In the United States the police are becoming increasingly militarized in order to deal with an increasingly militarized society. American civilians—including the mentally unstable, the completely deranged, and the ideologically violent—can easily get their hands on military-style assault weapons and armour-piercing ammunition, so the police can hardly get by with simple standard-issue service revolvers. So far in 2015, the U.S. has seen about one mass shooting a day, but the most recent mass shooting—the attack in San Bernardino that killed 14 and wounded 21—promises to be the most lethal in the long term. Committed by a Muslim man and Muslim woman and following on the ISIS directed carnage in Paris, the attack promises to feed an already alarming Islamophobia among Americans and an increasingly xenophobic rhetoric on the political right.
Predictably, following the attack, American liberals are calling for sensible gun control laws. But it may be too late. On Black Friday guns sales in the U.S. soared. On that day the FBI processed 185,345 background checks for gun purchases, 5 percent higher than the same day last year. But about 40 percent of all gun sales are though unlicensed dealers at gun shows that don’t require background checks. Americans already own an estimated 270 million firearms, or 89 firearms per 100 residents, and that number is growing. At this point only a mass confiscation of firearms would make much of a difference in their ready availability.
Then there’s Donald Trump. Long ago George Orwell said that the term “fascist” had become meaningless and in English was a simple synonym for “bully.” But Trump seems to be giving the term renewed content. Even some Republicans have been calling Trump a fascist. In today’s New York Times, Ross Douthat points out that Trump’s campaign fits seven of Umberto Eco’s hallmarks of fascism: a cult of action, a celebration of aggressive masculinity, an intolerance of criticism, a fear of difference and outsiders, a pitch to the frustrations of the lower middle class, an intense nationalism and resentment at national humiliation, and a “popular elitism” that promises every citizen that they’re part of “the best people of the world.”
From the beginning of his candidacy political pundits have been predicting Trump’s imminent demise. But his over-the-top attacks on immigrants, women, and even the disabled didn’t put a dent in his lead in the polls. His xenophobic rhetoric took an ugly turn when he called for a national registry for Muslim Americans and suggested that maybe some mosques should be closed down. It was those statements that prompted charges of fascism, but he went even further, claiming without a shred of evidence that thousands and thousands of American Muslims in new Jersey were dancing in the streets to celebrate the 9/11 attacks. Not only were his loyal followers not fazed, his lead in the polls of Republican primary voters increased. And all this was before the attack in San Bernardino.
Ross Douthat doesn’t believe there is really much of an audience for fascism in America, but I’m not so sure. The frustrations of the lower middle class are becoming rather intense. White middle-class Americans are the only group in the country that has rising death rates. Of all Trump’s scapegoats—stupid leaders, politically correct liberals, spineless Republicans, unattractive women—Muslims are by far the most vulnerable. Already headlines about the mass shooting in San Bernardino are featuring the phrase “Muslim killers.”
Douthat believes that American conservatism is too rooted in religious faith and a libertarian suspicion of government to be truly susceptible to the seductions of fascism. But fear is a great destroyer of such certainties.