Monday, August 8, 2016

The Rise of Mussolini--and what we can learn from it

In 1922 Italy was in crisis. Benito Mussolini--blunt, outspoken, someone who "got things done"--seemed to many a man who could help the country through the crisis. Mussolini himself was sure he could do more than that, that he could restore Italy to its former greatness.

Though he was an outsider, Mussolini came to power through what was considered a legitimate process, with the support of many--the King, the nation's conservative establishment, and eventually the Roman Catholic Church--who were suspicious of him but felt he was the best alternative. When King Victor Emmanuel III refused to declare martial law, liberal Prime Minister Luigi Facta resigned, and the King asked Mussolini to form a new government. According to Wikipedia, "the King and the conservative establishment were afraid of a possible civil war and ultimately thought they could use Mussolini to restore law and order in the country."

Later, Mussolini made concessions to the Roman Catholic Church and won the support and gratitude of many Catholics--this despite his multiple affairs and his history of antagonism to Christianity and to what Denis Mack Smith calls "the Christian virtues of humility, resignation, charity, and goodness" (Mussolini: A Biography [1982], p. 12). After gaining power, Mussolini claimed to be religious, recognized the independence of the Vatican, designated Catholicism as the state religion, gave the Church authority over marriage, exempted it from taxation, and banned birth control and freemasonry (see Wikipedia). The Pope praised Mussolini as "the Man of Providence," and "the official Catholic newspaper pronounced 'Italy has been given back to God and God to Italy'" (Wikipedia). Catholics were also inclined to support Mussolini because of his strong opposition to Communism.

Sadly, many Catholics came to regret their support of Mussolini. His claims to be religious turned out to be propaganda, and far from reverencing God, he aimed above all to promote himself, viewing himself as a great leader, a superman of the sort that, according to his understanding of the philosopher Nietzsche, was needed to accomplish great things. He was in short a "supreme egoist" (see Denis Mack Smith, p. 12).

Benito Mussolini

What can we learn from the rise of Mussolini? One lesson is that we should be especially careful at times of tension and crisis not to do foolish--potentially tragic--things that we will come to regret. Another is that we should be especially wary of "egoists" who seem to offer simple solutions to our problems, including concerns about "law and order." For me, one of the most important lessons is that we should respect our own suspicions. If we believe our country is in crisis--if we believe, for instance, that religious liberty is in danger or that morality or Constitutional government is at risk--we should think carefully before supporting someone who claims he will protect those things but whose statements and behavior do not in fact align with those values. If such a person claims he'll support our values but has demonstrated by his words and actions and personal style that these values are really not the ones at his core or the ones he lives by, we should beware.

I believe this is precisely the situation we face as we consider the possibility that Donald Trump could become President of the United States. Many Republicans and many conservatives (not to mention many other Americans) find Trump personally distasteful and are troubled by his racist and sexist statements, his profane and sometimes violent language, serious flaws in his personal character, and his lack of clear, consistent, and specific policy proposals. But some are nevertheless supporting Trump for one or both of the following reasons:

1. He has promised to present a conservative nominee for the Supreme Court.

2. He is (supposedly) better than Hillary Clinton.

I think I understand those who take this view. (On the other hand, to support Trump only because of "party loyalty" seems to be completely indefensible.) But I think the view is mistaken. Here's why.

First, I believe history shows (including the history of the rise of Fascism and Naziism in twentieth-century Europe) that is better to be governed by "a regular politician"--and that would include a liberal one--than by a charismatic, egotistical strongman who claims he'll solve our problems, even if it takes harsh measures.

Second (in specific response to item 2 above), I think it's completely false that Trump is better than Hillary Clinton. She is certainly flawed. But she is nothing like the monster that her opponents try to believe she is. Her errors as Secretary of State are perhaps of the magnitude of some of President Reagan's misdeeds and misstatements as president. (Look it up.) They are far less serious than the major errors committed by George W. Bush as president. In terms of personal character, my intuition is that (despite her flaws) she is in an entirely different league from Donald Trump.

I say "my intuition" because I have no way of truly knowing the hearts of either of them. But given that, as voters, we need to do our best to assess the characters of those we vote for, I have to do my best, based on Trump's statements and behavior, to get a sense of his mind, his temperament, his beliefs, and his moral character. Based on what I've seen, he is a "supreme egoist" who lacks genuine sensitivity and respect for others and who deals savagely with anyone he sees as an enemy. His apparent inability to apologize--and his statement that he has never asked God for forgiveness--suggests that he lacks the sort of humility that, besides being central to Christianity, is needed in any truly good leader.

Both Clinton and Trump have some difficulties being completely honest and straightforward. But again, they are in completely different leagues. Clinton tends to "adjust" the facts with what appears to be self-protective calculation. Trump, on the other hand, doesn't seem to care about facts at all. He has repeatedly made false claims, denying demonstrable facts, including about his own positions. It appears he has no shame, not even any sense of guilt about making false claims (or about much of his other misbehavior). Objective measures confirm this striking different between Clinton and Trump: as of early August, PolitiFact judged 27% of Clinton's statements as "mostly false or worse," compared to 70% of Trump's. Other fact checkers have shown similar results. (For an illuminating opinion piece on this subject, see "Clinton's fibs vs. Trump's huge lies" at

Furthermore, I believe Clinton's Methodist faith is entirely sincere. She is not a conservative evangelical Christian, but she is a "do-gooding" mainstream Christian of the sort who lives by the motto attributed to John Wesley: "Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can." As for Trump, I can't quite fathom what his religious views might be, since neither his language nor his behavior reflect basic Christian morality and since his ideas have little in common with the Presbyterian faith he says he espouses.

How about the Supreme Court? For the sake of national unity and respect for the Supreme Court (and for the process mandated by the Constitution for selecting and confirming justices), I think the best choice would be to confirm Merrick Garland, President Obama's nominee. At least one Senate Republican has suggested that, if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, the Senate should quickly do just that.

But some Republicans (and others) want a much more conservative Supreme Court nominee, mainly with the aim of protecting various freedoms (including religious liberty and gun rights) and even with the unlikely hope of overturning Roe vs. Wade and gay marriage. I think there's something to be said for a more moderate choice for the Supreme Court--not only to reduce the politicizing of the court and partisan rancor in the country, but to protect other freedoms and values, including the right to vote and freedom from the dominant role of money in politics (which might require overturning Citizens United). And some of us feel that sensible restrictions on gun sales and the availability of military style weapons can be harmonized with the constitutional protection of "the right to bear arms."

But let's assume that a severely conservative Supreme Court nominee would be preferable and that Trump would follow through on making such a nomination. Given the Senate's refusal to even consider President Obama's nomination, what might Democrats in the Senate do to block a Trump nomination, especially given the fact that the Senate is likely to be even more evenly divided along partisan lines after this fall's election? Senate Republicans have taken some liberty with precedent in refusing to consider President Obama's nominee. Could Democrats take similar liberties--perhaps with an unfortunate desire for revenge--and prevent consideration of Trump's nominee? I've read the Constitution carefully on this topic, and it appears that in theory the Senate could refuse to allow a president to replace vacancies in the Supreme Court indefinitely.

Furthermore, I refuse to accept the idea that choosing a Supreme Court justice with a particular ideology is the most important consideration. Yes, that choice will have a long lasting effect on the nation. But certainly in the short run, and maybe in the long run as well, the qualifications and character of the president will have a stronger impact. If we've learned one thing in the past year, it's that Trump will be Trump. The temperament (or lack of it) he's already demonstrated will almost certainly continue and will have a damaging effect on our relations with other countries, even if his bizarre proposals (such as refusing to defend some of our NATO allies or encouraging more nations to have nuclear weapons) don't become realities. He will almost certainly make a mess of some of the difficult situations that are likely to arise and could even turn a crisis into a disaster.

He has turned the Republican Party away from many of its central values (for that reason, I think the best thing for the health of the Republican Party would be a resounding Trump defeat), and especially since announcing his candidacy for president, he has done much to degrade the level of political discourse in our nation. I think it would take something of a miracle for him not to do much further damage as president. His personal style would damage our public life and serve as a poor example for our children. He would almost certainly exacerbate divisions and hostilities and make those who feel at risk, including Hispanics, Blacks, and Muslims, feel further marginalized. On matters of policy, he is likely to slow progress toward solution of our immigration problems. His economic proposals, if taken seriously, would be disastrous. The only hope for any of us is that he could somehow be "managed" (not likely, given his campaign so far) or that he could be resisted by the other branches of government. But given all the other negatives, why would we want a president who would be kept from doing terribly damage only if he were managed or resisted?

One of the saddest things about a Trump presidency is that he would do damage to the very values espoused by many of those who are now reluctantly supporting him. Whatever he may say about religious liberty, morality, and the Constitution, his personal inclinations do not support those values. He has shown that he lacks respect for religious diversity and does not truly understand the Constitution or respect its provisions for religious liberty or for separation of powers, including an independent judiciary. His religiosity, such as it is, is superficial and not deeply informed. He has boasted of his sexual exploits. He also boasts of his "genius" and his success as a businessman, success that has come at the cost of many people he has exploited. His impulses are authoritarian (do what I say, or else) and destructive (I will destroy you if you oppose me). Perhaps he is learning to temper or suppress some of those impulses, but they keep returning. I don't see any hope that they wouldn't badly mar our public life if he were to become president.

Donald Trump

Having started this post with the story of Mussolini's rise to power, I don't want to leave the impression that I think a similar descent into totalitarianism would be likely under a Trump presidency. There are certainly some similarities between Mussolini and Trump, including their egoism and machismo and their authoritarian tendencies. (Trump has even retweeted a Mussolini quotation: "@ilduce2016: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” @realDonaldTrump #MakeAmericaGreatAgain" – --and then defended himself for having unknowingly disseminated the words of "Il Duce," as Mussolini was known when he ruled Italy.) But Trump doesn't have Mussolini's driving sense of mission nor does he have Mussolini's intellect. (However distorted Mussolini's intelligence might have been, he was well read and fancied himself something of an intellectual.) And he doesn't have a carefully crafted totalitarian ideology that he would seek to implement.

Though there are a few temperamental similarities, Trump is quite different from Mussolini in these and other ways. I look at him as something of a combination of Mussolini, Huey Long, P. T. Barnum, and George Wallace (prior to his repentance), with a dash of Richard Nixon and small dashes (very small dashes) of Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson thrown in for good measure. But that's just my attempt to make sense of him. As many people have said, Trump is simply Trump--and, as I've already said, is much less dangerous as a person than Mussolini was.

Furthermore, we live in a very different country and a very different world than Mussolini and his contemporaries. One of the wonders of American public life is that power is widely dispersed in various public and private entities as well as throughout "the people" as a whole. The separation of powers is a genuine protection. And, however much some may complain about the media, a robust media is also a great protection. So my concern about Trump is not that he would actually become a dictator but rather that he would degrade the quality of our public life.

On the other hand, in some ways our world is a more dangerous place than it was 90 years ago. Given the president's central role in foreign policy and his role as commander-in-chief, a reckless president could do much more harm now than a century ago. That's one reason I would rather go for "safe" than "risky."

One of my sons said months ago that, even if he agreed with Trump on every issue, he wouldn't support him, given his character and behavior. I feel much the same way. Even if I agreed with Trump on every issue (which would be hard to determine, given that his positions seem to be constantly in flux), I could not in good conscience support his persistent tendency to engage in divisive, antagonistic discourse and to treat others--individuals and groups--in demeaning and disrespectful ways.

It appears that some good people are working pretty hard at convincing themselves that Trump wouldn't be that bad. I think it's very clear they're wrong. I think the time will come that they will regret having exercised bad judgment on this matter and will realize that the hard work of persuading themselves required some serious twisting and suppressing or ignoring of things they were or should have been aware of all along.

But they do have a similar way of crossing their arms, don't they?

1 comment:

Mario S. De Pillis, Sr. said...

An excellent piece and for me rather surprising in that it comes from the heart of conservative Mormon culture.

I would take issue with one important misunderstanding of the Constitution: unwritten precedent.

Professor Young admits that the uncompromising Republican ideologues (my language) took liberty with precedent in refusing to consider President Obama's nominees for the Supreme Court, but that legally any Congress could do that forever. Whoa! Professor Young's misunderstanding is that precedent based on what could be called an agreed upon, unwritten, historical practice is just as important as what is written. Refusing to respect precedent based on consensus can be damaging to basic democracy. Two examples:
First, Refusing to follow the precedent of respecting the president's power to nominate persons for the Supreme Court damages respect for the presidency and even more the functioning of the Supreme Court. There should be nine members for good reason.
Second, a more fundamental example—first pointed out generations ago by a professor at the University of Chicago, namely, that in democracy, especially in the U.S., the winning party must not try to use federal power to destroy the opposition, as Hitler and Mussolini did. Nixon was the first president to try to do that in Watergate—though secretly and without using the military or secret police (FBI).
Trump, however, would go beyond Nixon, and has even hinted to gun lobby that they could (wink, wink) take care of Hillary Clinton.
Analogies are odious. We won't have any political assassinations like Mathias Erzberger and Walther Rathenau. But Hitler's first major action, the Enabling Act of 1933, made the opposition parties, mainly the Social Democrats, illegal. Trump talks that way even if he is no European ideologue.