Is Donald Trump Actually A Fascist?
Is Donald Trump actually a fascist, or just a populist conservative? While the term fascist is a frequently tossed around pejorative in American politics, it has a definition: “a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.”
By that measure, no, Trump is not a fascist nor running a fascist campaign. He is campaigning for elected office on a pretty standard conservative agenda. However, he is using rhetoric that has stripped away much of the abstraction of modern conservative dog-whistling on identity politics.
In a 1981 interview, former Republican National Committee Chairman, longtime Republican strategist, and Karl Rove-mentor Lee Atwater noted that the Republican Party and conservative movement had learned to abstract discussions about identity politics over the years to the point where the signaling hit levels few voters could even understand consciously:
LEE ATWATER: Here is how I would approach that issue as a statistician, or political scientists or, no as a psychologist – which I’m not – is how abstract you handle the race thing.
In other words you start out – now you’all aren’t quoting me? You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.
Trump’s language on race and his promotion of national identity appears to be what is really setting off the calls of “fascist.” Trump notoriously accused the Mexican government of sending over “rapists” and called for a temporary ban on the immigration of anyone of the Islamic faith, all while trumpeting his plan to build a large wall on the Mexican border to keep out foreigners. There’s not much abstraction there.
But that isn’t fascism. That is pandering to conservative America’s views on faith and ethnicity. Though the numbers are decreasing, America is still an overwhelmingly Christian and white country, and many–particularly in the Republican electorate–want to keep it that way. These voters did not appear out of nowhere; they were the same voters the pre-Voting Rights Act Democrats appealed to, and the same ones Republicans like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan targeted in their various Southern strategies. Bill Clinton also made a play for these voters, the so-called Reagan Democrats. The last thing this is, is new.
One of the political dynamics that was supposedly “exceptional” about America, as opposed to Europe, was a widespread commitment to a more dogmatic conservatism based on free markets and limited government. But this claim was likely never true and has been substantively disproved this cycle. The United States, like Europe and everywhere else, has a segment of the population that is simply opposed to demographic and cultural changes. In other words, it has conservatives.
The conservative elite, whose interests and ideology diverge considerably from lower-class conservatives and Republican Party members, find this populist conservatism horrifying. They even take their rage out on suffering white working class voters themselves, telling them to literally drop dead.
But without those voters, the conservative elite have no ability to form a coalition numerous enough to prevail in elections. Leftists, liberals, and centrists find the conservative Buckleyite orthodoxy unconvincing, if not ridiculous. This is especially true after the Bush years, where those conservatives held the White House and Congress and proceeded to blunder abroad while crippling the economy at home.
Finally, another critique one sees in media outlets labeling Trump a fascist is his rather evident egomania and insistence that he and his team of “smart people” can solve problems. Sorry, that’s not fascist either. That’s typical election bluster and yes, a common dodge to avoid articulating formal policy solutions everyone uses. See Hillary Clinton talk about “smart power” and you will see a more polished version of it: the ideas are not wrong, we just need better people to execute them, like me.
Politicians are typically narcissistic by nature and most campaigns celebrate the unique capabilities of their candidate to solve problems. This is the entire leadership qualities dimension to US electoral politics. The alternative is to vote for parties, not individuals, in which case you’re voting for ideas. But that’s not our system. Candidates in the US have to audition on a personal or character-based level for the offices they want to hold, which, of course, leads to dishonesty about their all-too-human failings. If voters demand perfect people to lead them, they are guaranteed to get dishonest candidates, or perhaps in Trump’s case, a person who actually believes he is perfect.
What’s interesting is how Trump’s various declarations on “smart” deal-making irritate the dogmatic conservative elite. Much of Trump’s appeal, beyond the visceral overtures to national identity, is based on flexibility. Trump says he does not want to shut down the government or war with his opponents, but to “make a deal,” which, by the way, is exactly what the president is supposed to do under the US Constitution. That the elite want to impose an ideological purity test is not hard to understand; it gives them power as they are the ones crafting the ideology and test. The question was why would the voters care about such a purity test, and the answer appears to be, they don’t.
So while Donald Trump is not really a fascist, his candidacy does provide an opportunity for the left to draw contrasts with actual conservative views. The entire Republican identity-politics-abstraction complex has been shattered by Trump. The matrix is down. Perhaps this provides an opening for a more honest conversation about America and its future without obfuscation. Either way, what has been broken can not so easily be repaired.