To be objective, we must begin with the meaning of words.
When political terms are abused as cheap insults, they quickly lose their descriptive power. They cease to refer to concrete, measurable qualities and become nothing more than shorthand for strongly-felt but poorly-defined feelings.
Fuzzy words rob us of the ability to have productive dialogue. They cause us to focus on the perceived intent of a given claim rather than the actual substance.
That in mind, we need to come together on two things:
- A concrete description of historical fascism.
- A point-by-point comparison to Trump’s actual behavior.
To supply the first, I’ve chosen the work of Umberto Eco, a scholar’s scholar who grew up in Mussolini’s Italy before going on to study similar fascistic movements to identify what they shared in common.
Eco summed his research in a famous essay that listed fourteen basic features of what he termed “ur-Fascism”, which I’ve used as a framework below. Neither his headings or my commentary are the last words on the subject, but simply a fixed place to start.
We’ll review each point in relation to Trump’s own statements and policies (so as to avoid spin), allowing each reader to draw their own conclusions.
The Big Picture
The end goal of fascism is centralized power ― a rule of the few where (1) lawmakers and judges are bent to the will of the executive and (2) the public’s means of resistance are narrowed to a general election which can be won with a bare majority (or less).
How does Trump stack up?
- When one of his Executive Orders was temporarily restrained by a federal judge, Trump turned to Twitter to not only voice his displeasure but to challenge the legitimacy of the judge’s right to block him.
- The judge in question was appointed by a Republican president and confirmed by a vote of 99–0 in the Senate. Yet Trump referred to him as a “so-called judge” while questioning the very idea of separated powers (a bedrock principle of modern democracies).
- As politicians on both sides expressed their concern, one of Trump’s advisors suggested on air that “our opponents, the media, and the whole world will soon see... that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”
Feature #1: Cult of tradition.
The surest path to centralized power is building a movement premised on radical reform, which is nearly always packaged as a restoration of some romanticized past.
The fascist tells hurting people “I’m adding to my power for your good, for I alone can fight the present system and return us to the purity and success of what once was.”
- Trump’s platform was the promise of “Making America Great Again” — though it was soft on specifics, possibly because America is already as prosperous and safe as it’s ever been.
- In his RNC acceptance speech, Trump spoke directly to those he claimed had been “ignored, neglected, and abandoned,” telling them “I am your voice” followed with “nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it”.
Feature #2: Selective populism.
Fascism is almost never appealing to the broader public. By historical average, less than 40% of any population will respond positively (at best). This means the fascist must assign roles that distinguish “true patriots” from the larger masses.
To legitimize policies which won’t reflect the will of the majority, the fascist will claim that he alone loves his country enough, that he alone has the ear to hear the people’s voice, that he is their interpreter, their father, their one true champion.
- Though Trump lost the popular vote by over 2.8 million ballots, he styles himself as “the people’s President”.
- He has addressed many of his speeches (including his inaugural address) to “forgotten Americans” who he suggested he alone has proper compassion for.
- When several of his policy positions were met with widespread resistance (including record disapproval ratings), Trump suggested that all negative polls were to be dismissed, not because of statistical inadequacies or contradictory data, but because he knew better.
Feature #3: Rejection of modernism.
Fascists aren’t against technology itself. In many cases, they’re its most successful adopters (e.g., Hitler and Mussolini with radio and film). What they’re against are ideas and systems that increase structural equality — i.e, that unify the people they want divided and agitated.
As such, the fascist selectively rejects developments that would create the “wrong” kind of progress by labelling them unpatriotic or conspiratorial.
- When a known activist against feminism and other equality causes (who happens to have close ties to Trump’s chief advisor) was met with protests at UC Berkeley, Trump threatened to withdraw federal funding (something he has no legal power to do).
- Though the scientific consensus firmly supports the reality of manmade climate change, Trump has long called it mythical — though he has yet to present any evidence-based counter-argument.
Feature #4: Action for action’s sake.
There are two ways a government can lose popular support for otherwise sensible policies: (1) appearing too slow or “out of touch”; (2) appearing too willing to bend.
This isn’t a problem in societies where an independent press reliably educates the public on the virtues of careful research and healthy political compromise — where it acts as a ballast against the whims of the impatient mob.
As such, the fascist begins by undermining the public’s trust in the press, often by means of shadow media not subject to the same scrutiny. They compound this advantage by acting so quickly that few understand the effects of any policy before two more flood the news cycle.
- From the beginning of his campaign, Trump continually referred to various journalists and outlets as “dishonest.” To date, only one negative Trump story has been retracted by a major news organization — which was pulled within minutes of being posted.
- The Trump Administration has acted so quickly on new policies (without normal consultation) that even the internal government departments responsible to enact his executive orders have been caught flat-footed — which, among other problems, resulted in a nationwide judicial restraining order on his travel ban.
Feature #5: Criticism labelled as treasonous.
The shadow press exists to praise the government’s decisions while simultaneously rejecting all criticism as prejudiced and unpatriotic. Mainstream journalism, in their reckoning, is no longer a democratic institution but rather a tool of the elite who want their power back.
In practical terms, this propaganda machine becomes the primary channel by which the government communicates to its base. No longer needing votes from the rest, they dismiss traditional outlets unless they’re willing to toe the party line.
Any journalists considered too aggressive with fact-checking or too effective at unveiling the costs of the government’s hasty and ill-conceived actions are inevitably discredited, threatened, and labeled as seditious.
- During an official press conference, Trump refused to take a question from CNN, claiming “you are fake news” in retaliation for a story he didn’t like. He then called on a rep from Breitbart, a fiercely partisan news organization formerly run by Trump’s top advisor.
- Trump has claimed no fewer than three times that the “failing” New York Times was forced to apologize to him for poor coverage — despite this never having happened (and despite the Times having seen a record increase in subscribers over that same period).
Feature #6: A “newspeak” that opposes clarity and truth.
When words no longer mean things, public criticism becomes impossible — which the fascist relies on to preserve their power hold.
Fuzzy words allows authoritarians to reframe debates, trivialize mistakes, and undermine academic engagement — all while shifting the tone of public discourse from “this is what the evidence says” to “this is what our feelings suggest”.
- During his first official White House briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed that Trump had drawn “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe”.
- According to all available evidence, that claim was inarguably untrue.
- When pressed on the point, Trump advisor Kellyane Conway suggested that Spicer had only given “alternative facts”.
Feature #7: Appeal to a frustrated middle class.
The fascist speaks in the language of political humiliation. He knows people will do for pride what they won’t do for modest gain. The promise is never “this will make things a bit better” but rather “we’ll show the enemy they shouldn’t have underestimated and mistreated us.”
This approach gives the hearer a sense of empowerment and legitimate grievance — all while stirring tribal loyalties which ultimately deepen the base’s commitment to the cause while distancing them from reasonable voices.
Feature #8: Fear of differences.
Every story needs a conflict and a villain. The fascist, always a masterful storyteller, tells his supporters that they come from the “best” stock and that jealous outsiders have come to steal and poison and destroy.
Because fascism lacks the tools to supply prosperity, it must keep the public’s anxiety directed at some group who can be blamed when prosperity fails to come — some group too different to be trusted and too weak to resist.
Not only do these vulnerable “others” serve as ready scapegoats, but the rage against them also permits the fascist to at least partially disenfranchise them at the polls.
- From his announcement speech: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. […] They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
- Over the course of his campaign, he suggested that America’s ills owed mostly to illegal immigrants, inner-city residents, Muslims, and refugees in general.
- Trump made the incredible claim that the popular vote was corrupted by millions of illegitimate votes (mostly cast by illegal immigrants). He has doubled down on this despite dozens of studies finding that in-person voter fraud is effectively non-existent.
Feature #9: Obsession with a plot.
The socioeconomic frustrations of the fascist’s supporters cannot be a result of their own doing. If they have lost something, they must have been cheated. In a fair fight, the best couldn’t lose — which means the fight must not have been fair.
- From Trump’s acceptance speech: “No longer can we rely on those elites in media and politics who will say anything to keep a rigged system in place.”
- Trump has long been a promoter of widely debunked conspiracy theories. Trump’s growing collection of plotters includes nearly every government (foreign and domestic) and even The Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Feature #10: Enemies presented as unfairly strong but ultimately beatable.
Though the fascist’s base holds most (if not all) of the power, their narrative must still be one of the underdog so that their promised victory can be inevitable while still heroic.
Feature #11: Rejection of pacifism.
The fascist’s language is always masculine and aggressive, and often apocalyptic. There’s always something slightly primitive to it, where peace is regarded as both over-civilized and effeminate — as unbecoming of men of real strength.
- For the past thirty years, the central conflicts in the Middle East have been between Sunni and Shia parties, most of which are aligned with either Iran or Saudi Arabia. In early 2016 Obama signed a hard-won deal between five major powers and the now-moderate Iranian government — an agreement which the world praised and Trump criticized as too soft.
- Within two weeks of taking office, the Trump administration put Iran “on notice” because of a missile fired by a rebel group with tenuous Iranian connections on a Saudi warship stationed outside Yemen (which is being occupied by the Saudis in what has become a humanitarian disaster).
Feature #12: Contempt for the weak.
Strength is the fascist’s cardinal virtue. The movement’s figurehead cannot accept any criticisms that imply weaknesses. They must be thought to be unnaturally vigorous, healthy, and smart — a true born winner.
As the cult of personality takes shape, those with contrasting qualities must be straw-manned and shamed — liberals for their alleged fragility, feminists for their hatred of masculinity, the reasonable for their failure to be ideologically pure, etc.
- Trump publicly mocked a reporter’s disability (seemingly in retaliation for him challenging Trump’s repeatedly debunked claim about watching thousands of Arab-Americans in New Jersey cheering in the aftermath of 9/11).
- Trump has spent most of his career in the public spotlight praising his own looks, virility, and intelligence while criticizing his “enemies” for being “frail,” “fat,” and “low energy”.
Feature #13: Call to martyrdom.
The fascist knows they’ll never reach the majority. This means their base must act with outsized zeal. To this end, violent acts of support are called heroism.
This always begins small, with micro-aggressions and isolated acts of physical intimidation. The goal isn’t to overpower those who resist, but to cause moderates to be afraid enough to stay silent while the aggressors establish new norms of behavior.
This doesn’t always end with suicide bombings or gulags or gas chambers. It doesn’t need to. The fascist wants supporters to be willing to fire a bullet if necessary. But they’re content to have them only throw the odd punch.
Feature #14: Control of sexual norms.
Women are history’s great revolutionaries, which is why nearly all fascists are men — though usually supported by some women conditioned to desire the approval of men who adopt that particular posture of masculinity.
Because the ruling fascist class must be “pure” by some definition, vindictive policies against empowered women are often paired with those which address some list of “deviant” behaviors — which might include homosexuality, transsexuality, or anything else that fits the narrative of inverted values.
- Trump has consistently employed misogynistic language for decades. He frequently criticizes women for their appearances (including calling one Miss Universe winner “Miss Piggy”). After being caught promoting sexual assault on tape, he refused to offer a substantial apology.
- Though his rhetoric has been vaguely supportive of sexual minorities, his cabinet has promised a religious freedom executive order which many believe will remove existing legal protections against LGBTQ+ discrimination. He also rolled back Obama’s transgender bathroom bill.
I won’t draw conclusions for you, nor suggest what you ought to do in response. My aim is simply to present the facts in the clearest light possible so that readers can decide for themselves.
That said, I will suggest that this is a question we must take seriously — especially those of us who would name ourselves as conservatives or Trump supporters.
If this is fascism, we must remember that fascism never begins as a monstrous thing. In its earliest stages, it’s only ever a clever sales pitch which many fall for. Even so, history is short on examples of it becoming anything other than devastating when not stopped from within.
“Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by fawning to the people, beginning as players of crowds and ending as tyrants.” — Alexander Hamilton
PS — Eco’s isn’t the only framework. Most others are quite close, though some place more emphasis on elements like economic nationalism, disdain for the arts, a culture of crime and punishment, the fetishization of a strong military, etc. I suspect the diligent student will find that Trump’s behavior relative to those traits is similar to what I’ve outlined above.
This piece was originally published on Medium.