the national interest

Trump and the Rhetoric of Fascism

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Conservatives get incensed by comparisons between President Trump and fascist regimes, and a recent social media post by first-year Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, describing immigrant detention facilities as “concentration camps” and denouncing Trump’s “fascist presidency,” set them off again. “To suggest that there is anything immoral about [Trump’s border policies], let alone to associate it with some of the worst acts of repression in modern history or even with Nazi death camps is such a profound and grievous error that it would be shocking coming from anyone besides AOC,” complains obviously aggreived and shocked National Review editor Rich Lowry.

It is fair to say, however inhumane Trump’s border policies may be, Ocasio-Cortez overstated the case — in large part because the massive difference between “concentration camps” (the literal definition of which is satisfied here) and death camps is generally lost on most Americans. On the other hand, the fascistic overtones of Trump’s presidency are quite clear. The conservative refusal to acknowledge any link between the history of fascism and Trump’s political style is a much greater error than Ocasio-Cortez’s.

Nazism is an especially dangerous strain of fascism. The answer to the question of whether Trump is a Nazi is obviously no. The Nazis were driven by Adolf Hitler’s ideology of genocidal racism and land conquest. Whatever catastrophes may await us, Trump’s presidency is not going to end in mass land invasions and industrialized genocide.

That is not the end of the question, though. Actual Nazis recognize Trump as an ally and a source of inspiration for their movement. White supremacist groups have created a peripheral role for themselves in conservative politics. “The Trump campaign is well aware of the organized participation of Proud Boys rallies merging into Trump events,” a “disillusioned” GOP operative told New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel. “They don’t care. Staff are to treat it like a coalition they can’t talk about.”

Trump’s supporters have dismissed any comparison between Trump’s politics and Nazism as a slander so obviously unfair they can use it as a punch line. Conservative pundit Stephen Miller laughed at the notion that Trump’s border control agenda had any similarities to Hitler’s:

In fact, the Nazis campaigned on the need to secure the eastern border from heavy immigration of Jews (yes, fleeing violence in Russia), which the German right feared was changing their country’s demographic character. The original Nazi manifesto declared “the state should make its primary duty to provide a livelihood for its citizens,” and demanded, “Any further immigration of non-Germans is to be prevented.” Benjamin Carter Hett’s history of Hitler’s rise, The Death of Democracy, notes that Germans frequently lamented their “bleeding border” on the East. “Certainly we want to build a wall, a protective wall,” wrote Joseph Goebbels.

This is not to say that any restrictionist immigration agenda leads inevitably to genocide, nor even that restrictionism is inherently fascistic. One can certainly draw principled distinctions between authoritarian nationalism and the kind that is restrained by liberal norms. But Trump has blurred those boundaries, if not erased them altogether. Conservatives are deluding themselves if they deny any thematic continuities between Trumpism and Nazism.

In the last week alone, Trump has accused the New York Times of “a virtual act of treason,” while repeating his description of non-party-controlled media as the “enemy of the people.” He has mused that “the people would demand” he stay in office past a second term, and claimed Congress cannot legally impeach him. Defending his right to fire any Executive branch official, even one investigating crimes by him or his associates, Trump casually stated he runs “the country.” (“A president can run the country. And that’s what happened, George. I run the country, and I run it well.”) Normally conservatives would place enormous weight on the distinction between running the Executive branch of the federal government — or even, more expansively, the government — and running the country. Because four years of Trumpian demagogic slanders have numbed everybody’s senses, this comment, like all the others, passed by with hardly any objection.

So, while “Is Trump a Nazi?” can be answered in the clear negative, the answer to the question of whether Trump is a fascist is, it depends. On the operational level, Trump has not locked up his political opponents, suppressed independent media, or suspended the rule of law. On the rhetorical level, though, Trump is most certainly a fascist.

Trump’s defenders have a ready answer for these charges: It’s just words. Lowry’s latest column waves away what he calls “Trump’s constant tweeting and lurid, yet meaningless controversies.” Likewise, Lowry has previously objected to the F-word as hyperbole, because Trump is just calling people names. The president “has tweeted, called the press names, and — yes — highlighted crimes committed by illegal immigrants. Unpresidential? Yes,” he conceded. “Disturbing? At times. Fascistic? No … these comparisons would be fair and apt if Trump went on to purge and jail his opponents.”

It’s not completely true that Trump has failed to act at all on his authoritarian ambitions. He has punished the Washington Post by raising postage rates on Amazon, and ordered the blocking of a merger to punish CNN. (That case is under litigation.) He has ordered the military to carry out a domestic ambition — funding a border wall — in defiance of Congress, and boasts that his loyal attorney general is investigating various opponents. Still, it is fair to say that between Trump’s fascistic rhetoric and his abuses of power, there lies, for the moment at least, a large chasm.

What is interesting is the way conservatives have used the largely rhetorical nature of Trump’s fascistic politics a defense. Trump can call the media “enemies of the people” all day long, and we should shrug because it’s just words. Fascist rhetoric is meaningless, but anti-fascist rhetoric is an outrageous slander. What reasonable case is there to hold the president of the United States to the lowest standard of any public official?

Trump and the Rhetoric of Fascism