George Pyle: Trump and Putin two birds of a fascist feather

In this July 16, 2018, photo, U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shake hands at the beginning of a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland. Trump and Putin may have reached several historic agreements at their summit in Finland this week. Or, they may not have. Three days later no one is quite sure. With no details emerging from the leaders’ one-on-one discussion on Monday other than the vague outline they offered themselves, officials, lawmakers and the public in the United States in particular are wondering what, if anything, was actually agreed to. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

“The mob always will shout for ‘the strong man,’ the ‘great leader.’ For the mob hates the society from which it is excluded, as well as Parliament where it is not represented.”

— Hannah Arendt, “The Origins of Totalitarianism” 1951

Chris Stewart was right the first time.

In one of those moments when some Republican office-holders dared to see just how dreadful a human being Donald Trump is — before Stewart and many others crawled back to his side in order to win a tax cut and a few “originalist” judges — the 2nd District Utah congressman expressed a fair level of distaste for the then front-runner for the GOP nomination.

He’s our Mussolini,” Stewart told an audience at the University of Utah in March of 2016.

Stewart is something of a student of history, and he was smart to compare Trump, not to the much more obviously malevolent German dictator Adolf Hitler, but rather to his somewhat buffoonish-in-appearance Italian junior partner, Benito Mussolini. Il Duce was every inch the dictator and warmonger, but history — and, more importantly, popular culture — remembers him as more of a clown.

The 21st century version of Hitler, of course, is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Though he is, at least in appearance, much smarter, cooler, experienced and patient, not only compared to Mussolini and to Trump, but also when measured against the frenzied, methamphetamine-fueled Hitler.

We are not yet fallen to the level of the 20th century rise of totalitarianism that produced Hitler and Mussolini. But the comparison is useful.

Because Trump lives in the United States, is supposedly a rich businessman and ran for office as a Republican, people presume him to be a capitalist. Because Putin lives in Russia, served in the KGB and now sits in the Kremlin, people presume him to be a communist.

But Putin is not a communist. The Soviet Union has fallen, the KGB is no more, Russia has private property and millionaires. Religion, particularly the Russian Orthodox Church, is not banned as the opiate of the masses but co-opted as a symbol of nationalism. Putin misses the power and glory the Stalinist years brought to Mother Russia. But the dream — the cover story — of a collectivist utopia is long gone.

Trump is not a capitalist. His business ventures, as one of Mitt Romney’s personalities pointed out, are mostly failures and/or frauds. He is not a champion of the free market, free trade, the rule of law or the annoying little matter of paying one’s bills.

Putin and Trump get along so well, with Trump seeming to envy Putin’s strength, power and total domination of his nation’s press, police and other institutions, for one simple and obvious reason.

Trump and Putin are fascists.

Trump is Mussolini to Putin’s Hitler. Or, if it all goes away soon and leaves little permanent damage, the Jack Oakie to his Charlie Chaplin. The Pinky to his Brain.

Both men sought and hold power by promising to make their nations powerful by making them pure. They both built their followings by promising to tilt the scales heavily in favor of the white Christians of the predominant — or previously predominant — ethnic group. They blame any instability on outsiders or unfavored groups — gays for Putin, Mexicans for Trump, Muslims for both — and at least pretend to honor conservative religious roots.

When Trump excuses Putin’s acts of war and violence by noting, accurately, that the U.S. has some blood on its hand as well — Iran, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Chile — he gives off no indication of regret.

Because the United States has a long history of democratic and balance-of-power institutions, Trump has yet to amass the level of have-that-person-killed authority that Putin has. Because Russia has no such institutional memory, Putin really is about as powerful as Trump wishes to be.

But there are ominous signs. Far too many people in the United States are buying Trump’s snake oil. Stewart is now among the more vocal of Republicans making excuses and blocking any real investigations or additional election security.

Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole notes that the tricks used to prepare America for the coming of fascism are succeeding all too well. Those tests include the ability of the leader to dehumanize his scapegoats, creating a situation where families seeking asylum are arrested and imprisoned, with young children separated from their parents and no attempt made to treat any of them with the least bit of humanity.

In The Atlantic, McKay Coppins sadly notes the rise of a white nationalism rationalism that it is OK if Russia hacked our last election because it helped Trump get elected. Polls show that a slim majority of white evangelicals view the coming of America as a minority-majority nation as a bad thing.

The recent arrest of an alleged Russian Mata Hari sleeping her way to the middle in Washington reveals a pattern of Russian influence and dark money taking the path of least resistance — through right-wing churches, the white supremacist movement and gun-rights organizations. Groups that, like Trump, and Putin, admire brutality, think institutional checks and balances are for sissies and look down on anyone different than themselves.

There is still time to stop this slide to fascism. Republicans need to stand up. Democrats need to get out and vote. Public servants, whether they quit or stand fast, need to remember their oath is to the Constitution, not the leader.

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, says it took almost 60 years, but it now makes sense that Russian spies Boris and Natasha worked for Nazi boss Fearless Leader. gpyle@sltrib.com