Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has reminded more than a few commentators of fascist movements from Europe’s past.
Christopher Buckley casually called the New York property tycoon the “Mussolini of Fifth Avenue” in The Spectator, Britain’s leading right-wing opinion magazine.
Robert Kagan, a neoconservative intellectual, has argued in The Washington Post that Trump is unleashing passions that could prove the undoing of liberal democracy.
This phenomenon has arisen in other democratic and quasi-democratic countries over the past century and it has generally been called “fascism.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, who teaches Italian history at New York University, has explained in The Atlantic how Trump borrows from Benito Mussolini: from his bombastic pronouncements to his humiliation of opponents and outsiders.
Many of these analyses — and you can find many more from left-leaning columnists — focus on the most overt similarities between fascists and Trump: the glorification of violence at his rallies, his demonization of outsiders, his disrespect for democratic institutions and norms.
Here, I will focus on three deeper, lesser known tenets of fascism that Trump exhibits: his valorization of victims, his obsession with fitness and his legitimization of violence as a form of political action.
First, let’s take a deep breath
When people read “fascism”, they think Adolf Hitler and bringing him into the discussion is almost always counterproductive.
There is also no clearcut definition of what fascism is, making it harder to decide if Trump qualifies. Mussolini’s movement in Italy had a lot in common with Nationalism Socialism in Germany, but there were differences. Francisco Franco is often considered a fascist, but the Spanish dictator wasn’t in the same league as Hitler or even Mussolini.
Thirdly, as David Graham has argued in The Atlantic, lefties have “cried wolf” in the past and accused Republicans (from Barry Goldwater to George W. Bush) of being crypto-fascists when they clearly weren’t.
This all tells us to be cautious. On the scale of villainry, the Republican candidate does not measure up to Hitler or Mussolini. If somebody says otherwise, they have probably lost their sense of proportion.
But there are similarities: between the men and between the circumstances in which they emerged. Anyone who is familiar with the history of fascism in Europe will find those similarities hard to overlook. Ignoring them would be just as irresponsible as blowing them out of proportion.
So let’s examine some of the parallels.
Valorization of victims
Start with Trump’s immigration speech in Phoenix, Arizona last month. His rhetoric about illegal immigrants there wasn’t different from the (outrageous) things he has said in the past (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”). What was different, as Josh Marshall pointed out at his blog, Talking Points Memo, was that Trump paraded the victims of violence committed by illegal aliens on stage.
This valorization of victimhood, in addition to a scapegoating of “the Other”, is a staple of fascism.
Marshall asked his readers to imagine how they would feel if Trump had talked the way he did about African Americans or Jews instead.
This is not a hypothetical, he noted.
Anyone who is familiar with the history of the Jim Crow South or 1930s Germany and the centuries of antisemitism that preceded it will tell you that the celebration and valorization of victims was always a central part of sustaining bigotry, fear and oppression.
This is not to diminish in any way the pain felt by those whose loved ones were hurt or even killed by illegal immigrants. Every crime is tragic. But using these people as props at a political event to scapegoat an entire and specific demographic is troubling.
Hypermasculinity and obsession with fitness
It’s no coincidence that Trump unwittingly retweeted a Mussolini quote — “It is better to live one day as a lion than one hundred years as a sheep” — in February. When this was pointed out to him in an interview, Trump replied, “What difference does it make if it was Mussolini or somebody else? It’s a very good quote.”
A sane person would be alarmed if it turned out their thoughts matched a fascist dictator’s. Not Trump.
It turns out he shares certain character traits with Mussolini that would nowadays be described as hypermasculinity, including an adoration of strength and a will to dominate.
This isn’t unique to fascism, but it is impossible to imagine fascism without it.
The fascists in Germany, Italy and Spain all promoted traditional gender roles. Women were encouraged to stay home and bear healthy white children for the good of the nation while their heroic men went off to work and fight wars. Abortion was forbidden, unless fetuses had hereditary defects. Pornography and prostitution were condemned, as were most forms of birth control.
This ties in with fascist notions of racial hygiene, physical fitness and purity. Hitler himself was a teetotaler. The Nazis were big on sports and eugenics. Fascists everywhere disparaged the mentally and physically ill. They defined themselves against supposedly effete elites. They were alarmed by the relatively liberal social norms of the 1920s. Under the Third Reich, notions of racial hygiene were taken to appalling extremes.
Trump doesn’t drink and smoke either. When it comes to women, he is only interested in their physical attributes. He infamously mocked a disabled reporter (which Trump, despite being videotaped doing it, denies to this day). Although he claims gays should vote for him because, unlike weak and appeasing Democrats, he will protect them from violent Islamists, Trump’s appeal as a “tough guy” (which is a total sham; like all bullies, Trump is a coward at heart), is driven, as Aaron MacLean has argued in The Weekly Standard, “by the exasperation of one part of American society that another dominant segment of that society has decided manliness of any kind is retrograde.” Hence in addition to being almost exclusively white, Trump’s supporters are disproportionately male and middle-aged.
Violence as a legitimate form of political action
This obsession with fitness — personal as well as national — and intolerance of deviant behavior comes from a Social Darwinism that also informs fascists’ views on political action.
For fascists, violence is a legitimate form of political action.
This, more than anything, is what sets fascism apart from other ideologies.
Whether you’re a socialist or a liberal or a conservative, you’re likely to see politics as a way to prevent violence: between classes, individuals or between the government and its citizens. We’ve largely forgotten this in the West, because political violence is so rare nowadays. But the reason we have politics in the first place is so we don’t have a fight with our neighbors every time we disagree about how to run the local school or fire station.
Fascists take a different view. They see life as a constant struggle. Accommodation and compromise are hallmarks of the weak and weakness must be purged from the community, the nation and the race. The goal of politics is not peace and quiet; it is to win, ideally by vanquishing one’s opponent.
I’m not sure if Trump is doing this on purpose or if it flows naturally from his worldview, but his careless rhetoric about beating up protesters has already incited violence at his events while his talk of getting back at those who have played ordinary, upstanding Americans for suckers attracts just the sort of people who are clamoring for a race war. (His appointment in August of Breitbart chief Stephen Bannon as campaign executive argues for “on purpose”.)
Trump hasn’t reached the level of organized violence yet of black- or brownshirts, but it is this context that made his suggestion last month that “Second Amendment people” might have to take matters into their own hands if a President Hillary Clinton appointed pro-gun control justices to the Supreme Court so alarming.
Trump’s nonchalance about violence helps explain his views on foreign policy as well. His statements on this topic are often confusing (because he is so maddeningly ill-informed), making it hard to figure out exactly what he thinks and means. We can deduce, however, that Trump doesn’t believe in permanent alliances, doesn’t see a role for values in the pursuit of national interest and believes America is weak because other countries are “laughing” at her.
Wounded pride and a disregard for the rights of other nations enabled fascism in post-World War I Germany and Italy. It were the fascists who embraced the view that international relations are an epic struggle for supremacy between nations (or races). Trump’s dominance theory of foreign policy matches theirs.
The fact that, unlike fascist leaders from the past, Trump would have a nuclear arsenal at his disposal, but has clearly no idea how and why these weapons work, makes his presidency a terrifying prospect. Trump may not — as Clinton suggested — be baited into a nuclear exchange by an offensive tweet. But it’s also hard to imagine him negotiating a standoff like the Cuban Missile Crisis dispassionately, like John F. Kennedy did.
Wait! There’s more
I argued here in July that Trump has no patience for the restraints on the office he seeks and would be a constitutional crisis waiting to happen.
Trump has said he would order soldiers to kill the families of terrorists. That’s not only illegal under American law, it’s a warcrime under international law. Former top military commanders, including the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, have said the armed forces would refuse to carry out such an order.
Trump doesn’t think so. “They’re not going to refuse me,” he said, “believe me.”
This is what the Nazis called the Führerprinzip: the leader is above the law and must at all times be obeyed.
Molly Ball has written for The Atlantic how Trump’s candidacy is built on fear — fear of change, fear of “the Other”, fear of the unknown.
Which ties in to the scapegoating of outgroups, which is an indispensable tenet of fascism.
There is Trump’s Messiah complex; “I alone can fix this.”
There is his belief that he embodies the Volk. “I am your voice,” he told those millions of Americans who are projecting their hopes on him.
There is his exploitation of the Republican Dolchstoßlegende, a self-delusion that helps right-wing voters come to terms with political defeats. Rather than accept that politics is a give-and-take and that conservatism’s appeal is demographically limited, these voters blame ineffectual leaders and are constantly searching for the next outsider who — this time — will really change Washington. Trump didn’t invent this, but like you-know-who sure he made good use of it.
And then there are the actually ineffectual Republican Party leaders; those modern-day Franz von Papens who thought they could “control” Trump and didn’t use every tool at their disposal to stop him.
So is it fair to call Trump a fascist? He sure meets many of the criteria. We can debate whether or not he meets enough of them to pass the threshold, but we would be missing the point: A major-party candidate for the presidency of the United States has more than a few things in common with fascist leaders from the past. That’s distressing enough.