Donald Trump’s campaign continues to perplex talking heads in the media and Republican Party bigwigs. How can this media buffoon continue to say all the wrong things, act like a bully, and maintain a commanding polling position over sound conservative candidates? The answer is actually quite simple: Trump is connecting to voters in a way that is not commonly accepted in American politics.
Trump connects to the fascist in all of us.
The Left and Right throw around fascist as a pejorative far too often, rarely with a firm understanding of the ideologies’ philosophical and historical foundations. There are countless fine sources examining the history of fascism, but for our purposes here, I will construct its defining characteristics from Kevin Passmore’s Fascism: A Very Short Introduction and Chris Berlet’s preface to Russ Bellant’s book Old Nazis, the New Right, and the Republican Party.
Fascism is not synonymous with militarism, dictatorship, and racism (although it often incorporates all those elements to some degree). A figure or regime may possess all of those characteristics and not be fascist in nature. While I don’t intend this to be a study of fascism as an idea, we do need a functioning definition when discussing Trump and his perceived fascist tendencies. Rather than painting fascism as “things we don’t like,” I will apply this simplified definition:
- Fascism is revolutionary. It attempts to change the system through revolutionary means and create a new man in the process.
- Fascism is often built around a cult of personality.
- Fascism is opposed to mass democracy, and believes the interests of the common people require a leader that is above the political fray.
- Fascism is socialist/collectivist but opposed to modernity.
- Fascism celebrates political violence against its perceived enemies at home and abroad.
Based on these criteria, can Trump be described as fascist?
- Trump is not revolutionary. He is not arguing that he will reshape man and the U.S., just that he can “Make America Great Again!” His entire campaign bio celebrates his mainstream success. Regardless of the tough-guy, macho persona, he isn’t advocating for a radical reconstruction of society.
- Trump does not have a cult built around his personality. This point is the most arduous to address, as Trump has been a media personality for some time and has crafted a very specific image for himself. He celebrates his financial success, and paints himself as a firm leader that speaks tough truths without mincing words. Many of his supporters are attracted to his brash, take-no-prisoners approach to politics that is rather uncommon for a figure running for president on a major party ticket. However, a cult of personality requires a deifying of a political figure to quasi-religious heights. The following excerpt from O. Avdienko to Joseph Stalin illustrates what a cult of personality looks like.
“Thank you, Stalin. Thank you because I am joyful. Thank you because I am well. No matter how old I become, I shall never forget how we received Stalin two days ago. centuries will pass, and the generations still to come will regard us as the happiest of mortals, as the most fortunate of men, because we lived in the century of centuries, because we were privileged to see Stalin, our inspired leader. Yes, and we regard ourselves as the happiest of mortals because we are the contemporaries of a man who never had an equal in world history.”
Trump-mentum hasn’t reached that height.
- Trump stands above political bickering, but is democratic. One of his major selling points is his wealth makes him less susceptible to political correctness and special interests. Richard Spencer noted the irony of a billionaire selling himself as a populist figure, but the fact that Trump doesn’t need to grovel at the feet of donors actually allows him to speak about taboo topics in a way other candidates cannot. As previously noted, Trump is not attempting to subjugate the political process to his will, and must still be considered democratic by nature.
- Trump is not collectivist. This is where we must unroot fascism from its incarnations in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. It is hard to imagine any Republican candidate arguing for a nationalizing of industry, and Trump seems far more comfortable fostering his individualist business persona. Perhaps this has more to do with American political rhetoric and discourse, but his political tendencies do not define a clear mission for its people the way fascism does. Collectivism is thus used to focus a people’s creative, artistic, and industrial output towards a common goal. Nothing in Trump’s campaign or persona points in this direction.
- Trump doesn’t (quite) celebrate political violence. Trump has made a name for himself in this campaign by addressing fears many whites have about immigration and displacement. Trump has painted Mexican immigrants (not just of the “illegal” variety) as inherently un-American; they are criminals and miscreants that undermine our laws and ways of life. Not only does Trump say he will build a wall along the southern border, but he will get Mexico to pay for it. This affirms his image as a figure capable of achieving what others could not, while also creating a clear “other” to direct animosity towards.
Political violence on the Right has been simmering for some time, and Trump’s rhetoric about Mexicans and immigrants is where the closest links to fascism lie. Clearly, he isn’t endorsing violence against them, but if Trump’s slogan is “Make America Great Again!” it’s clear what group caused the fall to begin with.
Based on the criteria above, I think it is wrong to call Trump a fascist. Applying the label gives the man too much credit; he is a media personality who found a niche in the current political climate of mediocrity and uniform sloganeering, exploiting it effectively. In my unsubstantiated opinion, I imagine Trump ran for president because he figured he would get some free publicity and accolades, and planned to drop out and endorse a candidate who groveled before him like a landed duke from times of yore. I doubt he expected to be the zeitgeist of many white voters whose fears of ethnic displacement are ignored or vilified by the media and political establishment. Without a clear vision for the future (and his ego larger than ever), Trump must continue onward, even if he has no plan for winning the primary, let alone running the country.
Yet, fascism is more than a single political figure. It is an ideology that lurks in the mind of any who feel the modern world is fraudulent and wicked. Fascism, at its core, is a desire for meaning and order and a rejection of the slow parliamentarism characterized by diverse pluralistic democracies. The enduring quality of fascism is that it is in all of us, but only rarely manifests itself politically.
Trump has catapulted to the top of the polls because a political and ideological movement has been stirring on the Right for decades. This Identitarian and Neo-Reactionary undertaking sees in Trump a desire by white voters to address orthodoxies on immigration and race often excluded by the Republican beltway. In the last few years, I have made it a habit of reading fringe Right-wing websites and their political trajectory (more on the movement and its ideology here). In regards to Trump, I began to see a trend develop across the Identitarian sphere, and the following arguments were culled from those sources.
None of the Identitarian sites I follow describe themselves as fascist, although they do connect to many fascist thinkers of last century. What they share is a distrust for modernity; a sense that the modern world has gone off the rails. They are not conservatives by any known American definition, but radicals looking to build a new world from the corrupted current one. So while Trump does not match a fascist under my criteria, and the Identitarian sites are not fascist in the traditional sense, you do see a renewed communitarian Right developing that shares more with Julius Evola and Otto Strasser than William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan. Trump, a real-estate developer, is the very definition of modernity. Yet, he has found allies in the anti-modernist Identitarian movement, generally because Trump has identified a common foe with these radicals: the establishment, its culture, and immigrants.
Recognizing the buffoonish nature of Trump, while noting the usefulness of his campaign, Gregory Hood argued at Radix Journal:
“Trump is worth supporting. He is worth supporting because we need a troll. We need someone who can expose the system that rules us as the malevolent and worthless entity it is. We need someone who can break open public debate. We need someone who can expose and heighten the contradictions within the system. And we need someone who can call out the press, the politicians, and the pseudo-intellectuals as the empty shells they are. The fact that Trump himself is part of this same farce is utterly irrelevant.”
Dragan at The Right Stuff noted Trump’s persona as his true virtue.
“We need to understand that cuckservatism comes from following publicly acceptable white male behavior, not just from having publicly acceptable white male beliefs. It comes from fear of leftist reprisal, or being misrepresented by media outlets who already hate you for being white anyway. Most of us have nothing to lose for that reason. When a white man like Trump realized that leftists will hate him no matter how he talked, and when he rejected publicly acceptable white male behavior wholesale, changes in public dialogue started taking place. He should be seen as a model for how to be a white man in the public eye.”
Matt Parrott, while not endorsing Trump’s candidacy, sees in him political inroads for the Right.
“Trump’s populist candidacy most certainly presents opportunities for nationalists. We can learn from both Donald Trump and Ann Coulter several lessons on how to effectively present our message to normies in an accessible and populist manner. We can ramp up our coverage of and activism relating to these issues with the hopes of attracting the attention and support of the hundreds of thousands of men and women who’ve become evangelized and energized by these mainstream figures.”
Trump is not a fascist, but the Identitarian movement has found in the man an imperfect vessel to promote their ideas. In de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Alexis contended:
“I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not run.”
Perhaps many Americans have come to accept this proposition, settling on a candidate that is willing to make a farce of the whole institution. Or perhaps, we are seeing the stirrings of a Right not seen in American politics for some time.