( Photo credit: Robyn Beck/Agence France Presse)
Is Donald Trump a fascist? He certainly sounds like one.
So strong are the parallels of Trump’s language to the fascist rhetoric of the 1920s and 1930s that I shifted my history curriculum to compare Mussolini and Hitler’s speeches and policies with those of Trump and other members of the political class.
Case in point: On Sunday, November 15, 2015, Jeb Bush argued that only Christians should be allowed into the country; Ted Cruz concurred. The next day, Chris Christie stated that Syrian orphans under the age of five should not be allowed into the US. On Wednesday, the Mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, David Bowers, issued a statement suggesting Muslim refugees meet that same fate as Japanese-Americans who were herded into concentration camps during WWII. Finally, on Thursday November 19th, Donald Trump proposed that Muslims in America be specially registered and identified. So, in the span of five days, senior members of the American political class (all Republicans barring Mayor Bowers) called for religious exclusion at the borders, concentration camps, dual legal and surveillance regimes for Muslim Americans, and special insignia.
The most outspoken of the lot, Donald Trump, has emphasized his belief that Muslim immigration to the US should be explicitly banned—call it a Muslim Exclusion Act.
It sounds fascist, right? No, says Vox Media.
The constellation of academic stars Vox queried about whether or not Donald Trump is a fascist categorically rejected the label. Ranging from the usual excruciating academic jargon (“Fascism is a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism”—Roger Griffin) to much more useful arguments (describing fascism as a type of politics “obsessed with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood”—Robert Paxton), each highly respected scholar rejected the descriptor “fascist” for one reason: Trump continues to embrace the democratic process. They argue that because Trump has not questioned the political legitimacy of democracy itself, he cannot be a fascist and thus has much more in common with the “right-wing populism” of France’s Front National. But this conclusion is problematic, and overlooking its deep flaws might well be contributing to what seems to be Trump’s irresistible rise.
“The exact mimicry of German National Socialism or Italian Fascism is a dangerous measure for assessing the moral and political identity of contemporary political movements. Everyone falls short of Hitler.”
First, the term “fascism” need not be rendered an ineffective description just because it is not an exact mirror of the classical fascism of the 1920s and ’30s. Should Bernie Sanders not be called a democratic socialist because his platform isn’t a carbon copy of, say, the Weimar Republic’s Social Democrats? Conservatism also means something quite different today than what was articulated by Edmund Burke, but the term is still useful as a category to identify a certain body of thought and action. As Mark Twain noted, history never repeats itself, but sometimes it rhymes.
No, Trump does not have an army of Trumpshirts beating political opponents in the streets, but he has responded positively to violence committed in his name, suggesting that his followers are either “very passionate” or that the victims might have deserved to have been “roughed up.” Coupled with statements about a specialized legal regime for certain citizens and a motto that emphasizes reanimating a latent, authentic America, Trump has the rhyme and meter of fascism down pat.
Second, while Mussolini and Hitler were not voted into power and relied on the use or threat of force to engineer executive appointments, their parties did use the democratic process to field candidates, thereby gaining popular legitimacy and shifting their ideologies from the lunatic fringe to the mainstream. The anti-democratic nature of fascism reveals itself as such only when it hits the limits of democratic processes. Currently, these processes appear to be going just swimmingly for Donald Trump.
Lastly, it’s true that Trump’s campaign may have more in common with the reactionary right-wing populism of France’s Front National than Mussolini’s Fasci di Combattimento. However, it’s true only insofar that these are different political movements in different national and historical contexts. The flaw in this analysis hinges on the fact that 1) fascism is always paired with a heavy dose of right-wing populism, but, more importantly, 2) it forgets the fascist origins of the Front National itself. The Front National’s founder Jean-Marie Le Pen has a long list of fascist sympathies, from his admiration of the Vichy collaborationist leader Marshal Philippe Pétain to being fined for having sold records of Hitler speeches. Additionally, when the Front National was founded in 1972, it was a mélange of violent, extreme-right wing, neo-fascist groups, such as l’Ordre Nouveau (The New Order). Le Pen viewed the jack-boots and violence as not immoral but unproductive and by 1974 convinced the membership to start wearing respectable suits. He also eschewed the language of anti-democracy and instead repurposed the rhetoric of French republican universalism to identify those—Muslims and former colonial subjects—who were too particular to be worthy of inclusion in French society and politics. In a deft piece of political jujitsu, Le Pen re-invented the republican tradition and used its themes of assimilation and the separation of church and state as a rationale to exclude certain people at the borders and to draw internal borders in French society.
This should be a warning to those who want to write off Trump as simply an American Le Pen. Le Pen’s Front National is an illustration of how fascist ideas can easily coexist with and utilize democracy to further entrench these ideas. The recent electoral success of Jean-Mare Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, is a testament to the political evolution of fascism: fascist in content, democratic in form.
The exact mimicry of German National Socialism or Italian Fascism is a dangerous measure for assessing the moral and political identity of contemporary political movements. Everyone falls short of Hitler. The great German-Jewish philosopher, and refugee, Hannah Arendt warned of becoming so obsessed with totalitarianism as the ultimate in evil that we become “blind to the numerous small and not so small evils with which the road to hell is paved.”
In essence, Donald Trump’s rhetoric and policies are these small evils and must be resisted at every step. It’s deeply troubling that though many in the Republican establishment have disavowed his remarks, many others have also said they would support him should he become the presidential nominee.
When in power would Trump dismantle the US government with an Enabling Act, demand an oath of personal fealty by the military, or institute anti-Muslim legislation? I’m not sure. Unlike former president George W. Bush, I make no claim to be able to see into men’s souls. However, I am sure that it is the duty of all Americans to resist the rise of Donald Trump to ensure such questions remain in the realm of theory and not practice.