Donald Trump is so unusual and hard to gauge that his political ascent has sent historians, scholars, and journalists rummaging in the past for some sort of parallel by which to understand him. Trump has been likened to political figures as diverse as Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, Joe McCarthy, Nelson Rockefeller, George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan. At the same time, though, this effort at political taxonomy has led the chattering classes on the internet to ask a much more frightening question: Is Donald Trump a fascist?
Posing this question may seem absurd on its face because most Americans think of fascism as something that has happened in other places at other times, but the exercise is useful. First, it is helpful to remind people that “fascist” is not merely a pejorative, but a real word that means specific things; attempting to define fascism is edifying. Second, using a definition of fascism as a yardstick by which to measure Trump may yield some interesting observations, even if it turns out that Trump is not a fascist.
With these thoughts in mind, One Thing after Another has turned to Professors Hugh Dubrulle and Phil Pajakowski—the History Department’s two historians of Modern Europe—for their reflections on this matter.
Professor Phil Pajakowski
Is Donald Trump a fascist? A quick google search reveals that I am not the first person to raise this question, and most certainly I will not be the last. Though not innovative, the question is nonetheless pertinent. Historians have a duty to use language carefully and to think critically about references to past events and ideas. “Fascist” is not just an insult slung at politicians perceived as extreme conservatives but rather a term used to influence political debate through historical analogy. As such, the use of the word in contemporary circumstances induces historians to assess its value.
To complicate matters, fascism defies clear historical definition. Fascists often presented vague general principles and resisted clear, consistent dissemination of their ideology. The term first appeared in early twentieth century Italy, and Mussolini supplied a relatively cohesive definition in the Enciclopedia Italiana in 1932. Contemporaries and historians have also applied the term to Hitler’s National Socialists, and other radical right-wing movements displayed at least some of the tendencies and terminology of fascism in most European countries in the 1920s and1930s, most notably France and Romania. The appearance of intensely nationalist political movements in a number of countries further complicates efforts to establish clear criteria for evaluation. Fascists emphasized their commitment to their specific national roots and circumstances, and so historians work to tease out the common characteristics of these extremist movements that make the term a useful tool of analysis.
A leading scholar of fascism, Robert Paxton, has provided general criteria for evaluating fascist politics. His elements include an emphasis on group interests over individualism, a fear of collective decline and decadence, an investment of authority in natural leaders, and a glorification of violent struggle.1 Surely exaggerated nationalism and a projection of national crisis were central to the rhetoric of Hitler, Mussolini, and other European fascists as was the transcendence of national interest over other sources of moral values. As a corollary to assertion of national preeminence, fascists, in particular Mussolini, argued for the primacy of government over the individual and exalted the role of the state in society. We could further add a shortage of specific policy proposals in favor of broad promises of future greatness and vague hints at lurking evils to be eradicated. The dismissal of precise, open statements of policy correlates to a rejection of democratic process, which was a defining feature of historical fascism. Although claiming to speak for the general public and common interest, European fascists disdained representative government and openly proclaimed their commitment to inspired dictatorship. They regarded democracy as weak in principle and inappropriate to the specific circumstances of their countries.
A brief review of Trump’s public announcements suggests an easy correlation to many of the above criteria. His slogan “make America great again” implies a national decline that he will overcome. Trump’s inspired leadership underlies his frequent repetitions of “believe me” in place of evidence in support of projected specific policies. He will, he asserts, provide an improved medical care system and reestablish American preeminence in world politics, but he sets out few clear indications of means to achieve these goals. His clearer, and more notorious, proposals, including torturing suspected terrorists, having Mexico build a wall to pen in its citizens, banning Muslims from entering the United States, and indicating the religion of American Muslims on their identity cards, are, at the least, authoritarian, unrealistic, and of questionable legality. Moreover, they are intensely nationalist and indicative of a disdain for moral thinking beyond the supposed interests of a dominant ethnic group. Most clearly disturbing is the violence of that underlies Trump’s campaign. His crude rhetoric, hatred for rivals and critics, threats of retaliation, and incitement of followers to attack protesters at campaign rallies evoke painful images for students of the history of European fascism. Trump’s recent assignment of blame to Bernie Sanders’s supporters for violence at election rallies and threat to disrupt the Sanders campaign are particularly reminiscent of fascist tactics.
Other important measures are less clear. Trump has never directly challenged democratic process or assaulted the sanctity of the constitution. Further, in line with Republican thinking in general, Trump is no advocate of enhanced government regulation of the economy or environment. These issues are, though, not so straightforward. Democracy entails more than simply allowing people to cast ballots every few years. Rather, a truly democratic system relies on intelligent, respectful debate that enables voters to reach informed conclusions on matters of substance. Ridiculous insults and implied attacks on candidates’ spouses do not serve to enhance dialogue but rather bring discredit on our electoral process. Trump’s version of small government may also be questionable. His promises to remove millions of illegal aliens, monitor Islamic religious practice, and seal off our borders against Muslims and Mexicans imply enormous police efforts and state intrusion into the lives of private persons.
In contrast to Europeans of the 1920s and1930s, Americans enjoy deeply engrained traditions of democracy and constitutional government. No politician here could openly challenge these values without appearing un-American. Fascist politics in America would no doubt present a distinctly American appearance. In this regard, our historical imagination may mislead us. The banners, uniforms, and odd salutes that characterized European fascism would likely jar American sensibilities. As George Orwell acutely observed, fascists in Britain would dress more soberly than their Continental counterparts.2 Although we may associate fascism with jackbooted thugs, the jackboots are not the essential attribute of fascists.
Of course, Trump’s ultimate intentions are unclear. As Paxton argues, fascist movements assumed different characteristics at differing stages of their development.3 The Italian Fascist and German Nazi parties appear vastly different when observed as dreams advanced by their founders, in their rise to mass political forces, and as the institutions that governed states. Likewise, we simply cannot now project Trump the candidate onto Trump the president with any certainty. We do not know how a president Trump would govern, and we may think he really does not believe much of what he says. Rather, he may simply be an opportunist who employs violent rhetoric to convince his followers of his authenticity and differentiate himself from more conventional, mealy-mouthed politicians. We are left trying to guess his true intentions and may never find them out.
What difference do these distinctions make? Determining that Trump is a fascist will not deter his followers or decide the election, and historical analogies are imperfect and uncertain. They are, though, useful for considering precedents for political behavior and deciding whether a candidate conforms to the traditions of our political discourse. In the case of Trump, historians may well perceive parallels to past experience we do not wish to emulate.
As Walter Sobchak so eloquently states, “are we going to split hairs here?” If someone acts like a fascist and talks like a fascist, maybe we should assume that person is a fascist.
Despite the well-known expression, history does not repeat itself, whatever that would mean, and we are not condemned to do anything. Historians can only point to the tragic consequences of ill-made decisions from the past. Although the German public and German political leaders perhaps should not be expected to have foreseen all the consequences of appointing Hitler chancellor in 1933, they may well be held accountable for handing power over to a clearly hateful and irresponsible man. A comparison that equates the circumstances of the United States of our time with those of Germany of the 1930s would be highly misleading, but reflections on past experience suggest that wise people do not accept leadership that combines violent, xenophobic methods with ill-defined ends and disdain for differing points of view.
1. Robert O. Paxton, “The Five Stages of Fascism,” Journal of Modern History,” 70, 1 (1998): 1-23.
2. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, (San Diego, 1958), 212.
3. Paxton, “Five Stages.”
Associate Professor Hugh Dubrulle
Answering this question is difficult for a number of reasons. First, scholars have not reached a consensus on how to define fascism. As Robert Paxton argues in his work, The Anatomy of Fascism (2004), “no one interpretation of fascism seems to have carried the day decisively to everyone’s satisfaction.”1 In fact, some argue that fascism is not even a coherent ideology that can be explained in some consistent way. Second, at this point, it is hard to determine the connection between Trump’s ideas, words, and deeds. Unlike, say, Mussolini and Hitler, who took ideas seriously and wrote numerous works regarding their ideologies, Trump has never laid out his political principles in a systematic manner. At the same time, it has become a kind of truism among scholars that one ought to judge or assess an ideology through the actions of its adherents.2 However, Trump has never held office, so no one has any idea what he would do if authority were actually conferred upon him.
Having said all that, the question is worth confronting, and for the purposes of this exercise, I will refer to the arguments that appear in Paxton’s Anatomy of Fascism. I realize that in a series of articles and interviews, Paxton has recently wrestled specifically with the question of whether or not Trump is a fascist. However, I prefer to use Paxton’s book because it attempted to make universal statements about fascism and was not written with Trump in mind at all. In other words, using Paxton’s work instead of his recent statements might go some way toward eliminating any current political bias he might have (if at all).
Paxton argues that fascism passes through stages, and the fascism of the dreamer out of office is very different from the fascism of the dreamer who holds power. However, he defines a universal fascism in the following manner:
Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.3
Paxton also notes a series of “mobilizing passions” that underlie fascist actions:
- a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;
- the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it;
- the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies internal and external;
- dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effect of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;
- the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;
- the need for authority by natural chiefs (always male), culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny;
- the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;
- the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success;
- the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.4
Obviously, there is a great deal of overlap between Paxton’s definition of fascism and what he sees as its mobilizing passions. It probably makes sense to draw from both in creating criteria for determining whether a leader’s rhetoric or movement is fascist.
A Sense of Crisis Stemming from Decline
Trump’s official motto is “Make America Great Again!” which suggests the United States is no longer great. He has charged repeatedly that “we [America] lose at everything.” According to Trump, we lose jobs to China abroad and to Mexicans at home. We lose our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We lose to Russia in the diplomatic game. We lose to Iran on nuclear weapons. And so on and so forth. Our decline and defeat has been marked by repeated humiliation. Moreover, Trump and his supporters appear to believe that the traditional nostrums offered by both parties are completely ineffective. Trump did not create this attitude, but he has certainly capitalized on it (witness his lambasting of traditional politicians and politics as useless).
To what extent does Trump think that America’s decline has to do with “individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences”? He has not made much of individualistic liberalism and class conflict, but he does betray a concern for alien influences whether they be illegal aliens from Mexico or Muslims in general. Yet according to Trump, these alien influences have largely been allowed to undermine America because of dumb politicians. In other words, the root cause of decline is not alien influence; rather, decline has come to pass because our political elites are suckers.
Justification of Extreme Action through Victimhood
Americans, then, are victims of their own bad leadership. From Trump’s perspective, the time for “political correctness” is over because righting the nation requires simple, crude, and often “commonsense” action. Bombing, walls, and torture are a number of the solutions he proposes (although, to be fair, he also recommends making or renegotiating “deals” with our antagonists). No matter how he tries to fudge it, he would like to push back on domestic and international legal restraints that tie America’s hands (e.g. torture).
We could make the argument here that what he sees as the victimization of America justifies any action whatsoever, but there doesn’t seem to be anything redemptive, cleansing, or expiatory about the violent policies he recommends (as would be the case with a fascist). Trump’s thinking on this score seems to be that since our enemies are devious and violent, we need to be just as devious and violent. Our main problem, so the story goes, is that our politicians have been too cowardly and stupid to recognize what’s what.
For example, in a March 22, 2016 interview on the Today Show (right after the bombings in Brussels), Trump drew an important contrast between the terrorists who were “smart and tough” and the West which was “soft and weak.” Simply put, Trump argued that one fights fire with fire—otherwise one is a sucker. As Trump put it during the Miami debate, America’s actions were limited by law. However, ISIS “have no laws, they have no rules, they have no regulations. They chop off heads, they drown 40, 50, 60 people at a time in big steel cages, pull them up an hour later, everyone dead — and we’re working on a different set of parameters. . . . We have to expand those laws because we have to be able to fight on at least somewhat of an equal footing or we will never, ever knock out ISIS and all of the others that are so bad. . . . We better expand our laws or we’re being a bunch of suckers and they are laughing at us. They are laughing at us.”
Unity, Purity, and Violence
Trump’s public statements regarding Muslims and Mexico (and the apparent reluctance with which he repudiated the support of white supremacists) suggest to commentators that he is a racist who thinks primarily of whites when he uses the word “America.” The bedrock of his support appears to consist of whites (often working-class) who believe they have received a raw deal and resent racial minorities. And yet, as the media has pointed out repeatedly, Trump has won the support of a diverse constituency about which it is difficult to generalize (aside from the fact that it is anxious and feels let down by the political class).
While Trump seeks to cure the body politic by purging certain undesirable elements, his project of purification is of a somewhat limited nature. He has never asked Americans to cultivate their unique virtues or qualities for the simple reason that he has never articulated what those virtues or qualities are. Hitler, for example, claimed Aryans were culture creators because they possessed the innate ability to sacrifice themselves for the group. Trump makes no claims about Americans’ inherent traits. America was once great, he argues, but adduces no reasons for that greatness.
While Trump’s ambitions regarding unity and purity are circumscribed (or perhaps just ill-defined), violence appears to play some role in this project. We have already referred to Trump’s preference for violent action. It is impossible to avoid mentioning the incidents at Trump’s rallies where “closer integration of a purer community” is accomplished by “exclusionary violence.”
Reliance on the Party, Subservience to the Group
If fascists stress subservience to a group, party, or state, we can say with some certainty that Trump does not fit that model. He marvels at the sudden growth of his “movement,” but as many commentators point out, his organization is not particularly strong—he has not mobilized large numbers of dedicated activists. His campaign relies for its success on rallies and media coverage. Trump’s campaign is really about nothing more than Trump before the cameras.
At the same time, Trump’s message has very little to do with the subordination of the individual to the group. He does not call upon Americans to engage in self-sacrifice for the sake of a party or the state. He does not claim that obligations to the state override all others. All he asks is that voters place their faith in him because he will take care of everything.
Imperial Expansion through War
Fascists were racists and Social Darwinists who believed in imperial expansion. From their perspective, triumph in war against other peoples proved one’s fitness to rule. For that reason, armed struggle was beautiful and glorious for its own sake. Trump may be a racist, he may believe in some vague form of economic Social Darwinism (due to his experience in business), and he may advocate some strong actions overseas, but his foreign policy does not seem to match those of Mussolini and Hitler.
Trump does seem anxious to pound ISIS, but only from the air in conjunction with local allies. He apparently has no desire to send ground troops to the Middle East. Indeed, Trump actually appears hostile to undertaking extensive commitments overseas, particularly in Asia and Europe. If anything, he displays more hostility toward America’s allies than toward its enemies. The general idea is that while we know where we stand with our enemies, our allies are freeloaders. Trump does not display much anxiety to get involved in a major war, and he does not seem to glorify armed struggle for its own sake.
Abandonment of Democratic Liberty
Trump’s record in this area thus far is mixed. He has followed the democratic process throughout the primary. Then again, he has been winning fairly consistently, so there has been no need to act otherwise.
Trump has made, however, some worrisome comments. If denied the nomination in a contested convention, Trump predicted, “I think you’d have riots.” One could look at this statement in a number of ways. Perhaps it was descriptive rather than prescriptive. One could also argue that while a contested convention that resulted in Trump’s rejection by the party would be well within the rules, it would not be democratic since Trump has been preferred by a clear plurality of Republican voters and carried the majority of states (37% of the total votes cast and 21 of 34 states). Still, it is hard to think of Trump engaging in a “March on Cleveland” or even a “March on Washington, DC” (should he make it to the presidential election and lose) in the same way that Mussolini marched on Rome. Here is a case where it is difficult to match thoughts, words, and actions.
Of course, those who are concerned with Trump and the abandonment of democratic liberty often look toward his policies rather than the nature of his participation in the primary process. In addition, Trump’s reaction to the behavior of people attending his rallies does not offer much solace in this regard.
The Need for a National Chieftain and the Superiority of His Instinct to Reason
Trump’s policies, ill-defined as they are in many cases, have proven popular with certain segments of the electorate. But voters have also clearly responded to his style or brand. They do not appear to require details concerning his policies because they believe in the man. They have faith in his judgment and ability to make deals. It is not clear how Mexico will be made to pay for a wall, how the Chinese will be forced to stop taking American money, how Obamacare will be rewritten, how Muslims will barred from the country, or Iran will be compelled to make a new nuclear deal. Yet many voters think Trump can make these things happen because he possesses business acumen and knows how to negotiate. If they don’t believe he can make these things happen (and it is clear that some of his supporters do not), they still believe in his intelligence, shrewdness, and hardheadedness. Such a view of matters seems to indicate that a number of voters need a “national chieftain” whose instincts are superior to “abstract and universal reason” and who can fulfill the nation’s historical destiny (“Making American Great Again!”).
Of course, judging whether somebody is a fascist or not according to some kind of checklist oversimplifies matters. Paxton claims fascism develops in stages, each of which is different. Moreover, Paxton argues that fascism cannot be studied in “isolation, cut off from its environment and it accomplices.”5 It is not too difficult to consider that fascism could mutate as, for instance, means of communication change.
Whatever the case, it does not appear that Trump is a fascist. He certainly fits some of Paxton’s categories but not others. Such an opinion seems to mesh with other commentators who have used Paxton’s criteria. Still others have stopped short of calling Trump a fascist and opted for proto-fascist (see also here). I would agree most with Eric Levitz who writes in New York Magazine that however you define Trump’s politics, they are above all dangerous. The way they have resonated with a segment of the public is worrisome. One can only hope that the support for Trump is the product of a singular intersection between a man and a specific time and place. If it is not, our political leaders should start to make a serious effort to solve the problems that alienate so much of the electorate, otherwise the political system will begin to fall into disrepute among more and more people. And if that happens, sooner or later, the political situation will offer an opportunity to a much more dangerous, cynical, and possibly fanatical political operator who can push the public toward hugely destructive ends.
1. Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), 215.
2. Ibid., 10.
3. Ibid., 218.
4. Ibid., 219-220.
5. Ibid., 207.