Googling “Trump fascist” yields 25 pages of hits and the caveat that “In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the 237 already displayed”. Examples include “Donald Trump Is a Fascist” (Slate, November 25th), “Is Donald Trump a Fascist?” December 3rd, NYT, “Donald Trump, America’s modern Mussolini” (Washington Post, December 8th)” “Trump’s Il Duce Routine” (NYT, February 29th), and “Trump’s flirtation with fascism” (Washington Post, March 7th). The Nation’s ‘Get A Grip” (February 29th), which after a colon notes that “Donald Trump Isn’t Ushering in a Fascist Movement in America”, is an outlier—most of the pieces are at least half-persuaded of Trump’s fascism or proto-fascism. There are other outliers—in The American Interest, an actual historian of fascism, Jeffrey Herf, asks “Is Donald Trump a Fascist?” with a subhead in a smaller font wisely stating “The short answer is ‘no’, but there’s plenty of room for discomfort”. Discomfort seems right, and makes a vivid contrast to the emotions one would feel or contemplate had the short answer been ‘yes’: rage and dread. But a straightforward “no” is pretty rare.
This is odd, because exponents of actual fascism noisily disdained democracy, whereas Trump does nothing of the kind (and from this point on, ‘Trump does nothing of the kind’ should be understood to follow all descriptions of actual fascists.) Actual fascists praised and practiced violence against domestic political opponents on what is by contemporary American standards a staggering scale, rather than Il Duce or Der Führer enjoying a moment of bravado wishing he could punch someone in the nose, or waffling when a Blackshirt or Brownshirt did so. Actual fascists revered the state and vowed to expand it, publicly disdained material comforts, individualism and bourgeois order, deprecated market economies and loathed wealth’s corruption of politics, were bellicists who sought to militarize politics (Herf shrewdly and I think wittily notes Hitler’s veneration for Islam as a warrior creed), generally boasted of having served in combat, revered men who had done so, made a cult of sacrifice for the nation, and did not conspicuously admire businessmen.
Given the obviousness of Trump’s distance from Mussolini, let alone Hitler, why the shrill, smug and repeated claims to the contrary? In a few cases this may be no more than a remarkably bad syllogism: Mussolini was, among other things, a coarse buffoon and a strident nationalist, Trump is, among other things, a coarse buffoon and a strident nationalist, so Trump is, among other things, Mussolini—an almost perfect example of the fallacy of the undistributed middle. Still, fascism without massive political violence is Hamlet without the prince. It remains baffling that the absolute absence of squadristi is not considered a fatal objection to the Trump-as-fascist trope; at a guess, most of the commenters have no understanding of the history they invoke, while the few who do are intoxicated by the pleasure of imagining themselves brave and prescient when discerning fascism in this preposterous clown.
As for the discomfort, better historical memory helps develop a sense of proportion. Someone observed that the IRS and the FBI at the command of Trump is a disquieting thought, which it is, but the IRS at Nixon’s command, and the FBI at Hoover’s, were disquieting facts, and only fools thought those abuses made us a fascist state. Trump believes in much stronger libel laws, perhaps even as strong as the ones Jefferson thought necessary for a free press to possess any credibility. It’s a pretty safe bet that Trump would try to abuse stronger libel laws, but other Americans pretty regularly abused our much stronger libel laws before Sullivan, and the U.K., where the libel laws are by our standards savage, is rarely mistaken for a fascist regime. All of this, however, paled when, to the near-horror of many commentators, Trump talked about the size of his penis. The venue was unprecedented, but the subject wasn’t: LBJ did the same, less publicly (although in the presence of many journalists), as did Churchill, in the presence of his successor as Prime Minister. By the standards of the analogies made by the fascism-scryers, Trump may be poised to pass a massive Civil Rights Act, a new Voting Rights Act, and go to war against, well, fascism. After all, when Trump addressed a rally and called for a show of support, he generated columns by writers who saw a mass Hitlergruß when members of the crowd responded by raising their hands.
Peculiarly loose historical analogies are now the order of the day: a Times columnist recently wrote that “Part of the Trump danger is that he’s captured an American irredentism, a desire to reclaim something — power, confidence, rising incomes — that many people feel is lost. Trump is a late harvest of 9/11 and the fears that took hold that day.” But irredentism means something quite specific, the retrieval of areas imagined as lost national territory. Trump has so far revealed no designs on the Panama Canal, and it is difficult to imagine any other patch of ground that even a lunatic might consider our lost national territory. A working class and middle class desire to reclaim rising incomes in an age when elite wealth and privilege are skyrocketing isn’t irredentism, and neither is it odious and alarming—it’s probably encouraging. The fears that took hold on 9/11 were not of predatory domestic elites and rapacious bankers, and Trump is running against the wars those fears engendered. The promise to bring back ‘waterboarding “and worse” was odious, but a public refusal to obey illegal orders by the highest military figures in the land was profoundly admirable, also effective, and Trump backed down in a day.
Trump, a bully and a fool, has said odious things about illegal Mexican immigrants and proposed some cruel and destructive things about Muslim immigrants and Muslim Americans, but the commentary on his notional fascism skirts the question of whether most of the people who vote for him do so because or despite these remarks. In general, Trump’s voters are depicted as responding to racist dog-whistling rather than economic populism, which is a remarkably pessimistic interpretation of the available evidence, but no matter: Googling “Trump racism” yields 31 pages of results, and the caveat that “In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the 309 already displayed.” If Muslims were a race rather than a religion, or if Mexicans are understood as a race—for the most part, not standard Anglophone American usage since the 1920s or thereabouts—there’d be a damning case to answer, but the traditional form of racist dog-whistling practiced by American politicians is directed at African-Americans, and here the evidence is a lot patchier. To pick one recent example, consider Trump’s remark that “We have a terrible president who happens to be African-American.” Maybe this is dog-whistling, but had Trump intended an explicitly anti-racist remark his wording would have been identical, and there aren’t enough other notorious Trumpisms about African Americans to make the former interpretation with great confidence. Much has been made of the enthusiasm of David Duke and the KKK for Trump, but David Duke remains on the lunatic fringe of our politics, the KKK is dying, and when the Klan was going strong most KKK voters probably voted for FDR and LBJ, which is not normally taken as evidence that those Presidents were best understood as racist populists. On the available evidence Trump is no more FDR or LBJ than he is Theodore Bilbo nor Strom Thurmond, which makes it strange that he is almost always depicted as the latter sort of politician (or worse).
How Trump is depicted matters less than they way comentators are depicting his voters. The easy and much-repeated charges of racism or xenophobia directed against those voters evades their conviction that immigrants, illegal and otherwise, are one cause of falling or stagnant wages for both some legal immigrants and the less-skilled native born. This is regrettable, because there is some evidence that his voters are right to think this: mass immigration is a blessing for many but not for all of us, and accusing people of vile beliefs when they react to a crueler labor market is not the surest path to electoral victory. It is not easy to persuade people that they have an imperfect sense of their own interests and easy to annoy them when we try, but it is impossible to be more abrasive than we are when we dismiss millions of fellow citizens as racists. Trump voters, like Sanders voters, sound hostile to free trade, which they think another cause of their eroding situation, responsible for falling wages and lost manufacturing jobs. This, too, when not simply ignored, is generally derided as (at best) bankrupt neo-mercantilism. The idea that collective political action can ameliorate this situation is too rarely considered, and I do not think I have read much serious journalism on this for many months; fascism-scryers prefer assertions of yahoo xenophobia and economic illiteracy. Too bad, because while the costs of impeding trade are real, if the US blundered into a trade war with China we would not be likely to lose that war—countries running massive trade deficits rarely lose trade wars. We would on balance be poorer, as would the Chinese, but we would not all be equally poorer. Trump voters seem to suspect this, and Trump may not be crazy to guess that Chinese elites may have a similar inkling.
Almost no serious economist thinks that Smoot Hawley caused the Great Depression, claims that Trump’s proposed tariffs would cause another are improbable, and ignoring the new research suggesting that the unemployment caused by globalization has been peculiarly intractable suggests either dishonesty or stupidity. A politics demanding higher wages and the taxes necessary to pay for massive investments in infrastructure, education and retraining would be a better response than kowtowing to the higher nonsense, either the sort rehearsed by budget hawks or the sorts proclaimed by lobbyists for the tech and finance industries. In 2010 and 2014 Trump’s voters responded to a politics demanding the shrinking of the state, but their more recent votes suggest a preference for a state that will actively defend what they take to be their interests. Calling them racists and fascists when they notice that political elites have been less than diligent in addressing their losses is no improvement on Romney’s tenacity in telling them (yet again) that in the face of their falling incomes and derisory savings the only sane response to their miseries is to slash both their retirement income and the money we’ll spend on their medical care.
Some Republican distress about Trump is more than honorable, particularly the sort directed at his musings on foreign policy. Trump’s recent description of machine-gunning peaceful demonstrators or running them over with tanks as riot control and an admirable demonstration of strength is peculiarly loathsome, although I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Apple spokesmen, Fox News or Kerry’s State Department to make this point with any great verve or persistence. Other Republican distress over Trump may reflect what is most appealing about him rather than what is most contemptible. Quoting Burke on the possible ugliness of men abusing their liberty—Michael Gerson in the Washington Post, this morning—without any reference to a particular Trump position was initially puzzling, but repeatedly insisting that Trump’s support cannot possibly reflect any belated realization that his party has cynically presided over the immiseration of its working class voters for a couple of generations pretty much gives the game away. As for the fascism charge, to which I think Gerson is making an indirect but approving reference: when the Nation addresses a dystopian vision of our country with the headline Get A Grip, it’s probably long past time to get a grip.