Donald Trump and the "F" Word

Last week, a group calling itself Resist Fascism took out a full-page advertisement in the The New York Times, urging national resistance to the incoming Trump-Pence "regime." Signed by thousands of people, the statement did not mince words in portraying Donald Trump as a threat to democracy. "By any definition," it read, "Trump is a fascist."

But is Trump a fascist? When are we justified in using the "f" word to describe a right-wing politician or movement that we legitimately find frightening?

One of the difficulties we face in answering such questions lies in recognizing fascism when we see it. History does not, in fact, repeat itself. The "first wave" fascist movements, which emerged in Italy, Germany, and Spain during the poisonous interregnum between the First and Second World Wars, were organic to their time and place, the outcome of complex cultural, economic, and social conditions that will never come together in the same way again. Fears of liberals notwithstanding, we are no more likely to see "another Hitler" as we are to see "another" FDR, Lenin, or Richard III.

However, things appear differently if we view fascism as a political type, rather than as a specific, unchanging form. Once we stop looking for "another" Hitler, and focus instead on the core ideological features of fascist movements, it becomes all too plausible to depict Trumpism as an at least incipient or "proto"-fascist movement.

Of the dozen or so common elements identified by scholars as characteristic of earlier fascist movements, almost all in fact can be seen today in Trumpism: extreme nationalism, militarism, economic populism, corporatism (the merging of state interests with monopoly capitalism), misogyny and reactionary gender politics, contempt for truth (and an affinity for lies), hatred of intellectuals and the so-called "cultural elite," nativism, scape-goating of religious and racial minorities, demonization of domestic "enemies," and contempt for liberal democratic norms and values.

Only two key ingredients that typified first wave fascism are so far missing from Trumpism--state terror and paramilitary violence. While the absence of these elements is significant--both civil violence and state terror were the true hallmarks of earlier fascist movements, distinguishing them from other forms of right-wing nationalism--that doesn't mean they couldn't still be in the offing.

Hitler and Mussolini built their power bases by recruiting disaffected soldiers and officers returned from the front lines of the First World War, using them as shock troops in their war against their political opponents on the Left. These were brutal men, killers who had lost faith in the liberal political order and who were happy to crack open a few skulls to combat Communism. In Italy, roving bands of squadristi, or Blackshirts, beat or shot leftists in the streets; in Germany, the Brownshirts similarly terrorized leftists, Jews, and others (before themselves being murdered by Hitler, replaced by the more reliable SS). Paramilitary violence played a key role not only in solidifying the power of the fascists in Italy, the Nazis in Germany, and the Falangists in Spain, but in preparing the ground for the emergence of the totalitarian state.

Fascists saw violence not as a last resort, but as a necessary and even desirable political tool. Political opponents and dissidents were not merely jailed, they were tortured or murdered. With the consolidation of fascist power, rule of law effectively disappeared. So did individual rights. War was celebrated as an opportunity for national greatness and masculine virtue. Within Germany's sphere of control after 1939, finally, mass murder became state policy--and 11 million people perished in concentration camps.

Could similar violence one day engulf our own republic? Is some form of paramilitarism or state terror possible here?

Trump's attitude towards violence is hardly reassuring. During his campaign rallies, Trump egged on his supporters to attack protesters, and he has repeatedly advocated torture as an instrument of the state. Trump also says he admires Vladimir Putin, the Russian dictator, and Rodrigo Duterte, the fascist leader of the Philippines, whose government is murdering thousands of drug addicts--in part using paramilitary forces.

However, Trump hasn't threatened to murder his opponents. And a handful of punches, thrown over the course of a bitterly contested election, are not remotely comparable to organized squadristi sowing terror in the streets. That should perhaps comfort us. Contra the claims of the Resist Fascism movement, we will not all be living under fascist rule on January 20--and I know this because I won't have to fear being thrown in jail and tortured for writing essays like this one on January 21.

The trouble is, we have no way of knowing just how far Trump and his cabinet--a motley crew of racists, militarists, and ruthless billionaires, some with ties to the fascistic "Alt-Right" white nationalist movement--would take things in a national crisis. Martial law hardly seems outside the realm of possibility, given the right confluence of events.

Nor can paramilitary violence in the US be entirely discounted. Among Trump's most enthusiastic supporters are members of the US militia movement, a decentralized, expanding network of armed, right-wing paramilitary groups. Between 2014 and 2015 alone, the number of such extremist groups grew by 37%. Among the newest recruits to the movement are disaffected veterans returned from America's failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, men who have been casting about for ways to feel socially relevant in a civilian culture whose norms and values they feel estranged from. Veterans voted for Trump by an astonishing 2 to 1 margin over Hillary Clinton in the election, and they represent a potentially vast pool for future militia recruitment. Whether the militias some day become "weaponized," serving as paramilitary muscle for the extreme right, will depend in part on how bad things get, economically, ecologically, and politically.

Ultimately, though, it takes a village to raise a führer. Wherever fascism has appeared, it has always taken the form of a populist movement with relatively broad public support. And it is here we find the least cause for optimism, and the most grounds for concern--namely, in the fact that tens of millions of Americans continue to respond enthusiastically to Trump.

There is no question that authoritarian, anti-democratic, misogynist, racist, and pro-violence attitudes are spreading like viruses in the American populace. Fully half of Americans polled support Trump's call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the US, and nearly half now say they support the torture of prisoners of war. Even public support for the principle of civilian democratic rule has dropped precipitously. In 2015, a YouGov poll found that nearly a third of Americans (and 43% of Republicans) said they could imagine supporting a future military coup against their government. One well-publicized poll last year found that only 19% of American millennials agreed that military rule in the US would be "illegitimate."

A similar waning of democratic and liberal values has been remarked in Europe, where decades of public frustration over immigration and perceived loss of local and national autonomy have boiled over into general populist revolt. As in the 1920s and 1930s period, we are in fact seeing the rise not of one fascism, but of many. All of these movements, meanwhile, can be traced, directly or indirectly, to the growing irrationalities, inequalities, and depredations of the world capitalist system. And because there is no sign that these underlying problems can be addressed within the existing frameworks, the immediate future lies squarely with populists of the Left and Right.

Trumpism is merely a symptom of this wider collapse of the liberal order. Though it is not yet fascism, it is only one or two steps removed. So it is urgent that we act now, and not sit on the sidelines. Because if things get truly bad, it will then be too late for us to do anything about it.