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America needs to confront its ‘Mussolini moment’ | Will Bunch Newsletter

Plus, the incredible life of whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg nears the end

Unless you are obsessed with college basketball, is there any month that offers greater torture than March, and not only because it’s time to do your income taxes? Spring looks like it’s just around the corner, until a bitter breeze reminds you ... not yet. Ditto for the promise of baseball, with its seemingly eternal spring training. Wake me up when it’s April Fool’s Day.

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‘I am your retribution.’ Just when you thought Trump couldn’t get any worse, he turns the dictator dial to 11.

Hitler is the Wagner of oratory, a master in repeating the leitmotiv in many varied forms, and the leitmotiv is “The Republican régime in Germany has betrayed you. Our day of retribution has come.” His use of the brass instruments of oratory is Wagnerian, and he thunders out his resounding blows against Bolshevism and against democracy.

— Legendary Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, writing after attending an Adolf Hitler rally in Germany, March 2, 1933

There have been so many wild stories about Donald Trump during the years he’s been riding America’s down escalator — a shocking number of them confirmed, but some still in the “not proven ... yet” file. On top the second pile of rumors is the story that ran in 1990 in Vanity Fair that the future 45th president’s first wife Ivana told her lawyer “that from time to time her husband reads a book of Hitler’s collected speeches, My New Order, which he keeps in a cabinet by his bed.”

It did seem hard to believe: Donald Trump, reading a book? But after listening to Trump’s New Order — Saturday’s grievance-filled, one-hour-and-forty-four minute fascism-on-barbiturates speech to the annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC — I’m starting to think The Donald must have at least skimmed Der Fuhrer, or had his aides whip up a two-pager about him.

“In 2016, I declared, ‘I am your voice,’” Trump told the CPAC auditorium just outside D.C., in a room of largely Trump cultists, albeit not enough to fill the back rows. “Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution.

Trump’s pledge, with its nearly century-old echoes of the very worst movements that modern humankind has produced, was the low point of a weekend of red flags and flashing sirens for American democracy, just when you thought that it couldn’t get any worse.

Because to gain that dubious achievement, Trump had to beat out not only his own autocratic promises, such as “tent cities” that would essentially be concentration camps for the urban homeless, but also a prominent CPAC speaker who wants to “eradicate” transgenderism — which, to the as many as 1.6 million Americans who identify as transgender, amounted to a genocidal threat. And Trump’s chief rival for the 2024 GOP presidential nod, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, is working with lawmakers to crush the First Amendment by ending university academic freedom for good while proposing that bloggers be forced to register with the state government.

There are historical precedents for all of these actions and the overheated rhetoric — among history’s worst despots, genocidal maniacs, and totalitarian movements (like DeSantis’ blogger bill, which is almost identical to one that Russia strongman Vladimir Putin enacted in 2014). It’s been already way past time for the American media to start using the f-wordfascism — to describe this ideology that continues to transfix the core voting bloc in one of America’s two major political parties. But almost all of this weekend’s mainstream coverage of CPAC and related developments was too mealy-mouthed to tell the public the alarming truth.

I think way too many journalists think they can get away without naming Trump’s fascism as it parades nakedly down 5th Avenue (or that of DeSantis, for that matter) because they think Trump can’t win. They think the Former Guy will be indicted, and he might be, but America once saw a guy in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary get 3.4% of the national vote, and Trump’s dark prayer for justice and retribution might prove even more potent from a jail cell. Or, they think the Big Money establishment like the surviving Koch Brother will stop him this time — but why, when all the money in the world can’t change minds that have been fried by QAnon and the Big Lie of election fraud.

Here’s reality: If the GOP were holding its 2024 Milwaukee convention today, Trump would win the nomination with ease (in the last four polls, he’s led his only serious rival DeSantis — who, again, it must be noted, is also an autocrat). And against President Joe Biden in a general election? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ The Real Clear Politics average has Trump barely winning, 44.6%-44.4%. A fascist America by the mid-2020s is a coin toss.

Which is why Trump’s rhetoric must be taken both literally and seriously this time around. His dark “American carnage”-flamed language of justice and retribution may center, in Trump’s mind, on a ridiculous theory of a stolen 2020 election. But it resonates for mostly white middle-class voters who hear a call for revenge for their own losses: maybe a factory job, or maybe the unmerited comfort of a society steered by white privilege, or for standing on the losing side of cultural revolutions since the 1960s, or the solidarity of believing the Big Lie.

Trump’s retribution would be their retribution — yet it also borrows the same messages that have powered every successful right-wing authoritarian movement for the last 100 years, ever since Benito Mussolini’s march on Rome. On Monday, I reached out to America’s top authority on the Italian dictator, the New York University professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat, also author of the book Strongmen about the shared traits of autocrats.

“Mussolini called himself an avenger, and the strongman persona of both avenger and victim (because he takes the hits for the nation) dates back to Fascism,” she told me. “Trump’s speech had all of those elements, not just his focus on government as retribution, but his positioning of himself as the target of enemies who are out to get the entire people. The strongman must seem to embody the whole people and thus takes the hits by all the enemies. In that lies his heroism.”

Except Donald Trump is no hero. His winning 2016 campaign that shocked America with its demonization of “The Other” — labelling border migrants as murderers and rapists, the Muslim ban — looks tame compared to the 2023-24 model. Trump’s enemy list is a lot longer and the cruelty, which is the point, is a lot harsher. So is his willingness to abuse state power to get there, just like the dictators of yesteryear.

In addition to his inhumane “tent cities” for the unhoused, Trump — now engaged in a race to the moral bottom with DeSantis — told CPAC he would also send the National Guard into cities with high crime rates “until law and order is restored,” and suggested he would impose federal control over Washington, D.C., ignoring that city’s elected Black mayor. It all tied into his claim that there are “sinister forces” who want to “turn this nation into a socialist dumping ground for criminals, junkies, Marxists, thugs, radicals and dangerous refugees that no other country wants.”

Trump’s radical vision is for an American police state far beyond the wildest dreams of Bull Connor or Frank Rizzo.

But then, we know the historical precedents for all of the far-right’s dictatorial moves, including the right-wingers who are now echoing Trump. The horrific CPAC call by the extremist pundit Michael Knowles to “eradicate” transgenderism in America should remind us that Nazi brownshirts and their allies attacked Berlin’s Institute for Sexual Research and burned its 20,000 books just two months after that Hitler “retribution” rally that Jones witnessed in 1933. That same year brought political purges of university faculty across Germany — not unlike what DeSantis envisions for Florida. Ninety years later, too much of America’s political and media establishment seems determined to forget the lessons of world history — and may be condemning us to repeat them.

Yo, do this

  1. If you saw the frequent ads for a new documentary on CNN called Glitch that debuted Sunday night, you can be forgiven for thinking it was about Elon Musk’s disastrous, fail-prone reign at Twitter. But the story about the rapid rise and equally rapid collapse of the online phenomenon HQ Trivia, although a somewhat familiar and predictable arc, is also a worthwhile cautionary tale about ambition, hype, and sometimes fatal overwork in the pressure cooker of 21st century high-tech startups. Worth a watch when it comes round again.

  2. My newsletter overlords have suggested experimenting with new features, so how about: YO, DON’T DO THIS! Paul Martino made mega-millions in Silicon Valley on firms like FanDuel (of which I am not a fan) and then moved his family back to the Doylestown area, where he’s invested his winnings in backing mostly Republican school-board candidates linked to some of the recent anti-book or anti-LGBTQ moves in some suburban Pa. districts. He’s also the man behind a garish-and-very-un-Philly-looking $25 million new sports bar in Center City with the cringeworthy name of Bankroll. If you want to exercise your free speech rights over what is happening to our schools, you are free to NOT spend your own personal bankroll there.

Ask me anything

Question: Why won’t the media talk about the failures of drug prohibition? — Via The Cannabis Patriot (@PLegalization) on Twitter

Answer: In a week in which I didn’t get many questions from Twitter (pro tip: you can always email me a good one at, any time you think of it), our pot-legalization advocate raises one that deserves more than an 100-word answer. Read the news and you’ll see so much coverage of the symptoms of this failed “war” — from mass incarceration and “warrior cop”-style policing, to an emphasis on prisons rather than the kind of drug-treatment regime that might have minimized the opioid crisis and its lingering aftermath — while not addressing the root causes of that failure. I know this isn’t exactly the answer you wanted, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our failures to discuss the deeper problems with a modern capitalist society, that cause drug abuse or gun violence or toxic train wrecks. I think those are the kinds of questions that too many folks in power don’t really want us to ask.

History lesson: The long goodbye of American hero Daniel Ellsberg

When Daniel Ellsberg turned 40 in 1971, the then-obscure think-tank researcher showed many of us how to live with his moral and utterly courageous decision to leak the massive Pentagon Papers, the roadmap of American government lies and mistakes in the Vietnam War, to the New York Times and other mainstream outlets. Today at age 91, Ellsberg, recently diagnosed with advanced and inoperable pancreatic cancer, is showing us how to die — with remarkable grace, passionate advocacy, and the same bravery he displayed 52 years ago.

In a long announcement of the news that amounted to a goodbye letter as he prepares for hospice care, Ellsberg displayed no sadness but rather his gratitude and even joy for the long and fruitful life he was able to live, surrounded by his family and his friends. Not surprisingly to anyone who has followed his long post-Pentagon-Papers career in activism, he urged the rest of us to carry forward his final fight: to ensure that the horror of nuclear war — an increasingly real threat, given the current morass in Ukraine — never takes place. Ellsberg wrote that not only Russia but also the United States and its nuclear allies “have yet to recognize that such threats of initiating nuclear war — let alone the plans, deployments, and exercises to make them credible and more ready to be carried out — are and always have been immoral and insane: under any circumstances, for any ‘reasons,’ by anyone or anywhere.”

He’s right, of course. But I was also struck by one other thing — a kind of parallel between Ellsberg and former president Jimmy Carter, who also announced recently that he has not long to live. In his letter, Ellsberg notes that when he leaked the classified Vietnam report and angered the Nixon administration, he fully expected to spend the rest of his life in prison. Instead, freed thanks to Watergate-related government misconduct, he devoted those 50 years of unexpected liberty to his anti-nuclear activism. Different yet in a way similar, Carter was expected to fade away when Ronald Reagan beat him in 1980, only to build a new life that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. These remarkable second acts should inspire all of us to ask: Are we making the most of our second chances in life, and our freedom to change things?

Recommended Inquirer reading

  1. For my Sunday column, I applied my passion for fixing the higher-education crisis in America to Philly’s own Temple University, where a strike by unionized grad students and campus unrest over a lack of safety have led to faculty calls for a no-confidence vote in its president, Jason Wingard. I looked at how Wingard’s corporate approach to higher-ed makes him the wrong man for Temple’s legacy as a civic gem dedicated to elevating the middle class. Over the weekend, I explained why President Biden’s right turn on crime — led by his rejection of D.C’s controversial new criminal code — isn’t just bad government but also bad politics.

  2. The big story in Philadelphia is the most-intense political changing of the guard since I moved to the region more than three decades ago. While the understandable focus is on the bevy of candidates running to replace Mayor Jim Kenney, The Inquirer has also been all over last month’s major news that longtime City Council President Darrell L. Clarke is also retiring at year’s end. The paper’s Jake Blumgart — who knows the arcane worlds of city planning and zoning better than any other working journalist in the city — and City Hall veteran Sean Collins Walsh took a deep dive into how Clarke’s “hyperlocal” approach to city development will likely live on. It sounds like democracy, in theory, but in reality the strategy has created poor civic planning — and opportunities for grift. Now imagine how bleak Philadelphia’s future would look without a news organization shining sunlight on city officials. When you subscribe to The Inquirer, you support that mission — and score an all-access pass to the 2023 election.