In ways that immediately brought to mind dangerous parallels with the yellow Star of David patch worn by Jews during the Third Reich, Donald Trump in November suggested that Syrian refugees, posing as allegedly dangerous Fifth Columnists, should wear badges on account of their Muslim faith so that they could not infiltrate American society and carry out plots against the nation. When asked by a reporter whether he thought the comparison with Nazi Germany was a fair one, Trump responded “you tell me.” So shocking have been these and similar statements that not just liberal voices and outlets, but even conservative ones, began to speculate whether Trump is, in fact, a capital-F fascist. This proposition had circulated on leftist websites and blogs for months, fed by outrage at Trump’s positions (usually stated unabashedly and flippantly) regarding immigration, foreign policy or torture. At the end of November, this proposition started to enter the mainstream, with CNN.com’s article openly considering the question, interviewing published scholars of historical fascism to ask for their expert opinions. Dozens of other mainstream outlets then began to run their own “Is Trump a Fascist?” pieces as well.
It is perhaps a reflection of their hesitance to validate the abundant overuse of the “F-word” in American public discourse that published scholars of historical fascism have shied away from concluding that Trump is a fascist. Steve Ross of the University of Southern California, while conceding that Trump’s anti-immigrant xenophobia is “very dangerous,” would not go so far as to say it is “fascist.” Stanley Payne, long given to a meticulous, phenomenological definition of fascism, argued that in no way could Trump be considered one. British scholars like Roger Griffin have weighed in on this question as well, coming to similar conclusions. Arguably the leading American scholar of fascism, Columbia University’s Robert Paxton, similarly denied that Trump is a fascist, but conceded that he can “understand why some people might be inclined to point out similarities between Trump and fascist leaders,” adding: “He’s good at making astonishing speeches that make people sit up and take notice. So there’s some of that manipulation of public emotions that is visible with Trump.” One sees a pattern in the analysis, in which one or two aspects of Trump that are worrisome are conceded to “look fascist,” but that other aspects of Trump’s personality or platform means the bill does not fit.
Whether the comparison hinges on issues of style or substance, the question of whether Trump is actually fascist or “merely” xenophobic, demagogic and populist has so much traction for American audiences because Fascism remains embedded in our history and collective memory, perceived to be the greatest historical enemy of the “American Way.” Fascism is the ultimate violation of American values, so evil that we were willing to ally ourselves with the Soviet Union in the 1940s in order to destroy it. Since then, the “F-word” has been used as a term of abuse, a kind of grammatical mud slung at one’s ideological opponent, much more than as a dispassionately applied category of analysis. But that both sides of the political aisle in American politics are now using it to describe a politician, has given us an opening to revisit the question. Aside from the political usefulness of using the word to discredit a figure whom the left detests and the right fears, does Trump actually hold up to the label of “Fascist”? Is the comparison between Trump and historical fascists at all useful? And, perhaps most importantly: aside from using “fascist” as a descriptive moniker applied to one man, what does the question tell us about the state of American politics and the American electorate?
Many scholars have insisted that a person or a politics cannot be fascist unless it holds up against a check-list of “fascist minima,” attributes that are almost always about externals. Whether it is goose-stepping, salutes, shirts of the same color, parades, armbands, or other eye-catching props, an American public raised on cable TV documentaries regards fascism as something that must be obvious to identify visually. And occasionally fringe groups come along, most notoriously the American Nazi Party, to serve up the demand for a visually identifiable fascism. Most of the internet commentariat or scholars who have been interviewed about Trump’s fascist bona fides have avoided discounting the question on the grounds of style – though oddly, given how much he decries the search for externals in his own scholarly work, Paxton has recently emerged as something of an exception. So far most observers have looked to essential questions of substance; the “platform” that Trump seems to uphold, and that his public seems to clamor for. How fascist is this platform?
In spite of his recent insistence that he’d need to see “identically colored shirts” to take the question of Trump seriously, Robert Paxton has been one of the most persuasive advocates for taking a deeper view. Weary of the “bestiary” approach of describing fascism by its appearances, in his magnum opus from 2004 The Anatomy of Fascism, Paxton seeks instead to explain how fascism understood itself; the social traction of fascism as a political movement; and what kinds of political and economic conditions were necessary for it to grow and eventually succeed. Rather than presenting a series of unalterable criteria that read like a check-list, Paxton shows how fascism develops in context, embodying and taking advantage of a series of “mobilizing passions” to build and maintain a following. The leading of these passions include:
1) an overwhelming sense of crisis that cannot be solved by traditional methods;
2) the subordination of the individual to the group and the maintenance of group purity;
3) the group’s belief that it is a victim;
4) the need for the authority of a natural chief, whose qualities and instincts rise above abstract reason;
5) and the use of exclusionary violence as part of an effort to reverse perceived decline.
In all of these ways, Trump not only reveals that he is indeed fascist, but perhaps even more importantly that his followers – even as some of them are in the habit of describing their own enemies on the left as “fascist” and who have loudly professed their disinterest in a caudillo – are actively seeking fascist solutions to problems that ail them.
1) The perception of national decline is one of Trump’s most persistent points on the campaign trail. Anyone who has been observing the Tea Party can see that Trump is happy to tap into a long-percolating narrative of degeneration and the ruination of great American traditions through the corruption of the political establishment. Populism in this country has historically always railed against the “plutocrats” of the nation’s capital; Trump extends this narrative of working against “rotten politics” in ways that radicalize it and open up new paths towards a “solution.” One of his most ominous declarations makes this radicalization abundantly clear: “We’re going to have to do things that we never did before … And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country.” Watch out, Trump warns; new realities mean that America must depart from its usual political methods.
Observers of Trump commonly contend that this radicalization still cannot constitute fascism because of the American tradition of parliamentary democracy, one that Trump insists he wants to uphold. Merely entering electoral politics, we are assured, ensures that Trump cannot be fascist. What such arguments fail to appreciate is that fascists all came to power, or sought to, through the democratic process. Not just by winning executive power, but also legislative power. Upon entering the legislative, they attempt to make parliamentary government so dysfunctional, so despised, that they would then be able to promote themselves as the sword that would cut through the Gordian Knot of a political chaos they helped create. The Tea Party once more provides the most compelling evidence of this fascistic tendency – one that Trump would surely extend. The failure of Kevin McCarthy’s brief gambit for the role of Speaker of the House in October was widely – and correctly – perceived as just one of many instances of Tea Party congressional zealotry against the “establishment.”
Deliberate congressional obstruction against standing procedure illustrates a desire to create a political “revolution.” Aimed against a president whom Trump and most Tea Partiers openly believe acquired his office illegitimately, such obstruction also demonstrates a need to constitute an “alternative civic authority” which defends the community’s “legitimate” interests in the face of a failed legal state – the political prerequisite of fascism, says Paxton. The replacement of McCarthy with one of the Tea Party’s own, Paul Ryan, only succeeded in an environment of complete surrender to any sense of normal parliamentary compromise. And now that he has attempted to conduct normal parliamentary business through the passing of a budget, Ryan himself has become the latest target of Tea Party rage. There is no sense in which the political “conversation” that forms the core of parliamentary democracy is anything but a source of contempt to the Tea Party, their constituents, and to Trump, who happily promotes himself as a strong man who would cut through the clutter of the parliamentary process. In spite of observers referring to the McCarthy episode as “chaos” or a “laughing stock,” it is more accurate to say that the episode reflected the Tea Party’s methodical agenda to infiltrate parliamentary democracy in order to render it impotent. What they seek to replace it with is, at this point, an open question; but Tea Party quest for a strong man who will lead the country through plebiscitary rule, while formally leaving the institutions of parliamentary democracy intact, must be considered a very real possibility.
2) The supremacy of the group over the individual is a broad idea. It can mean economic protectionism to the point of autarky. It can mean the retention or even expansion of social paternalism for “real” members of the national community (or the pays réel as it was known to Fascist thinkers) at the expense of those who are deemed alien to the community and wrongly permitted inside it (the pays légal). Or it can mean the prohibition of the individual’s right to controlling their own bodies (ie: abortion) in the name of communal values. The American self-conception of a nation of rugged individualism would seem to immediately discount any consideration of the “group over the individual” that fascism necessitates.
According to journalist Eric Levitz, among many others, Trump’s pride in deal-making at the expense of others, as well as his celebration of his own playboy lifestyle, displays too much individualism to qualify Trump as a fascist. Historian Isabel Hull has similarly dismissed the possibility of Trump as a fascist on account of his opportunism. What these conclusions overlook, however, is the well-documented ability of fascist leaders to line their own pockets and engage in opportunism, even as they claim to represent the selfless virtues of the people they rule. It hardly contradicts the logic of fascist communalism for some in the national community – particularly its leaders – to completely change political orientations (as did Mussolini) or to earn incredible wealth while promoting the interests of the group. Fascism, unlike socialism, has never had a problem with class inequality.
There are ways in which the interests of the group finds particular expression, both in Trump’s platform and that of fascist thought, in the realm of economics. The combination of government expenditure on social programs – most obviously Social Security – with the call for strong protectionism seems, insofar as it blunts the neoliberal imperative to generate maximal wealth for the owner class, to be the traditional attributes of the progressive left. On the other hand, the most vituperative and open expression of racist, anti-immigrant sentiment seems clearly to be the provenance of the hard right. In fact, the combination has historical precedent in populist fascism. Lee Drutman points out that Trump’s combination of anti-immigration xenophobia – at that point concerned with expelling millions of Mexican citizens, but subsequently fortified with cultural hysteria about Muslim refugees from Syria – with strong support for upholding government entitlements and imposing tariffs on cheap Mexican and Chinese imports, earns him a unique following of disaffected Americans – white, lower-middle class, and déclassé – which no other establishment Republican can capture. Concerned as they are with tearing down all barriers to shareholder profit, establishment free-trade Republicans do not reflect the interests of a majority of their own voters, according to Drutman.
A similar dynamic pertains in historical fascism, where eagerness to employ social protectionism and back-to-work government programs, even to the point of deficit spending, went hand-in-hand with economic and social exclusion of those deemed no longer part of the national community. Both these “leftist” and “rightist” programs violate the theology of laissez-faire economics, while still protecting the profit motive of community members and upholding the necessity of class difference; but the combination of the two is unique to the economic nationalism of fascism. While Trump has yet to advocate a full-on fascist autarky, in which the nation would isolate itself from the global economy and entirely sustain its own needs without dependence on international trade, like the fascists of the 1930s, in the name of protecting the national community, he is much more willing than other establishment politicians – even many Democrats – to defy the ineffable, neoliberal logic of simultaneous tax cuts and budget cuts. Indeed, not only does his vast fortune not disqualify him as a fascist; it ensures that he can run for the presidency without currying favor from fellow economic elites who bankroll the other GOP candidates and who seek the further dismantling of the welfare state. As he put it on conservative talk radio while extolling the virtues of Canadian-style single-payer health care, “you have to take care of poor people.”
3) Trump hammers relentlessly on the idea that his America is becoming a victim – of aggressive foreign leaders who are taking advantage of weak leadership from an illegitimate executive; of media gate-keepers of the establishment who work for elites instead of the greater whole; or more perniciously, of the decline and demise of “real” Americans themselves. As he put it in the second GOP presidential debate, “This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish.” On other occasions, Trump has professed his love of the Christian Bible, and “strongly considers” the possibility of closing mosques. In such moments, Trump is happy to tap into a Tea Party preoccupation with demographic calamity brought by a higher rate of child-birth among non-whites than whites.
As Harvard’s Danielle Allen has put it, Trump’s core constituency is based on “those whose well-being, status and self-esteem are connected to historical privileges of ‘whiteness’.” (A whiteness, it should be added, that was meant not to erase, but to transcend class difference; in this way, the billionaire can decry huge compensation packages for corporate heads as a “complete and total joke.”) Declarations from the Klan (a group which Paxton describes in his Anatomy as “fascist”) and other white nationalist groups reveal that they consider Trump a boon to their own cause. Trump’s rallies, while not filled with garbed Klansmen, nonetheless form a mirror image of white resentment, filled as they are with emotional, volatile crowds calling for restored national greatness, openly and unapologetically tinged with racist sentiment. Historical fascism also expressed the anxieties of a once-dominant, majoritarian “center” whose positions of privilege, they told themselves, were similarly being eroded by “outsiders” defined both racially and economically – except instead of Jews and Marxists then, it is Mexicans and Muslims today.
4) Regarding the question of a natural leadership personality, we have the most obvious point of fascist contact. Even for those who otherwise reject the contention that Trump is fascist, his personality style and the kind of rapture he invokes in his audience are readily conceded as fascistic. The hypermasculine cult of personality he has developed around himself has, from the start, been his calling card. It is not just a matter of his blustering personal style or his charisma behind a podium. He touts his natural leadership abilities and his Elmer Gantry success story in the private sphere, his ability to do so never diminished among his constituents by his actual track record of multiple professional failures. He insists, like any good fascist leader, that his instincts will prevail over the limited intellectual abilities of his rivals. His misogyny is directed not just against predictable female targets on the left, but also against those on the right who would question his credentials to lead. Whether it is mocking Carly Fiorina’s presidential candidacy by asking “Would you vote for that face?” or describing Hillary Clinton’s bathroom break during a Democratic presidential debate as “disgusting,” Trump seeks to discredit women’s roles in the nation’s political life. Like fascist leaders of the past, personally insulting women does nothing to diminish his standing among female voters who bewail the erosion of traditional gender roles and actively applaud Trump for his “manliness.”
But there is also a deeper, ontological point of convergence with fascists: Trump’s ability to sustain credibility with his audience in spite of a flagrant disrespect for empirical reality. Like fascist leaders of the 1930s whose worldviews so consistently flew in the face of observable fact, so it is with Trump: by one estimate only seven percent of what he relays as facts can be described as correct. What would normally hound a career politician in a liberal democracy – lying to or misleading one’s constituency for the sake of vote-getting – in Trump’s case does nothing to diminish his following. His base are just as drawn to an alternate worldview as he is, impervious to easy demonstrations that his claims about Muslims celebrating 9/11 in Jersey City, or the racial nature of American street violence, are patently false.
5) Finally, and perhaps most vitally, we have the question of a militarist ethic of violence. Trump lacks a militia or a band of armed followers, which could augur poorly for a fascist. Fascist movements have typically formed their own parties, with their own militias or paramilitary ancillaries. Even though it would make sense for Trump and the Tea Party to formally found a third party, their route to power so far has been via infiltration of a preexisting political party rather than the creation of a new one. But Trump’s embrace of violence at his own rallies still sets him far apart from anyone else in the political establishment. This has taken the form of the violent expulsion of a Black Lives Matter protester at an Alabama rally in November, which was accompanied by racist taunts. When asked about the violent nature of the encounter, Trump went so far as to endorse it: ““Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.” While protestors are known to disrupt nearly all political rallies, no other candidate has gone so far as to describe such interruptions as “absolutely disgusting.” This represents a radicalization of Trump’s own previous attitude to violence at his rallies, where Trump happily ginned up his public’s hostility for non-white protesters while making nominal calls (mostly ignored) that they not be hurt. While this hardly constitutes a fascist ethos of the beauty of violence, the radicalization visible at recent events – including open displays of blatant racism among his audience – portends of heightened violence at future Trump rallies; at his current pace, Trump looks increasingly willing to abide and even encourage this growing violence.
Aside from this question of Trump encouraging violence at his own rallies, there is a comparable populist movement which articulates many of the same obsessions with political decline and illegitimacy of current government, and which have been easily the most menacing in their threat to use violence: the Oath Keepers. While the Trump campaign has not yet actively cooperated with the Oath Keepers, the shared set of ideological preoccupations between them, as well as the Tea Party, are clear. Ever since the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of America’s most visible foe, the political landscape has been dotted with paramilitary militias that stoke conspiracy theories of American greatness being undermined from within. Like the Tea Party which came after it, these groups speak to the fears of the “beleaguered” white Christian American. The Oath Keepers, in actively seeking confrontation with elected government, take this militia dynamic a step further. Like the original fascist organizations in the 1920s, the Oath Keepers are made up of veterans as well as police officers and others who feel they are truer representatives of the nation’s values than its “corrupt” and “decadent” officials.
Distrustful of the pays légal, the Squadristi of Italy and Freikorps of Germany were similarly established by veterans after WWI to defend the interests of the pays réel, in the process creating a “parallel authority” in their quest for legitimacy. In doing so, these paramilitaries sought to paint actual authority as an alien force. In precisely the same progression, the disaffected, conspiratorially-minded veterans of the Oath Keepers tell themselves they have “no choice” but to “save” the American nation. Whether “patrolling” the streets of Ferguson with military-grade weaponry after the protests that gave rise to Black Lives Matter; menacingly aiming those same weapons at pays légal authorities at the ranch of tax-evader and racist Cliven Bundy; or promising to prevent government authorities from making Kentucky civil servant Kim Davis comply with the law, the potential for extra-legal violence, while yet to be seen, is obvious. The seizure of Oregon federal property by Cliven Bundy’s son Ammon does not include the involvement of the Oath Keepers; but this most recent instance of paramilitary extremism brings with it not just the same milieu, but the same “passions”: veterans who understand the nation better than elected officials; defense of the “real nation” against illegitimate state authority; and a willingness to die for the cause. If Oath Keeper and related radical militias have not yet engaged in full-scale vigilante violence that marked fascist paramilitaries, it is because cooler heads of government authorities have so far prevailed. They will continue to seek out confrontation when they can.
No compromise over any issue. Emotionally overdetermined intransigence. Racialized fear of demographic “calamity”. A politics of socio-cultural resentment. This is the ideological content of fascism’s historical electorate, as well as Trump’s “grass roots.” It would be missing the forest for the trees to complain that Trump does not personally inhabit all of Paxton’s “passions.” The larger, much more pressing question is not whether Trump lives up to a necessary “fascist minimum”, or even whether he is a clown or false flag: It’s whether there is a significant portion of the American population who have been waiting for a Trump. With every new envelope he pushes, his audience grows more enraptured, not less. More enthralled, not less. There have been demagogues throughout American history, and the electorate has made sure they remained marginal figures. Should Trump be defeated in this election cycle, the anger and resentment he has stoked will not simply disappear. We must worry, then, about a larger fascist “mood” in the United States. The Tea Party and the Oath Keepers, as only the two most obvious exponents, together show that the answer is “yes.”
Diagnosing the problem as fascist leads to the question of a solution. What becomes the utility of knowing Trump is fascist? For the historian of the 1930s, the answer seems clear: either the forces that could coalesce against it remain divided, vowing to eternal enmity, as happened in Germany on the eve of Hitler’s ascent to power; or they create a united front, however unwieldy, as happened with the Popular Front in France a few years later. In the former case, the left accused the center of being scarcely better than the right. In the latter case, a coalition of center and left, long at odds with each other over questions of ideology and strategy, looked at results in Germany as a salutary lesson to be avoided. They bridged their considerable differences and succeeded in staving off a domestic French fascism. Now that Trump is guaranteed to win the GOP presidential nomination and will turn his attention to rallying Republicans around him, it will be incumbent upon Clinton and Sanders supporters to put aside their differences and once more defeat the forces of fascism.
This article was first published in Tikkun Magazine, www.tikkun.org, the winner of 2014 and 2015 Best Magazine of the Year Award from the Religion Newswriters Association.