May 22, 2016

Is Donald Trump a Fascist?

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Is Donald Trump a fascist?   

It's becoming a common question, and prominent neoconservative columnist Robert Kagan is the latest to lob the accusation, declaring, "This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac 'tapping into' popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party — out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear — falling into line behind him."
Kagan is wrong. Donald Trump is not a fascist. "Fascism" has been an all-purpose insult for many years now, but it has a real definition, and according to scholars of historical fascism, Trump doesn't qualify. Rather, he's a right-wing populist, or perhaps an "apartheid liberal" in the words of Roger Griffin, author of The Nature of Fascism. He doesn't want to overthrow the existing democratic system. He doesn't want to scrap the Constitution. He doesn't romanticize violence itself as a vital cleansing agent of society. He's simply a racist who wants to keep the current system but deny its benefits to groups he's interested in oppressing.
Griffin, who is a professor of history and political theory at Oxford Brookes University, puts it best: "You can be a total xenophobic racist male chauvinist bastard and still not be a fascist."

Fascism requires the rejection of democracy

But sometimes you have to keep certain parts of the state aroundGeneral Photographic Agency/Getty Images
Benito Mussolini addresses the Italian parliament in 1938, long after he'd rendered it irrelevant.

Defining fascism is a notoriously difficult scholarly task. There are enough differences between the relevant fascist regimes — Nazi Germany, Mussolini's Italy, perhaps Francoist Spain — that identifying commonalities that do not in turn implicate plenty of clearly non-fascist regimes is tricky. But there is general agreement about some requirements.
Every expert I spoke to identified support for the revolutionary overthrow — ideally through violence — of the state's entire system of government as a necessary characteristic of fascism. Griffin's preferred definition of fascism is:
Fascism is a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism.
The word "palingenetic" means rebirth, reflecting Griffin's view that fascism must involve calling for the "rebirth" of the nation. That might at first glance sound like Trump's promise to "make America great again," but Griffin insists on a distinction. Rebirth, in his theory, actually requires the dramatic abandonment of the existing political order. "There has to be a longing for a new order, a new nation, not just a reformed old nation," he told me. "As long as Trump does not advocate the abolition of America's democratic institutions, and their replacement by some sort of post-liberal new order, he's not technically a fascist."
Matthew Feldman, a fascism expert at Teesside University in the UK, agrees. "He's still in the democratic family," he says. "Trump is calling for ethnocratic small-l liberalism. It's liberalism that's racially tinged. If you were white in apartheid South Africa, you had all the rights and benefits of a liberal state. For you it was a democracy. But it didn't feel that way for blacks in South Africa."
Columbia's Robert Paxton lays out a slightly different definition from Griffin's in his book The Anatomy of Fascism, focusing more on the behaviors of fascist governments than on the nature of fascism as a doctrine. Still, he too identifies an anti-democratic core to fascism:
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. (p. 218)
"Democratic liberties" here means not just individual civil liberties — which Trump is clearly interested in tampering with — but the democratic process itself. When the original fascist regimes emerged, "the existing governments seemed to be incapable of providing leadership, providing what was needed for this wounded country," Paxton tells me, "and so fascists were in favor of totally overthrowing the existing constitution, which was usually democratic and perceived as weak. This was wildly popular. We are not in that position today."
Trump definitely attacks the current government as "weak," which Paxton says might be termed a "borrowing" from fascism. But it's a far cry from the outright support for ending democracy that characterizes true fascists.
The University of Wisconsin's Stanley Payne, author of Fascism: Comparison and Definition and A History of Fascism, 1914–1945, emphasizes that fascism is a "revolutionary nationalist project. Not just a nationalist project, but a nationalist project that is revolutionary and breaks down all the standards and the barriers." Trump and other far-right populists don't count.
"It's what you'd call a right-wing populist movement," he says of the Trump campaign. "They take conservative positions that were very common, say, 75 years ago or 100 years ago, and not at all common now. … You can call them more genuinely reactionary in their discourse. They go back to older kinds of political and social values that have been discarded. That would be a more accurate characterization than calling them fascist."

Fascism emphasizes violence for its own sake

Payne also notes that Trump lacks a connection to the pro-violence philosophy at the heart of fascism. This dates back to Georges Sorel, a French syndicalist philosopher who was revered by Mussolini and the Italian fascists. Sorel praised violence as a necessary tool of the class struggle. "Proletarian violence … appears thus as a very fine and heroic thing," he writes. "It is at the service of the immemorial interests of civilization; it is not perhaps the most appropriate method of obtaining immediate material advantages, but it may save the world from barbarism." King's College London's Jeremy Jennings, in an introduction to a recent edition of Sorel's Reflections on Violence, writes that Sorel is "prepared to equate [violence] with life, creativity, and virtue."
While fascists obviously don't share Sorel's interest in the class struggle, this valorization of violence carried over. Fascism, Payne says, requires "a philosophical valuing of violence, of Sorelian violence. [Fascists believe] that violence is really good for you, that it's the sort of thing that makes you a vital, alive, dedicated person, that it creates commitment. You make violence not just a political strategy but a philosophical principle. That's unique to fascism."
Donald Trump did inspire the beating of a homeless man in Boston, and a protester was punched at one of his rallies, and his reaction to each case was appalling. But that's a far cry from the violence-as-philosophical-commitment that characterized fascists. Further still are his pronouncements that he wants to build a military so strong "we never have to use it."
Fascists were certainly never shy about using military power to inflict violence. As Mussolini put it in his 1932 essay "The Doctrine of Fascism," "Fascism … discards pacifism as a cloak for cowardly supine renunciation in contradistinction to self-sacrifice. War alone keys up all human energies to their maximum tension and sets the seal of nobility on those peoples who have the courage to face it."
Trump's views on violence simply don't follow in that tradition. "Trump is inciting prejudice. He really is; words do have consequences," Feldman says. "But that doesn't mean he's a fascist."

Fascism is anti-individualist — and Donald Trump is an arch-individualist Whatever else can be said about Donald Trump, he is fiercely individualistic. Indeed, a major part of his appeal comes from the fact that he's untethered to any movement or party or even financial interests besides himself. The Republican establishment hates him. He has no affiliated politicians at other levels of government. He runs no party organization or really any political organization with any goal other than promoting himself, personally. And his arguments about how to make America great generally rely on his own skills — his prowess at making deals, his personal strength, etc.

This runs in sharp contrast to the fascist tradition, which, while emphasizing cults of personality for leaders, is nonetheless fundamentally concerned with the collective, with the state being redeemed and the fascist political organization being built to redeem it. That aspect is foreign not just to Trump but to 21st century American society in general. "People are extremely individualistic. No one would dream of putting them in identically colored shirts and putting them in regimented youth movements, action squads," Paxton says. "If someone were proposing that I'd take the parallel more seriously."
Feldman concurs, arguing that fascism builds a kind of "political religion" in which the nation is considered a real, living, and yet sacred thing to be revered and protected. This goes well beyond mere nationalism. "It's a difference between someone who's patriotic versus someone who sees the nation as a living, breathing organic entity," he says. "Not, 'I want my soccer team to win this match,' but, 'Jews and Muslims are like a festering appendix that must be cut out.' The 300 million Americans are like 300 million cells in the body. The individual is worth nothing. It's one cell in the body."
Compare that with the ways Trump talks about improving America:
These statements are much closer to the "I want my soccer team to win" version of patriotism — and much more concerned with the qualities of Donald Trump the individual than America the nation.

Fascism doesn’t really have much to do with economics 

One might think that the relative comfort Trump displays with state intervention in the economy, relative to his rivals, flirts with fascism, especially when this takes the form of nationalist policies like massive tariffs and immigration restriction. This, fascism experts agree, is an inference too far. "You have left-wing movements that have been anti-immigration," Payne says. "Fascists did tend to have a nationalist and kind of statist and corporatist economic policy, but all kinds of other movements have had statist and corporatist policies."
In fact, most experts think that it's hard to identify a characteristically "fascist" economic policy. It was all secondary to other goals, notably preparation for war. "Of all the policy areas, the economic one is the one where classical historic fascist parties were most flexible," Paxton says. "They did what was expedient in the moment. They were defending war veterans and attacking big corporations but quickly dropped that when they discovered they needed the money. … It's hard to link those people to any one kind of economic idea. They would do anything to make their country militarily ready for war."
That, incidentally, is a big reason why National Review writer Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism — which tries to tie American progressivism to historical fascism — is something of a running joke among people who actually know stuff about fascism. PaxtonGriffin, and Feldman have all published pieces attacking and/or mocking it. Griffin described it to me as "a really scurrilous work of revisionism, like David Irving, who uses revisionism to deny the Holocaust and rehabilitate Hitler. It's used to attack anyone attempting to introduce a welfare state as a fascist."

There aren't that many real fascists left

It looks like a Swastika, right?Milos Bicanski / Getty Images
A supporter hoists the Nazi-inspired flag of Golden Dawn.

There's an argument to be made that we should only use "fascist" to refer to a cluster of movements in developed countries in the 1930s and 1940s, and not try to apply it to present-day politics at all, the same way we don't make regular use of the now-defunct "Chartist" or "Carlist" movements as present-day political terminology.
But there are definitely some movements nowadays that draw direct inspiration from '30/'40s fascists, and which fascism scholars are comfortable labeling as fascist. However, they tend to be quite small and fringe, and they all go way, way further than Donald Trump.
I found wide agreement among scholars that Golden Dawn, the far-right party in Greece that draws direct inspiration from the Nazis, is fairly described as fascist. "The emergence of Golden Dawn was interesting to me, because in economic breakdown and the feeling of national humiliation, you get a clear specimen of interwar fascism," Griffin says. "There's a racial purity myth, a rebirth myth, the political ritual, the cryptic symbols. The symbol of Golden Dawn is the Greek symbol of eternity. It's dressed up to look like a swastika. Beautiful. If it didn't exist you'd have to make it up."
"Golden Dawn in Greece is openly drawn on the Nazi model," Paxton concurs. "If they think they're fascist, perhaps there's something to be said for calling them fascist."
But beyond that, the researchers argue for limiting the term to fringe white nationalists and neo-Nazis, who are present in most societies but who outside Greece have little political influence. "To be a fascist in America, you have to be on a website talking about how the presidential system is controlled by the Zionist Occupied Government," Griffin says. Feldman cites the British National Party as a nontrivial force with clear fascist roots, but emphasizes that it's still quite small in real terms. It has no members of parliament. It is widely loathed throughout the UK.
Of course, many fringe fascists themselves like Donald Trump and view him as the best they're going to get on a national scale. They argue he's sparking a big spike in activity around and interest in white nationalism. "Demoralization has been the biggest enemy and Trump is changing all that," Stormfront founder Don Black told Politicorecently. But that does not make Trump himself a fascist.

Far-right populism is much more common, and much more dangerous, than neo-fascism

Le Pen's been having a good couple weeksSylvain Lefevre/Getty Images
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

So if Donald Trump isn't a fascist, what is he?
Well, he's a right-wing populist. And while fascists are rare in 2015, right-wing populists are not. In fact, it's kind of weird that America hasn't had a real one before now. The UK has the UK Independence Party (UKIP); France has Marine Le Pen and the Front National; Germany has Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the anti-Muslim Pegida movement; Sweden has the Sweden Democrats; the Netherlands has the Party for Freedom and its leader, Geert Wilders.
These parties have a lot in common with Trump. They're fiercely anti-immigration and particularly critical of Islam, couching their bigotry as a reasonable precaution and stoking fear about homegrown terrorism. They draw support away from more establishmentarian, business-friendly right-wing parties. They tend to be led by individual, charismatic figures without whom they'd be substantially weakened. They tend to be more sympathetic to welfare programs and the safety net than traditional conservatives, much as Trump has vocally defended Social Security against more traditional candidates like Chris Christie who would cut it. 
But they are not fascists. They still believe in democracy, and they want traditional liberal democratic protections for their white base. "They're still at bottom democrats rather than fascists," Feldman says. "I think the fitting term is 'illiberal democrats.' They would give full democratic rights for white Christians, or perhaps Jews, but exclude the outgroups of the 21st century: mostly Muslims but also Mexicans. It's really prejudice against them. We're congratulating ourselves to say that anyone who engages in that prejudice is fascist."
Paxton agrees: "I don't think it helps very much to use this inflammatory term [fascism] about Trump. 'Populist demagogue' works fine." So does Payne: "The Sweden Democrats and Le Pen movement in France really are just right-wing movements, in the sense of being conservative movements. There's nothing categorically fascist about them. They are outside the general consensus of center-left politics in these countries, and people want to find special pejoratives to apply to them."
Griffin notes that you don't even have to look to Europe for examples of this brand of right-wing, ethnocentric populism in action. Just look at the long, distinguished history of populist white politicians in America exploiting anti-black prejudice and white ethnic grievances. Those figures weren't fascists; they were small-l liberal democrats who "wanted liberal democracy to be for a very small group of Americans," in Griffin's words.
Again, fascism requires stepping outside the system and attacking the democratic structure. As long as that structure itself is handling illiberal attitudes on race, those attitudes don't themselves constitute a fascist trend.

They did not celebrate 9/11, to be clearSpencer Platt/Getty Images
Council on American-Islamic Relations executive director Nihad Awad addresses Donald Trump's comments claiming American Muslims celebrated 9/11.

But the views are still illiberal. To be very, very clear: Donald Trump is a bigot. He is a racist. He is an Islamophobe and a xenophobe. He profits off the hatred and stigmatization of traditionally oppressed groups in American society. That makes him, and his European peers, and racists in other eras in American history, a threat to crucial values of equality and fair treatment, and a threat to the actual human beings he's targeting and demonizing. And he's in particular mainstreaming Islamophobia, which is on the rise in recent months, as seen in a recent incident in which a Muslim engineer was harassed at a Fredericksburg, Virginia, civic meeting. "I’m really not sure those views in Fredricksburg would be aired were it not for Trump’s ‘mainstreaming’ of these prejudices," Feldman says.
Kevin Passmore, a historian at the University of Cardiff and author of Fascism: a Very Short Introduction, puts it well: "For me, the point about Trump’s proposals is not whether or not they are ‘fascist,' but whether or not they are moral." And they very clearly are not.

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