If by fascism we mean skinheads, swastikas and macho salutes, odes to racial supremacy, and vows of martial conquest, then no, Donald Trump is obviously not a fascist. His hairstyle is a dramatic statement against even partial skinheadism.
Despite not dissociating himself decisively from the Ku Klux Klan, his rhetoric is anti-immigrant but not racial. And while he promises to defeat the terrorist group Islamic State (IS), his military rhetoric is worrying people more because, it seems, that he would weaken Nato and go easier on Russia in the new Cold War.
So why are some commentators raising the question? They’re not just dyed-in-the-wool liberals for whom even a police officer issuing a parking ticket is a fascist pig. One of the voices insisting that Trump will bring fascism to the US is Robert Kagan, an international relations expert, no dove, who served in the Reagan administration.
The problem arises because both Trump and fascism are difficult to pin down.
Trump’s statements are notorious and shocking – but extremely light on policy. He’ll build a wall along the Mexican border, he says, but it’s doubtful it could actually be finished even during a two-term Trump presidency.
He says he’ll defeat IS – he’s actually said he understands it better than the generals – but refuses to say how he’ll do it (not wanting, he says, to forewarn the terrorists).
If fact, while he’s claimed that he alone can fix the US, he’s said nothing about how he’ll fix anything at all. He’s left himself a huge latitude to improvise policy, should he win office, because he has few commitments. (And, when he has committed himself concretely, he hardly gives any publicity to that commitment.)
Meanwhile, historical fascism was also curiously non-doctrinal, even though we associate it with pretty fixed ideas about the world. Actually, however, Mussolini’s fascism began on the left of Italy’s spectrum and only positioned itself on the right for opportunistic reasons (the market for the extreme left had already been taken).
Nazism combined racial supremacy with socialism, and that was only one of the movement’s ideological contradictions. And if you stretch the meaning of fascism to include the authoritarianism in Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal and Peron’s Argentina (to mention only a few examples), then the eclecticism of fascism becomes even more striking.
The case against Trump is that he embraces all the ingredients that would serve to undermine US democracy with a creeping authoritarianism
Mussolini and Hitler were anti-clerical – but not Franco.
Most fascisms have been oozing machismo but, in Argentina, Eva Peron occupied a special space of her own. She wore glamorous outfits (sometimes more than one a day) while handing out charity from her own mysteriously-funded foundation: at once pretending to lead society while also pretending to be against the establishment (she was seen as an upstart by the upper classes).
Some expert observers of US politics simply dismiss the idea of Trump as a fascist. They see him as a populist nationalist who will be restrained by the dispersed power in US institutions. One such observer is Edward Luttwak, who has no difficulty in seeing fascism in radical Islamic groups.
More importantly, some 20 years ago Luttwak predicted that both the Democrat and the Republican parties would effectively split in two – the elite and various interest groups becoming uncoupled from their respective working class base. What Luttwak calls ‘turbocapitalism’ – the destructive effects of neo-liberal free trade agreements – would destroy the traditional social coalitions built up by the two main parties.
That is, in fact, what we’ve seen during this electoral cycle, with the Bernie Sanders and Trump insurgencies. However, to note this does not close the case in favour of Trump.
The case for Trump’s fascism is not that he has a secret fascist programme ready to be unveiled the moment he captures power. Not even the historical fascists were like that. Hitler and Mussolini repeatedly scorned anyone who asked about their plans. They made it up as they went along. Hitler himself didn’t work very hard, being notorious for his indolence, dinners at midnight and waking up at noon.
The case against Trump is that he embraces all the ingredients that would serve to undermine US democracy with a creeping authoritarianism. The former world chess champion, and a sworn political enemy of Vladimir Putin, Garry Kasparov, has written that he is struck by the similarities between Putin’s rhetoric and that of Trump.
Here, the main similarities are three.
First, there is the emphasis on the President as the saviour of the country from otherwise irreversible decline. It’s only he who can fix it, as Trump has said.
Next, there is the play on victimhood – the nation as victim to a malicious alliance between international forces and national traitors. The national traitors, of course, make up the establishment. The President manages to portray himself automatically as both someone who knows the system inside out and as an outsider.
Third, there is paranoia – the idea that the system is rigged and so can only be defeated by being subverted. It’s striking that even Trump’s Republican admirer, Newt Gingrich, argues for Trump’s ability to kick over the table in Washington.
Sounds like a man of action. Alas, it also sounds like a man who would undo the checks and balances.
On their own, those characteristics would not be enough to usher in fascism or even authoritarianism.
Even if Trump went ahead with his promise to expel every illegal immigrant from the country, he would need to have each individual tried in a court of law – a process that could take years. As President, he would have no power to bypass that.
Nor would he have the power to take over the armed forces and the police force with his own partisan supporters – something that is a critical feature of creeping authoritarianism and fascism.
But all that this shows us is how important to have strong autonomous institutions. Without them, the threat of authoritarianism is real in our time. It won’t come from the fringe. Example after example in Europe shows it will come from the mainstream parties’ grassroots support.