Ron Berger —
Last November I was one of two speakers at a forum on “Fascism and the Holocaust in Historical and Contemporary Perspective” that was part of the Baeumler-Kaplan Holocaust Memorial Lecture Series at the University of Minnesota Duluth. I was there to talk about classical European fascism and the Holocaust; and Stas Vysotksy, my colleague in the sociology department at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, was there to talk about contemporary white-supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.
Stas and I spoke for about an hour, after which we entertained questions for about 45 minutes. It was not until the very last question that a young man asked the question that was on a lot of people’s minds (though they were too polite to ask): “Is Donald Trump a fascist?”
This was, to be sure, an unsurprising question, for it has been asked by others since the days of the 2015 Republican presidential primary. In a December 2015 issue of The Week magazine, for example, seven contemporaneous articles were cited from news sites—including The Atlantic, Commentary, Salon, and Slate—that mentioned the “F-word.” Even two of Trump’s rival Republican candidates, John Kasich and Jeb Bush (through a spokesman), dared to utter the word. On the other hand, Scott Greer of the conservative Daily Caller called this allegation “ludicrous” and accused liberals of trying to distract us from the real threats to our freedoms: radical Islam and the political left’s indifference to free speech and traditional values. Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast concluded The Week’s review by underscoring the point that we were actually having a national debate about whether the future President of the United States “is or is not objectively a fascist?” Isn’t this bad enough?
At the Duluth forum, Stas was the first to field the question from our young questioner. Stas’s inclination is to say that the answer is “no,” Trump is not a fascist. Stas has closely studied the ideological commitments of white-supremacists and neo-Nazis, and does not think that Trump fits the bill. Neither do hardcore extremists think he is truly one of them. Rather, they view Trump as a “useful idiot” who is lending legitimacy to their movement by means of his anti-immigration rhetoric and policies, lambasting of liberals and the mainstream media, reluctance to denounce support from the white-supremacist community, and “America First”/“Make America Great Again” nationalism.
Essentially, Stas views Trump as a narcissistic, transactional individual who is lacking a moral compass and coherent ideological worldview. This assessment reminded me of an article I had read in The Intercept during the presidential campaign, where Alexander Stille compared Trump, not to Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini, but to Silvio Berlusconi, who won three national elections and served as Prime Minister of Italy for nine years in the period between 1994-2011. Stilles writes:
Both are billionaires who made their initial fortunes in real estate, whose wealth and playboy lifestyles turned them into celebrities. … Both are deliberately transgressive, breaking through the tedium of politics-as-usual by using vulgar language, insulting and shouting down opponents, adopting simple catchy phrases, and making off-color jokes and misogynistic remarks.
Although many people find this type of persona off-putting if not outright offensive, Stille notes that this is actually part of Trump’s and Berlusconi’s appeal, as they use it to make a visceral connection with their followers, especially the less educated part of the electorate.
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When it was my turn to answer the young man’s question, I took a different approach. To begin with, echoing Tomasky, I said that the fact that we are seriously asking this question is bad enough; and I highlighted Trump’s threat to our democracy—as demonstrated by his demagogic attacks on immigrants (and policies that separate parents from children); electoral collusion and financial ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia; obstruction of justice in Robert Mueller’s Special Council probe; incessant lying that undermines reasoned debate; inflammatory denunciation of the media as the “enemy of the people”; shameless profiteering from his political influence; and overall autocratic leanings (as indicated by his expansive view executive power, attacks on the judiciary, demonization of political opponents, and admiration for autocratic leaders around the world). I added that I sometimes get concerned that the Holocaust has set the bar so high as to temper our concern and protest regarding “lesser” atrocities, violations of human rights, and acts of political corruption.
In my answer to the question, I also echoed historian Robert Paxton’s observation, as outlined in his book The Anatomy of Fascism, that fascism should be understood on a continuum, or as a process that moves through successive stages—from an incipient social movement to a full-blown fascist state. As such, Paxton identifies what have been historically successful and unsuccessful fascist movements. This observation is consistent with a distinction made by philosopher Jason Stanley between Trump’s practice of “fascist politics” versus the existence of a “fascist state.”
Moreover, I reminded the audience that successful fascist movements are not generally imposed on a society through force or terror. Rather, they enjoy a considerable amount of popular support. Hitler’s Nazi Party, for example, obtained political power not through a violent coup but through the electoral system, as the Nazis garnered about a third of the vote in a crucial parliamentary election in November 1932. This was enough to secure Hitler an appointment as Chancellor, a position he used to abolish the parliament a few months later. As Paxton notes, “Fascist movements could never grow without the help of ordinary people, even conventionally good people,” who may find the excesses of fascism distasteful but are nonetheless willing to go along with it for political, economic, or other reasons. Whether or not Donald Trump is a fascist—or merely an authoritarian populist—the willingness of the Republican Party to go along with his excesses is but a contemporary example of Paxton’s point.
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At this point in this essay, I will take a step back and refer to the initial remarks I made at the Duluth forum about classical European fascism, as illustrated by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. While scholars and other commentators offer their various lists, I identified six key elements.
- charismatic authoritarian or autocratic leader
- nostalgic longing for the restoration of a (racially pure) idealized national past
- vilification of marginal and oppositional groups, and ultimately their suppression
- glorification of militarism and violence
- propaganda aimed at undermining the very notion of “truth” and the possibility of reasoned debate
- state or government-directed capitalist economy
Importantly, again following Paxton, I noted that fascist movements vary “from one national setting to another,” reflecting the particular circumstances and aspirations of each nation-state. For instance, what was characteristic of German fascism (Nazism) in the period between the two World Wars—what distinguished it from Italian fascism—was the centrality of anti-Semitism to its political program and worldview. In Italy, anti-Semitism did not figure predominately in Mussolini’s rise to power in 1922, which preceded Hitler’s by over a decade, or in the ideology of Italian fascism. While Mussolini was arguably a racist and anti-Semite, his government did not openly advocate discriminatory policies against Jews until the later part of the 1930s, when Nazi Germany exerted greater influence over Italy’s affairs. Moreover, these policies never achieved the broad popular support that they did in Germany.
Paxton notes that contemporary neo-fascism may “not resemble classical fascism perfectly in its outward signs and symbols.” While neo-fascism in the United States, for example, would demonize “some enemy, both internal and external,” that “enemy would not necessarily be Jews.” Rather, the enemy would be Muslims, Blacks, and immigrants. American neo-fascism would also find followers in the fundamentalist Christian community and cloak itself not in swastikas but in the American flag.
Having said this, I am struck by Donald Trump’s willingness to use anti-Semitic tropes to muster votes and rile up his base. Just prior to the November 2016 election, his campaign released an ad that identified Hillary Clinton and three prominent Jewish Americans—George Soros (liberal financier), Janet Yellen (chair of the Federal Reserve Board), and Lloyd Blankfein (Goldman Sachs CEO)—who were alleged to be part of a global conspiracy aimed at undermining U.S. interests. Moreover, Trump and other Republicans have continued to demonize Soros as their favorite liberal bogeymen.
There is also Trump’s encouragement of violence—directed at both anti-Trump protesters and the press—which reminds me of the street violence that is characteristic of classic fascist movements.
Regardless of Trump’s intent, there are some people who have arguably been emboldened by his deliberately inflammatory rhetoric. Let us recall the murder of anti-Trump protester Heather Hyer by white supremacists at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, which was followed by Trump’s remark about how there were “good people” on both sides. There also was the October 2018 attempted murders by Cesar Sayoc, who mailed pipe bombs to 15 prominent liberals, including Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, CNN, and George Soros. (Sayoc kept a list of more than 100 potential targets.) And there was the October 2018 mass shooting by Robert Bowers that killed 11 Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. Although Bowers appeared to be critical of Trump for being a “globalist,” in the closing days of the November 2018 midterm campaign, Trump took great pains to clarify that he was not a “globalist” but a “nationalist.”
These acts of murder and attempted murder aside, the current threat to our democracy does not primarily derive from the actions of violent individuals. In their book How Democracies Die, political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt point to a number of nominally democratic nations around the world that have become de facto authoritarian one-party states not through classic military coups but by rigging elections, intimidating or otherwise controlling the news media, gaming the system by changing the rules of governing to maintain political power even if they do not receive a majority of votes, and stacking the courts with complicit judges. In the United States, Levitsky and Ziblatt warn that various states, which Justice Louis Brandeis once called the laboratories of democracy, “are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite election rules, redraw constituencies and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose.”
Moreover, “the threat to our democracy, “ as economist Paul Krugman recently opined, “is much broader and deeper than one man.” Republican gerrymandering of voting districts in states like Wisconsin means that significant Democratic majority votes for Congressional and state legislative offices translate into significant political majorities for Republican legislators. Additionally, as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) that gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, voter purges and other measures to restrict voting rights, which have especially impacted the poor and people of color, have become commonplace. And lame-duck Republican legislatures have passed laws to weaken the powers of incoming Democratic governors, as has recently occurred in Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina.
I would add that Trump’s diatribes about “fake news” and his minions’ declarations about “alternative facts” did not begin with his administration. In his book The Assault on Reason, published in 2007, Al Gore documented how the George W. Bush administration had undermined the norms by which agreed-upon “truths” are ascertained. As one White House operative told journalist Ron Suskind during the early stages of the Iraq War, reporters think they live in “the reality-based community,” believing that “solutions emerge from [the] judicious study of discernible reality.” But, the operative added, “That’s not the way the world really works any more. … We create our own reality.” And although right-wing media outlets like Fox News, Rush Limbaugh-style talk radio, and Breitbart News are not the state-operated media that are characteristic of classical fascist states, they function as the de facto propaganda arm of the most radical elements of the Republican Party.
Then there is the matter of the relationship between capitalism and fascism that is germane to this discussion. Although fascists have historically adopted anti-capitalist rhetoric, especially as it relates to international finance, they always allowed for the retention of large-scale private enterprises. In Nazi Germany, for example, the IG Farben chemical conglomerate, the largest corporation in Europe, was the government’s main supplier of products such as synthetic oil and gasoline, synthetic rubber, explosives, plasticizers, dyestuffs, and even the Zyklon B gas that was used to murder people in gas chambers. It also contracted with the SS to operate a subsidiary of Auschwitz using slave laborers.
On the other hand, we should expect contemporary neo-fascism to be far less anti-capitalist in both its rhetoric and policies than its classical predecessors—doing the bidding of, rather than, encroaching upon, the prerogatives of corporations who want to operate in an unfettered “free market.” In this sense, we might speak of the possibility of “corporate fascism,” and one prototype of this kind of social formation is the American Legislative Exchange Council—an organization that consists of conservative state legislators and private sector representatives who draft and disseminate “model” legislation aimed at reducing government regulation and corporate taxation, restricting immigration and voting rights, weakening labor unions, and opposing gun control.
Lastly, I would note that Trump’s lust for autocratic power also finds precedent among conservatives, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, who believe in the doctrine of the “unitary executive,” which postulates that the president alone, as commander in chief and head of the executive branch, has indivisible powers that are beyond the reach of judicial and legislative review—a doctrine that essentially nullifies the checks and balances that the framers of the Constitution hoped to establish.
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It is reasonable to doubt that the question “Is Donald Trump a fascist?” is a useful way to characterize Trump’s particular style of politics and governing. It is certainly true that the term has been bandied about in a rather careless manner, used by people on both the left and the right to tarnish their ideological opponents. Authoritarian, rather than fascist, might be a more judicious term. At the same time, “fascism” is an attention-getter, and if Trump falls short of the mark, it does serve as a warning about a place we don’t want to go.
Thus Matthew Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, encourages us to take this question seriously. “America is not a fascist state yet,” he writes, but we are not out of the woods. Citing Levitsky and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die, Rothschild identities some chilling scenarios by which we could get closer to the real thing. One is related to Trump’s increasing desperation as the walls close in on him from the Mueller investigation, the U.S. Southern District of New York, and other legal jurisdictions. What if Trump refuses to abide by court rulings; or if he fires Mueller and pardons everyone? What if he is successfully impeached and refuses to leave office? What if protests on either the left or the right spiral into violence? Would Trump declare a national emergency, deploy the U.S. military, and institute “martial law” in order to quell unrest? And what if the United States is attacked by foreign terrorists, even on a smaller scale than what occurred on 9/11? What would he do then?
In a recent article in The Atlantic, Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and Security Program, echoes Rothschild’s concerns and offers a detailed overview of the powers available to the president to declare a “national emergency.” There are more than 100 special provisions, she notes, that would allow the president to order such actions as deploying the military for domestic purposes, shutting down electronic communications, and freezing bank accounts.
This edifice of extraordinary powers has historically rested on the assumption that the president will act in the country’s best interest when using them. … But what if a president, backed into a corner … were to declare an emergency for the sake of holding on to power? … Authoritarians Trump has openly claimed to admire—including the Philippine’s Rodrigo Duterte and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan—have gone this route.
Yet, Rothschild remains optimistic that Trump’s effort to maintain his power can be stopped. Notwithstanding the complicity of all too many Republicans, large swaths of the public are resisting and our media and courts seem to be holding up. The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and the Congressional inquiries that will be launched promise to be game changers, further exposing Trump’s crimes and wrongdoings and heightening public opinion against him. More and more responsible Republicans will be emboldened to speak out, or at least forced to abandon their support of him. Recently, 44 former U.S. Senators, 11 Republicans among them, published an op-ed in The Washington Post warning that “we are entering a dangerous period,” expressing their “obligation to speak up about serious challenges to the rule of law, the Constitution, our governing institutions and our national security,” and urging their current Senate colleagues to be “steadfast and zealous guardians of democracy.” We can only hope there will be enough people in positions of power who will heed their call.
Ronald J. Berger, The Holocaust, Religion, and the Politics of Collective Memory (Transaction, 2012).
Noah Berlasky, “Is Trump a Fascist: Learning about How Fascism Works Can Help Prevent Its Spread in America,” NBC News (Sept. 3, 2018).
Elizabeth Goitein, “In Case of Emergency,” The Atlantic (Jan./Feb., 2019).
Al Gore, The Assault on Reason (Penguin, 2007).
Paul Krugman, “The G.O.P. Goes Full Authoritarian,” New York Times (Dec. 10, 2018).
Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (Penguin, 2018).
Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (Vintage, 2004).
Matthew Rothschild, “How Democracies Die,” Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (Oct. 19, 2018).
Ron Suskind, “Faith, Certainty, and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” New York Times Magazine (Oct. 17, 2004).
Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (Random House, 2018).
Alexander Stille, “Donald Trump, America’s Own Silvio Berlusconi,” The Intercept (Mar. 7, 2016).
The Week, “Trump: Has He Descended into Fascism?” (Dec. 11, 2015).