There are many negative terms to describe Donald Trump, American’s favorite political insult isn’t really necessary.
An interesting debate has emerged recently in some liberal political circles over whether Republican Donald Trump is a fascist or not. The New Republic’s Jeet Heer has taken using the term “fascistic” on Twitter. While Jamelle Bouie cited famous Italian semiotician Umberto Eco’s popular essay on “Ur-Fascism” as good evidence that the word “fascist” fits when it comes to Trump due to his extreme campaign rhetoric. Bouie identifies seven of Eco’s common prosperities of fascism and thinks they aptly apply to Trump:
A cult of “action for action’s sake,” where “thinking is a form of emasculation”; an intolerance of “analytical criticism,” where disagreement is condemned; a profound “fear of difference,” where leaders appeal against “intruders”; appeals to individual and social frustration and specifically a “frustrated middle class” suffering from “feelings of political humiliation and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups”; a nationalist identity set against internal and external enemies (an “obsession with a plot”); a feeling of humiliation by the “ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies”; a “popular elitism” where “every citizen belongs to the best people of the world” and underscored by contempt for the weak; and a celebration of aggressive (and often violent) masculinity.
Now, let’s look at Trump. His campaign revolves around one theme: That the United States is weak, that it loses, and that it needs leadership to become “great again.” “We don’t have victories anymore,” he said in his announcement speech. “When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? They kill us. … When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity.” He continued: “The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems,” and “Our enemies are getting stronger and stronger by the way, and we as a country are getting weaker.”
The problem with this sort of analysis is that it focuses almost entirely on demagogic campaign rhetoric, which the Republicans have in spades this cycle. Is Ted Cruz’s challenging Obama to a fist fight proof of his fascism, or just an attempt to appeal to voters that really dislikes the president? It’s just not clear.
Meanwhile New York magazine’s Eric Levitz compared Trump’s rhetoric to historian Robert Paxton’s, generally regarded as one of the world’s leading experts on fascist political movements, identified themes and found things far more inconclusive.
For example Trump’s rhetoric clearly follows the theme of, “A sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions.” But at the same time when it comes to themes like, “The primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it.” Trump clearly doesn’t embrace the fascist mindset at all. As Levitz puts it:
While Trump often calls for sacrificing the rights of out-groups to advance the greater good, he doesn’t impose any duties on his own supporters. Trump hasn’t called for reinstating the draft or mandatory national service. In stark opposition to history’s most famous fascists, the Donald has studiously avoided serving in the military.
He promises his followers far more than he ever asks of them. In this sense, he’s much more salesman than spiritual leader, more Ron Popeil than Adolf Hitler. His pitch isn’t “give yourself over to the will of the nation,” but rather, “Vote now and we’ll send you this big, beautiful wall!”
And that’s where I think the fascist line of argument really falls apart. Fascism was an ideologly that rejected the idea of democracy as decadent, corrupt, and unable to deal with enormous problems plaguing European countries following the end of World War I. Thus fascist leaders went about attempting to constructing entirely new means of organizing society rather than simply modifying the old. They created paramilitary organizations to enforce their will and provide “order” rather than simply beef up existing police forces. They founded their own media organizations and pioneered new methods of communication to disseminate their propaganda instead of relying on the preexisting press. They even invented new schools of art in an attempt to reshape the masses. Trump isn’t doing anything like that at all. His whole political program consists of going on television and the internet to mock his opponents and people he doesn’t like or agree with.
This isn’t the behavior of a fascist, it’s the behavior of a blow hard on a reality TV show.
In other words Trump might be an offensive bigot, but he’s no fascist. That would take a lot more dedication than he’s shown so far.
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Photo by Carlos Osorio/AP