Donald Trump’s bigoted rhetoric, disdain for liberal democratic principles, and primal appeal have caused many to wonder: Is Trump a fascist? The term, of course, brings comparisons to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, two of the most reviled people in world history. It defines Trump as undoubtedly evil — same with his supporters — and forever tars his presidency as well as the dignity of our nation.
But Trump is not a fascist. Nor is he particularly close to being one.
To see why, we must explore fascism itself.
Fascism, borne in the First World War before its rise to power in 1920s Italy (and later Germany), and fascist movements have distinct (ideological) traits that clearly separate them from other repressive totalitarian regimes or parties. These traits, and Donald Trump’s subscription thereto, are as follows:
Fascism relies on hypernationalism to rally coalitions behind a single overarching idea: The nation-state. All action must further the motherland and restore or increase its perceived greatness and power. Citizens must pledge absolute fealty to the state. Anyone who dares criticize it or its leaders immediately becomes a traitor fit for execution (the same goes for those who seemingly undermine the state). Many fascists also urge autarky, or economic self-sufficiency such that workers within the state provide it with all needs; there is no reliance on trade or other nations for needed goods.
Trump is undoubtedly a nationalist, likely the most nationalist politician we’ve made president, and a hypernationalist by our traditional standards. He ran on “America First” and wanted to leave all international agreements and treaties, including NAFTA and NATO; similarly, he rejected the globalist belief in a society of state among which ideas, goods, and services freely flowed. Thus his trade policy and fixation on economic nationalism, driven in part by advisers Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller.
Hypernationalism takes Trump’s nationalism a step further by holding true and vile hatred towards anything even remotely international in character. This manifests itself in continued diatribes against the likes of communism, socialism, international finance, religion, freemasons, the United Nations, and Jews. Trump has not ever come close to overt hypernationalism. His dog-whistles indicate a nationalist with some instinct to hypernationalism, but ultimately not in favor of it.
Fascists glorify the military and its values, hailing it as the perfect example of a manly, indestructible state. The military protects the all-precious state and expands its border, increasing the state’s greatness. That very position of guardian of perfection makes the military a cherished institution. Soldiers, those willing to give lives for the state, become martyrs and heroes, masculine images of perfect citizens sacrificing themselves for the good of all.
Donald Trump lavishes praise on the military and has embraced militaristic solutions for almost all problems (going so far as to advocate war crimes as a means of completely freeing the military from the restrictions placed on it by civilized leaders). He fawns over his Chief of Staff, a retired general, and wanted a military parade down Pennsylvania Ave as part of his inauguration. More frighteningly, Trump’s possessively referred to the military and generals, as if he views them as belonging to him and not serving some greater purpose.
It is this last point, however, that differentiates Trump’s militarism from that of fascists. Trump views the military as would a dictator, someone who assumes ownership of the armed forces as uses them as personal tools rather than (defensive) weapons of the state. Fascists view the military as the encapsulation of nationalism. They want to militarize the society, to reshape existing civilian institutions in the military’s fashion. Trump does not want to do that.
Glorification of (Political) Violence
Mussolini believed violence “could cleanse and redeem a tarnished nation.” Hitler raised a paramilitary — the SA, his stormtroopers — supposedly to defend Nazi rallies and gatherings, but really to instigate violence against Communists. The SA routinely tortured and killed those with different political beliefs, thoroughly terrorizing political opposition while spinning such actions as implementing law and order from the anarchical violence of other parties.
Nazi leaders praised and encouraged this action, promoting the most vicious among the SA and, of course, allowing violent tendencies to flourish and go unpunished once the Nazis gained power. Nationalists who didn’t subscribe to Nazism still endorsed the violence as a means of ridding the nation of its subversive elements.
Is Trump a fascist if he doesn’t explicitly condone and embrace political violence? In this all important category — nothing better defines a fascist than love and glorification of political violence — Trump falls short. His words have undoubtedly crossed many lines, from speaking longingly of roughing up protesters to offering to pay the legal bills for those who attack protesters and even perhaps inviting assassination attempts.
However, despite having a core base that seems ready to act violently (a few favored a coup attempt should Hillary Clinton have won the election), Trump never mobilized them. This base easily could have been turned into a paramilitary organization and used to incite terror in the streets — especially the protest-laden streets around the rallies — but Trump never took that step towards actual violence. Mussolini’s blackshirts and Hitler’s brownshirt’s had official party recognition and leadership. Trump created no such analogous organization.
Fascist movements tend to fetishize characteristics of youth, namely their vigor. This pseudo-sexual appeal draws the most restless class into the fascist fold. The middle-aged men who led the fascist movements viewed these youth at the next paramilitary and military members and want to raise them to cherish the state, pledge loyalty to the party, and not threaten the fascist order.
Trump has no made no such efforts to cultivate the youth. His support comes primarily from older generations and those most disturbed by America’s cultural evolution. America’s youth, born into this change, feel no grievance or anxiety and so have little reason to fall under the spell of a racial demagogue even though these youth have the lowest attachment to democracy of all living generations.
Similar to fetishizing youth, fascists always trumpet masculine virtues and urge a male-dominated social and familial structure. They want women confined to separate spheres within the home looking after the children that fascists urge all state-loving couples to have. This masculine vigour ties into society’ militarism and hypernationalism as energetic and passionate (young) males, free from the imposition of feminine weakness and pacifism, fight for the party and for the nation-state. Leaders draw on pseudo-sexual appeals to equate manhood with nationalism and vice versa.
Trump embraces a similar world view. He constantly touts his own stamina while accusing “weaker” rivals of lacking it (see his numerous attacks on Clinton’s health and vitality). During the primary, Trump derided Jeb Bush as “low-energy” (with the natural implication as insufficiently virile) to much cheer. His “swaggering macchismo,” successful in the primary, easily flourished when pitted against a woman. Mussolini viewed the ideal fascist woman as a dedicated homemaker; Trump views his ideal woman as a promiscuous supermodel. Trump’s obsession with masculinity matches and in many ways exceeds that of history’s fascists.
Cult of Leadership
Fascists create a cult around a leader who is “bold, decisive, manly, uncompromising, and cruel when necessary.” This strong leader — this legendary and almost God-like head of a mass movement — became a saviour, needed in perilous times. Mussolini and Hitler successfully crafted such an image, drawing largely on military experiences and by leading a militarized party prized in a militarized society. They urged followers to idolize them as Il Duce and der Fuhrer and spread special salutes for people to give them (Nazis gave Hitler the raised arm salute; Hitler accepted it with his own arm out, elbow bent, palm up reception).
Donald Trump has not been able to raise himself up to such status. A large contingent of his base has forged a rather laughable cult persona behind “The Donald” wherein they glorify his image and make it into that of a beloved elderly (yet still aggressive) general, a rather laughable posture given Trump went to great lengths to avoid military service. He has forcibly portrayed strong leadership and a no-holds-barred approach to politics and business, but has failed to do this on a wide level as too many doubt his competency to fall under the cult leader’s spell (this did not stop many from voting for him).
Desire to Return to a Golden Age
Restoration of a nation’s golden age plays a strong role in the fascist appeal. Leaders promise a national rebirth, a return to the glory of bygone days when their state ruled or commanded the envy of the world. Mussolini frequently invoked the Roman Empire as Italy’s golden age and promised its renaissance under fascist leadership. Hitler constantly spoke of restoring the German Reich and completing Bismark’s unification of German people and expansion of Germany greatness. Establishing the Third Reich literally recreated Germany’s lost ideal.
For these fascists, restoring the golden age also comes with blaming its loss on treasonous factions hell-bent on subverting the state to outside interests. The Treaty of Versailles, in which Germany accepted embarrassing punishments as it admitted Great War defeat, led Hitler to condemn the “seditious Jews and Communists” who sabotaged Germany and “sold her out” to other states. These elements caused the state’s decline and so became easy enemies in a hypernationalized society.
Trump, of course, campaigned on the premise that only he could “make America great again.” He promised restoring America’s power — an odd statement given our current hegemony (Italy and Germany, during their fascist periods, had actually lost power and prestige) — through military buildups, revitalized manufacturing, and a return to the economy of old. Though he did not label any period as America’s golden age, a clear distinction between him and the true fascists who sought a return to a specific period of greatness, it can be assumed that Trump meant the 1950s or 1980s.
Similarly, Trump identified potential enemies who cost America her greatness: Illegal immigrants, Muslims, journalists, Democrats, Black Lives Matter, etc. He did not label any of these groups as traitors (though he has called journalists “enemies of the American people”) though he did use constantly use them as foils of America’s greatness.
Portraying Themselves as the Nation’s Protector
Fascists defined themselves as all that stood between the state and subversive elements seeking anarchy and foreign domination. These menacing forces included communism, socialism, liberalism, elites, Jews, etc, and only the fascist leader could prevent these ideologies from conquering the nation. This appeal cast opposition as the enemy and elevated the fascist to national savior.
Trump railed against “entrenched special interests,” political correctness, political and economic elites, as well as minorities. His rhetoric at times slipped into fascist territory as he incorrectly and baitingly warned about the nation being overrun by illegal immigrants and the crime he claimed they bring (a lie). Unlike Hitler and other fascists, he did not call for the annihilation or complete destruction of these groups, but actually claimed their support even as he insulted them. Trump’s rage is better understand as the grievances of child angry at not being accepted by others than as the harangues of a fascist.
Traits of Fascist Movements
Mass Mobilization (through a Popular Party)
Both Mussolini and Hitler both rose to power through newly created political parties. Mussolini’s National Fascist Party did not believe in republicanism and instead seized power after its March on Rome, a failed coup d’etat that still resulted in Mussolini becoming head of the Italian government. From that position, he rewrote election laws and saw the Fascist Party sweep into office during the last “free” election for 20 years.
Hitler sought to replicate the March on Rome through his Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. Its failure, which led to Hitler’s brief imprisonment, changed Nazi strategy. They determined to win power through elections and then co-opt the government. Despite never winning a majority (or particularly close to a majority) in the Reichstag, Hitler, with the help of Nationalists, managed to become Chancellor and the Nazis manipulated laws to become the sole political party.
Obviously, Trump’s ascent has little in common with Mussolini or Hitler’s. He started no political party and of course attempted no coup — his rise through the Republican primary on a minority faction owed to a failure of establishment coordination and poorly written primary rules that enabled a minority vote victor. While he did become president with only 46 percent of the popular vote, his mobilization had no marching in the streets, no violence in the streets, and his victory has resulted in no attempts to outlaw opposition.
A Hierarchical Party Structure that Purged the Disloyal
Fascist movements inevitably turned on their own — all political revolutions do. As members grew apprehensive of the party’s direction or began to doubt the legitimacy of its leader, they would be purged and treated as all other dissidents, meaning jailed or even killed. Once doubtful or no longer useful, the fascist party simply threw one aside.
Trump shares an inclination to purge. His campaign saw numerous shakeups when staff members — campaign managers — lost their utility. The White House has denied qualified applicants jobs because of their past statements about Trump; the president himself has taken to Twitter and interviews to attack members of his own party that stand up to him. But the complete lack of violence involved in such purges clearly differentiates Trump from a fascist. He has autocratic tendencies to surround himself with yes-(wo)men, but not the violent fascist urges to see killed those who cease to support the leader.
Fascists explored theatre and ways of creatively disseminating its propaganda and ideology to a mass audience. Hitler himself often resorted to exaggerated gestures and clownish actions — watch any of Hitler’s speeches to see the dramatic arm movements, the facial expressions, and captivating presence (he long rehearsed these stunts) to see how he amused and connected with the German people. Rallies and Nazi processions became spectacles — even rituals for party loyalists — and the best source of entertainment for others.
Trump, long a man cognizant of branding and a successful reality TV star (not to mention a fake wrestling showman), understands the primal need for clownish politics. His rallies featured call-and-response chants; his facial expressions kept attention on him during all debates regardless of who was speaking; even his Twitter account commanded news cycles as his extreme rhetoric demanded response. Voters aren’t motivated or excited by issues. By and large, starring in the “greatest show on Earth” attracts enough attention and fascination to bring support, and Trump seized that unenlightened, natural instinct.
So, is Trump a fascist?
No. Not all aspects of fascist ideology or traits of its movement are equal in defining someone as a fascist. Some — namely glorification of political violence, a desire for totalitarian government control that outlaws other political parties and criminalizes opposition, and extreme militarism — matter much more in the qualification than others (theatricality, fetishizing youth, and returning to a golden age).
Many of the fascist categories in which Trump scores high marks are also signs of a right-wing populist and demagogue, threats to democracy in their own rights, but certainly not fascist. Trump scores low in those categories that truly set a fascist apart from his more benign far-right counterparts.
It cannot be said that Trump’s a fascist. Labeling him as such degrades the word, pulls it out of historical context, and mischaracterizes Trump’s threat. Donald Trump is not a fascist, but a far-right demagogue whose authoritarian instincts backslide our (liberal) democracy through norm violation and the legitimization of racial grievance, though we are saved from the true threat of his authoritarianism by his sheer incompetency and stupidity.