Op-Ed

Trump’s demonization of others a step toward fascism

Trump: Clinton is a world-class liar

Donald Trump bashed his opponent democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in a speech in New York City on Wednesday, June 22, 2016. The Republican presidential candidate harshly criticized Clinton's time as secretary of state, saying she
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Donald Trump bashed his opponent democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in a speech in New York City on Wednesday, June 22, 2016. The Republican presidential candidate harshly criticized Clinton's time as secretary of state, saying she

Most Americans today assume that fascism and democracy are incompatible. They point to the fact that nearly 400,000 Americans died in World War II to defeat Nazi Germany.

Yet there is no inherent reason to make this assumption. We forget that Adolf Hitler was elected in a democratic election. More to the point, we ignore our own history of embracing fascist-like political responses.

After black men were given the right to vote during Reconstruction, Southern whites disenfranchised virtually the entire black population in the South during the 1890s. In “moderate” states like North Carolina, the “best” white leaders – the rich and powerful – repeatedly claimed that black men were out to rape white women. Their clamor led to the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898, which resulted in the overthrow of a biracial reform government in North Carolina. Jim Crow segregation was then legalized across the South for the next 50 years.

More recently, the age of McCarthyism “blacklisted” thousands of Americans who practiced left-of-center politics. They lost their jobs and were ostracized, with little protection of their civil liberties and individual rights.

Demonizing those we call our enemies is a critical precursor to succumbing to fascism. For the Nazis, it was Jews who were demonized. That led to the Holocaust and the murders of 6 million people because of their ethnic backgrounds. But how different is that from demanding today that every Muslim be denied entry to America? Or from calling Mexican-Americans rapists and criminals and proposing that a wall be built to keep people of Latino backgrounds from crossing into America? The recent tragedy in Orlando is just one example of what can happen when an entire sub-group in our society is viewed as evil and unacceptable.

The linkage between the politics of demonization and the danger of fascism is central to this year’s presidential election. Although Hillary Clinton briefly practiced the politics of polarization – she refused to compromise with Republicans on health care reform and insisted that her husband threaten to veto anything less than total support of her legislation – virtually her entire career has been devoted to conciliation and working with others. Clinton was raised by a courageous mother who sent her daughter to a youth group, where she learned to believe in the Social Gospel and to practice a politics of reaching out to the disadvantaged. While at Wellesley College and Yale law school, Clinton worked in the ghettos of Boston and tried to build consensus around issues of social justice.

Throughout the Clinton marriage, Hillary has been instrumental in saving Bill’s political career several times. After she rescued him one last time during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, she set out on her own political career. There, she continued the approach to reform that she had learned from her mother and her youth minister. She went on a “listening tour” of her potential constituents in New York. Rather than tell them what she would do, she asked them what they cared about. Once elected to the Senate, she built bridges to Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, focusing on conciliation, not polarization. She took the same approach to her time as secretary of state.

The same cannot be said of her opponent. With Donald Trump, there is no ambiguity. Anyone with a link to the Muslim faith is suspect, just as in Nazi Germany anyone who was Jewish could not be trusted. Like the rich and powerful whites in North Carolina in the 1890s, Trump accuses Mexican immigrants of being rapists and criminals and seeks to send 11 million illegal immigrants into exile, while building a wall to prevent their re-entry into America.

While Clinton has moved beyond practicing the politics of polarization during the health care debate, Trump has embraced that politics with unbridled enthusiasm. He defines whole populations of people as enemies based on their race and religion, demonizing them as evil.

Tragically, our history is not as free of fascist tendencies as we would like to believe. Today, we live in an age of growing inequality and widespread frustration. The key question facing America, especially in the wake of the tragedy in Orlando, is how to make this election a referendum on the country we wish to be. Now, more than ever, it is time that we say no, once and for all, to America becoming a fascist state.

William Chafe is a professor of history, emeritus, at Duke University, the former president of the Organization of American Historians and the author of 13 books, most recently “Hillary and Bill: The Clintons and the Politics of the Personal.“

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