Fascism in America and Donald Trump
For years, it was an outlandish insult to compare someone’s behavior to Hitler’s. The accusation would be bandied about and in almost all cases, the actions that gave rise to the comparison paled in comparison to anything that occurred in Nazi Germany. Thus I hesitate to even address whether the current popularity of Donald Trump is a harbinger of things to come. Nonetheless, after reading an article in Slate by Jamelle Bouie that analyzes the elements of fascism, and which cites commentary by both liberal and conservatives who view Trump as having fascist tendencies, I think it is a matter that should be examined.
As Bouie explains in that Slate article:
“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.”
What are some of these elements? Bouie takes an excellent article written by Umberto Eco, in which Eco lists 14 elements of fascism, and narrows it down to seven factors. I reviewed both lists and recommend that before you make up your mind you read both articles. For the sake of simplicity (and desiring to be as accurate and truthful as possible), I will summarize the elements as they appear in the original article by Eco.
The factors are: a cult of tradition (which merges disparate pieces of myth and history in a manner that defies critical analysis); a cult of action for the sake of action; a rejection of modernism; exploitation of the fear of difference or diversity (emphasizing “fear of the intruder”); “derives from individual or social frustration” thus appealing to a “frustrated middle class”; obsession with a plot; humiliation at the wealth and/or force of an enemy; a belief that pacifism is deficient because “life is lived for struggle”; emphasizes popular elitism, with the corresponding belief that every citizen belongs to the best people of the world; a cult of heroism that celebrates death in the service of country; a cult of machismo; valuing collectivism over individualism; respecting strong leadership in lieu of “’rotten’ parliamentary governments” or weak and dissolute legislatures; using Newspeak, or overly simplistic syntax and jargon (which defies critical and rational analysis by potential challengers).
As it stands, I don’t think Trump fulfills all of the listed elements. He does not completely appeal to traditionalism or to ancient myth; indeed, he can barely quote from the Bible (which is supposedly his favorite book?). If Trump were to start weaving the Holy Grail or the lost gospels or the missing tribes of Israel into his message, or even evoke the Holy Wars from the Middle Ages, then perhaps this element would be satisfied. Trump also is not rejecting modernism, nor is he even citing phrases like “original intent” of the Founders—but he is emphasizing so-called “traditional views on marriage” over modern ones that support the freedom of gays to seek legal rights. So the elements of traditionalism and rejection of modernism remain yet to be satisfied, but could easily be met with a bit of tweaking of Trump-speak.
The cult of heroism is not heretofore really met by Trump. If Trump wanted to, he could meet this element by reaching out to military vets, by opposing any and all restrictions on the Second Amendment, by calling for the wider use of the draft, by reaching out possibly to more sports celebrities, by creating more outreach to young men and boys, particularly in the American south and the western states, and perhaps even by picking up outdoors activities like hunting. It should be noted that all such prospective moves would actually increase Trump’s popularity.
The fourth element not met by Trump is a belief that pacifism is deficient because “life is a struggle.” Trump speaks of taking it to ISIS and he often sounds bellicose when facing almost any sort of resistance; take, for example, his recent refusal to appear on a Fox News Debate mediated by Megyn Kelly. Certainly Trump is obnoxious. Certainly he speaks brashly and creates controversy frequently—but he also preaches a love for the good life brought by living as a state-protected capitalist. He does not live as if he struggles with more than his own appetites. That, however, could change. Trump could always adapt an even more aggressive view on foreign policy as well as on terrors both domestic and foreign, but it is more likely not in Trump’s demeanor to sincerely adapt his verbiage to that of a Spartan, warrior-like Dictator. He’s simply too comfortable living in his penthouse to sell the concept that from his standpoint, life is a struggle.
While four factors of the elements of fascism are not well-met, the other ten elements are met somewhat better. Trump does believe in action for action’s sake: he advocates appointing new Supreme Court justices to overthrow the Court’s ruling on gay marriage, he wants to build a big wall between the US and Mexico, he wants to give ISIS what’s coming to them, he wants to appoint more action-oriented negotiators . . . and in general, he tends to bellow, “Let’s just do something, it’s better to act than to over-think everything.”
Trump also appeals to a frustrated middle class rather than to either poor or wealthy Americans. His views on forcing all Muslims to register (or to be banned altogether) reflects a fear of the intruder as well as a bit of an obsession with a plot (and he’s certainly not alone in holding such a fear, for the threat of radical Muslim terrorism is a real one). In addition, Trump speaks to humiliation at the hands of terrorists in the Middle East (and he could easily broaden this sense of humiliation if he focused on the economic power of China and other Asian countries who export cheaper or superior products to the United States).
Trump’s main slogan is “Making America Great Again.” Laced within this slogan is the concept of popular elitism as well as a strong thread of collectivism. Add in something similar to Mussolini’s black shirts and you’d see an America that celebrates the pageantry of belonging—which we already see in popular culture every Sunday in the fall and winter, when the masses parade around wearing their favorite football jersey. Trump may not be the one who brings fascism to America because he lacks a certain machismo, but a politician with a military or athletic background may be able to activate the popular mindset by tying worship of guns or sports into the cult of machismo a bit more closely.
The final two factors, dismissal of weak legislatures and use of Newspeak, are met by nearly every single modern politician. Almost all politicians speak in soundbytes, and unfortunately this is probably our fault. We’ve stopped demanding intelligent and rational debate and we’ve become addicted to easy concepts delivered via pretty talking heads or in brief articles that can be scanned and comprehended with a minimal expenditure of intellectual energy. As Americans, we have largely stopped reading newspapers and complex works of philosophy or political theory. We don’t take the time to read anything longer than a few hundred words. We have made the landscape ready for seeds to grow in this way for the growth of Newspeak.
As far as the “rotten parliamentary government” element, Trump is not alone in attacking the Congress. Politicians from both major parties, as well as independents, have criticized paralysis in the House and Senate. Indeed, such criticism is completely warranted. It’s absolutely ridiculous that the United States government keeps getting shut down due to petty partisan bickering. Our elected officials are making it easy for an authoritarian and charismatic leader to take power by showing the weaker underbelly of democracy transformed into inanity.
In conclusion, we bandy words like “fascism” about far too often. And Trump is not yet a Fascist as viewed through the lens of careful historical analysis. But if Trump wanted to, he could skew in the direction of Fascism and by taking such a turn, he could probably garner more popular support. I sense that we are but one major radical Muslim terrorist attack away from the ground becoming fertile for a leader to combine some of Trump’s bombast with a stronger version of the poison that is Fascism. So while Trump is by no means Hitler or Mussolini, I do think that much of Trump’s rhetorical can best be viewed from the lens of history, quietly informing us as to the truth.