Is Donald Trump a Fascist?
That question surfaced in various forms fairly early in his 2016 presidential campaign, which began with a speech against Mexican immigrants, and gained momentum after he called for a "complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States" in December 2015 on response the terrorist attack in San Bernardino.
At this point, the Muslim proposal for a ban, I contacted five fascism experts and asked them if Trump was qualified. They all said no. Each of them declared that to be a fascist one had to support the revolutionary, usually violent overthrow of the entire government / constitution and completely reject democracy. In 2015, no one was comfortable telling that Trump went this far. He was too individualistic for the inherently collectivist philosophy of fascism and insufficiently committed to the belief that violence for its own sake is good as a vital cleaner.
Roger Griffin, author of The Nature of Fascism and Professor of History at Oxford Brookes University, summed it up nicely: "You can be a totally xenophobic racist male chauvinist bastard and still not be a fascist."
Five years have passed and the questions of fascism have become more and more common. Trump had time to implement policies against immigrants and blacks and refused to denounce his most extreme and violent supporters, from the neo-Nazis and white nationalists in Charlottesville to the Proud Boys group. And every week I get dozens of emails from readers wondering if I will stand by my 2015 conclusion that Trump is simply a fanatic with an authoritarian charisma and not a fascist.
So I reached out to the experts I spoke to at the time. Four of the five replied, and I also got in touch with a few other scholars who had researched fascism to get a broader perspective.
Again, the responses were unanimous, albeit with much greater concern about Trump's authoritarian and violent tendencies. Nobody thinks Trump is a fascist leader. Jason Stanley, a Yale philosopher and author of How Fascism Works, came closest to this conclusion, saying that "Trumpism could rightly be called a fascist social and political movement" and that Trump "employs fascist political tactics," but Trump does not does not necessarily lead a fascist government.
But most experts didn't even go that far, and some expressed concern that describing Trump as a fascist would undermine the term and lead to a miscalculation of our current political situation. "If Trump were a fascist and we were in a similar situation to Germany in 1932 or Italy in 1921, certain measures would be justified," says Sheri Berman, professor of political science at Barnard College. "But we are not and they are not."
To be clear, “not fascist” is a very, very low bar for Trump. The concerns that lead people to ask the question, "Is Trump a fascist?" are real. Trump is really trying to discredit the upcoming presidential election. He really hired officials with ties to white nationalist groups. He genuinely promised to banish all Muslims from the US (and implemented new rules towards that goal) and said that a Mexican-American judge would not be able to lead cases in which he was involved, other than Mexican Immigrants are labeled "rapists" and empathize with neo-Nazis after Charlottesville, falsely claiming that Muslim Americans celebrated the 9/11 attacks – amid many, many violations.
But it could get worse and worse. There really are leaders who are suspending elections, dissolving legislation, throwing large numbers of citizens into camps without trial or appeal, and turning their nations into one-party states based on a cult of national rebirth. The fascist leaders of the past, according to Jason Brownlee of the University of Texas, “not only pursued right-wing politics, but also built up mass mobilizing parties and paramilitary organizations to push aside alternative movements and establish a one-party dictatorship. ”
That didn't happen here – but it could. It came terribly close to Greece, where the explicitly neo-Nazi Golden Dawn became the third largest political party in the mid-2010s. And when and when it happens in America, we need to have the right conditions and tools in place to face it.
Robert Paxton, Mellon Professor Emeritus of Social Sciences at Columbia University
I stand by what I've already written about Trump and fascism, but there is one change: I am now impressed by Trump's growing willingness to use physical violence.
Before that, Trump was already willing to tolerate hecklers being heckled at rallies and his encouragement to lock them up! Refrain was clearly transgressive (in America we are supposed to wait for a jury of citizens to decide before locking someone up). But now, after Charlottesville, we have the Proud Boys and the aggression against the Michigan governor. So Trump is approaching his own SA (the Nazi paramilitary group), a sobering thought as the election approaches.
But there is still no state administration of the economy here (as was the case to a certain extent in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy). Trump is content to help businesses by reducing the government's protection of the environment and workers. Its economic policy is mainly to let business people do what they want. So I still think that terms like "oligarchy" and "plutocracy" work for Trump with the added thought that he is about to cross the line with his tolerance of violence.
Matthew Feldman, Director, Center for Radical Right Analysis
Although my position on Trump has not changed – less fascist than kleptocratic, more selfish than right-wing ideologue – it does little to reduce the danger.
Four months ago I warned that Trump would lapse into sheer authoritarianism. Commentators with little information try to calm down rather than dig deep, and urge readers to look on the good side. That the USA is an extraordinary country.
It is not.
Democratic regression and political polarization are not unique to the United States. More weapons than humans can be had. This also applies to militias, which are usually composed of lower and middle-class white Americans and who harbor anti-government sentiments. The threat from these anti-government extremists – if not necessarily terrorists – was eased when at least 13 members of the Michigan Wolverine militia were arrested for attempting to kidnap, "judge," and possibly the state Governor Gretchen Whitmer to execute for high treason.
The term "fascist" in relation to Trump continues to be more misleading than informative. But that cannot lead us to what Alexander Reid Ross called "fascist creeping".
Stanley Payne, Jaume Vicens Vives, and Professor Emeritus of Hilldale History at the University of Wisconsin Madison
That investigation made little sense four years ago when Trump was still an unknown quantity, but now he has a record. Well – that's pretty thin. There isn't much to work here. The Democrats won the first Trump elections (halftime 2018) and I am not aware of anything negative. Polluting mosquitoes doesn't really get us anywhere. Usually these are just stupid public statements. Hitler's place in history is not based on what he said or on temporary detention cages. Please do not trivialize. This indicates the lack of an argument.
Roger Griffin, Professor Emeritus of Modern History at Oxford Brookes University
I would really insist that his relationship with democracy is the key to answering whether or not he is a fascist. Even in four years of incoherent and inconsistent tweets, he has never made a Putin and tried to make himself permanent president, let alone propose a coherent plan for overthrowing the constitutional system. And I don't even think he thinks about it. He's an exploiter, he's a freeloader. He is a wheeler and dealer. And that's not the same as an ideologue.
So he is absolutely not a fascist. It is not a challenge to constitutional democracy. It is certainly a great challenge to liberalism and liberal democracy. And I think journalists who view liberal democracy not as a unit but as a binomial will really favor it. Democracy can exist without liberalism.
If I were to do this as a conclusion in a debate, I would say that Trump is not a fascist, but what he is quite consistent is an illiberal democrat. He is a democrat in that he has used democratic processes to be where he is, which he does not radically question. He's obviously playing quick and easy, like any profiteer, with things like the Supreme Court he gets into, etc. He doesn't care about the rules but about the core system that he doesn't want to change because he's someone who benefits from this system?
Basically, I think it matters whether we call Trump fascist or not fascist, not academic or intellectual, but because it's a red herring – it actually distracts attention from where we should be making the criticism. If all of our intellectual energies like Don Quixote are fighting windmills and fascism instead of actually fighting the real enemies of democracy and using our energies to avert the climate crisis that will devour us all if we are not careful, then waste we our time.
By not calling him fascist and focusing on the way he perverts democracy, we see Trump in a different context. We don't see him as Hitler or Mussolini. We see him in another villain gallery. And the gallery of villains is made up of a slew of dictators throughout history, including Putin and Erdogan and Orbán and Assad, who today have abused constitutionalism and democracy to rationalize their abuse of power and crimes against humanity.
Sheri Berman, Professor of Political Science, Barnard College, Columbia University
Regarding Trump and Fascism, I don't like to apply that term to Trump or what is going on in this country.
Partly for historical and intellectual reasons – just as we shouldn't label (or say it is yet another Holocaust) every horrific example of ethnic violence or even ethnic cleansing as "genocide", we should be careful about telling Trump compare Hitler. Genocide means something: it is an attempt to wipe out an entire people with the full force of the modern state. Likewise, National Socialism or fascism in general was a totalitarian ideology and a political regime that not only wanted to abolish liberalism and democracy, but also revolutionize society, the economy and politics. It is not the same as an old dictatorship, nor is it evil, and we are not here today.
Just as ethnically based violence or ethnic cleansing shares some traits with Genocide / Holocaust, Trump also shares similarities with other strong men, a category that includes fascists like Hitler and Mussolini, as well as Orbán, Erdogan, Putin and their type. The fact that Trump maintains his support through explicitly divisive appeals with which groups are supposed to compete against each other – especially but not exclusively ethnic groups – has of course a certain similarity to what fascists did.
And of course, Trump undermines various norms and institutions of democracy. But that doesn't make him a fascist, which means a lot more than these things. In fact, I almost think that calling Trump "fascist" gives him too much "recognition" – he's not strategic enough, ideological enough, or ambitious enough. And as bad as things are today, we are still not in Germany in the 1930s.
Aside from these historical and intellectual reasons, I also don't like applying the term fascist to Trump for practical reasons. If Trump were a fascist and we were in a similar situation to Germany in 1932 or Italy in 1921, certain measures would be justified. But we are not and they are not. And that remains important to emphasize, even if it does not mean downplaying the real threat that Trump and the version of the Republican Party that supports him pose to our country.
I think Trump is often concerned with what is called "ethnic outbidding" in the political science literature. In my opinion, the term “negative integration” is even more appropriate – a strategy for uniting a coalition by arousing fear / hatred of alleged enemies. Bismarck was the classic practitioner of the negative integration strategy.
As for Trump as a whole, I would still rather refer to him as an illiberal populist or right-wing populist. He has a lot in common with the right-wing populists who are out and about in Europe today.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, professor of Italian and history at New York University
Trump undoubtedly uses fascist tactics, from rallies to rejuvenate the bond between leaders and supporters, to creating a "tribe" (MAGA hats, rituals like singing "lock them up," etc.) to releasing a volume of propaganda, that no American president had before. However, the political cultures that make up him and his close followers are not fascist, but rather reflect a broader authoritarian history. Paul Manafort and Roger Stone worked for Mobutu Sese Seko (Congolese dictator) and Ferdinand Marcos (Philippine president) before Trump, and Manafort also worked for Putin. They were working on Marcos' 1986 election which was widely condemned as fraudulent.
Trump's role models include leaders like Erdogan and Putin, who are not exactly fascists, but something else: authoritarians or rulers of strong men who also use masculinity as an instrument of rule.
I also prefer authoritarian versus fascist to describe Trump because the former capture how autocratic power works today. In the 21st century, fascist takeovers have been replaced by rulers who come to power through elections and then over time wipe out freedom.
Jason Brownlee, Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin
Of course, Trump's critics can use any terms and surnames.
I wouldn't say that the traditional idea of fascism fits Donald Trump any more in 2020 than it did before he took office. If historians and political scientists fully account for his actions and statements as president, I don't think fascism will play a prominent role in their analyzes. The prototypical fascist leaders – Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler (Austrian Chancellor) Engelbert Dollfuss – not only pursued right-wing politics, but also built up mass mobilizing parties and paramilitary organizations in order to push alternative movements aside and to establish individual movements, party dictatorship. I would rather describe Trump's politics differently and bring him to a different society.
Trump is a prominent, right-wing politician. He functions as a consummate demagogue, fabulist and ultra-nationalist, and he seems to have a strong tendency towards nepotism and kleptocracy. His efforts to use the presidency to finance his lifestyle and to enrich his family are similar to the plans of former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. Trump has not only benefited from his tenure, but also, like Marcos, has questioned the restrictions on executive power without investing resources in a sustainable political organization.
In other ways, Trump's political style is reminiscent of parts of the career of former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević. Like Milošević, Trump has advocated a very hierarchical, ethnically based, ultra-nationalist vision that advocates violence against outlying groups without building a single party, as interwar fascists did.
Jason Stanley, Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University
When I think of fascism I think of it being applied to different things. There is a fascist regime. We don't have a fascist regime. Then the question arises: "Is Trumpism a fascist social and political movement?" I think Trumpism could rightly be called a fascist social and political movement – which doesn't mean Trump is a fascist. Trumpism includes a cult of the leader, and Trump embodies that. I certainly think he's using fascist political tactics. I think that's out of the question. He calls for a national restoration in the face of humiliation by immigrants, liberals, liberal minorities and the left. He certainly plays the fascist playbook.
My definition is fascist politics, not fascist regime. I think most of the others (fascism scholars) are just talking about something else. They talk about regimes. Toni Morrison said in 1995 that the United States had long favored fascist solutions to national problems. Toni Morrison speaks of "fascist solutions". She doesn't talk about fascist regimes. She says the United States has long favored fascist solutions in a democratic state, which I fully agree with: fight against minorities, mass incarceration, colonialism, seizure of indigenous land. All of these things influenced Hitler. My work is based on the United States – it is based on the movements that influenced European fascism: the KKK, Jim Crow, the anti-miscegenation law, slavery, the indigenous genocide, the 1924 immigration law and similar US – Immigration laws that praises Hitler in Mein Kampf.
If you only worry about fascist regimes, you will never catch fascist social and political movements. The aim is to capture fascist social and political movements as well as fascist ideology before it becomes a regime.
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