Is Trump Actually A ‘Fascist’?
Some words shouldn’t be tossed around lightly. Fascism is one of them.
Yet in the 2016 primary season, the season of Trump, we’re hearing fascism more and more, and not just from the left. Even establishment newsrooms are beginning to show a willingness to speak its name, including the Washington Post, Newsweek, the German daily Der Spiegel, and former labor secretary Robert Reich — all at a time when accounts of violence at Trump rallies continue to pile up.
So it’s time to ask: Is Donald Trump a fascist? Is his campaign a fascist movement?
Well, it’s complicated.
The interwar fascist movements (think Hitler and Mussolini) led to dictatorships that murdered millions of people. Historical analogies, always dangerous, wither and collapse in the face of such enormity. And the thing about a word like fascism — not unlike genocide or rape or cancer — is that, once it is spoken, it cannot be allowed to proceed. Fascism isn’t just a word: it’s an alarm, a blaring klaxon that cannot be ignored.
Historian Robert Paxton, an expert on fascism, recently told Slate, “I’m very, very reluctant to use the word fascism loosely, because it’s almost the most powerful epithet you can use. I guess child molester might be a little more powerful but not much.”
Sure, it was used in the 1960s by hippies rebelling against any symbol of authority — “the principal is totally fascist!” And Godwin’s Law of the Internet holds that any argument that goes on long enough will inevitably devolve into comparisons with Hitler.
But the tenets of responsible journalism — if we can still refer to such things — have long held that fascism is not a word to be thrown around. In fact, as journalist Glenn Greenwald said in a blistering editorial, many news outlets go a step further and ban it outright, claiming that even to name a movement as such is to violate journalistic objectivity — a stance Greenwald argues is intended to stop journalism from changing the course of events. “Imagine calling yourself a journalist, and then — as you watch an authoritarian politician get closer to power by threatening and unleashing violence and stoking the ugliest impulses — denouncing not that politician, but rather other journalists who warn of the dangers.”
Can we call Trump a fascist? Should we?
There are a few questions here, and it’s important to separate them out when we hear people asking, as many have over the past week, whether we’re witnessing something like Germany in the early 1930s.
First, there’s the practical: Are we dealing with an actual fascist movement here and now? Then, there’s the potential: Could Trump and his ideology be precursors to fascism?
Let’s answer both.
Is What We’re Seeing At Trump Rallies Fascism?
No. It’s not. It’s a scary turn to the far right, yes, but it’s not fascism.
Trump is operating in an entirely different context from the conditions that brought Mussolini, Hitler, and their like to power.
Dylan Riley, writing in Jacobin, sums it up:
“Fascism arose in countries that had mass militant left parties aiming at the transcendence of capitalism, were excluded from the spoils of imperialism, had very large backward agrarian sectors, and possessed very weakly developed capitalist states.”
In other words, nothing like the U.S. today. International communism was such a threat to European rulers that Hitler and his buffoonish, goose-stepping youth groups seemed like the lesser evil. Paxton points out that “there was a conscious decision by the conservatives who were still holding the machinery of power to bring the fascists and the Nazis into the system in order to better fight the left” in an economically struggling Germany — a very different state of affairs from the situation in which we currently find ourselves.
The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who spent the 1930s fighting desperately to organize against the rise of fascism, identified “the moment that the ‘normal’ police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium” as the moment when “the turn of the fascist regime arrives,” mobilizing “all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy.” Despite the strangeness of this election cycle, the U.S.’s political system is far from the verge of collapse. We’re not there, not by a long shot — though it’s worth noting that conditions can and do change quickly.
In practical terms, fascist movements are organized. Think militias, youth groups, newspapers, massive networks that can be mobilized into the streets to keep order or destroy it — the kind of thing that can run parallel to the state until it’s powerful enough to challenge the state. In the 1930s, these were known in different countries by the color of their shirts — brownshirts, blackshirts, silver shirts. Trump has accepted the endorsements of fascist parties abroad as well as several of the U.S’.s openly fascist and white supremacist organizations (all of which are relatively small), but he possesses nothing like the level of organized fascism that existed in the 1930s. We did learn this week about the formation of a new Trump-supporting militia calling itself the Lion Guard, and if this takes off it would indeed be alarming, but so far it seems to consist only of a Twitter account. The violence at Trump rallies, although Trump explicitly encourages it, reaches nowhere near that level of coordination.
So, no, we’re not dealing with classical fascism — at least not yet. But could Trumpism move in that direction? What about our second question?
Could Trump And His Ideology Be Precursors To Fascism?
Here’s how Paxton defines fascism:
“A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
Paxton also notes in the Slate interview that fascism is often less about the specifics of a political program than about a style of politics. “When you read Mussolini’s first program in 1919, it had very little to do with what they eventually did. . . . The details of the program were constantly changing. They say whatever seems to suit the mood of the moment.” It’s important not to view such definitions as checklists, but looking at Trump through this lens can be useful.
That’s certainly true of Trump, as I noted after the last Republican debate. In a GOP that’s been ruled by a specific, Moral Majority–flavored conservative dogma for decades, Trump’s total disregard for ideology and his opportunistic willingness to change the details of his program at a moment’s notice has turned the tables. His supporters love it, but the party’s leadership is scrambling to keep up.
But let’s look at this definition.
Obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood . . .
Trump loves to call his opponents weak, but he feels that way about America, too: “I think we’ve become very weak and ineffective.” During a rally speech in which he promised to loosen torture laws, he argued that, “We have to beat the savages. I think that’s why we’re not beating ISIS. It’s that mentality. . . . They must think we are a little bit on the weak side.” In Reno, Nevada, he bemoaned the NFL’s measures to reduce tackling-related head injuries and said that “football has become soft like our country has become soft.”
As for his supporters’ tendency to sucker-punch people of color at rallies, Trump’s supporters are happy to paint him as the victim, as Media Matters has shown; for example, conservative radio host Wayne Allyn Root argued Monday that “it’s not [Trump’s] fault that he’s being victimized at rallies.”
The grain of truth here is that Trump’s “weak” rhetoric is designed to play toward working-class whites, who’ve suffered badly during the past decade of economic downturn. That suffering can turn into anger about class inequality and austerity — or it can turn people of color, immigrants, and other oppressed groups into scapegoats. As President Obama told NPR: “Blue-collar men have had a lot of trouble in this new economy . . . it means that there is going to be potential anger, frustration, fear. I think somebody like Mr. Trump is taking advantage of that.”
The French socialist Daniel Guerín traveled Germany on foot in 1932; he titled his book The Brown Plague. On the appeal of fascism in a time of economic hardship (far more extreme than what the U.S. is experiencing), he wrote:
“You have to have seen with your own eyes how Germany has suffered these past years — and suffers more each day — not, of course, to excuse it, but to understand. You have to have known the queues at the unemployment bureau — the essential act in a life without acts — the piece of bread that takes the place of a meal, the unemployed youths who, with empty bellies, wander the roads of Germany or sing their plaint in the courtyards of working-class dwellings, to discover the secret of this collective, pathological, desperate madness.”
. . . a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites . . .
Trump has opted for a hostile takeover of one of the United States’ two existing mass parties rather than founding his own party, though he has hinted he’ll run as an independent if he doesn’t get the Republican nomination. The extreme nationalism obvious at his rallies is for the base.
As for those traditional elites, most of them are profoundly unhappy about his primary successes. The Economist summed it up: “He is so unpredictable that the thought of him anywhere near high office is terrifying. He must be stopped.” Even the Dark Lord himself, Dick Cheney, thinks Trump is too far right. If Clinton gets the Democratic nomination, expect corporate Republicans to swell the ranks of her supporters, likely leaving the party a shell of its former self.
. . . abandons democratic liberties . . .
As Fedja Buric points out at Salon, Trump’s platform includes “cracking down on a free press by toughening libel laws, engaging in the ethnic cleansing of 11 million people (‘illegals’), stripping away citizenship of those seen as illegitimate members of the nation (children of the ‘illegals’), and committing war crimes in the protection of the nation (killing the families of suspected terrorists).”
. . . and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
Sorry, what was that? I couldn’t hear you over the racial slurs, the raised-hand salutes, the physical assaults on and arrests of journalists, the threats of waterboarding and “worse,” the pepper-spraying of protestors, and the threats of violence against Sanders rallies. Polls are finding that Republicans’ attitudes toward immigrants have hardened since 2010, and they love Trump’s racist rhetoric, such as calling Mexicans “rapists” and claiming that Muslims are “evil.” It isn’t just that racial slurs are part of the background noise at Trump rallies; it’s that “Trump! Trump!” is now what violent racists shout while perpetrating hate crimes. Though it isn’t as explicit or theorized as the Nazis’ racial ideology, there’s no question that a conspiratorial sort of racism underlies Trumpism.
On Trump’s campaign website, he describes Mexico as “taking advantage of the United States by using illegal immigration to export the crime and poverty in their own country (as well as in other Latin American countries)” and promises to “make Mexico pay for the wall.” On China, the site states: “When Donald J. Trump is president, China will be on notice that America is back in the global leadership business and that their days of currency manipulation and cheating are over. . . . We need a president who will not succumb to the financial blackmail of a Communist dictatorship.”
This is where comparisons with interwar fascism get tricky.
While the Nazis and other European fascist dictatorships were all about strengthening an authoritarian state, downplaying the individual and using anti-capitalist (they called it “national socialist”) rhetoric to compete with socialists’ and Communists’ proposed solutions for economic suffering, Trump is the very American face of capitalism. As Paxton notes, “Trump, and the Republicans generally . . . have celebrated individualism to the absolute total extreme. Trump’s idea and the Republican plan is to lift the burden of regulation from businesses.”
His rhetoric is all about “small government” — but in practice, that simply means cutting social programs and regulatory agencies. The crackdown on civil liberties Trump desires promises to strengthen the state’s authoritarianism and surveillance apparatus even more than our current Democratic president already has.
Daniel Lazare argues that a President Trump would “function as a classic authoritarian, blustering and bullying and maybe imposing a state of emergency if conditions get hairy enough. But all this would establish him as a precursor to fascism rather than the genuine article.”
Nonetheless, there is one final question to answer.
Should We Be Alarmed?
The fact that labeling Trump as a fascist is complicated doesn’t mean, however, that there’s no cause for alarm. Far-right movements are sweeping a Europe mired in a migration crisis of its own making. Buric argues, correctly, that “Trump would feel perfectly at home in the company of the new generation of European authoritarians like Viktor Orban of Hungary or Vladimir Putin of Russia,” for whom Trump has repeatedly expressed his admiration. His platform is closer to theirs, and to other European fascists like Marine Le Pen, than it is to that of the traditional Republican leadership.
Trump might not fit the dictionary definition of fascist (a definition shaped by the conditions of early-20th-century Europe) perfectly — and he doesn’t have his own army of street-fighting brownshirts, at least not yet — but he sure as hell fits right in with the political descendants of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco.
The klaxon is sounding. It demands action. So what do we do?
“Vote for the Democratic nominee,” many are saying. But there is no satisfaction here. The general election is in November; Trump’s thugs are beating up people of color now, here in March. Are we really to wait eight months and then take action only by pushing a button? Even then, the political logic of the lesser evil leads us nowhere, as I have argued elsewhere.
It’s also crucial to remember that you can’t fight real, organized fascist movements by voting — the whole point of their type of organization is to seize power by other, nondemocratic means. We have to stop them before they get to the point where that’s an option.
But there is an alternative — the people of Chicago made that clear on March 11 when they shut Trump’s planned rally down. Organizer Mario Cardenas writes of the effort:
“Walking through the crowd on Harrison Street was like seeing the different ethnicities of Chicago’s segregated neighborhoods come together, with protesters carrying signs in Spanish, Arabic and English. There were groups of queer activists, Black Lives Matter activists, Latino Sanders supporters, anarchists, socialists, artists, workers and professionals — all of them gathered to shut down Trump.”
Contradicting the Fox News accounts of “paid, professional protestors,” Cardenas found that many of those who came had never even been to a protest before. Sick and tired of the racism and hatred, and having witnessed how protestors were treated in Saint Louis the night before, ordinary Chicagoans decided to stand up en masse and say no. And, like any bully faced with the prospect of a fair fight, Trump put his tail between his legs and ran.
In a profoundly insensitive statement, Hillary Clinton framed the Chicago protests as divisive — but the truth is, they’re the most unifying thing to happen to the left in a long time. Chicagoans from all walks of life coming together to stop a racist demagogue is a big deal. May it happen everywhere.
As for the word fascism? It doesn’t describe what’s happening now, though it could certainly apply in the future. But if using it brings people out into the streets to put a stop to it, good. If in the process, those people realize that our side needs to get organized before the far right does, well, so much the better.
Time to sound the alarm.
Read more from The Establishment’s Word Watch series here.
Lead image: flickr/Gage Skidmore