Vigilant but Cautiously Optimistic: Discussing the Threat of Fascism in the Modern Age

Vigilant but Cautiously Optimistic: Discussing the Threat of Fascism in the Modern Age

Vigilant but Cautiously Optimistic: Discussing the Threat of Fascism in the Modern Age

by Daniel Smith, Class of 2018

An Introduction

“There is no precedent for Trump’s election, no way to know what he’ll do in office, or how other global actors will react. Terrifying.” - @John Cassidy, Twitter Post

“Best moment of this election came at the end of this election. The voice of the people have been heard! No more corruption.” - @JOMainEvent, Twitter Post

“Whatever happens, we have lost. Half this nation voted for white supremacy, sexual assault, and more. The Klan is happy. We should be sad.” - @Baratunde, Twitter Post

“The working class was underestimated. The AMERICAN people won this election.” - @Ctayorange, Twitter Post

Ours is a divided country. With a president in office who won only 46.1% of the popular vote, and 56.8% of the electoral college, it goes without saying that we are currently living in polarizing times. Whether it is due to culture, geography, or domestic/foreign circumstances: more and more Americans either lean strongly towards “the left” or strongly towards “the right.” In 2014, The Pew Research Center conducted a three-month survey of 10,000 adult, United States Citizens on their political ideologies/identities. Their research found that, “Republicans and Democrats are further apart ideologically than at any point in recent history” and that “ a considerable degree, polarization is reflected in the personal lives and lifestyles of those on both the right and left.  



The Current Political Climate at Wagner College

The day after Election Day was an interesting one on the Wagner College campus. There were those who felt like “the working man” had finally reclaimed a country that had been stolen from him, and there were those who felt like it was the death of our democratic republic as we knew it. When it came to the latter, I found most of them saying the same thing:

“He’s a fascist.”  

“He is going to lead the country into fascism.”

“It’s Nazi Germany all over again.”

While I will admit that I had also (quite embarrassingly so) lost my head and gotten caught up in the heat of the moment, I did begin to wonder whether there were any real grounds to assume that our own country could slip into fascism the way that the Weimar Republic did? Could we see the death of our democratic systems and practices under President Trump’s or any President’s administration?

The Project

With these questions in mind, I approached the Holocaust Education and Programming Center looking to do a project on the subject of American democracy and the threat of fascism. When I approached Dr. Lori Weintrob (the center’s director), she explained to me how her own approach to the subject was to be “vigilant, but cautiously optimistic.”  Dr. Weintrob joined other Wagner faculty in condemning the Trump administration’s executive order on travel by select Muslim nationals, his lack of financial disclosures and position on issues affecting women and the LGBT community. She criticized our media, left and right. But she emphasized the need for openness to hearing ordinary Americans expressing economic distress and political frustration so that our democratic process works better in 2018.  For inspiration, she drew my attention to the renowned playwright, Tony Kushner, whose work she had co-taught with Wagner’s theater Prof. Theresa McCarthy.

Kusher, famed author of Angels in America, has penned many classic American plays. Many of his works have a notable political edge to them, and have caused controversy among audiences. One such work is A Bright Room Called Day, a politically charged play that draws parallels between the Reagan administration and the rise of Hitler/fall of the Weimar Republic. When pressed about reviving the piece in response to the election of President Trump, Kushner was quoted as saying, I’m getting a lot of requests [to revive] that...I didn’t want to do it then and I don’t know that I want to do it now”, citing that the Weimar Republic was only 12-years old, while ours is “...a 270-year-old democracy and I really think that what’s enormously encouraging is the intense passion with which the American people have gone to war against this grotesque figure and the unqualified, delusional, self-serving plutocrats and their minions who have essentially taken over Washington.”

Kushner’s cautiously optimistic approach reflects that of Dr. Weintrob, who has worked with me to develop a project that would explore whether the democratic bedrock of our nation could actually be cracked under the weight of a potentially authoritarian administration.

Under Dr. Weintrob's guidance, the center has been working on a blog series where we interview professors, professionals, scholars, and students on the subject of fascism in America. We have gathered a diverse group with differing ideological views, political party affiliation, and personal values.

Our interviews have revolved around such questions as:

Why do people want a strong leader?

How quickly does this lead to fascism?

Do people tend to want a fascist leader, or rather do they settle for a fascist leader?

What can the public in a democratic society do after a leader has been elected, to combat them and their administration?

What role does the public have in keeping the government in check?

Since late January, we have collected five interviews from Wagner College professors. These professors have backgrounds in various disciplines, and have each brought something new to the discussion. It is our hope that this project will cumulate in a round table discussion in the fall.

We also hope that this project will open up a dialogue between Americans of all political/ideological backgrounds and identities, and that we will develop a deeper appreciation of what it is to be an American.


Stay tuned for our next installment, where we interview Dr. Steve Snow of the Wagner College Government and Politics Department.