President Donald Trump is a frightening and upsetting prospect. I have been trying to separate what is upsetting because a Republican won from what is frightening because a Trump won — and we don’t know exactly what a Trump is. Loss of access to abortion and contraception, inaction on climate change, another four years without gun regulation, loss of guaranteed access to healthcare are all firmly in the Republican victory column insofar as all of those issues would be similar under a President Cruz, Rubio, or JEB!.
Right at the top of the Trump list for me, and I’m sure for many of us, is a word that’s been thrown around a lot lately: fascism. Fascismin America? The descent of our country into some dystopian Hitleresque future seems unbelievable but if this election has done anything, it’s shaken my confidence in being able to sort the possible from the impossible. I decided I had to learn more about fascism, stat. So, I read The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton from 2004 and kept notes. I mentioned that I was doing this to some friends and they expressed interest in hearing what I learned. I may not be a natural activist, but I sure know how to read a book and report back to those of you who are!
Here’s the tl;dr. Trump looks and sounds and smells like a fascist leader in a lot of ways but the context of our country and how he came to power are comfortingly non-fascist.
What is fascism?
Although Paxton puts off defining fascism until the very end of his book, I’ll plop the definition in right up front:
Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion. (p. 218)
How well does Trump fit this definition? Let’s look into it more deeply.
Does Trump sound like a fascist?
If Trump’s defining characteristic as a political figure is the ease with which he contradicts himself, he does share this in common with other fascists.
[Fascism] sought to appeal mainly to the emotions by the use of ritual, carefully stage-managed ceremonies, and intensely charged rhetoric. The role programs and doctrine play in it is, on closer inspection, fundamentally unlike the role they play in conservatism, liberalism, and socialism. Fascism does not rest explicitly upon an elaborated philosophical system, but rather upon popular feelings about master races, their unjust lot, and their rightful predominance over inferior peoples.
In a way utterly unlike the classical “isms,” the rightness of fascism does not depend on the truth of any of the propositions advanced in its name. Fascism is “true” insofar as it helps fulfill the destiny of a chosen race or people or blood, locked with other peoples in a Darwinian struggle, and not in the light of some abstract and universal reason… Fascism’s deliberate replacement of reasoned debate with immediate sensual experience transformed politics, as the exiled German critic Walter Benjamin was the first to point out, into aesthetics. (p. 16)
Like the fascist leaders of the 1930s, part of Trump’s appeal is his celebrity and the connection he creates with people at rallies. How this will play out as Trump becomes president is still to be seen.
Nevertheless, fascist leaders enjoyed a kind of supremacy that was not quite like leadership in other kinds of regime. The Fuhrer and the Duce could claim legitimacy neither by election nor conquest. It rested on charisma, a mysterious direct communication with the Volk or razza that needs no mediation by priests or party chieftains. Their charisma resembled media-era celebrity “stardom,” raised to a higher power by its say over war and death. It rested on a claim to a unique and mystical status as the incarnation of the people’s will and the bearer of the people’s destiny. (p. 127)
This was written in 2004, so Paxton’s use of “media-era celebrity” is not creepy in and of itself, but it’s a bit chilling nonetheless.
Did Trump come to power for the same reasons as the fascists did?
This one is tricky. We don’t really know why Trump won. Every day, I read a different story with a different take on this. It was the economy! It wasn’t the economy. It was racism. He appealed to working class people… but his supporters were rich. Oy! By the way, this has been an issue for people studying fascism as well:
It has also been tempting to interpret fascism by its social composition… that fascism is an expression of lower-middle-class resentments. In Lipset’s formulation, fascism is an “extremism of the center” based on the rage of once-independent shopkeepers, artisans, peasants, and other members of the “old” middle classes now squeezed between better-organized industrial workers and big businessmen, and losing out in rapid social and economic change. Recent empirical research, however, casts doubt on the localization of fascist recruitment in any one social stratum. It shows the multiplicity of fascism’s social supports and its relative success in creating a composite movement that cut across all classes. (p. 210)
Regardless of the difficulties involved, there is a general consensus about the context that enables fascists to come to power. There are a few elements.
First is a sense that democracy and liberalism have failed:
One of the most important preconditions was a faltering liberal order. Fascisms grew from back rooms to the public arena most easily where the existing government functioned badly, or not at all. (p. 77)
The democratic and socialist Lefts, still united in 1848, had to split apart before fascism could become possible. The Left also had to lose its position as the automatic recourse for all partisans of change — the dreamers and the angry, among the middle class as well as the working class. Fascism is therefore inconceivable in the absence of a mature and expanding socialist Left. Indeed fascists can find their space only after socialism has become powerful enough to have had some share in governing, and thus to have disillusioned part of its traditional working-class and intellectual clientele. (p. 43)
Second is a serious crisis or, in the case of fascism in the 1930s, two crises:
Even though the two crises within which the two fascist leaders achieved office — World War I’s aftershocks and the Great Depression — were different, they had common elements. Both confronted governments with problems of economic dislocation and foreign humiliation that seemed insoluble by traditional party politics; a deadlock of constitutional government (produced in part by political polarization that fascists helped abet); a militant Left growing rapidly and threatening to be the chief beneficiary of the crisis; and conservative leaders who refused to work with even the reformist elements of the Left, and who felt threatened in their capacity to continue to govern against the Left without fresh reinforcements.
Later in the book, Paxton looks beyond the 1930s and generalizes the type of situation that would allow for a rise of fascism:
The well-known warning signals — extreme nationalist propaganda and hate crimes — are important but insufficient. Knowing what we do about the fascist cycle, we can find more ominous warning signals in situations of political deadlock in the face of crisis, threatened conservatives looking for tougher allies, ready to give up due process and the rule of law, seeking mass support by nationalist and racialist demagoguery. Fascists are close to power when conservatives begin to borrow their techniques, appeal to their “mobilizing passions,” and try to co-opt the fascist following. (p. 205)
Fascist leaders profit from these crises:
Early fascist movements exploited the protests of the victims of rapid industrialization and globalization — modernization’s losers, using, to be sure, the most modern styles and uses of propaganda. (p. 12)
What happens when a fascist movement gains power in a country?
Well, for one thing, they start having to make some real choices.
Becoming a successful participant in electoral or pressure-group politics forced young fascist movements to focus their words and actions more precisely. It became harder for them to indulge their initial freedom to mobilize a wide range of heterogenous complaints, and to voice the scattered resentments of everyone (except socialists) who felt aggrieved but unrepresented. They had to make choices. They had to give up the amorphous realms of indiscriminate protest and locate a definite political space in which they could obtain positive practical results. In order to form effective working relations with significant partners, they had to make themselves useful in measurable ways. They had to offer their followers concrete advantages and engage in specific actions whose beneficiaries and victims were obvious. (p. 55)
They violate every rule of politics, law, and constitutional rights they can.
The Reichstag Fire Decree suspended all legal protection of speech, assembly, property, and personal liberty, permitted the authorities to arrest suspected “terrorists” (i.e., communists) at will, and gave the federal government authority over the state government’s police power.
After that, few Germans were prepared to resist, in the absence of any help from the police, the judiciary, or other authorities, when Brownshirts erupted into courtrooms expelling Jewish lawyers and magistrates or sacked left-wing offices and newspapers. (p. 107)
They radically alter society by demanding that the public sphere supersede the private. Any private organization — corporate, religious, educational, social — would be replaced by a party organization. Traditional governmental bodies are not exempt from this drive. Fascist parties create parallel structures to first rival and then overshadow normal government functions. Even the army may be replaced by a party military.
Indeed, fascist regimes tried to redraw so radically the boundaries between private and public that the private sphere almost disappeared. Robert Ley, head of the Nazi Labor Office, said that in the Nazi state the only private individual was someone asleep. For some observers, this effort to have the public sphere swallow up the private sphere entirely is indeed the very essence of fascism. (p. 144)
Wait, so this sounds a lot like Trump is a fascist. Why isn’t he?
In writing about aspirational fascists who don’t quite make it to the level of horribleness that true fascists do, Paxton wrote this:
Most of these feeble imitations showed that it was not enough to don a colored shirt, march about, and beat up some local minority to conjure up the success of a Hitler or a Mussolini. It took a comparable crisis, a comparable opening of political space, comparable skill at alliance building, and comparable cooperation from existing elites. (p. 75)
I suspect that when it comes to fascism, Trump is one of these “feeble imitations”. Here are some significant differences between what I see in Trump and what Paxton describes as fascist.
First, although there has been some violence as part of the Trump campaign, violence is not an essential element the way it was for Mussolini and Hitler. The Italian and German fascist movements were fully militarized before they ever came to power. They were uniformed and armed and organized and violent in a way that Trump supporters are not.
Second, I don’t believe that the United States is currently experiencing a crisis like the ones in the 1920s in Europe. Our economy is not in dire trouble — at least not on the surface. Unemployment is at 4.6 percent. And even if you double that to account for people who aren’t included in the official statistic but wish they had jobs, it’s still nothing like the 30+ percent unemployment that Germany experienced in the 1920s. Likewise, inflation is just not a problem here. What you could buy for one mark in Germany in 1918, you needed one trillion (not a typo) marks in 1923. While people in the United States are angry about the economy, it’s just not comparable on a national scale.
Third, Trump has shown no inclination towards either of two of fascism’s biggest pillars: the destruction of private life and expansionist war. These are truly two of fascisms’s most striking qualities.
Particularly because so much of Trump’s support comes from libertarian leaning conservatives, he’s more likely to reduce the reach of the federal government than extend it beyond anything we’ve ever seen in this country. Based on his cabinet choices, he’s quite obviously not going to “drain the swamp” but neither do I believe that he even wants to have the swamp take over everyone’s lives.
While I am seriously worried about war, it’s because I don’t trust Trump not to stumble into a situation where war becomes inevitable (nice start with Taiwan) or not to overreact to some perceived slight and start one himself. I’m not worried that Trump is obsessed with extending the American empire militarily. He doesn’t even own most of the buildings he puts his name on, he’s much more likely to think of extending America through branding than war.
In the best possible scenario, Trump will be a horrible president. If fascism is the worst case scenario, I am heartened to now feel as though that’s not so likely. What seems more close-fetched is that Trump will try to run the United States as an authoritarian.
Although authoritarian regimes often trample civil liberties and are capable of murderous brutality, they do not share fascism’s urge to reduce the private sphere to nothing. (p. 217)
As reasonable people, we should do everything we can to resist the United States becoming authoritarian almost as much as we would fascistic. I’d love to end this reflection with some Yoda-like words of wisdom about how best to do that. Alas, I don’t know any more than you do, but I’m open to ideas. As for fascism, I’m willing to put it on the back-burner for now. What I’m going to watch for in the coming weeks and months is any hint of the encroachment of the public into the private. In this way, virtually any community activity is a bulwark against fascism. Until a significant portion of people in the United States are willing to put party allegiance before their allegiance to a mosque, church, or temple group, a book club, a dance troupe, a community theater, orchestra, or choir, a charity, or even a sports team, I hope that we will be safe from fascism.