Donald Trump and Fascism – posted 12/17/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor 12/27/2015
This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor under the title American Fascist on December 27, 2015.
Probably no word in political vocabulary is more misused than fascist. It gets used all the time as an insult or as a way to tag a political opponent. It may just be used as a form of name-calling to indicate political disagreement with someone seen as authoritarian or dangerous. People on the political right or left can be called fascist although it is a charge typically levelled at someone on the right.
Lately it is hard to miss all the articles appearing on the subject of whether Donald Trump is a fascist. He certainly is not calling himself that.
In trying to get a handle on whether Trump is a fascist, I thought of an article written 20 years ago by the Italian novelist and writer Umberto Eco. The article, “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt” suggests a list of features of fascism.
How Trump stacks up with these features is one way to get at the question about whether he is the real fascist deal. Eco thinks it is enough that one feature he describes be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.
Eco suggests that the first feature of fascism is a cult of tradition. Trump’s baseball cap says, “Make America Great Again”. He harkens back to a mythological American past. In Trump world, there was no genocide against Native Americans or slavery. Trump doesn’t recognize that our past was worse than our present. We have actually made some progress in overcoming original sins.
I think irrationalism is at the core of the Trump phenomenon. Facts get in the way of his fantasy. The NBC reporter Michael Isikoff asked Trump if he thought the State of Hawaii was lying in regards to Obama being born there and Trump did not answer.
Trump says he will build a wall. He will deport eleven million and shutdown immigration. He will register Muslims. He will not allow American Muslims who leave the country back in when they want to return. He will waterboard and restore torture. He will keep us safe. It doesn’t matter that so many of his ideas are utterly unconstitutional. He demonstrates a cluelessness and disregard for constitutional law. For Trump, the law gets in the way.
What is important is that he is number one, especially in the everchanging polls. He is the smartest, the best, the richest. He holds himself up as so great. You have to ask why he is so insecure that he always feels the need to tout himself so much. I am reminded of something my dad used to say: “Self-praise is poor recommendation”. While it is not unusual to expect presidential candidates to be megalomaniacs, Trump carries the megalomania to new levels of preening narcissism.
Trump is not interested in ideas. He is a man of action. Eco says that irrationalism depends on the cult of action for action’s sake. Trump builds casinos and hotels. These other politicians simply talk. Trump doesn’t do policy, plans or specifics.
Without real policies beyond the cult of himself, Trump is totally mocking other candidates. They are losers, low energy, stupid, at one percent in the polls or weak. There is no room for disagreement. If you disagree with the Donald, you are, by definition, a fool. He says all who oppose him will fall. Ted Cruz is next. He sucked up but his time is now coming.
Eco says the fascist exploits and exacerbates the natural fear of difference. Fascism appeals against the intruders. The Donald is big against The Other. First it was the Mexicans. They were rapists and criminals sneaking across the border. Now it is the Muslims – all the Muslims. We must keep them out because they could be secret jihadis.
Racism is close to the heart of Trumpism. He has become a favorite with America’s pitiful white supremacists. Trump’s rants give white supremacists more room to spew their poison and to act out. In August, two Boston brothers beat a homeless man with a metal pipe and then urinated on him. The two men told the police, “Donald Trump was right.” They thought the homeless man was an illegal immigrant and they went on to say, “All these illegals must be deported.”
Rhetoric matters and Trump’s unhinged style has green-lighted violent vigilantes and white supremacists. I think we can expect more attacks on those perceived to be Muslim. It would appear that for American fascists Muslims are filling and replacing the role previously designated for Jews.
It probably does not need to be restated where scapegoating led during the German Nazi era. I will say millions perished. The historical track record of fascism is littered with corpses. Trump has commented favorably on Operation Wetback in the 1950’s and he has been equivocal about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. In spite of almost universal condemnation of the Japanese-American internment, Trump still sees it as a tough call.
Trump plays to the frustrations and insecurities Americans feel about the economy and terrorism. He indulges simple-minded solutions. Bomb them, kill them, deport them. To the rest of the world he is the stereotypical Ugly American. I would note that there is a popular petition going around the United Kingdom right now which would ban Trump from travelling there.
It is sadly ironic that some white working class and middle income people fall for the Donald’s celebrity routine. Trump tries to act like a regular guy but he is a one percenter through and through. Trump said his dad helped get him started with a small loan. The loan was for $1,000,000. Doesn’t everybody get that?
There is a dark side to the glitz. I find it surprising that the media has not more closely investigated his bad business practices. The multiple bankruptcy filings, the bad real estate deals, the evictions carried out against poor and elderly people, all are part of the Trump story and they deserve an airing. The media likes the fact that Trump’s celebrity has increased viewing and ratings.
Trump says he is not dependent on campaign contributions from rich people but what he is not saying is that he acts in the interests of his 1% friends. He will never do anything about economic inequality.
What Trump does when he scapegoats Muslims or Mexicans is to point the finger away from Wall Street and Big Business profiteers who did tank our economy. It is not Muslims or Mexicans who shipped good American jobs overseas, reduced wages and harmed our standard of living. In thinking about Trump supporters, I am reminded of this quote from the writer, Michael Lind.
“The American oligarchy spares no pains in promoting the belief that it does not exist but the success of its disappearing act depends on equally strenuous efforts on the part of an American public anxious to believe in egalitarian fictions and unwilling to see what is hidden in plain sight.”
Whether Trump is considered a fascist or a demagogue, his candidacy poses a special problem for Republicans. Trump is no conservative. He is not about conserving what is valuable in America’s laws and heritage. He has crossed enough lines to indicate he is something else altogether.
Being Jewish, I would admit to a special concern about fascism. The words “never again” ring in my mind. The maligning of broad groups like Muslims or Mexicans is unacceptable coming from any political candidate.
I do think members of the Bar have a particular responsibility to repudiate Trump’s unconstitutional antics. We need to protect our Constitution and our Bill of Rights. During the Nazi era, the German Bar and judiciary did a terrible job of repudiating fascism as it advanced to power. They accommodated fascism and ended up as fascist apologists. Americans lawyers and judges have a responsibility to do far better than the disastrous performance of their German counterparts.
It would be wrong to expect fascism in America to evolve as a duplication of previous fascist incarnations whether in Germany or elsewhere. It would likely be uniquely different and as Eco writes it could come back under the most innocent of disguises. Americans of all stripes need to repudiate fascism in whatever form it takes.