Is Trump a Fascist…and what is Fascism?

Monday, June 06, 2016
Donald Trump (photo: Getty Images)

 

 

 

By Peter Baker, New York Times

 

"Fascism is a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition."

                                                            Merriam-Webster Dictionary

 

WASHINGTON — The comparison was inflammatory, to say the least. Former Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts equated Donald Trump’s immigration plan with Kristallnacht, the night of horror in 1938 when rampaging Nazis smashed Jewish homes and businesses in Germany and killed scores of Jews.

 

But if it was a provocative analogy, it was not a lonely one. Trump’s campaign has engendered impassioned debate about the nature of his appeal and warnings from critics on the left and the right about the potential rise of fascism in the United States. More strident opponents have likened Trump to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

 

To supporters, such comparisons are deeply unfair smear tactics used to tar conservatives and scare voters. For a bipartisan establishment whose foundation has been shaken by Trump’s ascendance, these backers say, it is easier to delegitimize his support than to acknowledge widespread popular anger at the failure of both parties to confront the nation’s challenges.

 

But the discussion comes as questions are surfacing around the globe about a revival of fascism, generally defined as a governmental system that asserts complete power and emphasizes aggressive nationalism and often racism. In places like Russia and Turkey, leaders like Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey employ strongman tactics. In Austria, a nationalist candidate came within three-tenths of a percentage point of becoming the first far-right head of state elected in Europe since World War II.

 

In Hungary, an authoritarian government has clamped down on the news media and erected razor wire fences to keep out migrants. There are worries that Poland could follow suit. Traditional parties in France, Germany, Greece and elsewhere have been challenged by nationalist movements amid an economic crisis and waves of migrants. In Israel, fascism analogies by a former prime minister and a top general have again inflamed the long-running debate about the occupation of Palestinian territories.

 

“The crash of 2008 showed how globalization creates losers as well as winners,” said Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “In many countries, middle-class wages are stagnant and politics has become a battle over a shrinking pie. Populists have replaced contests between left and right with a struggle between cosmopolitan elites and angry nativists.”

 

That dislocation may not lead to a repeat of Europe in the 1930s, but it has fueled a debate about global political trends. There is a tendency at times to try to fit current movements into understandable constructs — some refer to terrorist groups in the Middle East as Islamofascists — but scholars say there is a spectrum that includes right-wing nationalism, illiberal democracy and populist autocracy.

 

“On a world level, the situation that affects many countries is economic stagnation and the arrival of immigrants,” said Robert Paxton, a professor emeritus at Columbia University and one of the most prominent scholars of fascism. “That’s a one-two punch that democratic governments are having enormous trouble in meeting.”

 

Trump dismisses the labels used by those like Weld, a longtime Republican now mounting a quixotic campaign for vice president as a Libertarian. “I don’t talk about his alcoholism,” Trump said through a spokeswoman, “so why would he talk about my foolishly perceived fascism? There is nobody less of a fascist than Donald Trump.” (Weld, who in the 1990s reportedly appeared in public a few times having had too much to drink, declined to respond: “I’ll let that ride.”)

 

Americans are used to the idea that other countries may be vulnerable to such movements, but while figures like Father Charles Coughlin, the demagogic radio broadcaster, enjoyed wide followings in the 1930s, neither major party has ever nominated anyone quite like Trump.

 

“This could be one of those moments that’s quite dangerous, and we’ll look back and wonder why we treated it as ho-hum at a time when we could have stopped it,” said Robert Kagan, a scholar at the Brookings Institution known for hawkish internationalism.

 

Kagan sounded the alarm this month with a Washington Post op-ed article, “This Is How Fascism Comes to America,” that gained wide attention. “I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from conservative Republicans,” he said. “There are a lot of people who agree with this.”

 

Fascist comparisons are not new in American politics. A Google search of “Barack Obama and Nazi” or “George W. Bush and Nazi” produces many images of the last two presidents as swastika-waving fascists. But with Trump, such comparisons have gone beyond the fringe and entered mainstream conversation both in the United States and abroad.

 

President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico criticized Trump’s plans to build a wall on the border and to bar Muslims from entering the United States. “That’s the way Mussolini arrived and the way Hitler arrived,” he said. The actor George Clooney called Trump “a xenophobic fascist.” Louis C.K., the comic, said, “The guy is Hitler.” Eva Schloss, the 87-year-old stepsister of Anne Frank, said Trump “is acting like another Hitler by inciting racism.” It got to the point that his wife, Melania Trump, was prompted to say, “He’s not Hitler.”

 

Trump has provided plenty of ammunition for critics. He was slow to denounce the white supremacist David Duke and talked approvingly of beating up protesters. He has praised Putin and promised to be friends. He would not condemn supporters who launched anti-Semitic blasts at journalists. At one point, Trump retweeted a Mussolini quote: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.”

 

Asked by Chuck Todd on the NBC program “Meet the Press” about the retweet, Trump brushed off the quote’s origin. “I know who said it,” he said. “But what difference does it make whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else?”

 

“Do you want to be associated with a fascist?” Todd asked.

 

“No,” Trump answered, “I want to be associated with interesting quotes.” He added: “And certainly, hey, it got your attention, didn’t it?”

 

Trump’s allies dismiss the criticism as politically motivated and historically suspect. The former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich, who has said he would consider being Trump’s running mate, said in an interview that he was “deeply offended” by what he called “utterly ignorant” comparisons.

 

“Trump does not have a political structure in the sense that the fascists did,” said Gingrich, a onetime college professor who earned his doctorate in modern European history. “He doesn’t have the sort of ideology that they did. He has nobody who resembles the brownshirts. This is all just garbage.”

 

Beyond Hitler and Mussolini, fascism can be hard to define. Since World War II, only fringe figures have overtly identified themselves that way. In modern political discourse, the word is used as an epithet. And even Hitler and Mussolini were elastic in their political philosophies as they came to power; Mussolini started out as a leftist.

 

Paxton, the fascism scholar, said he saw similarities and differences in Trump. His message about an America in decline and his us-against-them pronouncements about immigrants and outsiders echo Europe in the 1930s, Paxton said. On the other hand, he said, Trump has hardly created uniformed, violent youth groups. Moreover, fascists believe in strong state control, not get-government-off-your-back individualism and deregulation.

 

Others caution against comparisons. “I read Kagan’s piece, of course,” said Volker Perthes, the director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, in Berlin. “All the phenomena he describes are raising concerns, but I would still not call Trump or his campaign fascist. Maybe with German and European history in mind, we are a bit more cautious than others in using the label ‘fascism.'”

 

Perthes said real fascism requires two more elements — an outright rejection of democracy, and a harsher definition of order. Jobbik, the ultraright party in Hungary, would fall into this category, he said, but Norbert Hofer, the far-right candidate who narrowly lost the Austrian presidential vote, and Trump would not.

 

Charles Grant, the director of the Center for European Reform, in London, distinguished between far-right nationalist parties like Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France and actual fascism.

 

“Historically, it means the demonization of minorities within a society to the extent that they feel insecure,” he said. “It means encouraging the use of violence against critics. It means a bellicose foreign policy that may lead to war, to excite a nationalist feeling. It takes xenophobia to extremes. And it is contemptuous of a rules-based liberal order.”

 

The debate about terminology may ignore the seriousness of the conditions that gave rise to Trump and his European counterparts. The New York real estate developer has tapped into a deep discontent in a country where many feel left behind while Wall Street banks get bailouts, newcomers take jobs, terrorists threaten innocents and China rises economically at America’s expense.

 

“It seems to me in developed and semideveloped countries there is emerging a new kind of politics for which maybe the best taxonomic category would be right-wing populist nationalism,” said Stanley Payne, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We are seeing a new kind of phenomenon which is different from what you had” in the 20th century.

 

Roger Eatwell, a professor at the University of Bath, in England, calls it “illiberal democracy,” a form of government that keeps the trappings of democracy without the reality.

 

“Elections are seen as important to legitimizing regimes,” he said, but instead of imposing one-party rule, as in the past, today’s authoritarians “use a variety of devices to control and/or manipulate the media, intimidate opponents” and so on.

 

Either way, it has found pockets of support on both sides of the Atlantic. Lilia Shevtsova, a political analyst in Moscow, said neo-fascism in liberal societies in the West stems from crisis or dysfunction while in illiberal countries like Russia and Turkey it reflects an attempt to fill the void left by the failure of Western notions to catch on.

 

The problem, she added, is that “the Western political leadership at the moment is too weak to fight the tide.”

 

To Learn More:

Legal Scholars See Threat to First Amendment, Separation of Powers and Rule of Law under a President Trump (by Adam Liptak, New York Times)

Exercising Right to Protest Is a Dangerous Undertaking at Trump Rallies (by Ashley Parker, New York Times)

Rise of Trump Elicits Shock, Outrage and Panic across Europe (by Dan Bilefsky, New York Times)

Twitter Still Trump’s Favorite Tool for Fear Mongering and Character Assassination (by Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman, New York Times)

Conservatives Decide Trump Qualifies as a Fascist (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Trump Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric Emboldens Hate Mongers (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

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