So many of us were wrong, myself included, about Donald Trump. We saw in the jut-jawed, brow-furrowed Mussolini-like posturing, in the blatant narcissism, in the reckless disregard for truth, the anger and incitement to hatred, the declamations that he would fix everything single-handedly on Day One of his presidency, his disdain for democracy and hints that he would lock up his opponents — we saw in all of these things incipient fascism.
After the inauguration, I began reading Victor Klemperer’s chilling diaries on the rise of Nazism, I Will Bear Witness, and Sebastian Haffner’s memoir of the early days of Hitler, Defying Hitler. The analogies were all too close. Others on these pages have made similar observations. We were on the verge of something unprecedented, something horrifying. We were on the verge of authoritarian government headed by an ignoramus and possible psychopath. We were on the verge of the end of democracy.
And then, last Friday, with the demise of the Republican attempt to repeal Obamacare and replace it with… well, with a massive tax giveaway to the rich, we discovered — I discovered — that I was fearing the wrong thing. It’s not Trump’s ability to marshal the forces of repression that should terrify us. It’s his inability to marshal forces to conduct even the most basic governance. Trump really is a presidential Joker. He knows how to wreak havoc, but he doesn’t seem to know how to do, or seem to want to do, much else.
This isn’t to discount the fascistic dangers inherent in Trump. We all know that he has an authoritarian temperament. He likes the binary and berates the latter in the pairs: winners and losers, majorities and minorities (never mind that he won a minority of the popular vote), rich and poor, powerful men and feckless women, bullying America and every other country. He prefers muscle to negotiation, despite his much vaunted, and now much tarnished, skill at dealmaking. He loves strongmen and considers himself one of them.
His desire, doubtless, was to Putinize this country with the help of his Republican lackeys. Or perhaps the better analogy is that he wanted to turn the country into one giant episode of The Apprentice, in which everyone vied for his favor. With seigniorial hauteur, he, King Donald, would point thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
So here is the good news. Whatever his dreams of dominance and his possible aspirations to one-man rule, he simply does not have the aptitude or the discipline to realize them. We saw that last week. He thought he could bully, charm, finesse, arm-twist and threaten his way to victory, but no one was buying it — in part, I think, because he tried to make it all about his power, not the power of Congress, and he was already on such thin ice before the Obamacare debacle that he didn’t have much suasion with them.
Why abet him, those Republican misanthropes may have thought, when at some point, they knew they might have to distance themselves from him? In any case, some of those legislators realized that Trump and his aides were way out of their depth. Hitler was able to parlay his minority into implacable power because he organized a rigid, disciplined crew of sociopaths on a mission. Trump has the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.
So that’s the good news — sort of. To have an authoritarian state, you have to possess not just the impulse to authoritarianism but the talent for it, which is more than saying, “It’s going to be great,” or “Believe me,” or telling opponents how “sick” and “sad” they are.
Now for the bad news. Two diametrically opposed impulses seem to have been warring in Trump for quite a while — that authoritarian tendency to rule, and a tendency to create misrule. If Trump isn’t a fascist, or at least a successful one, he is something nearly as bad: Donald Trump is a solipsistic anarchist.
Of course he wants to accrue power, which may be what misled us into thinking he was a potential fascist. It’s just that he doesn’t seem to know how to do anything with it other than to promote himself and puff his ego, which means that everything crumbles around him. And of course, like most strongmen, he wants to do harm to the less powerful — to wit, immigrants and the poor — but it may be no accident that even his attempts at strong-arming turn out to have the opposite effect: chaos.
The truth may be that chaos is more his métier than tyranny. As much as he says he hates losing, we may have actually caught a glimpse of the real Trump, the one sitting at his desk, smug and seemingly self-satisfied after his terrible defeat on Friday. This Trump may have thought he won by losing. No, he hadn’t won the congressional vote. But he had sown disarray, certainly within his own party and gradually throughout the health care system, especially once he joins judicial challenges to curb Medicaid expansion, as he undoubtedly will. The anarchistic tendency prevailed over the authoritarian one. Things fell apart. He wasn’t necessarily an unhappy Joker.
This is what many of the pundits, myself included, may have missed in the whole Obamacare repeal-and-replace saga. We thought there was some ideological obsession on the right with repealing Obamacare because it was a government program, because it helped people whom Republicans believed undeserving (the poor), and because it was a signal achievement of the Obama administration: not necessarily good reasons but at least reasons. And we thought Trump, who seemed to have no ideological commitment to anything, wanted to repeal it because it would be a demonstration of his muscle as well as a way to unman Obama. And we may have thought that after repeal, Republicans wanted a new plan that would basically defund Medicaid to injure the poor and further enrich the wealthy with the billions of dollars in proceeds. In short, we may have thought there was some vaguely coherent direction to the anti-Obamacare enterprise.
What we didn’t realize going in is that not only was Trump totally clueless about the substance of the bill, apparently looking only for a victory, any victory, to claim, but also that Republicans, for all their professions of having been hatching a conservative alternative to Obamacare for seven years, had no plan at all — and, I would submit, no real desire for one.
They couldn’t have done more to sabotage their bill if they had tried, and I have a sneaking suspicion that is exactly what they were doing, some subconsciously, others quite consciously. Repeal? Absolutely. Replace? Not so much. The attempted Trump/Republican alliance, then, was a case of one anarchist making common cause with a whole gaggle of anarchists, neither of whom had the slightest interest in reforming health care, only in creating disorder and then hoping to benefit from it, both politically and financially. It shouldn’t have come as any surprise what the outcome would be. Anarchists don’t work well together.
Just think about it for a moment. The Republican replacement was really a non-insurance bill, by which I mean it flew in the face of the most fundamental principle of insurance — the healthy pay for those who aren’t. It is the sort of community of interest that is anathema to conservatives who believe it is every man for himself.
The upshot is that you cannot have “conservative” insurance. It isn’t tenable. When you have freedom of choice with every person getting to choose whether to be insured or not, and with those who are insured getting to choose what they want to have covered, you do not have a viable insurance system. You have anarchy. Anarchy was built right into the Republican plan.
And that is the other thing I think a lot of pundits and political observers missed over the past eight years and even longer. Republicans never had a viable plan, not just about health care, but about anything, be it tax reform or energy or education. That is why their only remedies are less regulation and more tax cuts.
There is a good reason for this, and it isn’t incompetence, though there is plenty of that, too. Republicans may talk tough. They may tout the idea of conservative, market-driven solutions to our problems, but somehow, serious solutions never get presented because, frankly, Republicans don’t have any interest in them.
When you come down to it, Republicans are really anarchists dedicated to undermining government in the furtherance of an economic state of nature where the rich rule. What we saw these past few weeks was not the failure of Republicanism, as so many pronounced on Friday, but its logical and inevitable conclusion. Republicans are great at opposing things, destroying things, obstructing things, undoing things. They are really, really terrible at creating things because they have no desire to do so.
And now they have an anarchist-in-chief, someone who shares their government phobia, if not their conviction, and whose real crime in Republicans’ eyes wasn’t that he couldn’t secure the passage of a bill, but that he managed to reveal their mess in full public view. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote in an open letter to Trump this past Sunday, “It took W. years to smash everything. You’re way ahead of schedule.”
There is, however, a method to this madness. Anarchism isn’t nihilism. By undoing government, anarchism undoes the only protection most Americans have against the depredations of the Trumps of this world and against the often cruel vicissitudes of life, like health crises. Take away government, and you strip away those protections. But take away government, and you also enable Trump and his fellow plutocrats to further enrich themselves because there would no mechanism to stop them. This has long been the Republican way: greed disguised as a fear of government overreach. Joker Trump and his Republican cronies are bent on deconstructing government to leave the rest of us defenseless against them.
Where that leaves us is a coming flurry of legislative activity that will almost certainly amount to nothing. And it won’t be because of some civil war within the GOP. It will be because the GOP, our very own anarchist party, really doesn’t want anything to happen.
Again, Republicans and their presidential anarchist ally can undo things, as they have done with environmental protection. And that is surely no small matter. But tax reform? Forget it. No reform, just huge tax cuts for the wealthy. Infrastructure spending? Not a chance. Another go at health care reform? Yeah, sure. No action, no sweat. Anarchy is their policy.
So, no, we are not barreling toward fascism. Fascism requires a program and unity of purpose. We are instead careening toward the first industrialized state of anarchy. Trump promised to blow things up; now he has. The question is whether anyone can put America back together after he and the Republicans are finished with it.