Donald Trump's attacks on Ilhan Omar show fascism is coming to the US

The US president is making his most overt attempt yet to mobilise votes using deep white supremacism. 

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Fascism is coming to America. Not simply out of an underground movement of far-right fantasists but from the US presidency. That’s the only rational conclusion we can draw from last night’s Trump rally in North Carolina. And I don't care how much this affronts your preconception of what fascism is. 

During a three-minute tirade against the Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar, in which Trump delivered a series of smears, the crowd was triggered to chant “Send her back!” — a chant taken up by the hand-picked white women standing behind Trump for the camera shot. Omar was born in Mogadishu but has been an American citizen since 2000. She is among the 40 million US citizens, 14 per cent of the population, who are first generation immigrants. 

After Trump unleashed a series of overtly racist tweets against four left-wing Democratic congresswomen, this is always where it was going to end. The narrative that the left is alien to American culture, that politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should “go back” to the places from which their families migrated, was a clear and premeditated attempt to mobilise votes using deep white supremacism.

In one sense, like all Trump’s outrages, the use of deportation rhetoric against US citizens of colour is rhetorical. Omar and Ocasio-Cortez cannot legally be “sent back” anywhere. Like the chants calling for Hillary Clinton to be jailed, the outburst serves the purpose of vocalising the illegal and irrational fantasies of reactionary voters.

But Trump’s new strategy is far more than rhetoric. There are millions of Americans who can legally be “sent back” — being either undocumented migrants or the children of people whose migration status is unclear. 

Omar and Ocasio-Cortez, along with Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley, chose bravely to politicise the inhuman treatment of refugees and migrants in Trump’s border camps. Trump’s response raises the subtextual threat that when settled, entirely legal communities of non-white Americans show solidarity with people caged like animals, and children separated from their parents, they too can be otherised.

If you listen to Trump’s tirade, delivered in Greenville last night, the entire structure of the argument is borrowed from Hitlerism. He starts with the “radical left” — they are “extremists”, opposed to the US constitution “who reject everything our nation stands for”. Then he moves to Omar, who, in a series of misquotes, he portrays as a supporter of America’s enemies. He throws in the unfounded accusation of anti-Semitism. And the crowd delivers the punch line.

We know where this leads because we have Nazi Germany as the textbook. Ocasio-Cortez, controversially for some, called Trump’s detention camps “concentration camps”. But the racialisation of German political discourse, followed by the racialisation of law, led to Kristallnacht and the Shoah. 

Like all Trump rallies, Greenville was a classic display of what Hannah Arendt called “the temporary alliance of the elite and the mob”. What they want, just as in Germany in the 1930s, is to reverse history: to reverse the globalisation of the world economy, reverse the rise of a multi-ethnic and multilingual society, and reverse laws guaranteeing human and equal rights for people of colour.

It is interesting to note what really triggered the crowd: not a left-wing protester being dragged away. This merely caused them to chant “USA” — as if being anti-Trump is to be unpatriotic. No, what really triggered them was when Trump told them Omar “looks down with contempt on hard-working Americans saying that ignorance is pervasive in many parts of this country”. 

Let’s be clear. The people at Trump rallies are not stupid. But they are demonstrating a calculated ignorance. This is a movement against climate science, against vaccines, against professional expertise and against culture. One of the biggest indicators that you are going to vote for Trump is not poverty: it is the belief that getting a college degree is useless.

If you want to know how and why sections of the business elite switched so easily from paying lip service to liberalism to shovelling money into the Trump project, the answer is depressingly clear. They are terrified of even the most basic redistribution of wealth and power that would happen if a government came to power that was not in the pockets of banks, property speculators and the Saudi monarchy.

They are prepared to deploy racism because — in America as here in the UK — it has proven the sure-fire way of mobilising a middle class whose incomes are sliding, and whose economic security has been uncertain since 2008.

An elite prepared to deploy racism is not new. But an elite prepared to comply with the politicisation of the judiciary, overt nepotism and the racialisation of politics is a step change. An elite prepared to deal out doses of hatred by teleprompter, against politicians who in all other eras would be vaunted as role models and success stories. This is the beginning of fascism.

It means the 2020 presidential election will, even if won by the Democrats, create a mass, plebeian movement, sanctified by an incumbent president, which identifies the left, feminists and people of colour as alien to the nation. The 2020s will be dominated by white America’s “stab in the back” myth. And from the ashes of the Trump presidency, something truly nasty will emerge.

Everybody who does not fight this now is complicit in the crimes that will follow.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.