It has become increasingly difficult to talk about Donald Trump without using the F-word. Over the past 48 hours, writers for The Week, Fast Company, Salon, and the Daily Beast have all argued that Trump is a little bit fascist. But it’s not just liberals in the “lamestream media” who have taken to the term — conservative radio host Steve Deace, neoconservative foreign-policy analyst Max Boot, and Jeb Bush national security adviser John Noonan have all called Trump fascistic in recent days.
Granted, in American political discourse, fascist is often used as a synonym for “very bad, in my opinion.” So it isn’t unusual that pundits are saying the word to decry a common opponent; what’s unusual is how reasonable they sound when they say it.
After all, they’re talking about a politician who has promised to save a great, declining nation through the force of his own triumphant will while calling for the mass deportation of one minority population and the mass registration of another. And oh, by the way, his ex-wife says he used to keep a book of Hitler’s speeches in a cabinet by their bed.
But is it fair to call Donald Trump a fascist just because he feels like one? Looking at the definition of fascist ideology used by historian Robert Paxton, one of the foremost scholars on the subject, the answer appears to be: Maybe.
Fascism is notoriously hard to define, in no small part because it is a belief system that rejects the value of reason. As Paxton writes in his seminal book on the subject, fascism dropped or added intellectual positions “according to the tactical needs of the moment,” while displaying “such contempt for reason and intellect that it never even bothered to justify its shifts.”
Therefore, instead of defining fascism with reference to an explicit political philosophy, Paxton argues that the ideology is best identified by the singular moods that it inspires. In The Anatomy of Fascism, Paxton defines the term with reference to its nine “mobilizing passions” — the often-unstated premises that form “the emotional lava that set fascism’s foundations.”
Under this analysis, Trump is fascist to the extent that he inspires the feelings that propelled past fascist movements. Here’s an attempt to map Trump’s recent doings as a candidate onto Paxton’s list of passions:
“A sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions.”
“We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories. It would be — you know, having victory after victory. We have nothing,” Trump told Greta Van Susteren in October. “And everything we do is wrong.”
A sense of overwhelming crisis is as central to Trump 2016 as jingoistic trucker hats. And while many of the solutions Trump has proposed seem eminently traditional, like good management and leaders with a “brain,” he also recently said, “We’re going to have to do things that we never did before … And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country.”
So, on this count, let’s give Trump one Mussolini.
“The belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external.”
“They’re killing us.”
Trump has used that phrase in its figurative sense to describe how the leaders of Mexico, China, and Iran have victimized the United States. And he’s employed it literally to describe the murderous ways of illegal immigrants and Muslim terrorists.
To stop “them” from killing “us,” Trump has proposed several remedies that transcend legal and moral precedents. His policies to combat illegal immigration would entail flouting the Constitution’s guarantee of birthright citizenship, along with any ethical qualms about rounding up and deporting millions of law-abiding people. On combating Islamic terrorism, he has proposed unprecedented surveillance of America’s Muslim communities, the immediate deportation of Syrian refugees who have already been granted legal residency, and the reinstitution of military torture — justified not on grounds of efficacy but merely because “they deserve it.”
So yeah, fairly fascist.
“Dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences.”
While Trump vigorously stokes dread of decline, he occasionally seems to champion class conflict, decrying the influence of big money donors and hedge-fund managers who pay too little in taxes. And Trump has no qualms about individualism. Despite his critiques of campaign finance, he justified his own political donations by invoking his prerogative to look out for his own personal interest. “I was a business man,” he explained to CNN. “When I called them, they always treated me well.”
Fascist leaders rarely brag about going against the nation’s interest for the sake of some favorable government contracts. So for defending the pursuit of personal happiness, let’s give Trump his first no.
“The need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary.”
“We have to have assimilation to have a country,” Trump told Dana Bash at the second Republican debate. “This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish.”
So Trump has certainly hailed the virtues of integration. And in defining America’s greatness in opposition to the criminality and illness of intruders, the Republican front-runner seems to gesture toward a notion of national purity. Still, he’s considerably friendlier to cultural pluralism than your average fascist. His relative moderation on same-sex marriage and praise of “the Latin culture” suggest an openness to a heterogeneous national community. And that is none too fascist.
“The primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it.”
While Trump often calls for sacrificing the rights of out-groups to advance the greater good, he doesn’t impose any duties on his own supporters. Trump hasn’t called for reinstating the draft or mandatory national service. In stark opposition to history’s most famous fascists, the Donald has studiously avoided serving in the military.
He promises his followers far more than he ever asks of them. In this sense, he’s much more salesman than spiritual leader, more Ron Popeil than Adolf Hitler. His pitch isn’t “give yourself over to the will of the nation,” but rather, “Vote now and we’ll send you this big, beautiful wall!”
“The need for authority by natural chiefs (always male), culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny,” AND “The superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason.”
With Trump, these two “mobilizing passions” are essentially inextricable — his authority as a “national chieftain” derives from his superhuman instincts. And the superiority of those instincts to reasoned argument is a central plank of the Trump platform. Instead of releasing a detailed strategy for enhancing national security, Trump has repeatedly touted his ability to “feel” when a terrorist attack is coming. And through his misogynistic digs at Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly and his rival Carly Fiorina, Trump has portrayed such superior instincts as a decidedly male trait.
On this one, Trump’s clearly a yes.
“The right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.”
Trump may actually be less socially Darwinistic than his Republican rivals. He’s one of the only GOP candidates to give a vigorous defense of providing the poor with health care as a fundamental right. And he believes that even the un-chosen among us deserve a happy Father’s Day.
That’s a sentiment as American and anti-fascist as apple pie.
“The beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success.”
When Trump supporters beat up a Black Lives Matter protester in Alabama this weekend, Trump didn’t call their violence “beautiful.” But he did suggest that it was justified, telling Fox News, “Maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”
That tentative endorsement of punishing dissent with assault may not perfectly express the fascist ethos. But it comes disconcertingly close. Which may be a fair way of characterizing Trumpism more broadly.
In all, that gets us to a score of five on Paxton’s nine-point “Is it fascism?” test — certainly high enough to show that the discussion is not a frivolous one.
It’s important to be clear that some aspects of Trump’s embodied ideology — its consumerist individualism, limited embrace of pluralism, and (very occasional) humanitarianism — are antithetical to fascism. But other aspects of Trumpism hark back to the most hideous elements of that justly vilified political form. The Republican front-runner has built his campaign on alarmist lies about vulnerable minority populations and the promise that national decline can be reversed through the extra-legal expulsion and monitoring of such internal enemies.
Perhaps the most accurate term for Trump’s politics is simply dangerous. But to the extent that fascist alerts us to the unique dangers of his brand of demagoguery, it may be worth excusing its imprecision.