspiracy occurred in broad daylight, we are still learning new details about its full contours. Just this week, ABC News reported that in late December, the then-acting head of DOJ's civil division, Jeffrey Clark, tried to get his superiors to sign on to a draft letter “urging Georgia's governor and other top officials to convene the state legislature into a special session so lawmakers could investigate claims of voter fraud.”

In the end, Trump incited a mob of his supporters to violently breach the U.S. Capitol and try to stop Congress from formally counting the electoral votes that made Joe Biden president. But while the January 6 insurrection led to Trump’s second impeachment, it did not cause his supporters to abandon him. Instead, Trump continues to lead the party, which is purging his critics, changing voting laws to suppress Democratic votes, and preparing an alternative path to overturn unfavorable results. And his loyal propagandists have backed those efforts while keeping the party base in a frenzy over the prospect of losing the country to a population that is changing against their will. 

Domenech asks the right question of his viewers: To fight the left, “what are you willing to do?” The answer he and his colleagues increasingly want to hear is that they are willing to break U.S. democracy rather than allow “the enemies of everything this nation has ever been” to win elections.