The following essay was published online in The American Interest magazine in Washington on March 7, 2016:
The short answer is “no,” but there’s plenty of room for discomfort.
Is Donald Trump, now with the results of Super Tuesday the Republican presidential nominee-apparent, a fascist? It is stunning even to pose the question in the context of a national-scale American election, but many people are posing it, and they are not entirely wrong to do so. The short answer to the question is “no, but.” But the “but” begs an historically tutored explanation, the conclusion to which should not make us feel too good about the “no” part of the answer.
When an historian asks a question like this, methodological fragilities rush to consciousness. Context is critical, so much so that in some ways it is impossible to state in any simple fashion what the similarities and differences are between Donald Trump and the fascist and Nazi dictators of Europe’s 20th century. But we can sketch out the domains in which a comparison might make sense. Those domains include, most prominently, attitudes toward democracy, political violence, press freedoms, and the role of the state within society and culture.
When Trump asserts that politicians are “all talk and no action” he casts doubt on a great virtue of elected legislatures in democracies—namely, the creation of a public sphere in which people with divergent views can talk with and to one another. Trump does not, as Hitler and Mussolini did, openly denounce the institutions of liberal democracy. Yet like them he accuses those institutions of failing to adequately address political and economic crises. The classic dictators denounced democracy itself, especially the peaceful democratic competition among political parties, as a formula for national weakness. Trump has not done so, but his dictatorial personality suggests that he can do singlehandedly what American political institutions have failed to do for many years running. He postures as the man on the white horse, as someone who would make Carl Schmitt proud.
The fascists and the Nazis combined violent rhetorical attacks and insults with well-organized paramilitary organizations that inflicted violence, leading to injuries and deaths among their political opponents. Trump has mastered the art of the bruising insult but has not made organized violence a part of his campaign. While he thrills his audiences with rhetorical flourishes about wanting to punch opponents in the face, he hasn’t organized a paramilitary organization that would inflict physical harm on his opponents.
The fascist movements were schizophrenic about the relationship of society to the state. As they sought political power, fascists and Nazis pointed with pride to mass movements that, in their view, gave them a democratic mandate beyond the supposed fakery of the voting process. Trump has begun to refer to his candidacy as a political movement, and some of his supporters, like Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, have explicitly done so. Fascists and Nazis wanted to create a new man and a new woman by abolishing the distinction between public and private life through a network of totalitarian institutions. In other words, they wanted to merge society into the state.
Trump wants to make “America great again,” but he has never expressed a totalitarian aspiration to create a new and presumably better American. Still, his demeanor and his taunts are those of the “strong man” who will fix problems. Trump’s insults preclude any serious effort at building consensus. His vision of politics is that of the one-man rule he has enjoyed in his “great, terrific business.” Trump’s confidence about the ease with which our problems can be solved reflects an authoritarian impulse.
As to the panoply of liberal freedoms, the right-wing dictators of the 20th century learned to use the means of mass communications, especially the radio, to good effect. Trump emerged as a public figure on television, has received massive publicity on cable and network news, and uses Facebook and Twitter to communicate—almost for free, too. Though Trump has threatened to diminish freedom of the press through the use of libel suits against leading newspapers, he is not yet running on a platform of substituting dictatorship for democracy, or of rescinding the First Amendment.
Mussolini and Hitler vastly expanded the role of the state in the economy and in all spheres of life. They celebrated state power, which initially confused large parts of the Italian and German business elites. A few industrialists turned to the fascists as a presumed bulwark against the vastly exaggerated danger of a Communist revolution. Most initially were skeptical of Mussolini, who began his career as a radical socialist, and of Hitler, who led a party with the word “Socialist” in its name. They did not understand that the fascists intended to use the state to remake society itself, specifically to make a “revolution from the right” that would, so they claimed, replace economic fragmentation and the alienating dimensions of bourgeois society with new national unity established by the primacy of politics of a more powerful state.
Trump remains vague regarding the role of the government but tends to repeat conservative mantras about the sins of big government. He has given no indication that he even understands, let alone plans to use, the state to remake American society or to stimulate some kind of cultural revolution. So his movement lacks any explicit goal, except to elect Trump in order to expiate an accumulated mountain of anger against a tenured political class that, in its view, has only its own elitist interests in mind. Trump points to no “third force” beyond capitalism and communism. There is not the slightest hint of the anti-bourgeois impulse of the fascists and the Nazis. He promises capitalism on steroids, wealth for all. In this sense, Trump’s authoritarianism is quintessentially American. Far from denouncing business, money, and materialism in the name of a new post-materialist national community, his tasteless narcissism knows no bounds.
Trump exudes not an ounce of the anti-bourgeois cultural radicalism of the right-wing extremism of Europe’s mid-20th century. In contrast to the structures of the multinational corporation, Trump owns a family business that is not accountable to anyone but himself. He boasts that his wealth creates the economic foundation for his ability to defy political correctness and say whatever he wants about anything. His reminders to his followers that he is funding his own campaign underscores his distinctive message about the connection between money, power, and the freedom to say whatever he pleases.
Trump’s petty, narcissistic form of authoritarianism emerges from different experiences than those of Hitler and Mussolini. Hitler’s radicalism had much to do with the fact that he was a veteran of World War I, while Mussolini had early on expressed belief in the utility of political violence in politics. Hitler, in particular, expressed bitterness and disappointment about defeat and, in his view, an unjust peace. The two dictators and their leading associates sought to remake Italy and Germany in the image of a mythologized masculine community of the World War I trenches. They spoke to and for disillusioned veterans who yearned to militarize civilian politics. In place of defeat and unjust peace, they promised a glorious future of national grandeur that demanded geographical expansion, through war if necessary. Trump’s authoritarianism, by contrast, is utterly civilian in origins. It is not a transfer the culture of the military (of which he has no personal experience) to the realm of civilian politics. Rather, he translates his own extensive experience of complete control over an almost archaic institution, the family-owned large business, into the political realm.
Trump displayed the distinctively civilian roots of his authoritarianism, as well as his contempt for the officer corps of the armed forces, when, at an early point in his campaign, he said that there was nothing heroic about Senator John McCain’s imprisonment in North Vietnam. He found nothing noble in McCain’s decision to turn down an offer for early release in order to maintain solidarity with his fellow American prisoners of war and the fact that he endured terrible torture as a result. Instead, he dismissed McCain’s sacrifice, commenting “I like people who weren’t captured”—a kind of callow flippancy made all the more shameless by the fact that, at that same moment in history, Trump was in college, followed by a stint in the family real estate business in New York.
There is another important difference between Trump and fascists like Mussolini and Hitler. It concerns their views of Islam. Trump’s call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration to the United States reflects the undifferentiated fear of Islam that has become a staple of the far Right in Europe. Hitler, however, admired Islam because he viewed it as a warrior religion with much in common with National Socialist authoritarianism and its celebration of war. Hitler viewed the pacifism that Christianity inspired as weakness. Hitler also was at one with the Arab and Muslim hated of the Jews and Zionism.
Trump probably remains unaware of the fact that Nazis and Islamists of an earlier time met on a common terrain of contempt for weakness and liberal democracy. Trump and his supporters think of themselves as being at least cultural Christians, if not more. It’s part of their identity, not necessarily their faith. More importantly, after 15 years of war and terror around the world waged in the name of Islam, Trump senses that millions of Americans are fed up with euphemisms and efforts to make fine distinctions. Faced with a President who has refused to state the obvious about the connection between Islamism and terror (whether this is a good or bad idea is beside the point), Trump thrills his followers by dispensing with any and all distinctions between Islam and Islamism.
The idea that politics in liberal democracies is a massive swindle, that money rules everything, and that all politicians are corrupt and can be bought is as old as democracy itself. Far from promising a new, uncorrupted politics, Trump is distinctive in openly celebrating his intention to buy politicians and expect them to give him a good return on his investment. For him, whose name hangs over casinos in New Jersey and Las Vegas, and who owns real estate across New York, buying politicians is just part of doing business. Trump apparently has never met a politician he could not buy, and thus he takes pleasure in expressing his contempt for the breed. He does not promise an end to the swindle but its ultimate completion. He is, in other words, selling cynicism, along with his supposed capacity to operate within and beyond it.
Fascism and Nazism combined elements of a desire for respectability with hints of violence. Trump recalls that blend. He reminds his audiences that he attended “the Ivy League” Wharton School of Finance, where there were many “smart” people, including himself. Yet he is that Ivy Leaguer who either will not or cannot speak the English language properly. He takes pleasure in using a limited vocabulary, relying on non-descriptive words such as “nice,” “beautiful,” “good,” “great,” “bad,” and “very bad.” At the same time, he assumes a kind of pseudo propriety, feigning horror at the thought of women’s bodily functions, such as Hillary Clinton’s use of a bathroom during a debate, or Megyn Kelly’s putative menstruation. Trump’s insults of the patrician Jeb Bush were a crucial aspect of his campaign’s success.Trump’s insults of the patrician Jeb Bush were a crucial aspect of his campaign’s success. He succeeded in reinterpreting Bush’s decency and civility as “low energy,” a form of “weakness.” His followers took pleasure in his attacks on Bush not primarily because they disagreed with this or that policy, but because Trump gave them a way to dismiss Bush’s obvious strengths. Bush’s style, his intelligence, the size of his vocabulary, his seriousness and ability to speak knowledgably about the details of problems—these were a constant challenge to those like Trump who lack the ability to do any of these things. Such strengths stir resentment and envy, reminding listeners of what they themselves do not understand. Trump’s insults made it possible for his followers to dismiss their discomfort over not understanding policy questions. They could be “big guys” despite their ignorance. This was very liberating. This combination of elite background and unsophisticated airs recalls a feature of fascist orators. Mussolini and Hitler differentiated themselves from traditional European conservatives by their willingness and ability to speak in the idiom of the common man, to speak crudely and profanely in the service of their goals. Where conservative parties had previously feared “the masses,” fascism and Nazism focused on building a “movement” composed of them.
The absurdity of a New York billionaire who claims to be “anti-establishment” is lost on his followers, who instead marvel at his willingness to insult a member of the family that had led the Republican Party for the past quarter century. Trump’s ad hominem attacks on McCain and then Bush signaled that it was now open season on the old elites defined by taste, erudition, and public service. Like the fascists of old, he combined an authoritarian style with a populist bad-boy rebelliousness. In breaking the taboos of civility and civilization, a Trump speech and rally resembles the rallies of fascist leaders who pantomimed the wishes of their followers and let them fill in the text. Trump says what they want to say but are afraid to express. In cheering this leader, his supporters feel free to say what they really believe about Mexicans, Muslims, and women. The bond between leader and follower created by his willingness to fulfill wishes, both conscious and unconscious, constitutes a key element of the whiff of fascism that surrounds the Trump phenomenon.
Italian Fascism and German National Socialism did not only celebrate highly conventional notions of masculinity associated with strength and force. They associated liberal democracy with weakness and weakness with feminine qualities of listening as well as talking. They suggested that link between masculinity and authoritarianism. Their call for a new leader was for a strong man. Yet Hitler and Mussolini presented themselves as men of the people who sought and won respectability. Hitler sought to reassure the German elites that though he was from the people, he really shared some of the values of the old elites. Trump, coming as he does from wealth, disdains respectability. He flaunts his tastelessness, vulgarity and in the Detroit debate, the size of his genitals. That tastelessness is of a piece with an even more important point he made in Detroit. Asked what he would do as President if the military leadership refused to obey orders to engage in torture or to kill the families of terrorists, he insisted they would do as they were told. Here was the strong man dismissing the irritating details of the rule of law and the rules of war.
Another element of Trump’s appeal is the message of freedom from political correctness. This, too, carries echoes of 20th-century authoritarianism. Trump, of course, has no monopoly on criticism of leftist and liberal political correctness. It has existed for decades within parts of the universities, the media, and in the Washington establishment of the Republican Party that Trump despises. But Trump’s rejection of political correctness is distinctive in its cruelty. As Richard Cohen in the Washington Post has astutely observed, Trump does not merely disagree. He needs to demean and disparage those who have the nerve to criticize him. It is this very cruelty, his contempt for compassion and disdain for the weak, and his rejection of the norms of good sportsmanship, that his followers admire. For his followers, Trump’s cruelty liberates them from the no-longer-tolerable self-censorship of the era of political correctness.
After seven years of Obama, Trump understands that compassion fatigue is a mass sentiment. Social Darwinism, the idea that the survival of the fittest is and should be the law that governs relations in society and between states, was a key source of fascism and Nazism. Trump’s contempt for “losers” and his self-description as a “winner” stand in this longer Social Darwinist tradition. For the fascists, the Nazis, and for Trump, victory and defeat were and are not merely the result of contingent circumstances. They comprise a moral judgment as well. That is why some of his fiercest criticism of his opponents has nothing to do with their actual policy positions, but focuses instead on their low poll numbers, as if the latter were themselves evidence of the devalued moral worth of “losers.”
Both Mussolini and Hitler were careful to attack those who they believed were weak and vulnerable. Their blunders and downfall were due partly to the fact that their own ideologies blinded them to the true power of their adversaries—the major powers who ultimately won World War II. They rode high so long as they were confident bullies, sure to attack only those who were unable to defend themselves. When Mussolini waged war on the Italian Left, it had already been split between Communists and Socialists and posed no realistic threat of revolution. Hitler also benefited from a German Left that was split into warring democratic versus communist factions and from conservatives who invited him into power. The Jews in Europe lacked a state and a means to defend themselves. Ethiopia in the 1930s was defenseless against the Italian Air Force. Trump’s promise to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants recalls those earlier attacks on vulnerable minorities.
For his followers, Trump’s cruelty is inseparable from the message of freedom from civility and political correctness.For his followers, Trump’s cruelty is inseparable from the message of freedom from civility and political correctness. His cruelty was in plain view in his effort to humiliate the Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly, his nasty sarcasm about the physical handicap of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, in the obvious pleasure he takes in commenting about the real or imagined personal shortcomings of his competitors, and in the outrageous mass deportation plan. Such a step would inflict untold suffering on millions of families, but he talks about carrying out such cruelty with pride. Doing so signifies that he and his followers will no longer be taken for suckers, that the hour of justified revenge has arrived against all the alien murderers and rapists supposedly in our midst. Yet the same cruelty that arouses disgust and anger among those who see it as a clear violation of elementary moral principles excites his followers. To them, the threatened violence and expulsion stands for a return of freedom and a recovery of their country.
Extreme nationalism, along with the temptation toward the transgressive, was central to the appeal of fascism and Nazism. The fascists and Nazis divided the world into Italians and Germans who were wonderful in various ways and the rest of humanity, which existed on a sliding scale of depravity and inferiority. The fascists and Nazis extended humanity and camaraderie to their fellow Italians or in Germany to members of the “people’s community” or the Aryan race, but not to the vast majority of humanity outside the charmed circle of the nation. Trump’s nationalism echoes that mixture of nationalist self-love and disdain for various “others.” While he’s not calling for concentration camps or planning to go abroad in search of foreign enemies to destroy, he claims to intend to build a physical wall on the Mexican border and an economic and cultural wall of protectionism against the rest of the world economy. He and his followers have heard that many people around the world do not like the United States. His followers cheer when he tells them the feeling is mutual; he and his followers don’t much like the rest of the world.
How his disdain for other nations could be compatible with the continued American leadership of the liberal democracies and market economies around the world is a mystery that Trump leaves unsolved. His followers are so filled with rage at other nations that it does not occur to them that the election of Trump as President would mean the collapse of American alliances worldwide. How could Trump make America great again yet display no understanding of the meaning of American political, military, economic, and diplomatic leadership? It’s a question that is not allowed to arise. In their combined anger and fear, Trump and his supporters have lost their common sense and this too accounts for his appeal. It doesn’t even bother his followers that Trump, a man who as President would have the U.S. nuclear arsenal under his control, has not a clue about what the nuclear triad is.
Conspiracy theorizing also links Trump to the fascists and the Nazis. Trump offers no pretensions to intellectual seriousness. He does not offer a conspiracy theory as the explanatory key to modern history. He has repeated stereotypically anti-Semitic remarks about Jews, but he gives no indication of believing in the anti-Semitic canards that were at the core of Nazi appeals. Yet although he does not cite The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or, at least so far, repeat the falsehood that the “Israel lobby” was responsible for the war in Iraq, he does present the United States, the most powerful country on earth, as a hapless victim of China, Mexico, and Japan. A differing cast of nations, a diffuse “they” or “them,” is somehow able to run rings around the “stupid” politicians and trade representatives of the U.S. government, and presumably the CEOs of major American corporations. He presents America’s fall from greatness as a story of an innocent—and “stupid”—victim of dark forces who manipulate its goodwill for their own benefit. This story of the good nation victimized by evil conspirators recalls the pathos of national innocence and victimization that fueled the fascist and Nazi demagogues.
Trump’s conspiratorial mentality is evident in the lies he repeats. When he asserts, against all evidence to the contrary, that “thousands” of Muslims stood on rooftops in New Jersey and cheered as the World Trade Center towers collapsed on 9/11, or that President Obama was not born in the United States, he is not only fanning racist sentiments toward Muslims and blacks or undermining the legitimacy of the first African-American President; he is also asserting the existence of a massive conspiracy to conceal these facts, one composed of hundreds if not thousands of journalists and politicians who presumably know the real truth but refuse to reveal it. When pressed to reveal evidence about these assertions, Trump either simply repeats the charges or points to dubious sources on the internet. Normal standards of verification do not apply. The implicit message of these accusations is that the media is part of a conspiracy of silence. It is as if the leftist postmodernism of the universities, which for decades has cast doubt on the existence of fact, has found its mirror image in the billionaire capitalist’s dismissal of evidence. The irony here is that the very media he blames for suppressing the truth has failed miserably to inform the public about how a man whose companies have declared bankruptcy four times manages to present himself as a paragon of business acumen and solid leadership.
Yet Trump’s conspiracy theorizing is not a subject for humor. Nothing is more dangerous to politics in liberal democracy, or in any other system for that matter, than conspiracy theories.Nothing is more dangerous to politics in liberal democracy, or in any other system for that matter, than conspiracy theories. It is difficult to impossible to convince believers in conspiracy theories of their falsehood because they refuse to be dissuaded by normal standards of empirical verification and refutation. The idea of a conspiracy offers believers the blessings of simplicity and clear targets at which to vent rage and hatred. Conspiracy theorizing fosters a contempt for facts and thus undermines possibilities for compromise about complex issues. Because conspiracy theories divide the world into good and evil between whom no common ground is possible, they preclude the give-and-take of democratic politics. If the evil is great enough, conspiracy theories always contain the possibility of “altruistic violence,” possibly massive violence against the alleged conspirators that is always characterized an as act of self-defense. Trump inculcates a conspiratorial habit of mind in his followers that contains enormous dangers, especially if and when levels of unemployment actually do increase to the alarming levels he falsely claims already exist.
On February 8, 2016 in New Hampshire, Jeb Bush said, “It’s not strong to insult women. It’s not strong to castigate Hispanics. It’s not strong to ridicule the disabled. And it’s not strong to call John McCain…who spent six years in a POW camp in Hanoi a loser because he got caught.” In that one eloquent statement, Bush the patrician captured the whiff of fascism, the false understanding of strength and weakness, and the essential bully that is Donald Trump. None of this seemed to mean anything to many of the Republican primary voters in New Hampshire, however—a fact that ought to send shivers up the spine of any decent American.
Bush, and earlier Senator Lindsay Graham, seemed to stand alone in the Republican Party in their willingness to confront Trump when his campaign was still in its early stages. They were abandoned by their fellow Republicans, who wrongly thought they could ignore him. When fascism and Nazism emerged in Italy and Germany, their rise to power was also accompanied by an astonishing series of political blunders and misjudgments by the elites of the time. Hitler was underestimated by his opponents on the Left, who thought he was merely a tool of the capitalists, and by the industrialists, who thought he would become their pliable tool. In both cases, the political establishments failed to take the danger seriously enough and then descended into cynical opportunism borne of partial agreement and lack of principle, now evident in the stunning decision of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to support Trump.
History does not repeat itself in simple ways. Trump is not a carbon copy of Hitler or Mussolini. Yet he has now threatened the owners and editors of the New York Times and the Washington Post with libel suits if they continue to criticize him. He (absurdly) pretended not to know who David Duke is and appeared to refuse in an interview to disavow him and the KKK, thereby shamelessly pandering to votes from the extreme racist Right. He then “disavowed” them without clarifying why he was doing so. His cynicism was transparent. Whether or not Trump gains the nomination of the Republican Party, he has already done enormous damage to American politics. The poisons he has unleashed and the taboos he has smashed with such glee have created a new, dangerous field of rhetorical violence and insult in American public life. He has revealed that large numbers of our fellow citizens are willing to follow a demagogue who voices contempt for basic principles of liberal democracy, offers simple explanations of complex issues, and draws on racism, religious bigotry, and extreme nationalism to “make America great again.” Trump’s mixture of wealth and authoritarianism, and their underestimation by the establishment, also evokes comparisons to Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the damage he did to Italy while he served as Prime Minister. Berlusconi’s launching pad in private wealth is similar to Trump. Yet Trump is less the buffoon and more of the bully than Berlusconi. Given the role of the United States in world affairs, the damage he could do should he become President would be far greater.
Despite the important differences between the Trump phenomenon and the extreme Right of Europe’s 20th century, his campaign brings to mind dangerous echoes from the past. We know what can happen when politicians who speak and act like Donald Trump gain power, even if they do so by using the instruments of democracy. With fear and anger unloosed in the land, much can happen, nearly all of it very bad. Trump can be stopped, but for that to happen we need to take the threat he poses seriously and to remember the lessons of the not so distant past.
Jeffrey Herf, distinguished university professor, University of Maryland, College Park. His publications on German history include The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust. He has published extensively on the history of Nazi Germany. His book Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, 1967–1989 is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in April 2016.