OK, Trump’s Not a Fascist Leader

But does his fascist rhetoric mean he’s on the way to being one?

US President Donald Trump speaks during a 'Make America Great Again' rally in Billings, Montana on September 6, 2018.
President Donald Trump speaks during a Make America Great Again rally in Billings, Montana on Friday. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

In his new book, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, Jason Stanley examines the ways in which fascist rhetoric helps authoritarians gain power. He looks to the language of demagogues and defines what specifically makes it fascist—more on that below—while also identifying what distinguishes leaders who use fascist rhetoric from those who govern as fascists. I recently spoke by phone with Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what was particularly fascistic about Trump’s campaign, different types of authoritarians, and the danger of thinking that fascist ideas are alien to the good old United States of America.

Isaac Chotiner: There have been several books about fascism recently. What is it that you thought you could bring to the table that is new?

Jason Stanley: My book is about fascist politics. Not fascism as a system of government, but rather fascism as a set of rhetorical tropes to run for office to gain power. What I’ve been working on in this past almost decade now is propaganda and rhetoric. So I’m drawing on my expertise in the domains of propaganda and rhetoric and the history of political philosophy, because the history of political philosophy tells us that, in certain moments, democracy is a very vulnerable system and it’s vulnerable in particular to a high degree of inequality. Plato’s Republic and Rousseau are very clear about this: that in moments of terrible inequalities, resentment is easy to create.

Secondly, I think people make a mistake by not distinguishing the very particular kind of rhetoric that goes with fascist politics from other kinds of authoritarianism. There are lots of bad things. And fascism is just one kind of bad thing.

How is it different?

Well, fascism is one kind of authoritarianism. There’s also communism and systems that threaten our freedom by holding out the possibility of radical class equality. And that’s a very different rhetorical structure than with fascism. For instance, in fascist politics, you always have a return to a mythic past. Fascist politics involve this idea of purity, and the idea is that somehow this wonderful, incredible, glorious path of the pure nation has been ruined by liberalism, by foreign invasion, by feminism, by the tarnishing of the traditional family. That is completely different than the kind of thing you get in communist authoritarianism, where the idea is we’re marching toward a glorious future that has never been realized. And purity isn’t an element in it. In communist authoritarianism, you don’t have, for example, patriarchy as a dominant theme. So when you have Madeleine Albright grouping together very different kinds of politics and calling them all fascist just because they’re all threats to our freedom, I think that obscures one very particular threat we face.

How else do you think your analysis is different?

Other books are written, including Timothy Snyder’s and Madeleine Albright’s, though Snyder is better in this regard, as if fascism is something like this European invasion. What I do in my book is: I center it in United States history. I say, look, we have a lot of these elements right here. And we’ve had them here for a very long time. You know, racial panic—obviously U.S. history is replete with that.

And Hitler was in fact deeply influenced by the United States. The 1924 Immigration Act is something that Hitler talks about in his second book and in Mein Kampf, and praises it. We’re at particular risk, because we’ve had a susceptibility to fascist politics forever. I mean, you see it in our system of racial exclusion, which was a model for the Nuremberg laws.

Who would you put in the lineage of American fascists?

We have this very strong element of like, you know, “White people work hard and minorities are lazy.” That’s in our history. And there are too many politicians to mention there. I think if you hear people talk about the Confederacy, people will say, in denying that the Civil War was about slavery, they will use extremely ultranationalist terminology. It’s of course anachronistic to call the Confederacy “fascist,” but you’ll find people saying, “We were protecting the homeland from foreign invasion,” using this very nationalist rhetoric. And then, in the sort of memorial culture about the great mythic past, you have very strong problematic elements, worrisome elements about a return to something that was actually quite frightening for many people.

Well, right. But the thing about minorities or foreigners being lazy seems like a rather universal trope of right-wing politics.

It is.

I would be surprised if there is a country or society that doesn’t have it. So what separates that out from fascism? Because it seems like demagoguery and nationalism are part of any reactionary conservatism in some sense.

Well, certain kinds of reactionary conservatism tilt into fascism. I mean, fascism is the extreme of reactionary conservatism. But I think conservatism is too vast a term, because any umbrella term that includes social conservatives and libertarians seems weird to me. So, I would think, a consistent Christian conservative is not going to find the current immigration policies acceptable. Neither will the consistent libertarian. A consistent libertarian is going to reject some of the racial rhetoric. But yes, there have been these codes for fascist politics in regular conservative politics in the Republican Southern Strategy for quite some time. But now it’s become very explicit.

In fascist politics, you always paint democracy as corrupt. So democracy—the regular give and take of democracy—is corrupt, and then the fascist politicians themselves are often very corrupt. But that’s seen as justified by the fact that they have to fight this corrupt system.

Another key element is the attack on truth. It’s conspiracy theories. My first New York Times piece in 2011 was on birtherism, because, knowing this history, I was recognizing that our public sphere was becoming more susceptible to conspiracy theories. And conspiracy theories are a terrible sign of fascist politics.

About 12 different times during this conversation, you’ve said something either consciously or unconsciously with echoes of Trump’s rhetoric today. Trump is obviously an authoritarian, or would like to be an authoritarian and has an authoritarian personality. To what degree do you think his rhetoric fits with the idea of fascist rhetoric, and to what degree does it not and is more run-of-the-mill authoritarian?

I think as far as his rhetorical strategy goes, it’s very fascist. He’s certainly not calling to impose equality. It certainly doesn’t have any hints of communism or anything like that. He explicitly targets minority out-groups in calling them rape threats with regularity, which has the psychological effect of creating an association between immigrants and crime.

He regularly lies. He creates this connection between himself and his supporters with that technique of lying. Because it’s this kind of “Us against them,” rather than truth or falsity. He’s harsh, but he’s harshly patriarchal. He’s very much the strongman. His values are social Darwinism. You don’t find that in communist authoritarianism. You find him talking about winners and losers, and it’s all about winning, and he’s the biggest winner. He does hit all the classic fascist tropes, I have to say.

A couple weeks ago, al-Qaida’s chief bomb maker was killed by a drone in Yemen. We have a president who talks about terrorists being bad and who does not seem to really like Muslims. And his military just ordered a strike to kill this guy, and succeeded. I would think almost any other fascist leader in history, in an equivalent situation, would make a huge deal of something like this. This is like the military doing a great thing, rah-rah! Trump, of course, has no interest in it and is instead tweeting about CNN. I grant you that tweeting about CNN is attacking truth, etc., but there does seem something fundamentally different about what interests him or inspires him. And I’m curious what you make of that.

That’s an interesting point. I mean, I’d like to say that I’m not arguing that Trump is a fascist leader, in the sense that he’s ruling as a fascist. I mean, he clearly isn’t. He hasn’t smashed the institutions. He hasn’t created a fake terrorist attack to take power. So I’m talking about his rhetoric, not his actions. But as I emphasize in the book, rhetoric often leads to policies that are very worrisome.

We all think about the Nazis, and on certain things they had a plan, which they put into action. It feels like with Trump, though, that if he, say, decides to intern Muslims after a terrorist attack or something, it’s not going to be as part of a grand plan he’s had for years.

Right. And yet National Socialism didn’t come up with a “final solution” until 1941. I talk about my grandmother’s memoir of Berlin in the 1930s. Many German Jews in Berlin had no idea of how bad it was getting. Things just seemed much more normal than they were. For years. We’re like a year and a half into this, two years into this. So we don’t know.

But Hitler was always opposed to democracy, and so was planning its overthrow. Whereas Trump seeks to be re-elected by popular demand. This is what’s happening with these modern illiberal democracies. I think that President Trump seeks that kind of popularity and doesn’t want to plan in the first instance. He wants to sort of succeed by that love, which is what we find with a lot of modern authoritarians. And that’s a difference between now and the past.