The bottom line: Post-truth is pre-fascism

“Post-truth is pre-fascism.”

This statement closes one chapter of historian Timothy Snyder’s recent book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Snyder wrote the book as a primer on tyranny: An analysis of forces that helped destroy democracies in Germany and other nations in the 20th century and that threaten democracy today. In saying that “post-truth is pre-fascism,” he was describing the profound hostility in totalitarian regimes to truthfulness and verifiable reality. Without reference to such reality, it’s difficult if not impossible to hold authoritarian regimes accountable.

The hostility is apparent in the current administration, and it’s particularly egregious in the administration’s treatment of the Dreamers, the young people brought here as children and who, until recently, had been protected by the Obama-era DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) Program.  To see the antipathy clearly, all you need to do is connect a few dots.

Start with Trump’s announcement of his candidacy on June 16, 2015, when he told his listeners that Mexico is “not sending their best . . . they’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”  In this statement alone, Trump made it clear he’d be using racist language to advance his candidacy, showing contempt for truth in the distorted, dehumanizing way that such language characterizes groups and individuals. In the campaign, and in the first year of his administration, Trump continued to show his contempt in descriptions of Muslims and other immigrant groups, including expletive-laced labels like “shithole countries” to describe Haiti, El Salvador, and apparently all African nations.

In his book, historian Snyder wrote about the use of “shamanistic incantations:” Endlessly repeated catch phrases like “Crooked Hillary” or “Cryin Chuck Schumer.” In ceaseless repetition, these caricaturing phrases cast a kind of hypnotic spell, focusing our attention on the immediate moment and distracting us from reflection on larger patterns, bigger pictures. When talking about immigrants during the recent government shutdown, a shutdown precipitated in large measure by a stalemate over the fate of the Dreamers, Trump and his officials used highly charged phrases to taint all immigrants, including the Dreamers, in sinister tones. Trump himself tweeted, “The Dems just want illegal immigrants to pour into our nation unchecked,” while one of his reelection campaign officials, Michael Glassner, declared that the president was keeping Americans safe from “evil, illegal immigrants who commit violent crimes against lawful U.S. citizens.” Meanwhile, the reelection campaign released that weekend a video asserting that, “Democrats who stand in our way [i.e. opposing Trump’s immigration policies] will be complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants.” The racist discourse hasn’t abated at all.

Amidst this barrage of inflammatory discourse, it’s understandable if one forgets that the shutdown was entirely a manufactured crisis, instigated by Trump last September when he fulfilled his campaign pledge to end the DACA program.  Though Trump declared at various times that the Dreamers were “terrific people” and that some were “absolutely incredible kids,” his treachery was readily apparent in his call for a legislative fix (or, as he termed it, a “bill of love”).  His strategy was clear: Cast the Dreamers into the unfriendly waters of a Republican-controlled Congress while attempting to use them as bargaining chips to advance a nativist immigration agenda.

It’s possible that the administration’s latest immigration proposal may mark the beginning of a productive process of legislative negotiation. The proposal offers a 10- to 12-year path to citizenship to 1.8 million DACA recipients and DACA-eligible individuals in exchange for new, highly restrictive immigration measures.

But any optimism may be premature, to say the least. It’s not simply that the proposed restrictions, such as new constraints on family reunification, are highly onerous. It is, instead, that the political atmosphere itself is so tainted by untruth and deception, so driven by racist impulses, that a broader strategy is needed.

We can’t trivialize the broader threats by focusing on the incompetence, ignorance and personality flaws of Trump himself; there are too many enablers and handlers within the administration and within Congress involved. Instead, it’s necessary to see the struggle over the Dreamers’ fate and over immigration policy itself as fronts in a broader struggle against authoritarianism and the “post-truth” that supports it.

The legislative effort on behalf of the Dreamers must still go forward, and so, too, must the legal battles being fought on their behalf. But still more is needed:  the continuing effort to educate and inspire — to show that an inclusive immigration policy is both humane and democratic, and that the fate of the Dreamers, our brothers and sisters, is bound up with the fate of
us all.