By Peter Chow
He is a kleptocrat, an oligarch, a plutocrat, an autocrat, a xenophobe, a racist, a misogynist, a mendacious fraud, a malignant narcissist and a cruel authoritarian.
But, is Donald Trump a fascist? Or just a fascist-wannabe?
To be a fascist, one must support the revolutionary, usually violent overthrow of the entire government/Constitution, and reject democracy entirely.
Trump is too narcissistic and self-centered for the collectivist philosophy of fascism, and not sufficiently committed to the belief that violence is good for its own sake, as a vital cleansing force.
Close, but not quite there
He can be a total xenophobic racist male chauvinist bastard and still not quite be a fascist.
Trump has adopted the grievances of a white underclass in America shaken and left behind by the forces of technology, globalism, income disparity, and the cultural changes of relentless secularism and changing attitudes towards racial and gender inequality and sexual identity.
In four years, Trump has had time to implement extreme anti-immigrant, anti-government and anti-Black policies and refused to denounce his most extreme and violent supporters, from the neo-Nazis and white nationalists in Charlottesville to the Bugaloo and the Proud Boys. Trump is more your standard bigot with an authoritarian streak, than a true fascist.
To be clear, “not fascist” is a very, very low bar for Trump to clear. The concerns that lead people to ask the question “Is Trump a fascist?” are real.
There are leaders who suspend elections, dissolve legislatures, throw large numbers of citizens into camps without trial or appeal, who turn their nations into one-party states oriented around a cult of national rebirth.
The prototypical fascist leaders — Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, [Austrian Chancellor] Engelbert Dollfuss — not only pursued right-wing policies, they also built-up mass-mobilizing parties and paramilitary organizations (the SA) with the goal of sweeping aside dissent and alternative movements and establishing single-party dictatorship.
Trump is showing a growing willingness to employ physical violence. Before, Trump was already willing to encourage roughing-up of hecklers at rallies, and openly egged on law enforcement to treat protesters with “less kindness.”
Now, after Charlottesville, we have the Bugaloo, Proud Boys, neoNazi paramilitary militias and the Michigan Wolverine militia plots against the governor of Michigan. So, Trump has gotten closer to having his own SA [the Nazi paramilitary group], a sobering thought after the Capitol insurrection and as the Inauguration approaches.
But there is no state management of the economy in America, as there was in Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. Trump is content to enable Big Business by lowering corporate taxes and gutting government regulations, and protections of the environment and of workers … and his economic policy is mainly just to let corporate America “laissez-faire”, to do what it wants.
So, terms like “oligarchy” and “plutocracy” work for Trump, with the added thought that he is close to crossing the line with his tolerance for violence.
Less fascist than kleptocrat, more malignant narcissist and egoist than radical-right ideologue — that does little to mitigate the danger.
Unchecked, Trump was descending into naked authoritarianism.
Democratic regression and political polarization are not unique to the US. Having more guns than people is. So are militias, usually formed of lower- and middle-class white Americans long harbouring anti-government sentiments. The threat posed by these anti-government extremists was thrown into relief with the incoherent seditious attacks on the Capitol and statehouses across the country and when members of Michigan’s Wolverine Militia were arrested for planning to kidnap, “judge,” and potentially execute for treason the state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer.
His relationship to democracy is the key to answering whether he’s a fascist or not. In four years of incoherent and inconsistent tweets, he’s never actually did a Putin and try to make himself a permanent president, let alone any coherent plan for overthrowing the constitutional system – until now.
Trump has always consistently posed a great challenge to liberalism and liberal democracy, but now shows himself to be a challenge to constitutional democracy.
Trump is not quite a fascist, but what he is quite consistently is an illiberal democrat. He is a democrat to the extent that he’s used democratic processes to be where he is, which he doesn’t radically challenge – until now.
Trump is not Hitler or Mussolini. He belongs in a different rogues’ gallery., a rogues’ gallery made up of a whole load of dictators and autocrats, including Putin and Erdogan and Orbán and Duterte and Bolsonaro and Berlusconi, who have abused constitutionalism and democracy to rationalize their abuse of power and their crimes against humanity.
Fascism was a totalitarian ideology and political system that wanted to do away not only with liberalism and democracy but to revolutionize society, economy, and politics and to restore lost national glory. That’s not the same as any old authoritarianism, any old dictatorship, even a nasty one, and that is not where we are today.
That said, just as ethnically based violence or ethnic cleansing shares some characteristics with genocide/the Holocaust, so too does Trump bear similarities to other autocratic strongmen, a category in which fascists like Hitler and Mussolini belong, as do Orbán, Erdogan, Putin, Duterte and Bolsonaro. That Trump maintains his support by engaging in explicitly divisive appeals designed to pit groups against each other — particularly but not exclusively ethnic groups — also, of course, bears similarity to what fascists did.
And, of course, Trump is undermining various norms and institutions of democracy. But this doesn’t make him a fascist, which means much more than these things. Indeed, calling Trump a “fascist” gives him too much “credit” — he isn’t strategic enough, isn’t disciplined or focused enough, isn’t ideological enough, and just isn’t smart enough.
Trump certainly uses fascist tactics, from holding rallies to refresh the leader-follower bond to creating a “tribe” (MAGA hats, rituals like chanting “lock them up,” “USA” “four years more”) to unleashing a volume of propaganda without precedent by an American president. Yet the political cultures that form him and his close supporters are not totally fascist, but reflect a broader authoritarian history.
Trump’s role models include leaders like Erdogan and Putin who are not exactly fascists, but something more: authoritarians, or strongman rulers who also use virility as a tool of domination.
In the 21st century, fascist takeovers have been replaced by rulers who come to power through elections and then, over time, extinguish freedom.
Trump is a reality-show-celebrity-turned-right-wing politician. He acts as a consummate demagogue, fabulist, and ultranationalist, with a strong inclination for nepotism and kleptocracy. His use of the presidency to finance his lifestyle and enrich his family resemble the schemes of former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. In addition to profiting from his time in office, Trump, like the strongmen of today, has challenged constraints on executive authority without investing resources into a sustainable political organization.
He’s certainly using fascist political tactics. He is calling for national restoration in the face of humiliations brought on by immigrants, liberals, racial minorities, and leftists.
He has certainly played the fascist playbook.
America was lucky that he was so inept at being an autocrat. America came dangerously close to the event horizon of the Black Hole.
Instead, in a burst of narcissistic egoism and perceived grievance, he has turned the last four years into a tragically macabre reality show, using his only true talents, spectacular showmanship and an absolute genius of relentless self-promotion.
If he were a scripted movie character, he would have been rejected as too unbelievable. But he transcended that to end up like a grotesque villain in a Batman movie, alongside the Penguin and the Joker.