For the past 25 years, Godwin’s Law has been useful for preventing careless headline writers, commenters in article threads, and other participants in discussions from recklessly invoking comparisons to Adolf Hitler when looking for the rhetorical ace to win an argument or make a point. But what happens when one of the major-party candidates makes speeches and proclaims policies that sound familiar in ways that are so disturbing that both the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party have proclaimed their support for him? Is it okay to break Godwin’s Law then?
Not necessarily. Donald Trump spouts Fascist rhetoric on a daily basis. Most people forget that mid-20th century Fascism was not invented by Adolf Hitler; he may have been its most infamous practitioner, but Fascism is a political philosophy that is based both on a set of rhetorical strategies and a belief system that celebrates the glory of tradition over the darkness of the present. Watching the Republican National Convention and its dirge-like invocation of everything that is currently wrong with America was an exercise in Fascist theatre, but there are a number of ways to show that Donald Trump is leading the current Republican party back toward a past that we had all sworn to “never forget.”
In February, 2016, one of Italy’s foremost public intellectuals — Umberto Eco — died. Eco was best known in the United States for his novel The Name of the Rose, but in Italy, he was known for essays whose topics ranged from children’s toys and cooking to creeping anti-Muslim sentiment. He had begun his intellectual career as a scholar on the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, and he was a man of prodigious intellect.
He had also lived through Italy’s Fascist phase. Eco was born in 1932. Mussolini had been in power since 1922, and Eco was 13 when partisans regained power in Milan, where Eco lived. For Eco, listening to the first speech by the partisan leader was when he first realized that freedom from Fascism meant that there was a whole different way of speaking and thinking. “[F]reedom of speech means freedom from rhetoric,” Eco wrote. As an Italian schoolboy, part of his curriculum had been to memorize the speeches of Mussolini, and in listening to “free” speech, Eco realized that what he had been taught previously were empty words.
When Eco died, I wrote a literary tribute to him in which I took his most famous essay in English, “Ur-Fascism,” originally published in the
New York Review of Books in 1995, and frequently referred to as “14 ways of looking at a Black Shirt (Fascist)” and used those 14 points to examine Donald Trump’s rhetorical style and campaign positions. Now, six months later, I grow more convinced that Eco has provided us with a blueprint for understanding that Donald Trump is a Fascist, and that a failure to recognize that connection downplays the danger that a Trump presidency would pose for a large number of Americans.
It is important to remember that Nazi Germany was a Fascist state that demonstrated the ultimate instance of the rational state. Hitler had a complete philosophy. Donald Trump, with his mish-mash of positions, is not Hitler. He more closely resembles the original Fascism, which originated with Mussolini.
“Mussolini did not have any philosophy; he had only rhetoric … [Fascism] was a fuzzy (original emphasis) totalitarianism, a collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions.” Eco also argued that the men who ran Mussolini’s movement did not have the intellectual chops to control the movement they led, but they had tapped into some “archetypal foundations” that allowed their rhetoric to resonate with an audience that was disenchanted with the modernity they found themselves living in.
Eco’s 14 ways of understanding Fascism are beautifully laid out in the 1995 article. For the purposes of this discussion, grouping some of these ways into general points are helpful. Eco’s first three points are about the rejection of modernity — which is crippled by too much intellectual thought — and the embracing of a traditional past. Trump has continually criticized a culture of “political correctness,” which he holds responsible for the decline of traditional values. At his website, he has posted articles that further criticize political correctness because it has been responsible for “declining educational standards, increasing secularism, the police not being allowed to do their job, an inability to secure her borders,” all the result of this: “The intellectual tyranny, self-loathing and choking conformity of this ideology has feminized and weakened a once great continent which now aspires to mediocrity.”
Notice that not only has intellectualism brought us political correctness, which causes us to loathe ourselves, but it also feminizes us. On more than one occasion, Trump has let fly with the word “pussy” or, when he has some filter working, the word “her whatever,” but his contempt for femininity — not women, this is not about sex — but gender, the “weakening” of the American character comes through in many of Trump’s speeches and policy pronouncements. His comments that John McCain is not a hero because he “allowed” himself to be captured, or his recent macho posturing about how he had always “wanted” a Purple Heart all continue to paint a portrait of a man with a skewed sense of masculinity.
When Trump makes statements that trash American relations with NATO, then says that perhaps his not-expert perspective is needed because it’s better to have someone who can see the “forest for the trees,” he echoes the voices of people like Britain’s Michael Gove, who in helping to lead the Brexit vote there, declared that “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.” This dismissal of thinking, of intellectualism, of expertise as some kind of elitist conspiracy to keep Trump’s followers down may play for a lot of laughs, but it sounds a lot like the Fascist rhetoric that Mussolini used to come to power in 1922.
What matters to Fascists, according to Eco, is “action for action’s sake,” where “thinking is a form of emasculation.” Anyone who has ever tried to parse Trump sentences in order to tease out the rational thought behind them may wonder why they are so effective, but that mixture of macho swagger and “we don’t need no stinkin’ badges” claim to authority is working. When Trump casually mentions that perhaps Second Amendment followers will have to stop Hillary Clinton, the threat is not only clear, but the triumph of action over words is proclaimed from the podium.
Several of Eco’s points also illustrate how Fascism is intolerant both of dissent and of outsiders. Fascism thrives as an echo chamber, where a select group, who know themselves to the true heirs to their nation’s traditions, affirm each other’s thoughts and speeches. Eco said that “For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.” David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the KKK, told white Americans that “voting against Trump is treason to your heritage.”
Trump is so intolerant of criticism that he has banned entire newspaper staffs and other journalists from his campaign events. Among those on Trump’s “blacklist” are Univision, the Washington Post, BuzzFeed, and Politico. While it begs the question of why any news services continue to carry Trump if he has instituted such a list, the fact remains that Trump has declared that journalists who ask him questions he deems to be “hostile” are simply banned from his presence. He has announced that he will participate in the Presidential Debates only if the terms favor him. He has threatened to punch hecklers in the face, thrown babies out of his rallies, and mocked a journalist with a disability because he didn’t like what had been asked of him. And those who follow Trump applaud this behavior. They confuse critical thought with criticism, and believe that to ask questions of a candidate, or of a country, is to somehow weaken it in the eyes of its “enemies.” Certainly Vladmir Putin does not put up with criticism.
Eco follows up his point on criticism with this:
“Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist.”
How is Donald Trump racist? Let us count the ways.
It was as if Eco had Trump in mind in 1995 when he wrote that one of the ways we would recognize Fascism would be when, “in our future a TV or Internet populism … [arises] in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.” Time and again, Trump’s followers tell reporters that what they admire about the man is that he speaks his mind, that he tells the truth, or that his status as outsider makes them feel as if he understands what it means to be just like them. He claims to understand what is hurting them, and he tells them, he has the answers that will ease their pain. He stokes their anger, feeds the beast.
Along the way, he invokes the tropes of Fascism: its racism, its reliance on a mythical pasts, its traditions, its hatred of foreigners. Most of all, Trump uses the rhetoric of Italian Fascism — a reliance on strings of words that stir feelings but which mean nothing — to move the mass forward. Trump’s followers may not be wearing the Black shirts of Mussolini’s Camicie Nere, but it’s not always the clothes that make the man.
His words do.