In an interview with Slate, the historian of fascism Robert Paxton warns against describing Donald Trump as fascist because “it’s almost the most powerful epithet you can use.” But in this case, the shoe fits. And here is why.
Like Mussolini, Trump rails against intruders (Mexicans) and enemies (Muslims), mocks those perceived as weak, encourages a violent reckoning with those his followers perceive as the enemy within (the roughing up of protesters at his rallies), flouts the rules of civil political discourse (the Megyn Kelly menstruation spat), and promises to restore the nation to its greatness not by a series of policies, but by the force of his own personality (“I will be great for” fill in the blank).
To quote Paxton again, this time from his seminal "The Anatomy of Fascism": “Fascist leaders made no secret of having no program.” This explains why Trump supporters are not bothered by his ideological malleability and policy contradictions: He was pro-choice before he was pro-life; donated to politicians while now he rails against that practice; married three times and now embraces evangelical Christianity; is the embodiment of capitalism and yet promises to crack down on free trade. In the words of the Italian writer Umberto Eco, fascism was “a beehive of contradictions.” It bears noting that Mussolini was a socialist unionizer before becoming a fascist union buster, a journalist before cracking down on free press, a republican before becoming a monarchist.
Like Mussolini, Trump is dismissive of democratic institutions. He selfishly guards his image of a self-made outsider who will “dismantle the establishment” in the words of one of his supporters. That this includes cracking down on a free press by toughening libel laws, engaging in the ethnic cleansing of 11 million people (“illegals”), stripping away citizenship of those seen as illegitimate members of the nation (children of the “illegals”), and committing war crimes in the protection of the nation (killing the families of suspected terrorists) only enhances his stature among his supporters. The discrepancy between their love of America and these brutal and undemocratic methods does not bother them one iota. To borrow from Paxton again: “Fascism was an affair of the gut more than of the brain.” For Trump and his supporters, the struggle against “political correctness” in all its forms is more important than the fine print of the Constitution.
To be fair, there are many differences between Italian Fascism of interwar Europe and Trumpism of (soon to be) post-Obama America. For one, Mussolini was better read and more articulate than Trump. Starting out as a schoolteacher, the Italian Fascist read voraciously and was heavily influenced by the German and French philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Marie Guyau, respectively. I doubt Trump would know who either of these two people were. According to the Boston Globe, Trump speaks at the level of a fourth grader.
There are other more consequential differences, of course: the interwar Italy was a much bigger mess than the USA is today; the democratic institutions of this country are certainly more resilient and durable than those of the young unstable post-World War I Italy; the economy, both U.S. and worldwide, is not in the apocalyptic state it was in the interwar period; and the demographics of the USA mitigate against the election of a racist demagogue. So, Trump’s blackshirts are not marching on Washington, yet.
Also, as a historian I have learned to beware of historical analogies and generally eschew them whenever I can, particularly when it comes to an ideology that during World War II caused the deaths of 60 million human beings. The oversaturation of our discourse with Hitler comparisons is not only exasperating for any historian, but is offensive to the memory of Hitler’s many victims most notably the six million Jews his regime murdered in cold blood.
Finally, rather than explaining it, historical analogies often distort the present, sometimes with devastating consequences. The example that comes to mind is the Saddam-is-like-Hitler analogy many in the George W. Bush administration used to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which was an unmitigated disaster. The overuse, or misuse, of a historical analogy can also make policy makers more hesitant to act with equally disastrous consequences: the prime examples are Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s when the West attributed their inaction to stop the slaughter in each country by arguing that these massacres were “not like the Holocaust.”
Thus, for a historical analogy to be useful to us, it has to advance our understanding of the present. And the Trumpism-Fascism axis (pun intended) does this in three ways: it explains the origins of Trump the demagogue; it enables us to read the Trump rally as a phenomenon in its own right; and it allows those of us who are unequivocally opposed to hate, bigotry, and intolerance, to rally around an alternative, equally historical, program: anti-fascism.
The Very Fascist Origins of Trumpism
That white supremacist groups back Donald Trump for president of the United States, and his slowness to disavow the support of David Duke, all illuminate the fascistic origins of Trump the phenomenon. In fact, Paxton acknowledges that while Fascism began in France and Italy, “the first version of the Klan in the defeated American south was arguably a remarkable preview of the way fascist movements were to function in interwar Europe.” That the KKK was drawn to the Trump candidacy, and that he refused to disavow them speak volumes about his fascistic roots.
Like Fascism, Trumpism has come about on the heels of a protracted period of ideological restlessness. Within the Republican Party this restlessness has resulted in a complete de-legitimization of the so-called GOP establishment.
Benito Mussolini came to the scene in the 1920s at a time when all the known “isms” of the time had lost their mojos. Conservatism, which since the French Revolution had been advocating for monarchy, nobility, and tradition, was dealt a devastating blow by the First World War, which destroyed four major empires (Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and German), made universal male suffrage (mostly) the norm, and eliminated a generation of aristocrats. Although initially seen as victorious, liberalism, in its emphasis on equality, constitutions, parliaments, and civil debates, quickly proved unable to solve the mammoth problems facing Europe after the war. To the millions of unemployed, angry, and hungry Europeans, the backroom politicking and obscure party debates seemed petty at best, and deserving of destruction at worst. Shoving millions of Europeans into nation-states they saw as alien to their ethnicity created huge minority problems and sparked irredentist movements including fascists and their many copycats. The success of Lenin’s Bolsheviks in Russia and their protracted, terrifying, civil war made Communism unpalatable for most Europeans.
Enter Fascism. Fascism promised people deliverance from politics. Fascism was not just different type of politics, but anti-politics. On the post-WWI ruins of the Enlightenment beliefs in progress and essential human goodness, Fascism embraced emotion over reason, action over politics. Violence was not just a means to an end, but the end in itself because it brought man closer to his true inner nature. War was an inevitable part of this inner essence of man. Millions of European men had found this sense of purpose and camaraderie in the trenches of the First World War and were not going to sit idly by while politicians took it away from them after the war (famously, after the war Hitler was slow to demobilize and take off his uniform). Fascists’ main enemies were not just Marxist politicians, or liberal politicians, but politicians in general.
It is therefore no coincidence that the most common explanation Trump supporters muster when asked about their vote is that “he is no politician.” Trump did not invent this anti-politics mood, but he tamed it in accordance with his own needs. Ever since the election of Barack Obama the Republicans have refused to co-govern. Senator Mitch McConnell’s vow that his main purpose would be to deny the president a second term was only the first of many actions by which the Republicans have retreated from politics. The Tea Party wave meant an absolute refusal to compromise on even the most essential issues, which were central to the economic survival of the government if not the entire country (the Debt ceiling fiasco anyone?!). But since then it has gotten worse: now even the establishment Republicans who had been initially demonized by the Tea Party, such as Mitch McConnell, have openly abrogated their own constitutional powers by refusing to exercise them. This has been most evident in their blanket refusal to even hold a hearing for a Scalia replacement on the Supreme Court. In other words, the Republicans themselves, not Trump, broke politics.
The anti-intellectualism of Trump has also been a long time in the making. It was the Republican establishment that has for decades refused to even consider the science of climate change and has through local education boards strove to prevent the teaching of evolution. Although not as explicit as the Fascists were in their efforts to use the woman’s body for reproducing the nation, the Republican attempts at restricting abortion rights, and women access to healthcare in general have often been designed with the same purpose in mind. Of course American historians have pointed to this larger strand of anti-intellectualism in American politics, but what is different about this moment is that Trump has successfully wedded this anti-Enlightenment mood with the anti-political rage of the Republican base.
Still, for a fascist to be accepted as legitimate he has to move the crowd and from the very beginning of his candidacy Trump has done this by stoking racial animosity and grievances. It is no coincidence that the Trump phenomenon emerges during the tenure of the first black President. It bears remembering that Trump’s first flirtation with running for office was nothing more than his insistent, nonsensical, irrational, and blatantly racist demand that President Obama show his birth certificate and his Harvard grades. This was more than a dog whistle to the angry whites that the first black President was not only un-American, literally, but that he was intellectually inferior to them, despite graduating from Harvard Law. If one considers this “original sin” of Trump then the KKK endorsement of his candidacy and Trump’s acceptance of it seem less strange.
Like Mussolini, Trump is lucky in his timing. When Mussolini created his Fascists in 1919 there were numerous other far right, authoritarian movements popping up all over Europe. As Robert Paxton reminds us, by the early 20th century Europe had gotten “swollen” by refugees, mostly Ashkenazi Jews who had since the 1880s been escaping pogroms in Eastern Europe. Culturally and religiously different they caused reactions amongst the Europeans that are strikingly similar to the way in which many European politicians have reacted to the influx of Muslim refugees and migrants from the Middle East and North Africa. The Hungarian government’s building of a fence to prevent Muslim migrants from coming in and its rhetoric of foreign, Islamic, invasion is just one of more noted examples of Islamophobic euphoria sweeping rightwing and fascistic movements into power all across Europe. As Hugh Eakin points out in the New York Review of Books, even Denmark, the beacon of civilized, tolerant, Europe has become susceptible to the xenophobic fear mongering: hate speech now passes for mainstream discussion (the Speaker of the Danish Parliament claims Muslim migrants to be at “a lower stage of civilization”). The head of the newly elected right-wing party in Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński, has described migrants as "parasites" who bring diseases." Thus, it is no coincidence that Trump often references the refugee crisis to point to the ineptitude of European politicians and to simultaneously warn of a yet another jihadist terrorist attack. Trump would feel perfectly at home in the company of the new generation of European authoritarians like Viktor Orban of Hungary or Vladimir Putin of Russia. He does not care that Putin considers America Russia’s historic enemy because for Trump the real enemy is within.
The Trump Rally: An exercise in community building
If we historicize Trump in such a way, his rallies become much easier to read. For Trump’s supporters, the pushing and shoving, and even the outright violence, against protesters, and the menacingly carnivalesque atmosphere are, to an extent, an end in itself. Just observe how groups at Trump rallies spontaneously come together to roughen up a protester. The sheer emotional intensity of their facial expressions shows us precisely why they support Trump and why no policy proposal from any of his competitors can ever come close to diminishing Trump in his supporters’ eyes. Violence is electrifying and community building as much as it is devastating for those on the receiving end. Action over politics.
But it bears reminding that the crowds have transformed Trump as well. At the beginning of the campaign he seemed taken aback by protesters, but recently he has begin to egg them on (“I’d like to punch him in the face”). Simultaneously, he has gotten more confident on stage, bolder in his outrage proposals (ban all Muslims from the U.S.), and more theatrical.
This transformation brings to mind a moment in the history of another authoritarian, the former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic whose ascent to power wrecked the country of Yugoslavia and caused a series of vicious civil wars that killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions. When Milosevic first appeared on TV he did so as a mid-level member of the Communist party and spoke with the dry jargon of a Marxist intellectual. In 1987, party bosses sent Milosevic to the volatile Serbian province of Kosovo to quell a riot by Serb locals who were complaining that the majority Albanians had been perpetrating violence, and even genocide, against them. Feeling abandoned by the government, the Serb nationalists surrounded Milosevic telling him that Albanians were beating them. Milosevic hesitated. He began to employ the party jargon of national unity and promised to solve their problems, but the crowd grew rowdier and at one point, Milosevic looked scared. That’s when he uttered the phrase that would transform him from an anonymous politician to a Serb nationalist leader: “no one can dare to beat you!” The crowd erupted in cheers, propelling his career during which he destroyed not only his own party, but also the country at large. He would die nineteen years later in a prison cell at the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague, Netherlands.
This is not to say that Trump will cause a civil war in the U.S., or that he will commit war crimes (although he did promise to do the latter). But the destruction of the GOP looks all but imminent should he be the nominee. We should be warned that fascist demagogues are often made on the sly, almost imperceptibly, and that the fires they stir up tend to spread rather quickly. The pull of history on individuals is often inexorable. In his excellent portrayal of Nazification of German life, the historian Peter Fritzsche recounts a story of Karl Dürkefälden, a German living in the town of Peine during Hitler’s ascent to power. An opponent of Nazis, Karl expressed in his diary a profound sense of shock at how quickly his whole family—mother, father, and his sister—underwent a conversion to Nazism during the early 1933. In one particularly poignant scene, Karl is standing at the window of his house alongside his wife looking at the Nazi May Day celebrations, in which the entire, now Nazified, community participates, including his father. He struggles to remain on the sidelines not because he is a convinced Nazi, but because his entire community is caught up in what he called Umstellung, “a rapid...adjustment or conversion to Nazism,” in the words of Fritzsche.
Individuals who successfully resist historical Umstellungs are unfortunately few and far between. This is why we celebrate them. Those who succumb to them are much more common. The case of a young man by the name of Drazen Erdemovic from the Bosnian war is telling in this regard. Born in a mixed Croat-Serb family, the twenty-four year old Erdemovic found himself in 1995 a part of the Bosnian Serb firing squad executing Muslim men around the town of Srebrenica: by his own admission, he personally murdered seventy Muslims. After surrendering to the war crimes tribunal in the Hague, Erdemovic said:
I have lost many very good friends of all nationalities because of that war, and I am convinced that all of them, all of my friends, were not in favor of a war. I am convinced of that. But simply they had no other choice. This war came and there was no way out. The same happened to me.
“They had no other choice.” “This war came and there was no way out.” Once unleashed, the demons of history are too difficult for any individual to resist on his/or her/ own no matter what their backgrounds or political beliefs of the moment. This is why resistance to such atrocities always requires a movement, a community, and in fighting Fascists this was Anti-Fascism.
Branding Trumpism Fascist has the political benefit of mobilizing disparate forces in the fight against him just like the antifascist coalition of World War II led to unprecedented alliances between ideologically disparate forces (the Soviet-American alliance being the primary example). In the American context, seeing Trump as a 2016 reincarnation of Mussolini can unite Democrats, Republicans, independents, Naderites, neo-cons, constitutionalists, and others, into a broad anti-Fascist coalition which would bring Trump down and save our democracy.
In conclusion, the Fascism analogy is admittedly not a perfect fit. When it comes to ideologies, no analogy is. This is because ideologies change through time. The religious anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages was very different from its racial reincarnation during the nineteenth century, the latter of which was picked up by the Nazis (although religious anti-Semitism still remained a part of it). The anti-imperial, liberal, nationalism of the first half of the nineteenth century was very different from its more virulent, expansionist, and repressive kind at the beginning of the twentieth. Stalin’s Bolshevism was much scarier and arbitrarily deadlier than Lenin’s. In other words, just like the overuse of historical analogies should not make us too quick to embrace them, a search for a perfect ideological replica of interwar Fascism should not blind us to its ugly re-emergence in 2016.
Today, the echoes of Fascism are all too audible to anyone willing to hear them. Having lost one country, Yugoslavia, I really don’t want to lose another one.