“Fascist” is nowadays simply a term of abuse for people we do not like. It is without much meaning and is no longer even confined to abusing those on the far right whom we do not like. Hillary Clinton has been denounced as a “liberal fascist,” while the Muslim religion has been called “Islamo-fascist” by conservatives, recently by Trump advisor Steve Bannon. Given what real fascist regimes did in the first half of the 20th century, “fascist” is a terrible insult. When many Americans hate President Trump, when they march in the streets denouncing him, it is not surprising that one of their abusive shouts is “fascist!” But does he deserve it?
What must be said immediately is that there are fundamental differences between, on the one hand, the classic inter-war fascism of leaders like Hitler, Mussolini, and Codreanu and, on the other hand, the politics of Donald Trump and the extremists in his inner circle. Classical fascism was a genuine ideology, a theory of the social and political world and of its transformation. Though some scholars used to believe that fascism was a hodgepodge of ideas welded together by opportunism—and indeed that would fit some fascists—this is not the dominant view today. As Zeev Sternhell has put it, fascism was “a body of doctrine no less solid or logically indefensible than that of any other political movement.1 Trumpism is not.
So what was fascist doctrine? Though there were differences among the fascist movements of different countries, in general, fascists believed that liberalism, traditional conservatism, and liberal democracy had degenerated and were incapable of coping with 20th-century economic and geopolitical crises. What was necessary instead was the total mobilization of society by a totalitarian state under a single leader at the head of a single fascist party. Devotion to the “leadership principle” meant that all the leaders exercised charismatic power. The movement was committed to national unity, to the suppression of class conflict, and to martial virtues. Fascism did not see violence as negative. Political violence, war, and imperialism were legitimate means of encouraging the formation of a “New Man,” stronger, more martial, and more virtuous than the degenerate citizens and political movements of democracies. Political opponents like communists, socialists, and liberals must be cleansed from the nation, violently if necessary. This required the formation of armed party paramilitaries, like the German SA or the Italian Fascist Party’s squadri, and it led fascists into extreme and aggressive nationalism. The Nazis and many other fascists also developed a systematic racism, involving a hierarchy of races, with the Aryan race at the top ruling over various degenerate races. The very worst races, like Jews and Roma, should be cleansed from the nation, and such “cleansing” eventually became genocidal.
Most fascists were opposed to organized religions except their own—for some scholars have argued that fascism itself was a religion. Yet they did not persecute Christian Churches; rather they did deals with them, and their beliefs about the family and gender roles added racist quirks to traditional conservative views.
Fascists had varied and often rather ambiguous relationships to issues of class and class conflict. They almost all proclaimed that they would end class conflict between capital and labor by “knocking their heads together”—arbitration by violence. In practice, however, they were not strictly neutral. They suppressed activist workers and unions while permitting employers to own and run their own businesses, provided they conformed to the national autarchic planning that the party laid down. Romanian fascism was more proletarian, while Italian fascism had a “corporatist” strand, in which assemblies based on distinct economic sectors or professions met to discuss and recommend policies—subordinate, of course, to the party leadership. Contrary to popular myth, which sees fascists as essentially petty bourgeois, most of their parties drew support from all classes, though membership was concentrated in smaller towns and rural areas. As “statist” parties, they also drew considerable support from the military and from civilians in government employment.
Those are the bare bones of classic 20th-century European fascist movements. They may seem alien to us now but they can only be understood in the context of the particular circumstances of the time—more specifically the disastrous aftermath of World War I. Although there were fascist intellectuals and small fascist movements before the war, fascism only took off to become a mass movement after defeat in the war seemed to discredit milder politics. The experience of defeat generated almost all the major movements, that is, in Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Romania. Italy was the partial deviant, nominally on the winning Entente side in the war but taking heavy losses and receiving almost none of the gains believed in Italy to have been promised for joining the Entente. The war was also decisive because all the major fascist movements were initially dominated by discontented war veterans who believed they had been “stabbed in the back” by civilian politicians. Crises continued through the 1920s and early 1930s with rampant inflation, unemployment, and the Great Depression. The enduring connection to the war was that fascists believed all these crises could be solved and society could be reinvigorated by a movement embodying the virtues of military discipline and comradeship.2
When we come to Donald Trump, we find neither comparable contemporary crises nor much fascist doctrine. Indeed, we find very few political principles of any kind. Trump was once a Democrat, then he was a Republican, now he is President with a policy agenda which is mostly borrowed from conservative Republicans and big business, but with his own quirks. Speeches handed to him by teleprompters offer conventional Republicanism, though with his own populist additions—principally a fixation on the link between immigration and workers’ jobs, and major infrastructure programs.
A very big difference is that classic 20th-century European fascists worshipped the state and Trump does not. Fascists believed that an authoritarian party-state, exemplifying discipline and comradeship, could solve the major problems of societies ruined by World War I and then the Great Depression. Regarding government Trumpism is double-edged. At times Trumpists attack government. They say it is the enemy and they want to downsize and even dismantle it. Steve Bannon put this succinctly, declaring that the goal is “deconstructing the administrative state.” Most of the Republican leaders who have thrown in their lot with Trump don’t worship government, but the market. They say they want to set capitalism free from the chains of government regulation—and Trump himself has repeatedly endorsed this goal. Of course, worship of the state has almost entirely disappeared from the modern political arena. Even the left which sees state regulation and redistribution as necessary to the good of society sees it in pragmatic, not principled terms.
Nonetheless, Trump does reveal a preference, in certain respects, for strong government and government-directed economic nationalism, seeking to erect a fortress America against the transnational impact of the free movement of labor, goods, and capital. Domestically, Trump also wants to spend on big infrastructure projects. On their own these are not particularly deviant views. Bernie Sanders shares some of these views. But unlike Sanders, Trump’s is an authoritarian vision. In order to achieve and enforce his policies, Trump seeks an activist government with vastly enlarged police, security, and paramilitary border forces, all carrying semi-automatic weapons, plus large holding camps for immigrants, enormous border walls, and countless barriers against foreign importers. This is not in practical terms a free market, but a big coercive government. Trump also differs from Sanders in favoring a bigger military, capable of wiping out Islamic terrorism “from the face of the earth,” as he likes to say, as well as coercing foreign governments into submission. How far his militarism will go remains unclear. There is some semi-covert escalation of military intervention in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen going on at present. These policy thrusts all had equivalencies in inter-war European fascist regimes.
A much fainter resemblance with fascist movements can be found in the large and vociferous Trumpist following who helped bring him and the Republicans victory and who appear to have captured some of the grassroots of the Republican Party. Like the fascist leaders before him, Trump certainly exercises charismatic power over his followers, who adored chanting “drain the swamp” and “lock her up.” Doubtless Trump will devise new aggressive chants. His rallies generate a social movement of sorts. They are private events financed by his campaign chest. Because they are private, the organizers can decide who will be present and the atmosphere will remain adulatory, not critical (as at Nuremberg). Moreover, since participants have had to apply for tickets, the organizers have their physical and email addresses and are consciously constructing a list of hard-core supporters for future elections.
Yet at present Trump’s opponents’ rallies are more numerous and more like a social movement. In any case it would be too much of a stretch to compare either movement to inter-war European fascist parties and paramilitaries which required regular and violent activism from their members in order to coerce their allies and terrify their opponents by wreaking carnage on the streets. Trump’s principal coercive instrument is the implicit threat to use the aggression of his movement to unseat Representatives and Senators through contested primaries at the next elections. There are clearly far rightist forces in the country wielding physical violence and Trump has only half-heartedly denounced them. But he is not in charge of them; and while fascists were proud of their violence, Trump is not. He evades the topic.
And then we come to the man himself. It is above all his style which seems to invite labels like fascist. His speeches are abusive, hyperbolic, self-obsessed, simplistic, and repetitive. He has no time for conventional niceties of politics or presidential norms, which he seems proud to flout. He also has difficulty keeping to any plausible and consistent version of the facts. Does he even know what truth is? He is willing, even proud, to demonstrate a swaggering masculine sexism. He juts out his jaw in a determined if petulant way that reminds me of Mussolini. He voices only thinly veiled racism, which becomes more overt when someone stands in his way, like the “Mexican” Judge Gonzalo Curiel (actually born in Indiana). When Trump refers to a minority group, he uses the plural, as in “the Hispanics,” “the Muslims,” and “the blacks,” lumping the members of each group together, as racists do. Bannon has a more developed and more quasi-racist form of economic nationalism, but this is all pretty mild stuff compared to fascist racism, which actually killed people. Trump is merely revealing prejudices and hatreds voiced in many an American bar. I should add that he does not appear to be anti-Semitic (but neither did Mussolini).
He does exhibit pronounced personal authoritarian tendencies. These were nurtured, not in the normal political world, dominated by backstairs deals and compromises, but in the business world. Being a C.E.O. is often an inherently despotic role, especially in a private family corporation. In his he was the undisputed boss, commanding, not conciliating. He appears to have wielded absolute power there and he would clearly like to continue doing so in political life. In addition, being a vain narcissist with exceptionally thin skin, as President he reacts ferociously to any criticism or opposition, no matter what the source. His preferences are clear—he would like to restrict press, science, and academic freedoms, and to fire judges whose decisions he does not like. He has declared critical journalists to be “enemies of the people.” He would like to cleanse America of Muslims and Latinos. In these respects his personality and his preferences seem eminently compatible with fascism.
But is he not too quirky for us to pin on him any single label? Almost all politicians lie, exaggerate, and dissemble—fascists more than most. But would any self-respecting fascist lie and exaggerate so apparently thoughtlessly as he does? Would they have such a hazy grasp of facts and a preference for “alternative facts” as he has? Would they have such a limited repertoire of words as he has? Would they speak so impulsively and inconsistently, and so out of pique as he does, raising worries in his case about suddenly starting a nuclear war? I don’t think so. Mussolini cleverly cultivated relations with the Pope and the Italian king. Hitler courted both the Catholic and Lutheran Churches, as well as conservatives in general. It is difficult to see Trump cultivating rival power actors. He is more likely to abuse and antagonize them. We might call him a feckless fascist or a schoolboy fascist or a fascist clown, but even these labels conceal much.
Things could get worse, of course. Trump could become more and more angry if things do not go his way. The Trumpist movement might become more formidable and violent. So might the many action groups opposing him. Clashes between them in the streets might become more violent. Trumpist uniforms beyond mere baseball caps might appear, and so even might arms. That scenario might come to resemble the Weimar Republic in the 1920s.
But the really good news is that the United States is not a collapsing democracy, as Weimar Germany and 1920s Italy were. America is experiencing some popular discontent in some regions, but not mass unemployment, severe inflation, and a Great Depression. America has not, like 1930s Germany, just lost a mass-mobilization war, with over two million of its men killed in battle. It has not been deprived of most of its army and much territory—and almost all Germans wanted back the “lost territories.” Austria-Hungary lost over a million men, its empire, and its very existence as a country. America has recently lost wars, but they did not have much impact on American society, and this lack of impact is reinforced by the U.S. military’s ability to devise weapons systems which devastate a faraway enemy but cause almost no loss of American life. American media, its universities, its scientists, its Democratic Party, and above all its judicial system remain unaffected by such defeats and they still have powers which Trump cannot at present significantly curtail. Instead he merely abuses them, calls them liars, fakes, and incompetents, petulantly excludes them from press conferences, and at the extreme calls them “enemies of the people,” a chilling threat but one he cannot back up. Even some Republicans, who are partly responsible for the degradation of American political discourse, retain a commitment to presidential and congressional rules and norms and are willing to stand up to him on policy issues. If Trump wants to retain their support and a workable congressional majority, the leopard will have to change his spots and become domesticated.
Some liberals fear he might get worse and become a fascist in the future. This would not be so if his policies were unexpectedly successful, if he could generate economic growth, raise employment levels and wages without negative side effects; or if he could introduce a Trumpcare which would in reality preserve most of the Affordable Care Act; or if he could significantly lower the crime rate; of if he could destroy ISIS and other foreign terrorist movements without incurring further terrorist blowback. Even if he achieved only half of all this, he could bask in popular approval, get re-elected, and then retire with history recording him as a successful President, without any need to intensify his dark side (which would be confined to unfortunate immigrants).
Such success might seem unlikely, except for one worrying possibility. Here I invoke Hitler in the 1930s. He also appeared very successful. His military Keynesianism combining massive increases in military spending and infrastructures (the Autobahn network) ended the dire economic crisis, producing an economic boom and full employment. He ended fighting in the streets (except against Jews, of course). He re-established Germany as a Great Power and recovered most of Germany’s “lost territories” right up to the summer of 1939 without having to fight an actual war. Of course, his good fortune was not to last. Two particular crises resulted. First, over-expenditure and over-investment led at the end of the 1930s to unsustainable levels of debt, inability to pay for raw material imports, and declining German exports. A severe economic crisis loomed, which Hitler managed to sideline by plunging Germany into a second crisis, a war which eventually destroyed him and Germany.
The Trump analogy would be that he might find it politically impossible to pay for big military and infrastructure spending by massive expenditure cuts elsewhere, and so would have to raise the level of debt to unsustainable levels, as Hitler had done before him. But—and this shows the difference democracy makes—Trump might have generated a short-term boom lasting as long as the electoral cycle, enabling him to win re-election and stay in power a further four years. In the meantime he might have persuaded U.S. corporations abroad to repatriate sufficient jobs to the U.S. to equal the process of job displacement through automation—though this seems unlikely. He might have also been able to destroy ISIS and Al Qaeda during the same cycle, without incurring significant short-term terrorist blowback. But after his re-election the chickens would come to roost—severe economic crisis, falling employment levels, and terrorist blowback. Amid rising unpopularity and criticism how would he react? To go to war, as Hitler had done? That is a worrying prospect. This is when we might have cause to worry about Trump’s little fascist quirks looming much larger. But for the moment let us help the immigrants and the uninsured, and alternately laugh and cry at Trump and Bannon, the clowns with fascist tendencies.
- Zeev Sternhell, Neither Right Nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986). See also my own book, Fascists (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), Chapter 1.
- For a fuller account, see Michael Mann, Fascists (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).