COMMENT: There's a big difference between the words "would" and "wouldn't".

You could say that their meanings are about as antithetical as possible. You could also say that it would be fair to expect that most world leaders should be able to discern the difference between the two and understand the importance of using the correct one when discussing topics like election meddling with the world media.

Or that it would be highly unusual for a slip of the tongue so profound to go uncorrected for 24 hours.

I don't believe for a second that Trump misspoke at that Helsinki press conference. Not even he is that intellectually bereft.

Advertisement

Over the last year and a half I've come to grudgingly accept that Trump isn't a complete tool, although he is likely being used as one by some of the world's most devious and self-interested characters. Whether or not it's Russia President Vladimir Putin pulling Trump's strings, the extremist fringe of the Republican Party or the NRA, he continually proves himself to be a useful prop for advancing their agendas. As long as they advance his.

In Trump, America has inherited a manifestation of the worst excesses of American greed and egotism.

There is nothing that Trump won't do for power, wealth and adulation. He is smart enough to always protect and advance his own interests, but not smart enough to question the true cost of the bargains he makes. Either that, or he simply doesn't care. Which makes him the perfect mark for more nefarious and intelligent strategists like Putin.

Then again, that may be too generous a portrait. Trump may well be just as Machiavellian as the Russians and the Republicans. To be honest though, whether or not he's acting of his own accord is now fairly irrelevant at this stage. The outcome will likely be the same either way.

All this might be just vaguely distasteful if the end goal was the generation of obscene levels of wealth, but the stakes are much higher. Increasingly, it is becoming apparent that Trump is not being used to further enrich fat cat Republican donors (although that is certainly a by-product), rather he is being used as a salesman for fascism.

That may sound like a bold and melodramatic assertion to make, but the warning signs are becoming ever clearer.

From the demonisation of the press, to the persecution of minorities, to the undermining of politically neutral state organisations such as the FBI, to the rise in nationalistic sentiment in many Western countries, a resurgence of fascism isn't the wild idea it once comfortingly was.

Fintan O'Toole recently wrote in a chillingly brilliant Irish Times op-ed that said, "Fascism doesn't arise suddenly in an existing democracy. It is not easy to get people to give up their ideas of freedom and civility. You have to do trial runs that, if they are done well, serve two purposes. They get people used to something they may initially recoil from; and they allow you to refine and calibrate. This is what is happening now and we would be fools not to see it."

Advertisement

Trump and his administration, O'Toole argued, are in the process of testing and trialling. So too are the Brexiteers, the alt-right, and other far right movements around the world. Viewing Trump's malapropisms and bad calls as mistakes is "culpable naivety", O'Toole suggests.

"[The recent traumatisation of migrant children] was a trial run – and the trial has been a huge success. Trump's claim that immigrants 'infest' the US is a test-marketing of whether his fans are ready for the next step-up in language, which is of course 'vermin'.

"And the generation of images of toddlers being dragged from their parents is a test of whether those words can be turned into sounds and pictures. It was always an experiment – it ended (but only in part) because the results were in."

I believe that Trump's hasty backtracking on Russian meddling is another example of the same testing. In this most recent trial, Trump, Putin and their strategists learned that the majority isn't yet ready for out-and-out treason, but Trump's base of hard core fans couldn't have cared less.

And that is perhaps the most frightening part. I thought of Trump supporters when I watched a clip from Sacha Baron Cohen's new series Who Is America? this week. In the episode, Cohen posed as an Israeli gun expert and managed to dupe sitting and former congressmen and lobbyists into promoting a fictitious education programme teaching 3 and 4 year olds how to shoot guns at school shooters.

Yes, you read that correctly.

My favourite part was delivered completely earnestly by lobbyist Larry Pratt, head of Gun Owners of America, a group boasting a membership of over 1.5 million Americans.

"The science behind this programme is proven," Pratt tells the camera. "At age 4, a child processes images 80 per cent faster than an adult. Children under 5 also have elevated levels of the pheromone Blink 182, produced by the part of the liver known as the Rita Ora. This allows nerve reflexes to travel along the Cardi B neural pathway to the Wiz Kalifa 40 per cent faster."

While Pratt may be excused for not knowing that Blink 182, Rita Ora, Cardi B and Wiz Kalifa are all musicians, his support for arming kindergarten children is less forgivable.

When I watched the video I couldn't help but think that a frightening number of Americans would probably have believed it. Just as they believe that Trump meant to say "wouldn't" instead of "would". Just as they believe that he used the word "infest" because he's just a straight-talking guy.

The key ingredient of fascism is a gullible and desensitised population. Who Is America? may make us laugh, but it should also deeply concern us.

I always used to wonder incredulously how fascism and Nazism happened in the first half of the 20th century. I find I'm not so incredulous anymore.