The Blog

Trumpismo! and American Fascism

Serious people are now using the "f word" - fascist - to describe the Donald Trump phenomenon.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Serious people are now using the "f word" - fascist - to describe the Donald Trump phenomenon.

There has always been something almost taboo about using this word in the context of American politics - it immediately brings to mind Adolph Hitler and Nazism and surely nothing should be compared to that. Europeans, on the other hand, have used the term more frequently precisely because of their own experience with fascist regimes. They know the signs when they see them.

Instead, "fascist" has been used as an epithet in this country, something tossed out at an opponent like a linguistic hand-grenade, though never as often or with as effectively as calling someone a "communist." And while the heyday of red-baiting may be behind us, red-baiting hasn't gone away. In 2012, for example, Republican Congressman Allen West casually announced that "78-81" Democrats in Congress were members of the Communist Party.

So as we watch the march of Donald Trump to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, it seems like a good moment to examine fascism as an analytic term, rather than as a political curse word. And as we watch this triumph of Trumpismo it is also important to remember that there has long been a fascist streak in American politics.

Strictly speaking, there was no fascism before World War I. That's when the term was coined in Italy to describe the political movement headed by Benito Mussolini. In 1921he created the National Fascist Party and he became the leader of Italy shortly thereafter.

Historians and political scientists have debated what exactly defines a fascist regime but they agree on a certain basic set of characteristics. First, a fascist state is headed by a single, usually charismatic figure vested with absolute authority - a dictator backed by a cult of personality. That figure appeals to his people by playing on a xenophobic nationalism: "We" are the nation; "they" are the problem.

Fascist economic policies are not necessarily left-wing or right-wing as we think of those terms. In some cases, the regime controls the economy; in others, a private sector is permitted to operate, though never in opposition to the regime's goals.

Political opposition is forbidden in a fascist state. Political debate and the difference of political opinion aren't simply stifled, they are regarded as treasonous. A fascist government sees the party and the nation as the same thing. This is enforced by a pervasive threat of violence - meted out by the mob or by the police and military of the state itself. Makes little difference.

The particular flavors of fascism vary from place to place but by the 1930s, much of industrialized world was controlled by fascist governments. Italy, Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, Spain by 1939. Fascism held considerable appeal for some Americans during that decade.

There was a small American Nazi party in the '30s and an equally small American Communist Party, but there were many more Americans who wondered whether liberal democracy really was the best form of government anymore. In 1932, Republican Senator David Reed worried that Congress would "fiddle around here all summer trying to satisfy every lobbyist, and we will get nowhere. The country does not want that. The country wants stern action taken quickly." The appeal of fascism in a time of crisis was clear to Senator Reed.

In his first term, President Franklin Roosevelt worried less about his Republican opposition than about the Louisiana demagogue Huey Long. Simultaneously governor and senator, Long was certainly that charismatic figure who built his following promising "stern action taken quickly" whether or not the democratic niceties were observed. Long was assassinated in 1935 before he had a chance to challenge FDR in the election of 1936.

People who misunderstand the significance of the New Deal - and today that means everyone in the Republican Party, alas - see it only as an economic program. They fail to recognize how Roosevelt used the New Deal as a way of blunting the allure of fascism and of restoring the legitimacy of democracy as our form of government. Accepting his party's nomination in 1936, FDR did not tout specific New Deal programs. Instead, he reminded the crowd in Philadelphia that the New Deal had restored "faith - in the soundness of democracy in the midst of dictatorship."

A generation later George Wallace took his version of racialized fascism to the national stage, running for president in 1968 and again in 1972. He was a demagogue without question, and he appealed to the worst elements of American racism. In 1968 he chose General Curtis LeMay as his running mate. LeMay talked enthusiastically about using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Despite all this - or perhaps because of it - Wallace won over 13% of the popular vote and won 5 Southern states outright. And it is worth remembering that when he ran for the Democratic nomination in 1972 he won the Michigan primary with slightly more than 50% of the votes.

Americans have also endorsed what we might call mini-fascists at the local and state level: sheriffs with contempt for the rule of law; legislators who codified white supremacy and celebrating lynching. I grew up in Philadelphia during the 1970s when Frank Rizzo, he of the nightstick in the cummerbund fame, was mayor.

For as long as there has been a political system called fascism, versions of it have found support among some number of Americans. The question for the Trumpistas therefore is whether that support will ever rise above Wallace's 13%. That's the question for the rest of us too.

Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is the editor of To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government.

Popular in the Community