Donald Trump is many abhorrent things — but he is not a fascist
Donald Trump is many things. But no, 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 have to do things hitherto “unthinkable” in the struggle against Islamic militancy, including keeping a database of all Muslims in the USA.
Trump has long advocated the building of a wall between the US and its Southern neighbours to prevent illegal immigrants from entering America.
Allegations of fascism from these critics reflect continuing outrage about Mr Trump’s old-fashioned misogyny and advertised sense of his own “greatness of soul”, to be polite.
Yet, less despite than because of his controversial pronouncements, Mr Trump has turned into this election year as the leading Republican Presidential nominee. As of January 3rd, he commands something around 37% of the vote. This places him well ahead of all other comers.
But holding these opinions, and playing more or less shamelessly to the fears of “the base” of the “grand old party” does not make the man “an actual fascist”, as one title claims.
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 extreme, unqualified and oversimplified assessments of things.
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, would group together.
Moreover (as Frank Furedi has recently commented) the revelations of Nazi atrocities after 1945 led to the near-complete ideological discrediting of this form of far-Right politics. So calling a political opponent a “fascist” still carries with it a devastating pejorative charge. As well it should.
Yet, as a recent survey of leading scholars in the subfield of political science known as “fascist studies” attests, there are good reasons to hold off labelling Mr Trump a “fascist” just yet.
Here as elsewhere in heated debates, it pays to be clear.
To deny the man the mantra “fascist” is not to suggest that his form of politics is not of the far Right. Trump, another modern Cleon, is inflammatory, arrogant, short-sighted and bombastic. For these reasons he is potentially highly dangerous for America and all of us who fall within its extensive ‘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, classed, gendered and national humiliation were keynotes in Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler’s playbooks in the interwar years in Europe.
Equally, fascism in its different European and Southern forms has invariably promised its constituents a radical, utopian regeneration of national communities, whether conceived biologistically, religiously or culturally.
But these promises involved redemptions far more radical than anything Trump has so far suggested. They were typically framed in secularised eschatological narratives of terminal modern decline that Trump has not yet echoed.
All that was needed was that people yield up unneeded civic and political liberties for the sake of this national “palingenesis” (to borrow one of leading scholar Roger Griffin’s terms), bequeathing unchecked legislative, executive and judicial authority to the Leader and His Party.
Yet, however demagogic some of Trump’s rhetoric is, and however disturbing are the historical echoes of his idea of setting up a discriminatory database, he has not yet 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 awaken a new Imperial Rome or millennial Aryan Reich looking back to “racially continuous” Hellenic precedents. Leading Nazi intellectuals, in the heady days of the revolution, could call for the entire “sham” culture of the liberal West “to be burnt to cinders”.
Donald Trump, nothing if not an individualist and a capitalist, does not echo the interwar fascist’s anti-individualism. He 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”.
The square-jawed author of Time to Get Tough (2011) does not harbour a fascistic sense that capitalism, by promoting the acquisitive longing for material possessions, corrupts private and public life “from the ground up”. This is not, after all, the American way.
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, not as geopolitical necessities, but as something close to the “meaning of life”, and necessary to harden up feminised, liberal “last men” from their egalitarian stupors.
There was no mistake in Hitler’s calling his two-volume 1925 opus Mein Kampf (My Struggle/Battle). The Nazis appealed openly to the “ideas of 1914”—hierarchical, nationalist, militarised and intolerant – against the “ideas of 1789” (and of 1776) – liberty, equality and fraternity.
The Nazis hymned the spirit of community forged in blood between the warriors in the trenches of World War 1, resolutely open to dying for the fatherland.
To call Trump a “fascist” accordingly satisfies a legitimate sense of outrage at his Right-wing populism. But it does so at an analytic cost.
It expresses legitimate concerns about prospects of Trump’s politicking of fear, playing to peoples’ baser prejudices to win support, and threatening cavalierly to cast aside centuries-old liberties and values.
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”, then we would have to call a good many other leaders on the political Right, here as elsewhere, the same thing.
But 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”, alongside any collectively shared practice galvanising passionate attachments.
More importantly, there is a potential issue with targeting Trump’s Right-wing populism, as if it were wholly exceptional. This can serve to distract from the wider structural and cultural features of today’s wider drift to the Right which Trump is presently riding.
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 thankfully 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 nation-states in response to the threat of Islamic terrorism.
One feature of fascism – the dark flipside of its celebrations of classless 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 no paraState in waiting. Neither have any of its leaders, including Mr Trump, openly called for the annihilation of the Democratic Party and extrajudicial imprisonment of its leaders.
And however popular Trump may have become, he also does not command a uniformed and armed paramilitary, ready to compete with and supplant the traditional 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 leaders will pronounce openly their anti-democratic aims and desire to reopen the camps, in a case of history repeatin’. But if history rhymes, it does not often repeat, 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 “minimal” fascist project of radically illiberal, anti-cosmopolitan national regeneration could only proceed indirectly or “metapolitically”.
Any direct link to the genocidal, failed episodes in Italy and Germany would have to be denied in what Mohler called the “interregnum” – our period in which, as the poet Holderlin had said, “the gods had fled”. Yet the leading thinkers of the New Right like Alain de Benouit in France continue to draw on thinkers like Schmitt, Junger, Nietzsche, Spengler, and Gentile that animated the publically-renounced, first generation fascists.
Any revitalised “movement” would have to instead work culturally, incrementally challenging the hated, imposed dominance of humanistic, Marxist and liberal ideas over the cultural institutions of advanced societies.
Only when these institutions are no longer hostages to “politically correct”, egalitarian, multicultural and liberal doctrines can anything like a charismatic Leader or regenerated political movement hope to win the allegiance of national majorities, let alone the repressive arms of government.
So let us by all means be concerned, very concerned, about Donald Trump’s emergence. His increasingly extreme pronouncements on immigration, Islam, racial or cultural profiling, and doing the “unthinkable” demand clear-sighted opposition, whatever we call them.
But we shouldn’t let one man’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 youth revolt, technological modernism and anti-modern reaction – is unlikely to wear the same brown shirts its proponents sported in the 1920s and ‘30s.
And let us not polemically mistake the man and the phenomenon, lest we contribute to the wider collapse of political debate in America and elsewhere into a stereotypy that short-circuits meaningful discussion of the issues and stakes.