Donald Trump is many things. But he is not a fascist.
Charges to the contrary have been made by commentators after Mr Trump controversially claimed in December 2015 that Muslims should not be allowed to enter the United States.
This pronouncement followed November suggestions that America would now have to do the “unthinkable” in the struggle against Islamic militancy. The “unthinkable” includes keeping a database of all Muslims in the USA.
Trump has advocated the building of a wall between the US and its Southern neighbours to prevent illegal immigrants from entering America.
Allegations of fascism from the critics reflect outrage about Mr Trump’s old-fashioned misogyny and oft-advertised sense of his own “greatness of soul”.
Mr Trump has turned into this 2016 election year as the leading Republican Presidential contender, despite or because of these controversial statements. As of January 3rd, he commands something around 37% of the vote. This places him well ahead of all other comers.
Yet Trump’s holding these opinions, and playing more or less shamelessly to the prejudices of “the base” of the “grand old party” does not make the man “an actual fascist”.
Political language is passionate. The stakes of political debates are high, especially when it is the American Presidency at issue. And passion inclines us to make unqualified and oversimplified assessments.
We all also have a tendency to group together positions we disagree with under blanket terms like “liberal”, “politically correct”, “capitalist”, “religious” …, papering over the differences that often exist between the things our indignation, a great unifier, prompts us to group together.
Moreover (as Frank Furedi has commented) the revelations of Nazi atrocities after 1945 led to the complete moral and political discrediting of fascism. Calling an opponent a “fascist” still carries a devastating pejorative charge.
Nevertheless,a recent survey of leading scholars in “fascism studies” suggests that there are good reasons to hold off labelling Trump a fascist just yet.
Now: to deny the man the mantra “fascist” is not to deny that his form of politics is of the farther Right. Trump, another modern Cleon, is inflammatory, arrogant, short-sighted and bombastic. He is potentially highly dangerous for America and all who fall within its extensive, global ‘national interests’.
There is equally no doubt, as Jeffrey Tucker has commented, that:
Trump has tapped into it, absorbing unto his own political ambitions every conceivable resentment (race, class, sex, religion, economic) and promising a new order of things under his mighty hand …
Such appeals to their peoples’ senses of personal, social, sexual and national humiliation were also keynotes in Benito Mussolini’s and Adolf Hitler’s playbooks in the interwar years in Europe.
The people needed only to yield up civic and political liberties for the sake of the sweeping national “palingenesis” each fascist Leader promised (to borrow one of leading scholar Roger Griffin’s terms).
Fascist regimes promised quasi-religious forms of national renewal far more radical than anything Trump has so far suggested, however mighty his hand.
The fascists’ appeals to followers were typically framed in eschatological narratives of modern decline that Trump has not yet echoed.
Much of Trump’s rhetoric is provocatively demagogic. The historical echoes of his idea of setting up a discriminatory database are profoundly disturbing. Yet, unlike a fascist Leader, he has not openly called for the principled, total destruction of America’s republican and liberal institutions.
Both Hitler and Mussolini, by contrast, made no secret of their desire to shatter the mordant liberal democratic states. Nothing less would do to forge a new Imperial Rome or millennial Aryan Reich looking back to “racially continuous” Hellenic precedents.
Leading Nazi intellectuals in the heady days of revolutionary triumph could call for the entire “sham” culture of the liberal West “to be burnt to cinders”.
Yet Donald Trump is nothing if not an individualist. He also shares none of the fascists’ advertised hostility (at least before taking power) to “big money” or “financial capitalism”, associated by the Nazis with the nefarious “Jewish world conspiracy”.
Neither does the square-jawed author of Time to Get Tough (2011) harbour a fascistic sense that capitalism, by promoting the acquisitive longing for material possessions, irreparably corrupts private and public life.
Trump’s statements on America’s unprecedented military might are also surprisingly qualified. They stop some way short of his rival Mr Cruz’ pronouncements about revisiting carpet bombing in the Middle East.
They fall a longer way short of fascists’ principled celebrations of war and sacrifice. For the fascists, organised violence was not simply a sad or strategic geopolitical necessity. It was something close to the “meaning of life”, necessary to steel feminised, liberal “last men,” awakening them from their egalitarian stupor.
The Nazis appealed openly to the “ideas of 1914” — nationalist, militarised and intolerant. They pitted these against the “ideas of 1789” (and of 1776) – liberty, equality and fraternity. Fascists everywhere hymned the spirit of community forged in blood and sacrifice between the warriors in the trenches of World War 1, resolute before the prospect of dying for the fatherland.
To call Trump a “fascist” accordingly satisfies a legitimate sense of outrage at his Right-wing populism. It expresses legitimate concerns about Trump’s politics of fear and its prospects, should he make the Oval Office.
But there are problems of practice as well as principle.
Trump is not alone today in this kind of politicking, although he has openly gone farther than most. So if he is a “fascist”, we would have to call a good many other leaders on the political Right the same thing.
This would thin out the category to the point where it becomes nearly empty – like people who argue that any strongly held conviction, by virtue of being strongly held, is “religious”, or any collectively shared social practice.
More importantly, there is a potential issue with targeting Trump’s Right-wing populism, treating as if it were wholly exceptional. This can distract from the wider structural, political and cultural features of today’s wider drift to the Right which Trump is presently cresting.
This drift is manifest most spectacularly in the emergence of genuinely fascist movements like Golden Dawn in Greece, or (more optatively) the United Patriots’ Front in Australia.
The UPF, however, commands a good deal less than the 2.9% Hitler commanded before the global economy crashed in October 1929. Short of the kind of economic catastrophe the Greeks have suffered, or else a series of catastrophic terrorist episodes, it is unlikely to grow.
Today’s general drift to the political Right is also manifested, in a more telling way, in the massive growth of the security and surveillance apparatuses of today’s democracies in response to the threat of Islamic terrorism.
One feature of fascism – the darker flipside of its ideological celebrations of utopian national unity – was its cynical exploitation of public fears about visible and invisible enemies.
“The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy,” Goering gloated at the Nuremberg trials:
All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.
The fascist regimes in power – not only in Italy and Germany, but in Portugal, Romania, and Spain – developed sophisticated networks of secret policing, encouraging citizens to spy on each other to promote the greater good.
These para-governmental agencies, associated with the ruling Party, formed what one authority on Nazism called a “dual state”, encircling then supplanting the traditional offices of Germany’s nation-state.
Now: many critics have hesitations about the “grand old Party” Trump is bidding to lead. There are historical connections between leading Republicans, like the older Bush, with the Central Intelligence Agency and associated bodies responsible only to the executive branch.
Yet the Republican elephant is not a para-State in waiting. Neither have any of its leaders, including Mr Trump, openly called for the annihilation of the Democratic Party and imprisonment of its leaders, in the name of national security.
And however popular Trump may have become, he also does not command a uniformed paramilitary, ready to compete with and supplant the US police.
In a typically illuminating essay on these subjects, Umberto Eco has commented that it would be much easier if, when fascism’s legatees reemerge, its new leaders will pronounce openly their anti-democratic aims and desire to reopen the camps. But if history rhymes, it does not repeat itself, to evoke Mark Twain.
Economically, culturally, and technologically, countries like the United States have changed profoundly since the interwar years, when fascism in its classical forms won power in advanced European nations.
Moreover, as Tamir Bar-On has argued in his unsettling study Where have all the fascists gone? (2007), the advocates of the “New Right” in postwar France, Germany, and elsewhere realised they would need to change tack after 1945. Any attempt to rehabilitate the fascist project of radically illiberal, anti-cosmopolitan political revolution could only proceed indirectly or “metapolitically”.
Any direct link to the genocidal episodes in Italy and Germany would have to be denied in what Mohler called the “interregnum” – our period in which “the gods had fled”. Yet the leading thinkers of the New Right like Alain de Benouist in France to this day draw on thinkers like Schmitt, Heidegger, Junger, Nietzsche, Spengler, and Evola: the same radical reactionaries that animated fascism between the wars.
Any revitalised neofascism would have to instead work culturally. It must incrementally challenge the hated, imposed dominance of humanistic, Marxist and liberal ideas over the educational institutions and public spheres of advanced societies.
Only when the schools, universities, parties and media are no longer hostages to “politically correct” doctrines can anything like a regenerated neofascist movement hope to win political power.
So let us by all means be concerned, very concerned, about Donald Trump’s present standing. His increasingly extreme pronouncements on immigration, Islam, racial or cultural profiling, and doing the “unthinkable” need to be opposed.
But we shouldn’t let Trump’s demagoguery blind us to the wider climate which has made his present successes possible. Nor should we forget the ways that any new fascism – always a protean beast blending apocalypse and cynicism, nostalgia and youthful revolt, technological modernism and anti-modern reaction – is unlikely to wear the same brown shirts its proponents sported in the 1920s and ‘30s. There are many trends in contemporary societies, outside of Trump’s rise, which demand our critique.
Crying “fascist!” ultimately contributes to the wider collapse of political debate in America and elsewhere into stereotyping. This is a trend that increasingly works against meaningful discussion of the issues, and ultimately does nothing to combat the rise of populist demagogery.