In trying to explain Donald Trump, I looked to George Wallace, who played a similar role in American politics through the 1960s. But there were other options. Elements of Trump are present in the “Know-Nothing” movement of the 1840s, the radio demogogues of the 1930s, and the “second” Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. There was also the F-word—fascism.
At the time, this seemed like a category error. For as much as I saw (and still see) an authoritarian streak in Trump’s rhetoric and demeanor, fascist seemed premature. Not the least because there’s always been an authoritarian streak in American politics, from the Alien and Sedition Acts to Jim Crow.
In the past week, however, “Donald Trump as fascist” has gone from hyperbolic to mainstream. After endorsing extreme measures in the aftermath of the Paris attacks—from registering Muslim Americans to closing mosques—assorted writers, observers, and political operatives began using fascist to describe Trump’s approach. “Forced federal registration of U.S. citizens, based on religious identity, is fascism. Period. Nothing else to call it,” tweeted Jeb Bush adviser John Noonan. “I just don’t agree with that kind of thing,” declared alleged presidential candidate Jim Gilmore. “I’ve said it’s fascist talk.” “I’m still not sure it’s 100 percent clear that Donald Trump really understands that he’s a neo-fascist,” wrote Michael Tomasky for the Daily Beast.
As apparently mainstream as this is, however, there’s still a question: What, specifically, makes Trump a fascist? After all, America has had racist politicians and internment policies for disparaged minorities. And while they were awful, they weren’t necessarily fascist. Which is to say that, before changing our rhetoric, we should define our terms.
Part of the problem of talking about fascism, at least in American political culture, is that there’s nothing close to a common definition. Sometimes, it’s used as a synonym for Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy. Most often, it’s a political insult, usually directed from the left to the right, but often in the reverse too, always in service of narrow partisan points.
This is too bad because fascist and fascism are terms that actually mean something apart from contemporary political combat and the particulars of early- to mid–20th-century Europe. And while that meaning is fuzzy, contested, and contingent, there are elements that scholars can agree on.
One of the most-read takes on fascism comes from Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco in an essay for the New York Review of Books titled “Ur-Fascism.” Eco emphasizes the extent to which fascism is ad hoc and opportunistic. It’s “philosophically out of joint,” he writes, with features that “cannot be organized into a system” since “many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanacticism.”
With that said, it is true that there are fascist movements, and it’s also true that when you strip their cultural clothing—the German paganism in Nazism, for example—there are common properties. Not every fascist movement shows all of them, but—Eco writes—“it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.” Eco identifies 14, but for this column, I want to focus on seven.
They are: A cult of “action for action’s sake,” where “thinking is a form of emasculation”; an intolerance of “analytical criticism,” where disagreement is condemned; a profound “fear of difference,” where leaders appeal against “intruders”; appeals to individual and social frustration and specifically a “frustrated middle class” suffering from “feelings of political humiliation and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups”; a nationalist identity set against internal and external enemies (an “obsession with a plot”); a feeling of humiliation by the “ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies”; a “popular elitism” where “every citizen belongs to the best people of the world” and underscored by contempt for the weak; and a celebration of aggressive (and often violent) masculinity.
Now, let’s look at Trump. His campaign revolves around one theme: That the United States is weak, that it loses, and that it needs leadership to become “great again.” “We don’t have victories anymore,” he said in his announcement speech. “When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? They kill us. … When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity.” He continued: “The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems,” and “Our enemies are getting stronger and stronger by the way, and we as a country are getting weaker.”
This includes unauthorized immigrants, and now refugees, whom he attacks as a menace to ordinary Americans. The former, according to Trump, take jobs and threaten American safety—“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”—while the latter are a “Trojan horse.” But Trump promises action. He will cut new deals and make foreign competitors subordinate. He will deport immigrants and build a wall on the border, financed by Mexico. He will bring “spectacular” economic growth. And Trump isn’t an ideologue; he’s an opportunist who borrows freely from both parties.
How does he build favor with Republican voters? He shows bravado and “strength,” disparaging weak opponents. He indulges racist rhetoric and encourages violence against protesters. He speaks directly to the petite bourgeoisie in American life: managers, public employees, small-business owners. People squeezed on all ends and desperate for economic and cultural security against capitalist instability and rapid demographic shifts, as represented by President Obama. Elect him, Trump says, and he’ll restore your security and American greatness. “You’re going to say to your children, and you’re going to say to anybody else, that we were part of a movement to take back our country. … And we will make America great again.”
Alone and disconnected, this rhetoric isn’t necessarily fascist. Some of it, in fact, is even anodyne. But together and in the person of Donald Trump, it’s clear: The rhetoric of fascism is here. And increasingly, the policies are too. The only thing left is the violence.
In the Europe of the 1920s and ’30s, fascist parties organized armed gangs to intimidate political opponents. Despite assaults at Trump events, that still seems unlikely. But as we’ve seen with the rise of Trump, the wall between routine and unthinkable is much thinner than we’d like to think.