What is it, exactly, that Donald Trump is selling? In substantial part, it’s himself – as my co-editor Bob puts it, Trump is trying to “feed his bloated idiot-sized ego.” Trump loves to talk about how rich he is, how much he personally “cherishes women” and other groups, about how successful he’s been in business, etc. There’s no doubt that he’s peddling, in part, a cult of personality.
But there is more to it than that. The trademarked slogan of his campaign is “Make America Great Again.” He is, of course, the GOP’s biggest purveyor of nativist, anti-immigrant rhetoric. He rails against leaders who have supposedly turned America into a “loser” (“we don’t have victories anymore,” he said recently). Also – and this is important – some of his economic proposals are intensely nationalistic and hated by big business. The NY Times reports that some conservatives are concerned about Trump’s proposals to raise taxes “on corporations that he believes do not act in the best interests of the United States” – for instance, “Mr. Trump has threatened to impose tariffs on American companies that put their factories in other countries … [a]nd he has vowed to change laws that allow American companies to benefit from cheaper tax rates by using mergers to base their operations outside the United States.”
That is a marked difference from Republican orthodoxy, which generally puts the interests of big business first and foremost. The GOP is, essentially, pro-corporation, but Trump is nationalist first, corporate second.
“The one problem I have with the flat tax is that rich people are paying the same as people that are making very little money,” Mr. Trump said. “And I think there should be a graduation of some kind.”
Another part of Trump’s platform (if you can call it that), as I’ve said before, is his apparent belief that the “welfare state” is not always a bad thing. He supports Social Security and criticizes his opponents for wanting to dismantle it. He has said he opposes cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. He has said that “we have to take care of the people that can’t take care of themselves,” which sounds a lot like some form of government-run health care.
Yet another departure from GOP orthodoxy is Trump’s stance on the current state of our political system. He has said repeatedly that the system is broken, and he uses his personal wealth to demonstrate that he is independent of it. This criticism applies to his own party as well as to the Democrats – he recently blasted both sides, saying “[a]ll of the money that’s going to Hillary, and Jeb, and Scott and Marco? They’re totally controlled. Totally.” Trump is saying, in effect, that the entire two-party system as we know it is corrupt, and it’s time for something else.
So. Let’s talk now about fascism – not in the pejorative sense, but in terms of what the fascist ideology actually is. There is some disagreement as to how “fascism” should be defined – the word, after all, comes from the Italian word for a bundle (fascio), which in the late 19th century came to refer to a wide variety of Italian political groups or “leagues” known as fasci. Only later, when Benito Mussolini consolidated some of these movements into the Partito Nazionale Fascista and took power in the 1920s, did fascism come to be synonymous with Mussolini’s particular ideology, and there have been other fascist movements that don’t line up exactly with Mussolini’s. But, to the extent that the Wikipedia article on fascism can be seen as authoritative, let’s see how it stacks up with Trumpism.
Nationalism. Nationalism is the main foundation of fascism. The fascist view of a nation is of a single organic entity that binds people together by their ancestry, and is a natural unifying force of people.
Check. This is precisely what Trump is saying. “Make America Great Again” is a fine encapsulation of the idea that America’s glory as a nation has been lost but can be regained. To that end, both individual and corporate aspects of society must be subservient to the interests of America (hence his pro-America, anti-multinational corporation taxation ideas). Those who “don’t belong” – illegal immigrants of course, but also apparently reporters for Spanish-language television – are a threat and should be removed (from the country and from the press conference, respectively). Trump also opposes birthright citizenship (the notion, ensconced in the 14th Amendment, that anyone born on American soil is automatically a citizen), presumably because it undermines the idea of a nation united by ancestry, and is therefore a threat to the greatness of America. UPDATE (11/20/15): Trump’s aggressively anti-refugee stance, and his position that American Muslims should be required to register in some sort of national database, are entirely consistent with a fascist take on American nationalism.
Totalitarianism. Fascism promotes the establishment of a totalitarian state. The Doctrine of Fascism [an essay published in the 1930s in Italy and authored in part by Mussolini] states, “The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism is totalitarian, and the Fascist State—a synthesis and a unit inclusive of all values—interprets, develops, and potentiates the whole life of a people.” … Fascism opposes liberal democracy. It rejects multi-party systems, and supports a single party state.
So far, anyway, I haven’t heard Trump talking in exactly this way. And it wouldn’t work if he did, because American nationalism is bound up with fetishizing the Constitution and the system of government it sets up. But what he has done, as noted above, is talk a lot about how American democracy has become corrupted. Both parties, according to Trump, are bought and paid for by wealthy special interests; he alone can stand up to them because he doesn’t need their money. So Trump doesn’t advocate eliminating the two-party system and adopting a single-party state, as Mussolini’s Fascismo did, but he strenuously makes the case that the two-party system as it currently exists in the U.S. is failing. In an American brand of fascism, that’s about as far as you can go.
It’s also worth noting that fascism, which conceives of the state as “all-embracing,” is in some respects the opposite of small-government conservatism. And Trump, despite identifying as a Republican, is not a small-government conservative. He believes in a robust welfare state (hence his support for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid). He believes in a strong and expanded military. He believes in higher tax rates for the wealthy, as discussed above. And he believes in using the apparatus of government – the bankruptcy laws, specifically – to help big businesses. Which leads us to…
Economics of fascism … In general, apart from the nationalizations of some industries, fascist economies were based on private individuals being allowed property and private initiative, but these were contingent upon service to the state…. Fascist governments encouraged the pursuit of private profit and offered many benefits to large businesses, but they demanded in return that all economic activity should serve the national interest.
Check. Trump of course likes large, profitable private businesses. But as noted above, some of his tax proposals would punish businesses who place private profit over his conception of the national interest.
In most cases, fascists discouraged or banned foreign trade; fascists believed that too much international trade would make the national economy dependent on international capital, and therefore vulnerable to international economic sanctions. Economic self-sufficiency, known as autarky, was a major goal of most fascist governments.
Trump does not go so far as to advocate autarky (that is, the cessation of trade with other nations). But he routinely resorts to China-bashing in his speeches (“China’s taking our jobs. They’re taking our money…. Be careful. They’ll bring us down.”), and he has said that he favors “imposing Smoot-Hawley-style tariffs” that, according to one writer, “would precipitate a trade war and devastate exports.” Here, again, Trump differs substantially from the GOP’s pro-big-business orthodoxy, which generally favors free trade. Trump’s American brand of fascism, then, doesn’t go as far as the Italian version, but by advocating high tariffs and by stoking fears of other countries’ motivations, it moves in that direction.
Fascism was highly militaristic, and as such, fascists often significantly increased military spending.
Check. Trump (and here he is like most Republicans) professes great love for the military and for increasing military spending.
There are other aspects of traditional fascist economics that don’t line up as well with Trump’s views, such as “an economy where the government exerts strong directive influence over investment, as opposed to having a merely regulatory role.” But, again, we are not talking about recreating Mussolini’s fascism. Rather, we are talking about a new, American brand of politics that adapts the fascist ideology to American sensibilities.
UPDATE 3/12/16: Political violence.
Fascism emphasizes direct action, including supporting the legitimacy of political violence, as a core part of its politics. Fascism views violent action as a necessity in politics that fascism identifies as being an “endless struggle”….
The basis of fascism’s support of violent action in politics is connected to social Darwinism. Fascist movements have commonly held social Darwinist views of nations, races, and societies. They say that nations and races must purge themselves of socially and biologically weak or degenerate people, while simultaneously promoting the creation of strong people, in order to survive in a world defined by perpetual national and racial conflict.
Trump rallies have become very scary places in recent days and weeks. The violent ejection of protesters, sometimes accompanied by criminal assaults on them, are now commonplace; in Chicago, the situation was so close to completely out of control that the rally was cancelled. Rachel Maddow did a nice job of putting together a string of video clips showing Trump lamenting the fact that nowadays, there are no consequences for protesting, and in the good old days, those folks were taken out on a stretcher. He is smart enough not to actually encourage violence against specific protesters (beyond a call to “get him outta here”), but he comes about as close as he can without subjecting himself to criminal liability for assaults that occur thereafter. He hasn’t assembled an army of brownshirts yet … but who knows what the future holds.
Finally, it cannot be ignored that a defining characteristic of most fascist movements is that they are “led by a strong leader” such as Mussolini. Trump, as noted above, is selling in large part himself. “Nobody can do that like me. Believe me,” said Trump in his announcement speech. He was talking about rebuilding infrastructure at that moment, but it could have been about anything. And, according to a focus group set up by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, Trump’s cult of personality is a key feature of why his supporters like him:
They view Trump as different from all the other presidential candidates. He’s not just their favorite candidate. Their tie to him is almost mystical. He’s a kind of political savior, someone who says what they think. Luntz asked them for the one word that comes to mind when they think of Trump. The word cited most was “leader.”
So. A strong, charismatic leader. Intense nationalism that takes precedence over corporate interests. Virulent anti-immigrant, nativist rhetoric that links the nation’s greatness to its ability to control who is and is not “American.” A hopelessly corrupt two-party system that is failing American interests, and that needs to be shaken up by someone independent of it. A strong national government that looks after poor citizens, that boasts a strong military, that isn’t afraid to collect taxes to fund its operations, and that aggressively represents the national interest in trade and other dealings with foreign countries. UPDATE: And tolerance, if not outright encouragement, of the use of force against political enemies.
Maybe there’s another word for it. But to me (and to some others, for somewhat different reasons), it looks like Trump is selling an updated, Americanized version of old-school Italian fascism that is quite distinct from modern Republican orthodoxy. And, at least right now, Republican voters are buying it. That’s an interesting, important, and worrisome development in American politics.