Typically historians argue for the distinctiveness of any given moment in time. Eager to narrate a compelling human drama, they nevertheless place its familiar tragedies and triumphs within a specific time and place, and they tend to weight more of the story's importance toward what is unique rather than toward what is universal.
I am one of those historians.
In recent months, several from my scholarly tribe have reassured us that, although GOP presidential contender Donald Trump portends nothing good, he does not in fact herald a return to fascism. I reach the opposite conclusion.
The fundamental error committed by those who offer comparatively benign assessments of Trump is that they judge fascism according to the metrics of hindsight, once its full ambitions became known. Yet nobody could have foreseen what the Nazis would become in the earliest days of their existence; even Hitler's startling 1926 declaration of his ambitions, Mein Kampf, was dismissed by him as fanciful in order to assuage jittery nerves once he became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Only later did it become obvious that the account was a faithful testimonial of his intentions.
Though never without menace, fascism's early days provide a much more realistic--and also complicated--view of the sources of its appeal. For instance, the 1920 platform of the National Socialist Workers Party (as it was originally called) articulated several legitimate grievances and populist ideas; it also contained truly alarming components. Other sections were ambivalent: one endorsed the education of poor children at the "expense of the State," but not before calling for "the concept of the State" to be "inculcated at school from the very moment the intelligence of the child begins to awaken." At the time, considered in isolation, a reader might have concluded that the National Socialists were zealous patriots eager to reform an education system engineered with class bias.
How one received the message of the Nazis depended a lot upon what one wanted to hear. Rarely does the devil announce himself at the door, dictating the exact measurement of his horns so that we might sketch his likeness. Had the 1920 platform called for the extermination of 11 million people and world war, suffice it to say, things would have gone differently.
Bearing that in mind, it is unnerving the extent to which Donald Trump is faithful to characteristics of Hitler's early program and methods of operation. Clearly there is no great prominence of anti-Jewish bigotry in the Trump campaign. Even so, on certain mechanical levels, the comparison proves apt. (Hitler also had plans for a sprawling wall on the Eastern front, to keep Slavs from infiltrating the Reichsland.)
But more important than specific policies are the general patterns. First among these is the pivotal role of a narrative of national greatness lost, and the related penchant to categorize people and countries in terms of the "strong" and the "weak." Both Nazi rhetoric and the Trump campaign are suffused with the loaded language of humiliation and the promise to bring it to an end using not brains but brawn. No item of Nazi policy was beyond the reach of machismo: they once overvalued the currency solely because it was trading below the dollar, an assault upon the "strong" that could not be borne. Trump's promise to "make America great again," his tedious cataloguing of the "strong" versus the "weak," and the vivid hyper-masculinity of his campaign all place him well in line with the history of fascism.
A second and equally obvious similarity between Trump and his political forebears is the construction of a racial and religious hierarchy. Donald Trump has yet to put forward a racial (or religious) typology or theory of racial purity, yet his views and those of his supporters essentially map one out. Apart from embracing Trump's denigrations of Muslims and Mexicans, his supporters join him in expressing a larger resentment of immigrants as interlopers, and of identity markers as an affront to society. "Adhere to American tradition," one Trump supporter admonished regarding the story of a Sikh man suing the Defense Department in order to wear his turban and beard--an awkward invocation of a canonical history that dates colonial settlement back to the desire to adopt distinctive religious practice and attire. For the Trump campaign, people of color, or those who espouse religious beliefs outside of Judeo-Christianity, do not deserve the same political inheritance as the white people who do.
The third parallel between Trump and midcentury European fascism is the "authoritarian impulse," a concept that is usually used to describe undue deference to authority, especially to uniformed security agents like police or soldiers. For me, this is a superficial reading encompassing more than just fascists. A more complete manifestation includes a charismatic personality, one who spurns proposing solutions in favor of offering himself as one. The charismatic figure will also threaten to unleash mayhem in order to restore stability. For fascists, violence is an acceptable form of political expression, and understanding this facet of their ideology is necessary to resolving the apparent the contradiction of provoking rowdiness to establish order. In all these respects, the highly charged atmosphere of both Trump and Nazi rallies are illustrative of the authoritarian impulse.
Despite the resonance of Trump's campaign with features of National Socialism, media and political observers have been reluctant to brand Trump as a fascist. One legitimate reason for this is to show a sober reverence for the millions who suffered at the hands of Nazis by deploying references to it only with great cause, and great care. I hope I number as among those who cite the historical precedents with caution.
There are other, far less worthy reasons to explain the unwillingness to dub Trump's campaign as fascist. First among these is the self-evident fact that he is a clown, whereas fascism is deadly serious. Any student of history familiar with the histrionics and outright buffoonery of Europe's notorious fascists finds this a less than convincing reason to resist the comparison.
Less easy to dispense with is a feeling among some progressives, especially those longing for recognition of the damage wrought by international trade agreements, that some of Trump's policies sound...OK! To select items from Trump's platform as if ordering from a menu is essentially what thousands of Germans looking to reinvigorate a declining political system did when deciding to throw their support behind Hitler. "I'll turn my cheek to the David Duke comments," one Trump supporter--a registered Democrat--told The New York Times. This instrumental approach relegates the disquieting aspects of Trump's campaign to an ephemeral status, an incidental or second-order kind of bigotry that demotes the exigent concerns of those most affected by Trump's racist demagoguery.
It also confuses opportunism with impetus. I say this in full view of the vulnerability of its cliché: Hitler had a labor program too. The Nazis were eager to capitalize on the economic failures unrecognized by a privileged political class, and they proved energetic in gathering eclectic sources of support. We have apparently forgotten that the National Socialist's principal stated objective was full employment. In fact, Hitler promoted several labor benefits--though he also quite determinedly undermined labor rights and abolished collective bargaining. National Socialism also had sharp rebukes for many people who deserved them: Hitler carried a working class and petit bourgeois resentment of war profiteers to the public stage; he and his followers also denounced cartels and corporate monopolies.
In pointing these things out I am not looking to defame criminally neglected ideas like a livable wage, or to pathologize working class culture or concerns. Instead I am suggesting that the combined discourse of national humiliation, the dehumanization of different groups of people, and the embrace of authoritarian practices all render Trump's campaign toxic, and there is simply no way to extricate, salvage, or decouple any particular salutary remark from the campaign's propensity toward fascism.
Finally, I think many people are inclined to assume that fascism is both foreign and a thing of the past. In serious considerations of the fascist comparison, several people have made the valid point that democratic traditions in the 1920s Weimar Republic were more tenuous and prone to manipulation than that of the United States today--though they do so while keeping one eye on cable news networks broadcasting Trump virtually round the clock. For me, the real bulwark against fascism is the diversity of the United States, including the democratic values of tolerance and free speech that it fosters.
But even with that reassurance, I find myself reminded of the postwar American planners embarked on a mission to capture Nazi gold (literally) so as to thwart the funding mechanism for any potential resurgence of German fascism. Operation "Safehaven," as it was called, never fully recovered Nazi assets, securely tucked away by intransigent Swiss banks, and urgency for the quest soon dissipated as Americans found corporate connivers with the Nazi regime suddenly useful in the emerging antagonism with the Soviet Union.
Just like money, ideas can take flight. Long after the principal is diminished, intellectual and other forms of capital can still earn returns. And they can land here: fascism had its own precursors on American soil, and it's own midcentury expressions as well. It is not commonly known that the US Army, engaged in managing Roosevelt's "peacetime draft" (prior to December 1941), decided to depart from custom and geographically mix platoons because the traditional method of grouping soldiers by region produced entire companies of Midwestern German Catholics openly sympathetic to Hitler. Those same impulses propelled Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy to power, and his potent authoritarianism provided a safe refuge for the racist ideology fleeing the Democratic Party during an era of change. So-called "law and order" politics and the larger Southern strategy of which it was a part joined conservative Catholic cold war ideology together with erstwhile Southern segregationist enemies, bound by a common determination to counter the black freedom movement and protestors against the war in Vietnam.
As the modern GOP produced voting majorities, it courted dark forces. This is, after all, a party that roundly condemned the investigation of torture committed by the United States in Iraq. Too often and to far too great an extent, Democrats (and the media) have been complicit in a repugnant agenda--especially in their embrace of the wars against drugs and terrorism. These notional and unwinnable "wars" have nevertheless been waged with lethal force; they come outfitted with troubling legal precedents and a pattern of biased selection of targets; and they afford political legitimacy to authoritarian ways of thinking.
Yet no one has combined these lamentable developments in the same worrying fashion as Donald Trump. If he doesn't measure up to Hitler, that is hardly a consolation. Even pale versions of fascism with more discrete ambitions are capable of real violence and lasting damage. Following the pattern of the fascists before him, Trump as yet only intimates; seeking support in a general election, soon he will disown. What comes after that, when power falls into his hands?