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‘This president is no friend of democracy’: Bill Moyers on Trump and tyranny

A few posts back, I did a little dance around the “f” word, “fascism,” and whether or how much it applies to Trumpism.

Like, perhaps, many of you, I don’t claim to understand the essential meaning of the term “fascism” except as it has been used to lump together some of the most hated right-wing dictators of the mid-20th century, like Hitler, Mussolini and perhaps Franco. I’ve relied on a scholar of fascism to define its meaning, and that guy, Federico Finchelstein, has also danced around the question of whether the word fascism precisely describes Trumpism, while seeming to lean in favor of an affirmative nod to that puzzle.

How much does it matter? Not that much. It’s just a word, and one without a very precise definition. If we have a true, fair election in November, even within the vagaries our not-all-that-democratic Electoral College system, and if Trump abides by the result, it will simply be American democracy in action, even if it leads to a second term for a man whose shall-we-say governing style has certain characteristics in common with several fascists. But I care about words, including the f-word.

Now comes the great Bill Moyers, certainly among the smartest and also most careful members of the American commentariat, who did a similar dance while, at the same time, seeming to strengthen the similarity between Trumpisim and fascism, but also stopping a few inches short of stating a final verdict on the is-Trump-a-fascist question, and still strengthening the argument for an affirmative answer, backed with a long list of Trumpian actions and characteristics that move our understanding of him in that direction.

Here are few key paragraphs to give you flavor of what Moyers wrote, with a link to the whole thing at the bottom. He led into it with a reference to Cass Sunstein, another highly regarded observer of the American system, who had said something Moyers found reassuring about all this until … well, here’s the excerpt:

I had admired Sunstein’s work for years and found reassuring his judgment that the rule of law would check a would-be tyrant. But many found that assurance disquieting. One dissenter was Norman Ravitch, emeritus professor of history at the University of California, Riverside. Responding to Sunstein, he wrote: 

“The normal concern of people of all sorts with their daily lives, family, work, leisure, and so on indicates that only those in certain areas of work and life could possibly notice the slow but relentless advance of authoritarian and totalitarian policies by the government. The Nazis knew how to appeal to people who did not have the ideological concerns but only normal human concerns. They knew how to conceal their real goals and how to make passive individuals active supporters.”

So does Trump. He understands that most Americans are concerned with little more than the economy, health care and jobs. They respond positively to politicians who promise action on these priorities, whether or not they know if those promises will ever be fulfilled.

Ravitch pointed out that like Hitler and like Mussolini, Trump knows how to appeal to a variety of concerns with promises that can be both attractive and contradictory. Because no population is educated enough, sensitive enough, or ethical enough to see through the deception, “the danger is very great indeed. It may in fact be one of the chief weaknesses of democracy that democracy can lead to tyranny just as well or perhaps even more than other political systems.”

Two years have passed since that exchange between scholars, and in those two years Trump has doubled down. This president is no friend of democracy.

He has declared himself above the law, preached insurrection by encouraging armed supporters to “liberate” states from the governance of duly elected officials, told police not to be “too nice” while doing their job, and gloated over the ability of the Secret Service to turn “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” loose on demonstrators — to “come down on them hard” if they get too “risky.”

He has politicized the Department of Justice while remaking the judiciary in his image.

He has stifled investigations into his administration’s corruption, fired officials charged with holding federal agencies accountable to the public, and rewarded his donors and cronies with government contracts, subsidies, deregulations, and tax breaks. …

He has relentlessly attacked mainstream media as purveyors of fake news and “enemies of the people” while collaborating with a sycophantic right-wing media – including the Murdoch family’s Fox News — to flood the country with lies and propaganda.

That’s just an excerpt. The full Moyers piece is here. It’s headlined: “We Hold This Truth to Be Self-Evident: It’s Happening Before Our Very Eyes.”

Comments (37)

  1. Submitted by Barry Tungseth on 06/08/2020 - 09:19 am.

    I read the entire Moyers piece, and if Donald Trump reads it, he`ll push to have Moyers declared another “fake news” reporter. Mainly because the truth is something Trump can not deal with.

  2. Submitted by Richard Owens on 06/08/2020 - 09:45 am.

    The reactionaries’ fears are easily manipulated. Trumps speaks from a place of personal fear.

    When the fear subsides, greed assumes its normal place.

    The very process of “selling” thrives on any product or idea that purports to alleviate that fear.

    Machiavelli already did an explainer that stands the test of time and culture.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/08/2020 - 10:52 am.

    Fascist of not – I doubt that Trump has invested enough intellectual energy to discover what the term means, something that appears to be true of too many of his supporters, as well – the Current Occupant has certainly displayed many characteristics of a related, but not identical, syndrome. He is, or would certainly like to be, a dictator. His behavior, and I might add, the behavior of his immediate family (save the youngest son, who is perhaps still in training), is behavior typical of a monarch and his dynastic descendants.

    His “advisors” seek primarily to curry his favor, while enhancing their own fortunes, whether their suggestions are lunatic or merely self-serving, and too often, the policy advice has little or nothing to do with the welfare of the nation or its people. Hugging the flag, or insisting on a huge 4th of July “celebration,” has nothing to do with genuine patriotism. As Mr. Biden proclaimed to the annoyance of several right-wing pundits some years ago: “Paying taxes is patriotic.” In that context, we don’t know – and may never know – if Trump actually supports with his money the government he’s using to line his own pockets.

    The notion that the President can’t be prosecuted – that the President is above the law – is straight out of Louix XIV, but in truth, could have been the view expressed as far back into the mists of history as any reader would like to go. That’s long before nation-states were even established. “You guys have to obey the rules, but I can do whatever I want” is the standard not just of Donald Trump, or 20th-century fascists like Hitler or Mussolini, but could just as easily have been uttered by Genghis Khan or the leader of a neolithic tribe at the edge of an Ice Age glacier. It’s the antithesis of democratic rule.

  4. Submitted by BK Anderson on 06/08/2020 - 11:14 am.

    Sunstein’s idea that we can be sanguine that “the rule of law would check a would-be tyrant” is simply preposterous.

    The 5 man “conservative” majority Trump (and Gravedigger McConnell) installed on the Supreme Court is democratically illegitimate (being the result of a popular vote-losing prez and a senate “majority” that represents about 44% of the populace) and is consistently reversing established precedents.

    Trump and McConnell are confirming a very large number of conservative activists who are masquerading as “judges”, whose true mission is to issue rulings that adopt “conservative” policy preferences. The next anti-democratic rulings from Roberts’ majority will declare that the Congress has no actual power to issue subpoenas to the executive that the courts can enforce, or obtain documents the executive wants to hide, ending all pretense of Congressional oversight and throwing out a hundred and fifty years of established tradition.

    The constitutional system that was thought to exist has already collapsed. And the Repub goal is to make the coming election so filled with chaos that Trump can repudiate any adverse result.

    • Submitted by LK WOODRUFF on 06/08/2020 - 05:14 pm.

      Rule of law, or law and order, to many of us means the police are there to protect and serve us all, to keep us safe with basic rules.

      ‘Law and order’ to Trump and white supremacists.fascists means something entirely different: heavy use of force and military oppression, followed by jailing of the masses. They believe they are superior beings whose priority is to cull all minorities (black, brown, gay, women who refuse to be submissive, etc.) Hence their predilection for bombings and heavy use of weaponry designed for maximum damage and loss of life.

      Americans need to stop giving Trump the benefit of the doubt. He is clearly no ‘stable genius’ as only he keeps claiming. And he is all over the map daily. But his message remains very constant when you extract it out. He talks and acts the way he does because it has been his lifelong mantra; learned form his Daddy who associated with the KKK. it is in his orange pores. He cares not at all about anyone who isn’t in lockstep with him and his perverted beliefs.

      I’m reading a book called: The Last Widow, by Karin Slaughter. While fiction, the storyline delves deeply into this issue. It is a difficult read, I’ve had to break it into pieces because it is intense and deeply troubling. But it is eye opening and explores many past events in ways I never fully understood. It covers how furiously the FBI and other govn agencies are working to uncover these buried in the woods groups and deal effectively with them before they kill more Americans. I highly recommend that everyone read this book or seek out other reputable sources to better understand what is at our doors, about to pounce. Trump has made it easier for these types to become more open and in our world. He has drawn out the roaches, so to speak. He has legitimized them. They are his people.

      Time is running out and we are all distracted by Covid 19 and finances and by Trump’s daily rants and craziness. It’s a perfect time for those who wish to harm us and blow up our government to ramp up…..

      Trump is a fascist. There I’ve said it. Now let Trump, or God, strike me dead. Phhht. Do NOT underestimate him. In Oct 2016 he stood on stage with Bannon before a debate w Hillary and on camera and to the world stated their shared goal: to obliterate the federal govn! My heart stopped. I thought for sure that would end his political aspirations. But no, he landed in the White House (thanks, Putin) and has worked every single day to be cruel, divisive and destructive. He/they have accomplished much! They are unraveling/shredding life as we have all known it while everyone else walks on tip toe, afraid to speak up and stand up to him. There are growing cracks. High level military types and former staff members are finally speaking up publicly. More need to expose him for the monster he is. Time is running out, people. We have another election in Nov and it is the most important one for the country yet. Much rides on the results. Like the continuance of our cherished democracy that we have all enjoyed…but stand to lose if Trump somehow manages to manipulate/rig another ‘win’. We cannot afford 4 more years of Donald J Trump. The stakes are way too high! Take this seriously. Finally. I beseech you all.

    • Submitted by Richard Owens on 06/08/2020 - 08:28 pm.

      sadly, I would like to see this refuted.

  5. Submitted by William Duncan on 06/08/2020 - 11:24 am.

    Um, here is Cass Sunstein advocating the use of government to infiltrate activist groups and manipulate them, back in the Obama Admin:

    If Trump advocated that it would surely be called the fascist impulse (I called it that back in 2010, when that kind of thinking pervaded government, while 10 million foreclosures were happening and nothing much was being done.)

    While Trump is a potential autocrat, it was the elite of both parties selling out the American working class for corporations, banks and billionaires for a generation that is the fundamental reason Trump was elected. Now that the stock market is doing great while some 40+ million Americans are facing economic devastation, Trump is vulnerable.

    A question Democrats might want to ask is, where are the good jobs that might have kept a guy like George Floyd and millions like him, out of prison and off drugs? That is not merely a racist thing, that is economic policy supported by both parties, moving America’s productive capacity to East Asia and South America, allowing corporations to become so big they could crush wages and benefits for working people – that money flowing to executives and shareholders.

    Trump promised those jobs would return but he hasn’t really delivered. It is an opening for Dems, but If Dems continue to govern like Clinton and Obama, expect worse than Trump eventually.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/08/2020 - 01:54 pm.

      Take a look at job growth numbers under Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump.

      • Submitted by William Duncan on 06/08/2020 - 04:31 pm.

        Take a closer look at the kinds of jobs created, compared to those good old union manufacturing jobs, or jobs people held for a lifetime. A lot of low pay service jobs (essential?), much of it part time, just about all of it no benefits. A lot of contract work. Gig work. Most of that not paying as well or as securely as a union did.

        But hey, there was quite a bit of growth in Admin. The managing of sectors like Health Care and Universities. (It seems IMHO those low pay essential workers were more important than much of the high pay professional class.)

        So really, it doesn’t matter which administration made more or less jobs, it was a period of broad disenfranchisement of Labor generally, and a more precarious economy for most.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/09/2020 - 09:18 am.

          There’s been a job type shift due more to automation than to offshoring.
          The Luddites can’t reverse that.

          • Submitted by William Duncan on 06/09/2020 - 12:45 pm.

            By Luddite, do you mean those skilled artisans who lost their autonomy and were coerced by the threat to starvation to wage slave making comparative junk clothes to make an industrialist super rich? (All hail the capitalist consolidator/mock the many made destitute?

            See, the thing is, we tax middle-class income at like 30%. What do wealthy industrialists and private equity owners pay for automating people out of work? Nothing. Offshoring? Nothing. Pollution? Rarely anything.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/09/2020 - 10:35 am.

          Go back a couple of hundred years and look at where people worked. The workforce has always evolved and will continue to do so. Pining for jobs that don’t exist anymore regardless of government policy isn’t very productive. Manufacturing jobs that took 20 people now take 5. Or 3 and a robot.

          As an attorney, I have watched the workforce in my office change radically over the last 25 years. There were as many support staff as lawyers at the beginning, and that has shrunk to about a quarter of that. I used to send out 10 letters a day, and now I mail almost nothing. Its email and electronic filing, without any involvement by a secretary. Older attorneys retired and younger tech-savvy attorneys moved in. The physical law books are all gone and online now. Its a completely different office.

          • Submitted by William Duncan on 06/09/2020 - 12:49 pm.

            “Pining for jobs that don’t exist anymore regardless of government policy isn’t very productive.”

            So, again, all hail the capitalist innovator putting people out of work who takes all the gains? America is well on the way to 3rd world status, all hail the Oligarchs!

            • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/09/2020 - 07:51 pm.

              It doesn’t have anything to do with oligarchs and it isn’t unique to the US. Economies and the workforce continually evolve.

              • Submitted by William Duncan on 06/10/2020 - 08:52 am.

                Evolve? So are you saying ever expanding income inequality is a factor of Nature? The growth of oligarchy, consolidation and monopoly is like the evolution of species, and so all us ever-more-poor people are just about nature weeding us out? Covid-19 is maybe just nature setting the stage for a few to take over even more of the economy? Well, if that isn’t faux scientific, social darwinian claptrap like a knee on the neck of humanity, while we are lectured about what Nature’s laws are, then…well, that is precisely what it is.

                • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/11/2020 - 06:32 pm.

                  I’m not saying any of those things. I am saying that the economy evolves. That jobs evolve. That technology evolves. And that a lot of high-paying blue collar jobs have gone away and aren’t coming back.

                  • Submitted by William Duncan on 06/12/2020 - 10:09 am.

                    Evolve is not the word. Deliberate economic policy working exactly as it is designed to, to take from the many to give to the few, is far more accurate. Those blue collar jobs were deliberately eliminated because the work empowered the rabble, and the “savings” by automating/offshoring etc flow into the pockets of the wealthy.

                    REAL evolution leads to the increase of diversity of species. Your so-called economic “evolution” leads to consolidation and monopoly until there is only one big fish. If economic evolution were true, it would lead to the economic empowerment of everybody, an ever greater diversification of economic opportunity. But that is the opposite of the economy we have.

        • Submitted by Constance Sullivan on 06/09/2020 - 06:05 pm.

          Really, Mr. Duncan? Everybody does it, so don’t blame Trump for anything? He’s the same as the rest of them?


          • Submitted by William Duncan on 06/10/2020 - 09:02 am.

            Just about everybody here likes to point at Trump as the sum of all evil. Fine. I’m just pointing out, just because Trump is so very bad, does not make Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or Joe Biden the sum of all that is good. Until Dems are willing to acknowledge how these three and their policies helped give rise to Trump, then the factors that led to Trump will make certain someone far worse than Trump eventually rises.

            • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/11/2020 - 06:29 pm.

              The Dems aren’t going to acknowledge it because its false. The whole notion of the disaffected working class turning to Trump has been debunked over and over. Its racism and resentment, not economics. You really should start reading the mainstream press you dislike so much.

              • Submitted by William Duncan on 06/12/2020 - 09:58 am.

                Yes, the Mainstream press loves to call all of Trump’s base racist bigots/white supremicists, and his election had nothing to do with economic policy. Just like the uprisings of late are apparently purely and only about racism, not at all about the fact that economic policy is entirely gamed to make the wealthy more rich and the poor more poor and powerless (as if there are no poor white people cast into economic despair like so many black people.)

                Clearly you and the mainstream have little to no interaction with actual working poor. I have talked to quite a few white, black and brown working poor who voted for Obama, but then voted for Trump, not because they are “deplorable”, but because they saw the “Hope and Change” of Obama to be more about saving the wealthy than anything. But that message is not convenient for our elite, who are about maintaining the “evolution” of income inequality.

                Case in point, $2.9 trillion since March created by the Fed and handed to Hedge Funds, Private Equity and Corporations so that the rich will feel none of the economic pain of Covid. It is almost as if the looting of stores of late serves as a distraction for the real looting.


      • Submitted by Brian Simon on 06/08/2020 - 04:43 pm.

        I think his point is that the jobs being created aren’t solid middle class jobs where you can get fair pay for a day’s work. For most, the gig economy kindof bites. If we take your data set, the Clinton admin through to the Trump admin, our country has experienced enormous growth. But that has largely – nearly exclusively – benefitted the wealthy.

        If you’re looking at people who never went to or didn’t finish college, those years track a long downward slide. Now even college graduates are on the slide. Compare average college debt today to 1992. Jobs that can support the debt load aren’t there. So Dems can pat themselves on the back for “job growth” but the Trump admin still happened – because the Dems – along with Repubs – failed to address underlying biases that funnel growth to a few, leaving the rest to fight for scraps.

        The sad reality is that even if Biden wins, he’s apparently oblivious to the fundamental structural changes that our society needs to restore the american dream.

        • Submitted by William Duncan on 06/09/2020 - 12:49 pm.

          Mr Simon gets it.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/09/2020 - 02:54 pm.

          More people have college educations now, but there are not more good jobs.
          So the people who were underpaid without college educations are now underpaid -with- college educations.
          Supply and demand still operates. How do you create a demand for skilled labor?
          One way around it is socialism: separate wages from productivity. Unfortunately, that goes against the basic laws of human behavior. People will not willingly work without compensation commensurate with their labor.

          • Submitted by William Duncan on 06/09/2020 - 11:17 pm.

            Or we could make all that “essential” labor actually pay according to some more honest and just measure commensurate to productivity, rather than what will make the owners/rentiers wealthy well beyond any honest measure of their productivity?

            Or we could get serious about democracy and make the people the owners of their own productivity (as opposed to “wage slaves” paying tribute to consolidators and monopolists?)

    • Submitted by LK WOODRUFF on 06/08/2020 - 05:20 pm.

      Every DEM president in my lifetime has left the country with a surplu$.

      Every REP president has run the country’s debt up enormously.

      I urge you to get your news and facts and data from a wide variety of sources worldwide, and accept nothing from the likes of FOX, Breitbart, Druge, InfoWars, Limbaugh, et al. They all are far R wing and earn their hefty paychecks by disseminating planned, purposeful propaganda. Because the more inundated and confused you are the less likely you are to pay any attn to the power and money grabs of today’s greedy & unethical types. Meanwhile daily you lose more and more rights and protections provided by our Constitution:( Is that really what you want??

      • Submitted by William Duncan on 06/09/2020 - 01:10 pm.

        No president in that period ran up a surplus. Obama racked up 8.5Trillion in debt, a 74% increase in the national debt. Bush II racked up 5.8 trillion, a 101% increase. Bill Clinton only racked up 1.4trillion, but a 32% increase. Reagan, 1.8trillion, a 186% increase. Dem presidents appear to be better, but Clinton only because he deregulated the banks and media, resulting in an explosion of financial shenanigans, and Obama because he handed the keys of the kingdom to the bankers after the housing bubble burst, and then used the Fed to hand the rich 4.5 trillion in money made out of nothing.

        As for those media outlets you mention, I avoid them like I avoid Covid-19, just like I avoid NYT, WaPo, CNN, MSNBC. The praise for oligarchy/plutocracy is way too thick in the mainstream and in right wing media for me. As for losing Constitutional rights, anyone lecturing me from a Democrat or Republican perspective about how bad the the other side is is just projecting, considering both parties are in love with total surveillance.

  6. Submitted by Brian Simon on 06/08/2020 - 02:15 pm.

    What is it, Godwin’s Rule that says you lose the argument when you resort to calling the other side Nazis?

    It seems that including “fascists” is appropriate too. The above-noted wiggliness of the definition is reason enough. And that it immediately shuts down all dialogue, which is normally not Erik’s intent, I think.

    Having said all that, there is room to explore why Trump’s authoritarian tendencies are so popular among the self-professed small government types.

    The same people who passionately supprt second amendment rights to “protect” themselves from overbearing government also support overbearing government suppressing the people’s rights to free speech, public assembly & defense from unreasonable search & seizure.

    Why is that?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/08/2020 - 02:37 pm.

      That’s not a difficult question. It’s because Trump’s authoritarian escapades have been directed at people other than his base of support. There is no resonance for them in a “First, they came for the . . .” type of argument because they know or sense that Trumpism will never get to the “Then, they came for me” part of it. The base remains loyal because they know that they are protected.

      This is not unique to the Trump brand of authoritarianism. The favored group is okay with cracking down on The Other. There is always some “good” reason for doing it, and that reason is nothing to do with them.

    • Submitted by Mike Chrun on 06/08/2020 - 04:22 pm.

      A quote from Moyer’s friend that he used to start the column also gets at that. “All this open talk by Trump of dominance is pretty undisguised fascism. He’s inciting chaos to set the stage for the strong man to ‘rescue’ the nation.”

      With the economy unlikely to recover enough to save him and his own words revealing the bungling of the pandemic, Trump’s best hope of saving himself is going to be to drive the divide even more. He’s got the bully pulpit, his own propaganda apparatus, and the sycophants to aid the message. The fact that the country is much closer to the carnage Trump warned about in his inaguration speech now will be lost on or ignored by the 40%. The danger from the elites, socialists, and now lawless rioters who want to do away with police forces is what they’re going to focus on.

      • Submitted by BK Anderson on 06/09/2020 - 08:33 am.

        Really good point that the vision of a dystopic America that candidate and prez-elect Trump pontificated upon has become reality under his appalling “leadership”.

        Make America Crap Again! But at least white males are in charge!

    • Submitted by BK Anderson on 06/09/2020 - 09:20 am.

      It’s because the famous “small government” mantra is a charade. American conservatism is (and always has been) much more about authoritarianism than libertarianism.

      They favor enormous (wasteful) government when it comes to “defense”. They favor enormous (harsh) government when it comes to policing. They favor (intrusive) government in areas of liberty they find irreligious, such as reproductive rights. They favor (intrusive and harsh) government in regulating poor people, particularly poor non-white people.

      The “small government” motto refers to the domestic economy, where there is no legitimate role for government regulation. This is the price the plutocrats extracted in order to fund and manufacture the “movement”. Because the most important “right” of all is the right to wreck the environment and engage in whatever destruction of the commons as you desire.

      “Apres moi, les Deluge” is the true motto of “conservatism”…

      • Submitted by ian wade on 06/09/2020 - 11:56 am.

        Spot on, BK. If you distill down to the essence of what passes for conservatism, it comes down to conformity. Their basic grievance has always been that one must conform to their antiquated mindset of what is morally, culturally and intellectually acceptable.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/13/2020 - 09:52 am.

    I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone that a Fascist is no “friend” to democracy does it? It’s just kind of entertaining to watch these ongoing attempts to discuss and describe a Fascist president without using the term.

  8. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/09/2020 - 09:22 am.

    Read the First Amendment.
    “nation, under God” was added in the McCarthyite fifties, despite the Constitution.
    “God” of course could refer equally to Allah and Yahweh, or any supreme deity; not just the Christian God(s).
    And the Battle Hymn of the Republic was never an official government statement.

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