Two months ago, I argued that calling Donald Trump a fascist distorts our understanding of fascism and obscures his demagoguery’s roots in mainstream U.S. politics. Criticizing scholarly definitions of fascism that remain stuck in the 1940s, I also highlighted the divide between rightists who remain loyal to the U.S. political system and far rightists who want to overthrow it -- including many but not all white nationalists as well as Christian theocrats and others. That tension is pivotal for understanding Trump's relationship with fascism.
However we categorize Trump, opposing his poison is not about defending democracy. The United States is not and never has been a democracy. It’s a mix of pluralistic openness and repression, an oppressive, hierarchical society where most political power is held by representatives of a tiny capitalist elite, but where there is real political space for some people and some ideas that would not be permitted in a wholly authoritarian system, including opportunities to organize, debate, participate in electoral politics, and criticize those in power. This space has been won through struggle and it’s important and worth defending, but it’s not democracy. One of the reasons the U.S. political system has been so durable and successful (at serving those in power) is that it's really good at shifting between openness and authoritarianism. Even anti-fascism itself can become a rationale for some of the most serious repression, as Japanese Americans experienced seventy years ago. Someone like Trump can push very far in the authoritarian direction without challenging the system on any sort of basic level.
Given the danger Trump poses, some people have asked: does it really matter whether he fits somebody’s definition of fascist or not? Is this question useful, or is it just an abstract intellectual debate? I think it does matter, because it can help us understand the danger more clearly: not just his politics but also his relationship with — and capacity to mobilize — organized white nationalist far rightists. Saying it doesn’t matter whether Trump is a right-wing populist or a fascist is like saying it doesn’t matter whether Bernie Sanders is a social democrat or a communist. I think we should apply the same kind of intelligent analysis to the right as we do to the left, because it’s just as important for us to understand our enemies as it is to understand our (would-be) allies.
Radicals facing major candidates, left and right
Let’s stay with the Bernie Sanders analogy for a moment. In this presidential race, U.S. radicals — people who advocate a fundamental transformation of the socio-economic order — are faced with a major party candidate who breaks a serious political taboo by calling himself a socialist, says some of the things we think are important, and is generating new interest in socialist politics. On the other hand, a lot of us have serious problems with some of his positions, he works within the existing system, and he has a long history that shows he’s really not a radical. What should we do? Some people who consider themselves radicals support him, others reject him as an apologist for U.S. capitalism and empire, and others are conflicted. People may say it’s pointless to get behind him because he couldn’t make meaningful change as president even if he wanted to, or they may say his campaign is raising important issues and could be a stepping stone to genuinely radical initiatives.
If somebody said, “Sanders says a lot of the things communists say, so he must be a communist,” or “he may not be a full-blown communist now, but his kind of politics inherently leads to communism,” most leftists would not take this very seriously. Whether we support Sanders or not, we would recognize this as sloppy analysis, if not McCarthyite smear-mongering. (Predictably, some rightists have taken this very approach. The Libertarian Republic called Sanders a “communist sympathizer,” while FrontPage Mag just called him a communist, as of course did Donald Trump.)
The Sanders analogy doesn’t prove anything one way or another about Donald Trump and fascism, but I hope it offers a useful perspective on the question and how we think about it. While Trump is not Sanders’s mirror image, some of the issues he poses for far rightists are similar. A lot of white nationalist far rightists — who believe that racial renewal demands a radical break with the established social and political order, and who draw on traditions of both homegrown white supremacy and European fascism — are very interested in Trump’s candidacy, because he’s defying the political establishment, saying a lot of the things they believe, and generating new interest in their politics. But they’re also clear that he’s not one of them, they disagree with some of what he says and some of what he’s done, and they’re skeptical about how much they can trust him. So they have to decide how they want to respond. Some of them reject his campaign while many others have welcomed it. They generally don’t think he’s going to bring the kind of far-reaching change they want, but many of them see him as raising important issues and as a possible bridge toward more radical initiatives.
The specifics are worth a look. Michael Hill of the neo-Confederate League of the South commented, “I love to see somebody like Donald Trump come along. Not that I believe anything that he says. But he is stirring up chaos in the G.O.P. and for us that is good.” David Duke praised Trump’s call to deport all undocumented immigrants but cautioned that Trump is “1,000 percent dedicated to Israel, so how much is left over for America?” Brad Griffin, who blogs at Occidental Dissent under the name Hunter Wallace, complained that unlike Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996, “Trump wants to keep the US Empire,” but added “there is no one else running who isn’t far worse… I’m kinda hoping he wins the primary and provokes a fatal split that topples the GOP.” And the Traditionalist Youth Network characterized Trump’s candidacy as follows:
“While Donald Trump is neither a Traditionalist nor a White nationalist, he is a threat to the economic and social powers of the international Jew. For this reason alone as long as Trump stands strong on deportation and immigration enforcement we should support his candidacy insofar as we can use it to push more hardcore positions on immigration and Identity. Donald Trump is not the savior of Whites in America, he is however a booming salvo across the bow of the Left and Jewish power to tell them that White America is awakening, and we are tired of business as usual.As these quotes suggest, even those far rightists who welcome Donald Trump’s campaign have serious reservations about him. This ambivalence is politically important and we should try to understand it. To do that, it’s important to delineate fascism clearly from other forms of right-wing authoritarianism and racism — and also to see them as interconnected.
“The march to victory will not be won by Donald Trump in 2016, but this could be the stepping stone we need to then radicalize millions of White working and middle class families to the call to truly begin a struggle for Faith, family and folk. For this reason alone I will campaign for Donald Trump because as the saying goes ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ and that is doubly true if that person is viewed as an enemy by the International Jew.”
Trump campaign and fascism: distinct but interconnected
One of the few Trump-related articles I’ve seen that offers this kind of nuanced analysis is David Neiwert’s “Donald Trump May Not Be a Fascist, But He is Leading Us Merrily Down That Path.” There are points in Neiwert’s article that I disagree with — he counterposes fascism to democracy, for instance — but I think his basic approach here is sound. Rather than treat fascism as something radically separate and in a class by itself, Neiwert emphasizes that there’s a dynamic interrelationship between fascism and other forms of right-wing populism. And while “merrily” might be a bad choice of words, Neiwert isn’t making light of the danger at all. He argues that (1) Trump’s campaign embodies many of fascism’s core features — but not all of them, and (2) this actually makes Trump more dangerous than a full-blown fascist, because it masks his very real fascistic tendencies and enables him to be much more effective in “creating the conditions that could easily lead to a genuine and potentially irrevocable outbreak of fascism.”
Acknowledging that there’s no agreed-upon definition of fascism, Neiwert offers a composite sketch from definitions by several leading fascism scholars, including Stanley Payne, Robert O. Paxton, and Roger Griffin, and uses this to summarize Trump’s fascistic and non-fascistic aspects. On the one hand, he argues, Trump shares fascism’s emphasis on “eliminationist rhetoric” (such as vowing to deport all 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.), “palingenetic ultranationalism” (an apocalyptic vision of national rebirth out of a serious crisis), hostility to both liberalism and establishment conservatism, charismatic leadership by a man of destiny, and contempt for weakness (such as mocking a New York Times reporter with a disability).
On the other hand, Neiwert notes two key points that set Trump’s candidacy apart from fascism. First, although Trump has encouraged spontaneous violence against his critics and targets of his rhetoric, he’s made no moves to develop or ally with a political paramilitary force along the lines of the Italian Blackshirts or the Nazi Stormtroopers. Second, and more importantly, Trump “lacks any kind of coherent, or even semi-coherent, ideology.” While fascists are absolutists who demand ideological purity, “Trump’s only real ideology is the Worship of the Donald.” He is pushing a kind of gut-level hatred and paranoia, Neiwert argues, not because of his own belief system, but because it’s a way to win votes.
I would extend this line of thought further, drawing particularly on Roger Griffin’s analysis of fascism. Point One: it’s true that Trump’s candidacy, like fascism, emphasizes a kind of populism, in that Trump has presented himself as an advocate of the common people against corrupt or sinister elites. But as Griffin argues, fascism isn’t populist only in a rhetorical sense. Rather, both as a movement and a regime, fascism seeks to actively and permanently mobilize large masses of people through a network of top-down organizations, constant propaganda, and elaborate public rituals such as the Nazi Party’s Nuremberg rallies. I see no indication that Trump has attempted anything like this. His campaign rallies are a short-term means to the end of winning the presidency — not the germ of any sort of lasting mass organization.
Point Two: again following Griffin, fascism isn’t just an “extreme” form of right-wing politics — it’s a revolutionary form of right-wing politics, in that it aims to create a radically new type of society, state, culture, and human being. In the fascist “new order,” all individual and private interests would be subordinated to those of the nation — as dictated by the fascist leadership. Yes, both Italian Fascism and German Nazism came to power through the parliamentary process and both of them, especially Italian Fascism, made huge compromises with the old order. They left major institutions such as the military, the church, and (in Italy) the monarchy more or less intact. But even in Italy, fascism radically transformed the country’s cultural, educational, and political landscape to conform to Mussolini’s explicitly totalitarian vision, and this transformation got stronger, not weaker, as time went on. In Germany, the fascist revolution went much further, forcibly imposing a program of “racial purity” through sterilization and mass killing, and reshaping the class structure through the mass enslavement and importation of non-Aryan workers. Again, Trump is good at pandering to popular fears and hatreds and feeding his own ego, but that’s a far cry from promoting an actual vision of cultural or social change.
Although people often use the term fascism interchangeably with dictatorship, most dictatorships aren’t fascist, because they’re all about preserving the old order rather than creating a new one, and they generally don’t involve any real populist mobilization. So even if we assume that Trump wants to outlaw elections, shred the Bill of Rights, and make himself president for life, that doesn’t make him a fascist. There are different ways to be dangerous, and the differences matter.
A "powerful trend" toward fascism?
What about the argument that while Trump may not be a fully fledged fascist yet, he’s heading in that direction? Alexander Reid Ross argues this. He writes that we should “look at fascism as a ‘process’ rather than an ‘outcome,’ or as [fascism scholar Alexander A.] Kallis states, ‘it is more accurate to describe fascist ideology as a powerful trend, appealing to the most utopian and extreme nationalist vision and articulating suppressed energies which had previously no place in the conventional political agenda of either conservative or liberal nationalism.” More specifically, Reid Ross argues, “Trumpism as it appears today has the necessary components that make it a fascist ideology, but it has not manifested full form in power,” and “Trumpism can be seen as a manifestation of sufficient ‘fascistic’ positions to qualify it not just as ‘proto-fascist’ but as part of a process of ‘fascist creep,’ meaning a radicalization of conservative ideology that increasingly includes fascist membership while deploying fascist ideology, strategy, and tactics.”
In an earlier Facebook discussion, I cautioned Reid Ross that we shouldn’t use a teleological approach to fascism. What I meant was, we shouldn’t treat certain political initiatives as having an inherent tendency to move toward fascism, as Reid Ross appears to be arguing above. Reid Ross conceded the point but thought I meant that we shouldn’t treat the fascist creep process as inevitable, which is not the same thing. Serves me right for using a pretentious word like teleological.
I agree with Reid Ross that politics isn’t static — that movements, systems, and people can change — but they can change in lots of different ways, and we should be wary of interpreting these changes in terms of inherent tendencies. Depending on the circumstances and balance of political forces, non-fascists may be pulled toward fascism, but the opposite is also true. Both Mussolini’s and Hitler’s original governments included non-fascists, who were co-opted and eventually absorbed into fascist “projects” (while those who refused to be absorbed were destroyed). But during the same era, as Griffin has argued, fascists were co-opted into supporting conservative authoritarian regimes in several other countries, including Antonescu’s Romania, Vichy France, and Franco’s Spain. Since many people will argue that some or all of those governments were actually fascist, another example is western Europe and the U.S. during the Cold War, when most western fascists were co-opted into a broad anti-Soviet coalition in support of a non-fascist system for over four decades.
Bringing all this back to Trump, there are at least two different ways to read the friendly reception his campaign has gotten from many white nationalist far rightists. One is that these fascists represent the logical endpoint of Trumpism in development, and while he draws the crowds they provide the ideas. This is at least consistent with Alexander Reid Ross’s position quoted above. Another interpretation, however, is that Trump’s campaign is co-opting far rightists into, if not renewed loyalty, at least suspending their disloyalty to the existing political order. JM Wong has argued on Facebook that Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric comes at a time when “the legitimacy of the state is increasingly challenged for white people” as “the wages of whiteness are dwindling.” In that context, Trump “is calling for an investment in the state, restoring it to some semblance of ‘america is great,’ for folks to continue to have faith in the state apparatus, as long as it is tweaked into more white supremacist overtones.” To the extent that far rightists support this call, they are buying into the system they claim to oppose. Conversely, the defeat of Trump’s candidacy could further intensify the white nationalist far right as an oppositional force.
Neglected factors: capitalists and theocrats
One issue that’s gotten very little attention in most of these discussions is fascism’s class politics. Although many leftists (and not a few liberals) have treated fascism as ultimately a tool of big business, I’ve argued that fascism is an autonomous force whose relationship with the capitalist class is contradictory: “As a movement or a regime, fascism attacks the left and defends class exploitation but also pursues an agenda that clashes with capitalist interests in important ways.” In both Italy and Germany, capitalists helped fascists gain power, trading control over state policy for a crackdown against the working class. In the U.S. as it exists today, any drive to impose fascism would need support from at least a major faction of capital. The white nationalist far right currently enjoys little if any such support. If real estate billionaire Donald Trump were somehow to transform himself into an ideologically committed fascist movement builder, a major question would be how many other capitalists would back him.
Another factor rarely considered in discussions of Trump and fascism is Trump's relationship with the Christian right, a movement that in the U.S. is vastly larger than organized white nationalism. Although a majority of Christian rightists want to make changes within the existing political system, such as outlawing abortion and homosexuality, a significant hard-line wing wants to impose a totalitarian theocracy based on their interpretation of biblical law. This current arguably represents a version of fascism that emphasizes religious obedience and heterosexual male dominance before racial purity or nationhood. Trump's campaign has gotten significant but not overwhelming support from rank-and-file Christian rightists, although a number of movement leaders have criticized his lack of Christian faith, history of supporting abortion rights, and even his anti-immigrant politics. So far I haven't been able to get a clear sense of what the hardliners think of him, but I suspect they would be enthusiastic only to the extent they are willing to subordinate their theocratic ideology to other political goals.
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Donald Trump is not a fascist, but his presidential campaign is dynamically interconnected with fascism. Trump has emboldened fascists and is promoting many of the themes that they can and do exploit. A bigger immediate threat, I believe, is that he is helping to intensify the authoritarian and supremacist tendencies of the existing liberal-pluralist state, by feeding open bigotry and violence and making the brutal policies of other politicians — Republican and Democrat — seem more legitimate by comparison. Even Trump's loss in the primaries or the general election could drive far rightists into renewed militancy, and this in turn could offer centrist or liberal politicians another scapegoat to justify expanded repression across the board. If the choice Trump poses is less stark than democracy versus fascism, that’s hardly cause for celebration.
Related posts on Three Way Fight:
"On Trump, fascism, and stale social science" (25 October 2015)
"Fascist revolution doesn't turn back the clock: a reply to Alexander Reid Ross on Trump" (6 January 2015)
"Make America Great Again" is Donald Trump's slogan in his 2016 presidential campaign, seen emblazoned on the official campaign hat. Photo by Spartan7W, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)