Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Donald Trump Jr. emerged from an advance screening of the latest cinematic triumph by pardoned felon Dinesh D’Souza burbling with a previously dormant enthusiasm for historical inquiry. “When you have a bunch of kids in dreadlocks running around screaming about ‘fascism’ and all these things,” he explained, “it’s like, wait a second, have you actually taken a history class, do you actually know what these words mean that you’re running around and spewing. And I think they don’t.”
Anything that inspires Donald Trump Jr. to want to learn more would seem to be laudable. Sadly, Trump Jr. is not proposing that today’s youth should take more history classes. Indeed, he maintains that history classes are filled with lies promoted by liberal academic elites. Instead, he wishes the dreadlocked youth would pay more attention to the revisionist history promoted by D’Souza in his latest film, Death of a Nation, which opens in theaters nationwide tonight. In it, D’Souza continues his long-standing contention that racists and fascists of the far right are actually the true allies of the liberal left. “You see the Nazi platform in the early 1930s … and you look at it compared to like, the DNC platform of today, you’re saying, man, those things are awfully similar,” said Trump Jr.
D’Souza’s case follows a long-standing tradition of conservative polemic, which attempts to boldly redefine the ideological spectrum. Rather than accept the conventional terms of the debate, in which conservatism occupies a spot on the continuum between liberalism and fascism, they define fascism as an ideology of the left, the complete opposite of conservatism. Relatedly, and even more preposterously, they insist that white racism is also associated with the American left, rather than the right.
Jonah Goldberg’s 2008 book, Liberal Fascism, defined Hitler and Mussolini as merely having more extreme versions of ideas proposed by American liberals like Hillary Clinton. His National Review colleague, Kevin Williamson, has likewise argued that the racist, states’-rights-fixated ideology of the conservative white South is best expressed by the Obama-era Democratic party, rather than the GOP. D’Souza has enthusiastically taken up both these claims.
It is of course true that in the United States, the Democrats of the 19th century were fervent defenders of slavery, drew their strongest support from the white South, and who (relatedly) hated big government and believed the Constitution should be interpreted to strictly limit Washington’s ability to abridge property rights through taxes or regulation. And it was the Republicans who opposed slavery, had support from New Englanders and African-Americans (when and where they were allowed to vote), and supported activist federal government. Over the course of the 20th century, the two parties switched identities. The reversal was hastened by the conservative movement takeover of the Republican Party. Conservatives loudly opposed their party leadership’s support for civil rights, and argued that the party could move to the right and expand its support by appealing to anti-integration whites.
Having succeeded in that stated goal, conservatives today find it necessary to renounce the very ideological project they carried out. Their revisionist argument rests on pretending the comprehensive identity swap between the two parties never took place.
It is likewise true that Nazis and fascists were not Reaganite enthusiasts for small government. Because fascism took power in a context far removed from early 21st-century American politics, it was easy for conservative revisionists to pluck disconnected items from the fascist agenda in order to place them on the left. The Big Reveal of D’Souza’s film, which so impressed Trump, is that the Nazi platform called for universal health care, attacked bankers, and so on.
And yes, Nazis successfully co-opted some of the populist economic appeal of their socialist rivals while separating themselves with racist, nationalist, and authoritarian appeals. But this point carries much less force in an era when the Republican Party is led by a man who is doing the exact same thing. Donald Trump also promised government-run health care for everybody. See Trump’s closing ad in the 2016 election, leaning heavily on attacks on international (and, coincidentally, Jewish-sounding) bankers:
Before Trump came along, the gap between mainstream Republican politics and Nazism was wide enough that one could not easily draw a straight line between the two. Under Trump, that line has been erased. Trump is not a Nazi or a fascist, but he has drawn Nazis into the periphery of his coalition.
While conservatives like D’Souza are trying to attach the legacy of the 19th-century Democratic Party to the very different modern incarnation, Trump is out there loudly claiming that legacy for himself by casting his own presidency as the heir to Andrew Jackson’s. If today’s Democrats are the modern equivalent of the 19th-century pro-slavery Democrats, why are they trying to take down Confederate memorials, while Republicans like Trump defend them?
It is bizarre that conservatives are still attempting to surmise, through indirect inquiry, what Nazis would say about politics today when there are actual Nazis who are happy to pick up a tiki torch and tell us. There is no mystery here. The people who proudly lay claim to the legacy of the Confederacy and Nazism are openly enthusiastic about Trump. They are fine with his economic populism, and gaga for his nativism.
Calling modern liberals the Real Nazis and neo-Confederates was a fun troll for the right. You can’t troll your opponents as Nazis when there are proud Nazis out there marching for you.