Saturday, February 9, 2019

On the F-Word (No, Not That One)

Benito Mussolini is credited with coining the term "fascism" as a description for his political movement and ideology.
(Image credit: H. Roger-Viollet, published by Encyclopædia Britannica)

In 1944, George Orwell—who was almost killed fighting honest-to-God fascists in the Spanish Civil War1published a brief essay to answer the question "what is fascism?" He notes:
It will be seen that, as used, the word 'Fascism' is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley's broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.
This, however is not reason to abandon all hope, as Orwell posits that "underneath all this mess there does lie a kind of buried meaning...even the people who recklessly fling the word 'Fascist' in every direction attach at any rate an emotional significance to it. By 'Fascism' they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class...almost any English person would accept 'bully' as a synonym for 'Fascist'." Finally, Orwell concludes with a warning: "All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword."

I have probably not lived by that piece of advice. In this blog alone, I've applied the word "fascism" or "fascist" numerous times to Donald Trump and at least once to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. In private conversations I can remember having applied the label "fascist" (or some variant thereof) to Paul Ryan, Eric Holder, Barack Obama and most of the notable Republican candidates for president in 2012.2 But I've begun to reconsider the way I've been using the word, even how I've been using it recently. I've gradually and unconsciously restricted my use of the word in the years since I've grown out of my belated rebellious teenage phase and my main targets when I use the word now are Donald Trump and the other members of the more blatantly nativist and racist wing of the conservative movement (e.g. Ann Coulter, Tucker Carlson).

If I had to guess, I would say a solid majority of the socialist/anti-imperialist left (of which I'm a member) sees the term "fascist" as completely appropriate to apply to Trump et al. However, there are some notable dissenters (we'll get to a few of them later), and I have to say the arguments that these dissenters make have been starting to get to me. Originally I'd planned this post to be called "A Defense of the F-Word" and, as that title suggests, for it to give an argument wholeheartedly in favor of calling Trump et al. fascists. But now I've been left more ambivalent. So I want this post now to be an exploration of that issue and of how the word "fascism" is used and how it ought to be used. I don't know that I'll have any strong conclusion to make here, but these are issues I want to air out regardless.

What is Fascism?


We're not going to arrive at any clear answer to this question, I'm afraid. The cursory research I've done indicates that academic types have long been searching for the elusive "fascist minimum," that is, the basic requirements a movement/party/person has to meet in order to be fairly considered fascist. It's a sort search for the Holy Grail except considerably less exciting for anyone who isn't strongly invested in defining the word "fascism."

Novelist/literary critic/philosopher Umberto Eco, who grew up in Fascist Italy and so should presumably know something about the subject, published an essay on what he called "Ur-Fascism" or "Eternal Fascism"in 1995 and it's (in my opinion) a must-read for anyone trying to figure out a serious definition of what fascism really is. In this essay, Eco lays out fourteen defining features of fascism3 that are too detailed and complex to list here but include notable elements such as a "cult of tradition," opposition to diversity and the embrace of permanent war. The overall picture Eco paints of fascism is that of, in his words, a "fuzzy totalitarianism" [emphasis his] that relies far more on whipping up the masses into a vicious frenzy than any sort of appeal to reason (irrationalism is, in fact, one of the fourteen characteristics he lists).

Eco's essay is laden with with eerily relevant phrases, such as his warning that "[t]here  is  in  our  future  a  TV  or  Internet  populism,  in which  the  emotional  response  of  a  selected  group  of  citizens  can  be  presented  and accepted as the Voice of the People," which certainly rings true in the Era of Trump, where we've frequently seen clips of The Don giving  speeches to stadiums full of legions of his cheering, fervent supporters even as his approval rating has stayed stuck in the high thirties to low forties.

Most ominously, Eco cautions us:
It would be so much easier, for us, if  there  appeared  on  the  world  scene  somebody saying,  "I  want  to  reopen  Auschwitz,  I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares." Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism  can  come  back  under  the  most  innocent  of  disguises.
It's no wonder that this is the essay I've often seen quoted by leftists accusing Trump and his red-capped followers of being our own version of Mussolini and the Blackshirts, given these passages and others. But putting aside the question of whether Trump is a fascist for now, I do think the essay lays out a useful (though complex) analysis of what constitutes fascism and I do urge everyone to read it.

Oxford Brookes University professor Roger Griffin—whom I've cited on this subject before—offers a more succinct (but very technical) summary of fascism as "a political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism." It helps to break this down a bit, as Griffin does in his writings. To summarize his elaborations:

Palingenetic: Emphasizing rebirth, "not in the sense of restoration of what has been...but of a 'new birth' which retains certain eternal principles (e.g. 'eternal' Roman, Aryan, or Anglo-Saxon virtues) in a new, modern type of society."

Populist: "a generic term for the 'people power' generated when enough of the 'masses' are effectively mobilized"

Ultra-nationalism: A form of nationalism that rejects liberalism and parliamentarism and encompasses ethnocentrism, racism, and xenophobia

Speaking as a layperson on this issue, this definition does seem to capture the distinguishing features of the best-known fascist regimes (Nazi Germany, Italy under Mussolini and Spain under Franco) and has the advantage of being (comparatively) simple and concise. The idea of restoring a mythologized former glory, e.g. Hitler's proposed "Third Reich," does appear as a rather central and defining purpose for fascist movements and constitutes the "palingenetic core" Griffin attributes to the ideology. It's easy to draw comparisons between this and Trump's famous "Make America Great Again" slogan that's emblazoned on the trademark red caps of his hordes of (often vaguely or explicitly menacing) followers but, as we will address later, this comparison may be a bit hasty.

Coming from a more obviously left-wing perspective, U.C. Berkeley professor Dylan Riley emphasizes the role of the Red Menace and the support of the ruling class in fascism's rise. For instance, he notes that:
a revisionist form of imperialism was a central feature of the classical fascist regimes. Both in Germany and Italy, these were oriented to overturning a geopolitical order that was organized against the perceived and real interests of the dominant classes they largely represented...Aggressive imperial expansion, articulated by Hitler in strikingly concrete terms already in the 1920s, fitted well with the interests and outlook of important sections of the German ruling class, above all the Army.
Fascism's ultra-nationalism, Riley argues, stood in stark contrast with the internationalist socialist ideology of an increasingly mobilized working class, and made it a useful servant to the bourgeoisie's interests. Fascism had relatively little appeal among the "manufacturing working class" but managed to win over "salaried employees and small shopkeepers, a segment of the working class and a considerable number of petty agrarian direct producers." Additionally, the fascist regimes managed to unite hostile sects of the ruling class (e.g. industrial capitalists on the one hand and agrarians on the other) through both imperialist expansionism and "policies of wage repression and direct economic assistance that helped all sectors of the dominant classes." The danger of communist revolution from the working class was a key element in fascism's success, in Riley's opinion, and "a huge mass of unemployed, recently demobilized military recruits" gave it the perfect fodder for its paramilitary groups (e.g. the Blackshirts in Italy and the Brownshirts in Germany).

Obviously these analyses emphasize different points and don't agree on everything. For instance, contra Griffin, Riley writes that "[f]ar from being a form of populism, fascism was premised on its failure." But there is a broad area of agreement. The definition of fascism I divine from these different analyses is: an ideology that (generally) eschews liberalism4 and egalitarianism and embraces authoritarianism, nationalism, racism, traditionalism, and war. This definition is not perfect but it will do for our purposes here.

However, there's another, more informal, less academic definition of fascism that might as well be acknowledged, and that's implicit in the way the word has been most often5 used. And while, as Orwell notes, the word has been thrown around a lot (and I'm not talking about in reference to Trump here), it does seem to have some kind of relatively definite meaning. For instance, if we imagine a teenage anarchist punk rock fan telling their friends that "My parents are such fascists" because they insist on a curfew of 10 PM, it's clear what the underlying thought is. As overused as the word "fascist," in the informal sense, may be, it clearly has a more definite meaning than epithets like "jerk," "motherfucker," "bitch," etc. Anyone who, for example, called their little brother a fascist for refusing to do his chores would clearly be misusing the insult.

Orwell alluded to this informal meaning in the excerpt I quoted earlier, as "roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class." Even this is may be a little too specific. If we look at the definitions for the word "fascist" on OxfordDictionaries.com, after a self-explanatory first definition we get definitions 1.1, "[a] person who is extremely right-wing or authoritarian," and 1.2, "[a] person who is very intolerant or domineering in a particular area." For definition 1.2, it even offers as an example sentence: "if I were being a culinary fascist, I would possibly moan about the overdone cooked tomatoes".

In this more informal use, calling someone or something "fascist" seems to be saying that they're in some way anti-freedom. Being a fascist in this sense means imposing your will or some restrictive set of rules on someone without their consent, but it's more than that. It seems to imply that the will being imposed, or the rules being imposed, are needlessly restrictive/cruel/unfair. The fundamental implication seems to be that the person in question relishes forcibly imposing their will on others and does it not for those others' own good but rather because the "fascist" either enjoys exercising their authority in cruel and reckless ways or is fanatically committed to a very specific and restricting conception of how things should be. Orwell hits the nail on the head, then, when he notes that "bully" seems to be a good synonym for "fascist" when it's used in this informal sense.

It's easy to see how the informal definition of the word "fascism" derives from the academic definition. The fascists of 1920s-40s Europe were both fanatically committed to an oppressive idea of how things should be (the idea of "national rebirth" Griffin says is the core of their ideology) and often seemed to delight in imposing their will on others in cruel in arbitrary ways. This is obviously true of the Nazis, but it also thoroughly applies to the less infamous fascist movements. For instance, a New York Times review of Paul Preston's book The Spanish Holocaust recounts these atrocities—targeting women in particular, as fascist movements tend to doby Franco's Nationalist forces (this passage is truly stomach-churning so be warned): 
Franco’s troops practiced gang rape to frighten newly captured towns into submission, and until media-savvy superiors silenced them, his officers even boasted about this to American and British correspondents. Tens of thousands of women had their heads shaved and were force-fed castor oil (a powerful laxative), then jeered as they were paraded through the streets soiling themselves. Many had their breasts branded with the Falangist symbol of yoke and arrows. In Toledo, a United Press correspondent reported, Franco’s soldiers shot more than 20 pregnant women from a maternity hospital. Much larger all-female groups were executed elsewhere. Troops marched through one town waving rifles adorned with the underwear of women they had raped and murdered. “It is necessary to spread terror,” one of Franco’s senior generals declared. “We have to create the impression of mastery, eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do.”
This sort of maniacal delight in inflicting suffering does flow through all of fascism's reigns of terror, the most obvious and extreme example being the completely gratuitous extermination of millions of people in the Holocaust. Still, fascists are far from the only people to sadistically impose their will on others or enforce oppressive rules, so it's worth examining why the word has come to be so commonly used.

 

 The Casual Usage of the Word "Fascist" 


I think there are a number of reasons that "fascist" has become the epithet of choice to use against the authority figures of the world. First of all, while fascists aren't unique in being cruel and oppressive, they were truly exceptional in the lengths to which they went. The Holocaust is one of the most extreme and infamous atrocities in human history, and it was perpetrated by fascists. Fascist states started World War II, which was the deadliest conflict in human history. If there's any ideology that deserves to be treated as synonymous with fanatical, needless cruelty and abuse of power, it's probably fascism.

Another reason for the word's common use (in the United States, anyway) has to do with to American culture's relationship with World War II, I would speculate. WWII was, for the U.S., our last Great War; every war since then has been a stalemate (e.g. Korea) or a miserable, drawn-out defeat (e.g. Vietnam) or a ridiculously one-sided exercise designed to boost our national self-esteem (e.g. Grenada) or a nightmarish, post-modern frontier-less global Forever War (e.g. the War on Terror). In WWII, the entire country pulled together to fight the war, build equipment for it, fund it, etc. and we (and the other Allied Powers—but in the American cultural consciousness, the emphasis is naturally on America) won a clear, decisive victory. America emerged from the Second World War as a global superpower that could boast a roaring economy and that had just helped defeat a genocidal madman. Like your cousin who beats you at checkers one time and never stops bringing it up, American culture has (not necessarily unfairly) never stopped obsessing about America's role in winning WWII. Naturally then, to reinforce the notion of America's fundamental righteousness and benevolence, we've embraced the idea that the Axis Powers were history's worst and most evil villains (which has the benefit of being entirely plausible since the major players—Germany, Italy and Japan—were busy being racist, genocidal maniacs and undoubtedly showcased humanity's worst and most horrifying impulses on a staggering scale). It's no surprise then that, given America's role in defeating fascism on the world stage, American culture would embrace the idea that being a fascist is the worst and most diabolical thing anyone can be (which, conveniently, is arguably true) and fascism would be one of the first comparisons that would come to every American's mind when they're faced with something they feel is cruel, authoritarian, deranged, etc.

The fuzziness, to use Eco's terminology, of fascism's nature also has something to to with why it's caught on as an insult (which Eco himself notes). The regimes that were called "fascist" by serious academics have significant differences from one another despite fundamental similarities. Calling someone a Nazi (while it's also popular) has a more specific, pointed connotation than calling someone a fascist.6 It seems like what unites all of the movements described as fascist, more than any coherent philosophy, is a set of impulses. So it does make some kind of sense that the word has become associated with these impulses (intolerance of difference, love of violence, belligerent pride in one's own cultural identity, etc.). 

Additionally, the word "fascist" has a certain sound and mouthfeel that give it a special sort of punch and make it particularly effective as a way to convey anger or disgust. In this way it's sort of like those other f-words, "fuck" and "faggot" (the latter of which, interestingly enough, may share the same etymological roots as the word "fascist"). This isn't to draw some kind of moral equivalence between hurling homophobic slurs and calling someone a fascist; the point is that both "faggot" and "fascist" happen to lend themselves to being angrily spat out at their targets (even if those targets are very different people). As for "fuck," it seems fair to speculate that part of its versatility as a curse word (is there any other profanity that has so many variants and different definitions?) has to do with its similar verbal quality; there's something particularly satisfying about it. Part of the reason the word "fascist" has been "degrade[d]..to the level of a swearword" is probably because it sounds like it could almost be one. 

So now that we have some tenuous grasp on why the word "fascist" is such a popular insult, the next logical question is: Should it be? This might be sort of a pointlessly academic question because, even if the answer is "no," trying to get rid of the informal usage of the word is probably like trying to put the proverbial genie back in its bottle. Words are used in new ways and take on new meanings all the time, but trying to get rid of those new meanings is a significantly trickier endeavor, I'm willing to bet. But still, on principle, I think the question is worth answering.

From a linguistic standpoint, it's reasonably common and accepted for words that originally refer to a specific place/person/movement/philosophy to later be used in a broader sense. For example, if you call someone cynical, you're not likely to be lectured on how the Cynics were actually a specific school of Ancient Greek philosophers and their name should not be used to refer to anyone who simply distrusts other people's motives. If a reviewer says a resort has "spartan accommodations," they will probably not get an angry letter from someone who stayed there and found that it had little resemblance to the Greek city-state of Sparta. If you call your workplace's rules on dating your coworkers "byzantine," no one is going to get mad because the rules are actually rather different than those in Constantinople's royal court.

There are obvious factors that make the informal use of "fascist" deservedly more controversial. Fundamentally, calling someone a fascist means you're comparing their cruelty/violence/authoritarianism to that of some of the cruelest/most violent/most authoritarian people to ever exist. Fascism's worst atrocities are also pretty fresh in the world's collective memory since there are still many people alive today who lived through World War II and remember those atrocities, and may have witnessed or suffered them firsthand. However, we shouldn't assume that the survivors of fascist savagery automatically disapprove of anything being compared to fascists. Holocaust survivor Stephen B. Jacobs, who was held in Nazi Germany's Buchenwald concentration camp as a young child, has compared America under Trump to Germany immediately before Hitler's takeover. To be honest, I can't speak very much to the question of how offensive it is to fascism's victims to throw around the term "fascist" in an informal way. I'm sure, like virtually everything, it varies from person to person. However, it's worth noting that we've popularized terms like "Grammar Nazi" and actor Larry Thomas received an Emmy nomination for portraying the titular character in a Seinfeld episode called "The Soup Nazi", and it's hard to see how these things are acceptable if calling someone e.g. a "culinary fascist" isn't. That's not a defense of using the word "fascist" in a tongue-in-cheek or careless way, but it's worth considering whether all of this is offensive and inappropriate or none of it is, because those do seem like the only two plausible options.

In any case the question of whether it's okay to call people "fascist" in a jokey context is less interesting/relevant for our purposes here than the question of whether it's appropriate to apply the label in a non-humorous (but perhaps hyperbolic) way to politicians and authority figures. Of course, calling a politician, police officer, etc. a fascist could also be offensive to some survivors of honest-to-God fascist regimes, but as illustrated by Stephen Jacobs's example above, others may find the comparison completely fitting or at least inoffensive. Sometimes comparisons are important and powerful enough that they're worth being made even if they offend people, and even if the people they offend are survivors of horrible violence and oppression. There are undoubtedly Holocaust survivors and descendants of Holocaust survivors who object strenuously when any comparison is drawn between Israel's actions and Nazi Germany's, but Israel's treatment of the Palestinians does, in some ways, resemble Nazi Germany's treatment of Jews, and keeping silent about this troubling resemblance to avoid offending anyone may make it all the more likely that Israel's mistreatment of the Palestinians continues unabated. 

There's obviously a lot of gray area between calling your parents fascists because they grounded you for smoking and using fascist in the strictly academic sense. For example, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet has been described as a fascist because he presided over a regime that was undoubtedly extremely authoritarian and resorted to imprisoning and "disappearing" political dissidents, which does very much call to mind the rule of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, et al. It's questionable, though, whether he really fits the academic definition of a fascist, and Roger Griffin concludes he does not. The War on Drugs has been called fascist, and while it obviously doesn't fit the academic definition, we know that it was motivated by racism on the Nixon administration's part and a desire to target hippies critical of the Vietnam War. So there's certainly more to the accusations of fascism in these cases than in the case of our hypothetical disgruntled teenager whining about their parents, even if all of these cases still rely on an informal, non-academic use of the word "fascist."

That doesn't mean accusations like these are without risks. The most obvious one is the classic Boy-Who-Cried-Wolf problem: if you throw around the word "fascist" too frequently you cheapen it and then, if we ever do have an honest-to-God fascist like Franco or Hitler or Mussolini on the rise, people will just roll their eyes when you scream "fascist!" because you've done it so many times before with people or policies who, bad as they may have been, were decidedly less dangerous than this actual, real fascist. There's something to this concern, I guess. I tend to think that if a real, honest-to-God fascist politician did emerge and gain a serious national following, we could still articulate how this person was different and worse than people who had been accused of fascism in the past. Nonetheless, the word does lose its power through overuse and it would probably gain more attention if accusations of fascism came from people who had never used the word in anything but its strictest, most academic sense.

Another concern depends on whom the term is being applied to. If the person you're labeling a fascist happens to be the head of a "hostile" nation, e.g. Saddam Hussein pre-2003 invasion, or Putin or Assad right now, you may end up carrying water for the people supporting regime change or military confrontation or whatever, whether you mean to or not. Certainly, foreign despots deserve to be criticized, but if your criticism ends up inadvertently promoting potentially disastrous military interventions through imprecise language, perhaps you should reconsider the way in which you're making it. Then again, Francisco Franco, who has been described as a fascist in a serious, academic sense of the word (and who sent a volunteer corps to fight for Nazi Germany in World War II) remained in power until 1975, and it would have very likely been a bad idea to suddenly invade and "liberate" Spain in, say, 1960, even though it was still being ruled by an actual, real fascist.

The problem probably ties back to American culture's relationship to WWII as described above. In order to view America's role in WWII as especially noble and heroic we've portrayed fascism as essentially the worst possible evil in the entire world, which is close to true but in certain cases like Spain under Franco, fascism may be a lesser evil to, say, a full-scale military invasion designed to overthrow the fascist regime in question. Nonetheless, even if it's wrong to assume that fascism ipso facto demands military intervention, it seems wise to avoid using the term to describe the leaders of "hostile" nations unless they are really, genuinely fascist in every sense of the word. Because of fascism's role in history, the word "fascist" risks giving the impression that we should use whatever means necessary to disempower whomever it's being used against, which is a theme we'll revisit later.

It does seem to me, though, that there are some cases when it's acceptable or at least not very dangerous to apply the word "fascist" in an informal sense. If, as happened outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968, a horde of police officers senselessly start beating the living shit out of peaceful protestors, calling said officers, e.g., "fascist thugs" seems like a fair enough response. When a government policy seeks to criminalize a certain race or group of political dissidents in the way Nixon's War on Drugs did, calling it "fascist" doesn't strike me as wildly irresponsible or unfair.7

It's impossible to draw a precise line where the informal use of "fascist" goes from being adolescent or irresponsible to being justifiable or at least understandable. When it comes to politics, though, it might be possible to lay out some guidelines. I realize my own political leanings are showing (as usual), but, in contrast to my examples above, it strikes as pretty ridiculous to call gun control or the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") fascist, as many on the right have done. Gun control and government involvement in the provision of health insurance are extremely common in highly developed parliamentary democracies and hardly indicate any of the sinister tendencies that are captured by the word "fascist," nor do their mild restrictions on personal liberty for the greater good seem particularly reminiscent of fascist regimes. On the flipside, I also think it would be excessive to describe laws against flag-burning and attempts to restrict access to abortion as "fascist" (for similar reasons) even though I strongly oppose both.

If I were going to formulate some kind of rule of thumb about when it's fair to call policies, politicians and other political authorities "fascist," using the word in a hyperbolic or informal sense, I guess I would say that at minimum they have to betray a true willingness to abuse power in order to target real or imagined enemies, at the expense of crucial rights and principles of democracy including (but not limited to) freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, free elections, and equal treatment under the law. This is, as I said, a minimum: as noted above, context is crucial and even if a political figure does meet these criteria, that doesn't necessarily mean it's wise or good to call them a fascist. I'm sympathetic, furthermore, to the people who think we should reserve the term "fascist" for fascists in the academic sense, or at least people/policies that are just as oppressive and authoritarian as real, bona fide fascists. But if a person or policy does match the description I just gave, I think it's at least understandable to label them/it as fascist, even if (depending on context) it may not be prudent.

Is Donald Trump a Fascist?


From everything I've laid out above, it becomes clear that this question is actually three questions: (1) Is Donald Trump a fascist in the academic sense of the word, a la Mussolini, Franco and, yes, Hitler? (2) Is Donald Trump a fascist in the casual sense of the word, i.e. someone who cruelly and recklessly imposes their will on others or is willing to ruthlessly enforce their own restricting vision of how the world should look? (3) Does Trump meet the minimum criteria laid out above for when it's at least understandable to to call a person/thing "fascist" in a political sense? We'll start with (1).

First I think it's worth examining the arguments in favor of Trump being a real, authentic fascist. He's built a political movement by exploiting and promoting racial and religious prejudice; he made a promise that he would restore the country to its mythologized past a central part of his campaign; he's promoted the idea of torture for its own sake and killing the families of terrorists; he's praised authoritarian rulers of other countries; he's presided over a horrifying deportation regime; he's signed executive orders designed to prevent people of the "wrong" religion from coming to the United States; people who are pretty clearly honest-to-God fascists have expressed eager support for him; he has vouched for the character of people who attended a white supremacist rally; he has expressed the desire to censor media critical of him; he has spread propaganda from actual fascists.

From this it should be obvious that Trump certainly shares disturbing similarities with Mussolini, Hitler, and other fascist leaders, and that he doesn't seem to view fascists or fascism as being as repulsive and objectionable as every decent person should. That's bad enough for certain. The similarities and affinities between Trump and fascists are nontrivial and should disgust and horrify anyone with a conscience, but that doesn't in and of itself answer the question. 

Conveniently, we can rely on the testimony of actual scholars, including two of the three I cited above, on the subject of whether or not Trump is a fascist. In 2016, Dylan Matthews of Vox asked Roger Griffin and four other experts whether Trump is a fascist; the clear consensus was that he is not. Matthews summarizes as follows: 
[Trump] doesn't want to overthrow the existing democratic system. He doesn't want to scrap the Constitution. He doesn't romanticize violence itself as a vital cleansing agent of society. He's simply a racist who wants to keep the current system but deny its benefits to groups he's interested in oppressing.
Some of this seems a little glib to me. Trump certainly has attempted to undermine confidence in democracy whenever it's threatened to produce a result other than the one he wants and has tried to sow doubts about the possibility of his political opponents winning elections fairly. Certainly, the things he promised to do (the Muslim ban, shutting down mosques, etc.) were in flagrant violation of the Constitution and I'm one of many people who believe the Supreme Court was wrong not to strike down his travel ban as unconstitutional. But to an extent, Matthews has a point. Trump did not promise to, nor has he, banned opposing political parties or established himself as a dictator. Frankly, I think a lot of presidents have gotten away with things that should have been ruled unconstitutional, so Trump's not truly exceptional in that department, either. 

In the article, Roger Griffin weighs in and explicitly contrasts Trump's trademark "Make America Great Again" slogan with actual palingenetic nationalism:
The word "palingenetic" means rebirth, reflecting Griffin's view that fascism must involve calling for the "rebirth" of the nation. That might at first glance sound like Trump's promise to "make America great again," but Griffin insists on a distinction. Rebirth, in his theory, actually requires the dramatic abandonment of the existing political order. "There has to be a longing for a new order, a new nation, not just a reformed old nation," he told me. "As long as Trump does not advocate the abolition of America's democratic institutions, and their replacement by some sort of post-liberal new order, he's not technically a fascist."
Along with being insufficiently antidemocratic, the article highlights that Trump doesn't embrace violence for its own sake (only ever as the means to an end) and is too individualistic to be a fascist proper. Instead, Matthews deems him a "right-wing populist," like Marine Le Pen, UKIP, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Geert Wilders. Expert Matthew Feldman of Teesside University is quoted as saying of these figures and groups: "They're still at bottom democrats rather than fascists. I think the fitting term is 'illiberal democrats.' They would give full democratic rights for white Christians, or perhaps Jews, but exclude the outgroups of the 21st century: mostly Muslims but also Mexicans. It's really prejudice against them. We're congratulating ourselves to say that anyone who engages in that prejudice is fascist." Dylan Matthews concludes that these non-fascist right-wing populists, because of the sway they hold and their popular appeal, are a much bigger threat than actual fascists, who are relatively marginal in most highly developed Western countries.

Dylan Riley, too, concludes that Trump isn't a fascist. In contrast to the classical fascists, who united the nationalist elite sectors against the internationalist working class, Trump has appealed to nationalism among "workers and middle-class layers who had suffered from the offshoring of jobs and who feared competition from immigrants in employment," he argues. Further, instead of uniting the dominant class, Trump exacerbates the tensions already existing among them by, e.g., "regularly singl[ing] out major US corporations—General Motors, Google, Pfizer, Amazon and Comcast, owner of NBC—for blistering attack" via Twitter. Instead, Riley sees Trump as a sort of anachronism whose method of ruling matches Weber's description of patrimonialism: 
The patrimonial office lacks above all the bureaucratic separation of the 'private' and the 'official' sphere. For the political administration, too, is treated as a purely personal affair of the ruler, and political power is considered part of his personal property, which can be exploited by means of contributions and fees.
However, Trump's patrimonial network (his family and personal associates) isn't numerous enough to actually staff the entire government, and the "legal-rational state," i.e. the bureaucracy, is actively resisting his patrimonial approach. The legitimacy of his regime relies on charisma, meaning his ability to talk like a "regular person."8 From all of this Riley concludes the following:
The extreme form of hybridity [Trump] embodies suggests that it is futile to assign to him any general classification like fascism, authoritarianism or populism, even though he may exhibit traits of at least the third, if not the second—as well as nationalism, racism and sexism. Flukey in origin, this form of rule is too unstable a compound to have much staying power.
In fact, rather than a death knell for American democracy, his rise to power has acted as a "shot of adrenaline" by mobilizing his opposition, Riley posits.

If we return to Umberto Eco's essay, there too we find some elements that don't seem to match up with Donald Trump or the movement behind him. For instance, in common with the experts quoted in Dylan Matthews's Vox article, Eco notes that "Ur-Fascism" believes "life is permanent warfare", which leads to an "Armageddon complex" in which "there must be a final battle, after which the [fascist] movement will have control of the world." Connected to this is Ur-Fascism's "cult of death" in which a heroic death is seen as "the best reward for a heroic life." Granted, Eco says earlier in the essay that not every feature of Ur-Fascism is present in every fascist movement and "it is  enough  that  one  of  them  be  present  to allow fascism to coagulate around it", but these features are not only not present in Trump's philosophy (so to speak) but are conspicuously at odds with certain features of it. The justification Trump has offered for two of the more controversial (and blatantly racist) elements of his platform, the wall and the Muslim ban, are that they will keep America safe. In and of itself that's not incompatible with fascism, but it's illustrative of a general truth which is that, far from offering people the promise of a heroic death or the supposed excitement of war, Trump's appeal largely rests on offering people safety and comfort.

In the process of formulating an answer to (1) I'd also like to briefly visit a piece from socialist writer Corey Robin on what he perceives as the devolution of the argument that Trump is a tyrant, as it addresses the idea of Trump as a genuine fascist. "Originally," Robin writes, "the claim was robust and ambitious: Trump was like the classic fascist rulers of the twentieth century, readying to lead not only a repressive and violent state apparatus, under the unified control of his party, but also a street-based mass movement that channeled a broad and scary consensus of the majority of the nation." This obviously didn't happen, as we know. So the argument shifted to the idea that Trump is ruling as an authoritarian, that is, that "he’s got control over the state and is using his control to smoothly execute his will." But—similar to Dylan Riley's point about Trump's complete failure to unite the dominant sectors of society—Robin notes Trump has not overcome divisions within his own party and has actually been slow to fill government positions, meaning he's done a very poor job of consolidating power. And so the claim has become that Trump "wants to rule as an authoritarian...His intentions are fascist; his motives are repressive; his personality is authoritarian." But, as Robin indicates, if Trump's thoughts and beliefs don't translate into meaningful actions, they're not really relevant to political discussions. This, I think, is a key point. We can certainly speculate that Trump is a fascist (in the un-hyperbolic, academic sense) who presents his philosophy in a way that's more palatable to the American electorate and whose failures to enact a fascist agenda have to do with personal incompetence and/or institutional limits on his power, but then the argument is purely about what's going on in his head, which really doesn't matter much if it doesn't determine his course of action. And in any case, when it comes to Trump's personal beliefs on fascism Stephen Jacobs, the Holocaust survivor I referred to earlier, may have it right: "I couldn’t say that Trump is a fascist because you’ve got to know what fascism is. And I don’t think he has the mental power to even understand it."

So the answer to (1) is, in my judgment: No, Trump is not a fascist in the genuine, academic sense, even if he does some have very disturbing similarities to actual fascists and, to some degree, affinities with actual fascists (e.g. when he's retweeted their propaganda). He certainly hasn't succeeded in transforming America into a fascist police state and as xenophobic, racist and disgusting as his public statements and promises have been, they don't add up to fascism in the literal sense.

So we can move onto (2): is Trump a fascist in the casual sense of the word? Given how much the word has been thrown around, this may seem like a trivial or meaningless question. But, as I noted earlier, there is a certain real, meaningful accusation behind the word even when it's being abused. So the question here is really, is Trump either (a) someone who mercilessly enforces his own oppressive vision for the world on others or (b) someone who readily flaunts and abuses his power over others in cruel and reckless ways? Trump has certainly made extravagant promises in the past which would require fanatical commitment to ever conceivably realize, such as his plan to make Mexico pay for a gigantic border wall and to deport every undocumented immigrant within a matter of years, which lends some credence to (a). He hasn't really shown that commitment, however, much to the dissatisfaction of his erswhile fans, e.g., Ann Coulter. Ultimately I don't really think Trump has much in terms of an authentic vision for the world. He's first and foremost a narcissist committed to building up his own wealth and glory, not an ideologue, let alone a fanatic. So the answer to (a) is no.

That leaves us with (b): does Trump use his power over others in ways that show callous indifference to the harm being inflicted, or even delight in inflicting that harm? The answer to this, in my opinion, is an obvious yes. Trump's travel ban and deportation policy have absolutely had cruel effects, as have his escalation of our bombing of the Middle East and Asia. But even before his presidency, he's consistently shown a ruthlessness in the way he used his power and influence, from calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five to pressuring financial analyst Marvin Roffman's employer into firing him after he (correctly) predicted the failure of Trump's Taj Mahal casino. And, not to get too Freudian, but Trump's sexually predatory nature as revealed in the infamous Access Hollywood tape perfectly encapsulates his general willingness to use his power (physical or otherwise) for his own greedy pleasure, with at best reckless indifference to others' well-being and at worst actual delight in their suffering. So, yes, the de facto definition we've divined from the informal use/abuse of the word "fascist" does apply to Trump. This doesn't tell us whether we should call him a fascist, but it does tell us that the people calling him a fascist are at the very least relying on a real, if informal, definition.

Having established that the answer to (2) is yes, we can then proceed to (3): does Trump abuse power (or try to abuse power) to target real or imagined enemies at the expense of principles that are fundamental to a free and democratic society? Again, yes. His travel bans are blatantly designed to target Muslims, which violates the principle of freedom of religion; he issued a proclamation designed to ban people who crossed the border anywhere other than at a point of entry from receiving asylum (in violation of federal law); his family separation policy has gratuitously inflicted psychological harm on children who did nothing wrong; and his transgender military ban pointlessly discriminates on the basis of gender identity. So, yes, Trump does meet the minimum qualifications I laid out for it to be at least understandable, and not ipso facto irresponsible, to call a person/policy fascist. To summarize: Trump is not a fascist in the formal, academic sense, but he does exhibit the tendencies people tend to allude to when they use the word "fascist" in an informal way, and he does abuse his power in egregious enough ways that the accusation is not entirely unfair. But this still leaves important questions to be answered about whether using the label is wise, effective, etc., which we now must address.

Should We Call Trump a Fascist?


There are a lot of factors to consider here. I mentioned earlier that calling Trump a fascist (and throwing the word around in general) could be insensitive to those who have survived actual fascist regimes. But on the other hand, Trump has absolutely killed innocent people; his immigration and border policies do inflict real, serious harm; his racist rhetoric can arguably help to incite acts of violence, e.g. in Charlottesville and Pittsburgh; and, as noted above, an actual Holocaust survivor—while not deeming Trump himself a fascist—has compared the national atmosphere under Trump to that in Germany before the Nazis took power, and has called Trump an "enabler" of the far right. So I'm not sure how offensive it really is to use the word "fascist" against him.

That's certainly not the only concern, though. In a piece for Current Affairs, writer and Chapo Trap House co-host Amber Frost makes an argument that feels closely related to the issue we're dealing with here:
[A]fter Charlottesville, a Guardian reporter wrote that it had “[become] clear that a surging far right has created the rudiments of an organised, effective street-fighting force.” This, however, is not necessarily true. The fact is, we don’t know just how organized the far right are; information like that would require the sort of serious investigative journalism that is sorely lacking at the moment. But we do know that the (inaccurate) image of roving bands of violent Nazi street gangs will haunt readers’ imaginations. One has to be very, very careful before coming to these conclusions.
[...]
It’s true that the far right are coordinating, but they are not on the precipice of seizing power—the traditional right (that old Republican base) already have that squared away. The brownshirts are not at the gates just yet, but if they ever get there, we’re not going to beat them back if we lose our heads. [Emphasis and hyperlink in original]
Earlier in the piece she also notes the divisions that exist in the far right, e.g., "alt-light" figures like Milo Yiannopoulos, Mike Cernovich, Gavin McInnes et al. weren't involved at all (and in some cases actually disowned) the infamous Unite the Right march in Charlottesville. It is, certainly, important to know the divisions that exist in the far right, and given that Ann Coulter has now deemed Trump "the biggest wimp ever to serve as President of the United States," it's fair to assume that self-identified fascists do not see Trump as one of their own at this point. While it's true that major divisions existed in genuine fascist movements (e.g. Hitler ended up having a number of fellow Nazis assassinated in the "Night of the Long Knives"), because of how loaded the term has become9, this nuance doesn't necessarily come through; and, as with the case of the heads of "hostile nations" discussed above, it may be easiest and safest to simply avoid using the term in this context unless one is talking about honest-to-God fascists (which we have established Trump is not).

This may seem pedantic, but it is significantly scarier to think that the country's fascists and neo-Nazis have one of their own in the White House and that they're united in support of him rather than seeing that many are disenchanted and angry with him and that the far right is full of its own internal divisions. Fear can be a powerful motivator on the one hand, but on the other hand, as Frost correctly notes, "panic and hopelessness go hand in hand[.]" It's important, then, to paint an accurate picture lest we contribute to feelings of helplessness and impotent terror or promote the notion things are so far gone we might as well all move to Canada before the stormtroopers start kicking down our doors.

There's also another danger that strikes me as being more probable and therefore a bigger concern. Dylan Riley mentioned this danger when he said in an interview before the 2016 election that "[t]he characterization of Trump as 'fascist'...serves the obvious purpose of rallying the electorate behind the loathsome Hillary Clinton." Any long-time readers may know that I encouraged leftists in swing states to support Hillary Clinton's candidacy as a way to keep Trump out of the White House, which I still think was the right move. However, I think labeling Trump a fascist did, in some cases, serve as a way to not just call for support of Hillary Clinton's candidacy but to try to shut down criticism of Clinton. Take this tweet from writer Bob Cesca:
It's clear to see how the label "fascist," as explosive as it is, can play into this mentality. What makes this such a serious risk is that the establishments of both parties are absolutely responsible for the conditions that helped Trump win the 2016 election. Overemphasizing the threat posed by Trump and his supporters risks distracting from the factors that helped create him, and the fact that what replaces him could, if we're not careful, also end up being pretty terrible (and even unwittingly lay the ground for something more genuinely fascist than Trump). 

This risk is highlighted when we look at some of the people who have openly labeled Trump a fascist. The first source Dylan Matthew's article cites as having accused Trump of fascism is "neoconservative columnist Robert Kagan". Another prominent figure to lob the accusation at Trump is Max Boot, the "Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies" at the Council on Foreign Relations.10 Maybe Kagan, Boot, et al. are being totally sincere, but it’s hard not to suspect a certain cynicism behind this use of the label, i.e., that neocons (who have practically no popular base at this point) are hoping to get liberals to embrace them as allies in the struggle against "fascism" and thereby regain the clout they lost after Bush’s popularity tanked and Barack Obama came into office on a pledge to put an end to their military magnum opus, the war in Iraq. And, given that liberals have been uniting with neocons for new ventures like the Alliance for Securing Democracy (a joint Democrat-neocon policy group), figures like Bush speechwriter David Frum and The Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol have become darlings of (at least some segments of) #Resistance Twitter and polls have shown that George W. Bush is now viewed favorably by a majority of Democrats, it’s safe to say this ploy on the part of the neocons is not without a certain degree of success.

The thing is, there is a certain logic to the decision to embrace neocons as allies if we agree that Trump is a fascist, because if some Mussolini/Hitler type figure really were president, wouldn’t you want to unite with pretty much anyone, neocons included, to make sure this figure didn’t fully cement their power and turn America into a totalitarian police state? I think I would, for sure. Viewing Trump as a true, Mussolini-style fascist also serves to justify and reinforce liberals’ worshipful attitude toward intelligence agencies like the CIA and FBI, which is another real concern given that these are agencies that have their own long, sordid histories (coups against elected leaders, assassinations of political dissidents, wiretapping Martin Luther King, torture, entrapment of mentally ill people in fake terror plots) and little to no democratic accountability. Rallying behind the “Deep State” in its struggle against a U.S. president would make sense if that president really were about to do to America what Hitler did to Germany, or Mussolini to Italy, or Franco to Spain, but it’s a concerning and dangerous mistake in the case of Trump.

As terrible and disgusting as Trump is as a person and as dismal as his presidency has been so far, I think it’s worth keeping things in perspective. So far, he hasn’t done anything as flagrantly destructive and criminal as W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. His immigration policy, while extremely cruel, is largely not too radical a departure from Obama’s. A lot of the worst things about him—the tax bill, his escalation of bombings in the Middle East/Central Asia, his environmental policy, his support for Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen—are things that he has in common with other Republicans both current and historical, not deviations. The biggest thing that sets him apart is his personality, which (while certainly not without its dangers) has often made it, if anything, harder for him to enact his agenda. It makes no sense to look at neocons as allies against him since their president (George W. Bush) is still worse than Trump and they agree with a lot of the worst things Trump has done. Singling Trump out with a word like “fascist” risks losing sight of all of this and promoting the liberal-neocon alliance that the latter crave as a way to restore their former glory and influence (even if that’s not at all the intended effect when the word is used) which is certainly a strong argument against calling Trump a fascist, in my book.


But there is another angle to look at this from, I think. That angle is: that even if Trump isn't a fascist in an academic sense, he does, ideologically, have more in common with actual neo-Nazis and other neofascists than any other president in modern history. No other president since the end of World War II has been quite so open about stoking prejudice against ethnic and religious minorities, I think it's fair to say. I don't know of another recent president that has been so blatantly xenophobic and so unabashedly willing to celebrate rule through force. As I pointed out, Trump has (so far) been less militarily aggressive than G.W. Bush, to his credit. But, while that is a good thing, his criticism of neocon foreign policy doesn't separate him from fascists. To see what I mean, take this quote from the American Nazi Party's website (I'm not going to link to the site and I don't recommend you poison your brain by visiting it):
Currently, America’s military forces all over the globe are sucking our economy dry and serving special interests over the interest of the people. We demand the withdrawal of all US military presence from around the globe, and place our troops instead at our borders to defend from foreign invasion. This will free up tremendous resources for our Aryan Folk and allow our soldiers to be home with their families with much greater frequency. It will also mean a large reduction of our military forces, since "policing (exploiting) the world" will no longer be acceptable. We believe that the proper function of an Aryan foreign policy is to serve the needs of our own people. We do not believe that it should be our concern to tell other peoples and countries how to live or manage their affairs, so long as they do not threaten vital Aryan interests. We do believe, however, that the Aryan Race has an inherent right to employ whatever means may be necessary to ensure its safety and survival.
This sounds a lot more like Trump's foreign policy ideas than it does Bush's. To take another example, Richard Spencer says he voted for John Kerry because of the Iraq War, which Trump has also criticized many times. Uncomfortable as it is to admit (and please do not take this as some endorsement of fascists/fascism or a call for a "red-brown alliance"), when it comes to some (narrow) foreign policy questions, neofascists give the right answers while neocons give the wrong ones. Granted, the fascists give the right answer for all the wrong reasons (racist self-interest, the belief that American foreign policy is being influenced by a Jewish conspiracy, etc.) but nonetheless, they oppose the extremely damaging interventions neocons support. The point of this certainly isn't that fascists are preferable to neocons or that the left should see fascists as allies against imperialism (I vehemently disagree with both of those propositions), but just that it's possible for Trump's foreign policy to be both preferable to, i.e. less awful than, George W. Bush's and simultaneously closer to a neofascist foreign policy than Bush's was. And it feels strange to argue that we shouldn't call Trump a fascist because Bush was a worse president when Trump's differences with Bush actually mean he has more in common with neofascists.

Furthermore, I'm not sure how much differently a committed neo-Nazi in Trump's position would have governed (and some of the differences I can think of, e.g. on the issue of bombing the Syrian government, are ways in which the neo-Nazi might have actually been better, not worse, than Trump, as incredibly uncomfortable as it is to admit). Trump has governed in a pretty unabashedly racist and xenophobic fashion, even if he hasn't stood as strong on The Wall as some of his erstwhile supporters would have liked. The conditions for a full-blown fascist takeover11 don't seem to exist in the United States right now, and certainly not if the leader of the movement is as unpopular as Donald Trump. Trump's own incompetence and the opposing powers that exist in the government and society seem to be the main reason he isn't ruling by fiat and suppressing criticism of his administration (as he threatened to do), and neither of those things would necessarily be any different even if he were a committed fascist. So, if Trump is ideologically the closest thing to a fascist president we've had in modern history and he mostly governs like a fascist would (albeit an incompetent, unpopular fascist), is it really so wrong to just call him a fascist?

Once again I think we're running into the connotation vs. denotation issue here, i.e. that although forming an alliance with the neocons, the FBI et al. wouldn't necessarily be the right approach even if Trump were a literal fascist (at least if he were still as unpopular and incompetent as he is right now), the word is so provocative that that level of nuance generally gets lost, meaning the best solution may be to simply not apply the label to Trump since we've concluded he's not a fascist, strictly speaking. It may be fair, in some sense, to label Trump a fascist, and may not even be too much of an exaggeration, but if the hyperbole (however minor) risks justifying the worst anti-Trump political strategies it seems best not to use it.

One could take the opposite approach, though, and simply label the neocons, the FBI, etc. "fascists" as well as Trump. Given the Bush administration's record (indefinite detention, torture, needless invasion of another country leading to the deaths of probably hundreds of thousands of civilians) and the FBI's ugly history (continuing on into the present), the label doesn't seem too unfair to me. But I'm not sure that solution is the best. For one thing, people can have selective hearing. When everyone hears from a variety of people across the political spectrum that Trump is a fascist, they'll probably pay more attention when you say "Trump is a fascist" than they will when you say "but so are the neocons and the FBI." Secondly, by applying the same label to groups that are openly at odds with one another and certainly have rather different philosophies about how the world should work, one risks making it seem like that label really is nothing but a swear word, like Orwell warned. 

There is, though, an argument that I've kept coming back to on the topic of whom we should label a fascist, with implications that go far, far beyond Trump. Instead of just looking at what politicians advocate for their own countries and what actions they want their nation's military to take, we could look in more detail at what political movements and changes they've supported for other countries when judging whether the politician in question should be called a fascist. This might seem like a no-brainer, but the conclusions we could draw from doing so may alarm a lot of people. For instance: Nixon's administration supported the overthrow of Chile's democratically elected president and the installation of the brutal, quasi-fascist Pinochet regime; Reagan's administration supported apartheid and funneled money to right-wing death squads in South America that were accused of attacking civilians and engaging in rape, torture and murder; officials in the second Bush administration reportedly backed an attempted coup against Venezuela's democratically elected president and the administration strengthened ties with Saudi Arabia's ultra-repressive theocratic government; even Eisenhower, who's remembered by liberals as being from the Republican Party's good old days, supported the overthrow of Iran's prime minister and the installation of the dictatorial Shah. But it certainly goes beyond Republicans. The Obama administration supported Saudi Arabia's brutal attack on Yemen and ignored U.S. law in order to give aid to Egypt's brutal military dictatorship after its president was overthrown; as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton supported a coup against the elected government of Honduras that plunged the country into violence; even Jimmy Carter provided military aid to the dictatorial government Indonesia as it was engaged in a genocidal occupation of East Timor. The governments and forces that U.S. presidents have supported in other countries might not be fascist in the academic sense of the word, but at this point we really are talking about an academic distinction that's not much comfort to the people raped, murdered, tortured etc. by those governments and/or death squads. So if we're using "fascism" in basically any sense other than the strictest, most academic one possible—if we're using it to mean dictatorial regimes or terrorist forces that engage in murder, imprisonment and/or torture of political opponents and other innocents, which is almost certainly what most people would think of when they hear the word in a political context—then there is a long, bipartisan legacy of presidents supporting fascism in other countries, if not their own. Trump, for his part, is continuing this legacy by warmly welcoming Brazil's neofascist president Jair Bolsonaro, enabling Saudi Arabia's mercilessly destructive assault on Yemen and now supporting yet another coup against Venezuela's president (which, incidentally, is a attempting to install another politician who has praised Bolsonaro). 

If I were to choose one president from the last fifty years (Trump included) who most deserves to be labeled a fascist—based on actual policies and actions, not just rhetoric or ideology—I guess it would have to be Richard Nixon, for presiding over the actual assassination of political dissidents by the FBI, launching a borderline genocidal bombing campaign against Cambodia, his racially and politically motivated War on Drugs and (infamously) making a secret list of "enemies" and covertly undermining the opposition party in the 1972 election. The runner-up would probably be George W. Bush for his international regime of torture and indefinite detention, erosion of civil rights at home and completely unjustified invasion of another country. From this standpoint, I guess the problem with calling Trump out as a fascist in particular is that it overlooks that he's not necessarily any more fascist (in actions if not in words) than some of his predecessors. 

Conclusions


I'm sorry to disappoint anyone who's read this far but my answer to the question "should we call Trump a fascist?" is: I don't know. When we look at what his administration has supported in other countries it may seem entirely fair, but you had better be ready to apply the label to a lot of other presidents from both parties. It's more of a hyperbole, but certainly not entirely insane or unfair, if we're judging him by his domestic policy and immigration policy. But no matter what, the fact the label is so widely applied to Trump in particular does seem to indirectly promote some rather disconcerting ideas about what we should do to defeat Trump, and it does potentially exaggerate the threat he poses compared to his predecessors. So, what I can personally say is that I'll be thinking twice before I throw the label at him from now on.

If Trump isn't a fascist, then what is he? Dylan Matthews and Dylan Riley both offer their own labels as mentioned above—a "right-wing populist," a "patrimonial misfit". I'm not sure I have anything quite so succinct, but in my ultimate analysis Trump is a bloviating narcissist septuagenarian who represents prejudices held by many (though not all!) in his generation. His first and foremost concern, though, isn't a white ethnostate or a national rebirth or even Making America Great Again, but just his own comfort, popularity and wealth. The best and most apt description of the archetype Trump falls into still comes, I think, from Hunter S. Thompson's piece on John Wayne and the "Hammerhead Ethic": "The New Hammerhead was a perfect cowboy. He was vicious & stupid & ignorant of everything except his own fears and appetites. He beat the mortal shit out of anything that made him uneasy, for any reason at all...He learned to understand words like 'orders' and 'patriotism,' but the secret of his success was an ancient taste for blood. He thrived on action." Trump is a weird, ugly throwback to the days when using the n-word was acceptable in polite society and the government could have a program called "Operation Wetback" without anyone batting an eye. At the same time, he's the embodiment of the awful reality-TV side of twenty-first century American culture, that throws any ideas of decency and dignity to the wind in the name of money and entertainment. His psyche, by my best estimation, is a bundle of ugly, selfish impulses that are unattached to any sort of deeper ideals or principles and don't form any kind of coherent system. That explains why he's been an inconsistent, generally ineffective president who seems more eager to praise himself and whine about the media, the Mueller investigation and the Democrats on Twitter than actually pursue any sort of policy goals, good or bad. 

In a strange way, Trump is sort of a nightmare re-imagining of Ronald Reagan, from his fame in the entertainment industry before his presidency to his past life as a Democrat to his obviously decaying mental state and even down to his famed "Make America Great Again" mantra, which is literally one word away from the Gipper's 1980 slogan. Except where Reagan cloaked his reactionary, racist ideology (and make no mistake, that is what it was) in his sunny "Morning in America" optimism and movie star charisma, Trump serves it up so straight and unvarnished that most people have never wanted to buy what he was selling, in stark contrast to Ronnie. If Reagan's generally upbeat, witticism-sprinkled, charismatic brand of right-wing politics is what we might call "Hollywood conservatism," Trump's version is a sort of Las Vegas conservatism12: gaudier, raunchier, meaner, and more openly concerned with the pursuit of the Almighty Dollar.13 But it is still just another mutation of the same conservative ideology that's been around for decades—nothing as bold or deviant as authentic fascism.

I'm not going to start policing everyone else's use of the word "fascist" (applied to Trump or anyone else) just because of the conclusions I've reached here and if you've read all of this and still think it's right to call Trump a fascist, that's okay with me, for whatever it's worth. I can't even promise I'll never apply the word to him again, especially if he does something to get me particularly angry as he has often done in the past. But hopefully if nothing else this post has given you a new way of thinking about this issue that's of some use or some interest and hopefully before too long we'll be at a point where the meaning of the word "fascist" can feel more strictly academic and practically irrelevant than it does right now.

___________________________

1. There is some academic dispute over whether Francisco Franco and the Spanish Nationalist forces were genuinely fascist, but Orwell refers to them as such in his personal account of his time in the war, Homage to Catalonia, and for the sake of simplicity if nothing else I will concur with his judgment for the purposes of this post.

2. Part of the reason for my liberal use of the word "fascist" is because Hunter S. Thompson, who readily used words like "Nazi" and "fascist" against his targets of criticism, served as my gateway of sorts to leftism. Thompson, for what it's worth, still continues to be one of my favorite writers and someone who I think offered a sometimes frighteningly prescient insight into the character of modern American society even if I'm no longer completely sure how I feel about the way he threw these words around.

3. Eco notes that these characteristics are contradictory and seems to acknowledge not all of them will be present in every variety of fascism, telling us "it  is  enough  that  one  of  them  be  present  to allow fascism to coagulate around it."

4.  By "liberalism" I mean the Enlightenment ideology emphasizing individual rights and parliamentary democracy, not liberalism in the contemporary American, Democratic Party sense.

5. I'm completely guessing when I say the word has been more often used in an informal, pejorative way than in reference to actual, honest-to-God fascism, but the guess seems pretty safe. 

6. Obviously, the term Nazi is also used in an informal, often humorous context (e.g. Grammar Nazi, Seinfeld's Soup Nazi) but I think the humor here relies on juxtaposing the extremity and pointedness of the label "Nazi" with something comparatively trivial.

7. While it might seem strange or arbitrary, I do think it's significantly more questionable to refer to a policy like the War on Drugs as "fascism," noun form, rather than "fascist," adjective form. To me, using the noun form to refer to a policy seems to indicate that that policy is, in itself, enough to make it justifiable to say that the country is living under a fascist regime, which strikes me as a potentially dangerous degree of hyperbole in the case of the War on Drugs. Ultimately, though, as is the general rule for labeling things as fascist/fascism, it comes down to context.

8. Dylan Riley doesn't use these words but they're close to (maybe an exact quote of) the descriptions I've heard from Trump supporters.

9. Which, again, connects to American culture's relationship with WWII and our desire to see the enemies of America and American Values (e.g. fascists) as a sort of united monolith rather than being subject to their own factions, disagreements, etc. (This impulse to see one's enemies as being co-conspirators who are all tightly allied with one another seems a pretty universal human one, but that's a topic for another discussion.)

10. This should be self-explanatory for anyone who knows who Jeane Kirkpatrick is.

11. Meaning the criminalization of opposition parties, suppression of trade unions, mass incarceration and/or murder of political opponents, etc.

12. I'm aware Trump isn't from Las Vegas and, to my knowledge, doesn't have any particularly notable ties to Las Vegas, but if there's a city whose public image better matches his, I don't know it.

13. This comparison might be unfair to Las Vegas, a city I've admittedly never been to and that my impression of comes from its portrayal in various TV shows, movies and other media, but this is certainly the impression of it I've gotten and it feels all too appropriate to rely more on appearance than truth for this analogy.

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