More than any time in over fifty years, Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign has provoked a serious discussion of the threat of fascism at the level of presidential politics. Martin O’Malley twice called Trump a fascist from the stage of the Democratic Party’s primary presidential debates. Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat began considering the question of Trump and fascism as early as last December, months before the first votes were cast in the Republican presidential primaries. In the spring, neoconservative éminence grise Robert Kagan saw in Trump’s campaign “how fascism comes to America.” This week the Washington Post published a scorecard grading Trump’s fascist “attributes.”
Is the Trump movement a variant of fascism?
It can be misleading to judge Trumpism thus far according to classic attributes of fascism, which tend to be derived from consideration of the mature fascist state. To evaluate Trumpism’s fascist character, it is more appropriate to compare Trump and his movement now with Mussolini and his movement at the beginning.
The most striking parallel is the ideological goulash that Trump represents. From the heights of the conservative establishment comes the lament he is no conservative. Cruz supporters called him a liberal. But liberals are appalled at Trump’s views on everything from tax policy to policing to immigration. So too, Mussolini utterly frustrated contemporary stabs of fitting him into established boxes. The very name of his movement stood out from every other contemporary political party—liberals, socialists—in embracing no political principle. His was the ism of the fascio—meaning a random collection, originally of straw. The ideology we associate with fascism came much later.
Like Mussolini, who had been a radical socialist for many years, Trump has made the transit from liberalism —he is a former Democrat—to the hard right. Each man rose in a political environment contemporary conventional wisdom viewed as bipolar. And each conflated the two opposing parties of that bipolarity. Trump has managed to attach the intense feeling of betrayal on the part the populists of the Republican right toward that party’s establishment to their long-standing resentment toward the Democratic “liberal elite.” He presents himself as the outsider crusading against a single corrupt establishment. Mussolini used the opposition of liberals and socialists to Italy’s entering the war to conflate them as “neutralists” or “defeatists”. As he would write looking back after a decade in power: “Fascism was not given out to the wet nurse of a doctrine elaborated beforehand round a table….in its first two years it was a movement against all parties.”
On style points, Trump gives Mussolini a run for his money. Each was dismissed as a clown (pagliacccio!). Their rallies offered ritualized back and forth between the leader and his supporters. Each was famous for exaggerated comic-opera gestures as well as facial contortions. Each introduced a level of vulgarity into political discourse, gutter talk and insults, the likes of which had never been heard before. Each had been a notable success in media—Mussolini as a newspaper editor, Trump as a reality TV star. A favored expression in Mussolini’s movement was “Me ne frego,” politely translated as “I don’t give a damn.” The motto of the CEO of Trump’s campaign is “Honey badger don’t give a s**t.” Mussolini and Trump both disliked shaking hands.
Significantly, Trump evokes what scholars of fascism call the leadership principle, one of fascism’s most breathtaking departures from democracy’s caucusing, coalition-seeking political culture. Mussolini, the Duce, was regarded as the vessel of the national will, a providential deliverance to the nation. Ann Coulter summarized what his followers feel about of Trump: “[I] thank God for raising up Donald Trump and giving us a chance to save the country.”
Like Mussolini, Trump captivates audiences feeling downtrodden by conjuring up a return to a golden age. “I am your voice,” Trump told his convention audience. As to the state of the country: “I alone can fix it.” One is reminded of a favored slogan of Italian Fascism, one which would be immortalized in framed sayings in classrooms across the country during Mussolini’s twenty years in power: “Mussolini ha sempre ragione.” Mussolini is always right.
Like Trump, Mussolini struck his profoundest chord with a class of people suffering from a profound feeling of dispossession. His earliest followers were returning war veterans whose experiences in the trenches of World War I rendered them no longer fit for the traditional village life that awaited them as it had generations of their forbearers. The settlement of the war at Versailles, which rejected many of Italy’s war claims, left them also feeling dispossessed of the heroic victory they felt they earned in battle. Trump’s followers’ strongest feeling is being dispossessed of the America they have known. There is an abiding anger that this election represents the last hope of turning around the direction of a demographically changing country. Coulter, again: “This is an election about saving the concept of America, an existential election like no other has ever been.”
In all these ways and more, Trump and his movement thus far is strikingly similar to Mussolini and his early movement. But there is another important question about which not yet enough is known, but perhaps soon will be.
The defining characteristic of fascism as a movement under Mussolini was the marriage of an electoral party and a private militia. Benito Mussolini was the leader, the Duce, of the post-World War I movement that gave fascism its name. As Mussolini gave speeches in the Italian parliament, his black shirts staged “punitive expeditions,” violent and often fatal attacks on the political opposition, and disrupted the functions of local governments. Mussolini wielded violence as the stick end of a carrot and stick strategy: If we don’t get our way we will beat you up.
Trump has put this November’s election and its aftermath in his followers’ crosshairs. At his rallies and online he has exhorted people to act as his watchdogs at the polls: “Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election!” In Pennsylvania, where Trump has implied that his poll watchers need to be present in minority communities, it is legal to carry firearms into polling places.
What is more, he has challenged the legitimacy of the electoral outcome. He repeatedly tells his followers that the election is “rigged,” that his opponent is a criminal, and that she participates in a global conspiracy to defeat his campaign and inflict immiseration on Americans. Uniquely among American presidential candidates ever, Trump has reserved the right to reject the outcome of the election. If Trump claims fraud at the polls after November 8, what license is he offering vigilantism in his name?
After all, Trump has thrilled his rally audiences with exhortations to “rough up” protesters, extolling the “old days” when they would be “carried out on a stretcher.” He has gone beyond leading ritual chants of “lock her up” regarding Hillary Clinton, already unprecedented in American political history, to suggesting that “second amendment people,” that is, those with firearms, could deal with effectively with her.
Will the Trump constituency take up its leader’s hints and turn into an organized force to impose its will at the voting booth or to take revenge for imagined voter fraud?
If so, this would be a great departure from what we have seen in the recent past. Rising up, indeed an armed rising up, has been discussed on the far right for years. Usually in discussion of the hopelessness of relying on the Republican Party, Tea Party websites could be relied upon to have interventions proposing it was time for “second amendment solutions.” Yet the Tea Party was a movement that at most engaged in occasional verbal violence.
However, for decades the American militia right has believed in a single event that would make “patriots” rise up and use violent means to “take back the country.” In a recent example of this thinking, the armed men who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon for forty days believed that this act would bring widespread support and spur similar actions on the militia right. As ever, no rising up to meet the reveille of the provocative act occurred.
But the angry right has never experienced a provocation on the scale of believing a presidential election was stolen and a leader with Trump’s visibility doing the provoking. It takes a special kind of group feeling for a fascist militia to arise. Italian Fascism (and German Nazism) could rely on the extraordinary camaraderie that developed among men who had spent months in squalid trenches and whose very lives depended on their fellows. Historical fascism has been described as the solidarity of the trenches grafted on to national politics. Can the heat of a presidential run provide a similar spark? Can the cyber connections of social media? It is worth remembering that social media, combined with other factors, did prove an adequate vehicle for the Arab Spring revolutionary uprising. Can this happen in America?
In short, in the weeks following the November 8 election will organized vigilantism emerge among Trump supporters? If it does, we will have an answer as to whether Trumpism has passed over the line into a true classic fascist movement.
But even if large scale organized vigilantism does not appear – which is most likely – there is no doubt that the specter of fascism is upon us.