Robert Reich, driven in part by the use of a Nazi looking salute at Trump rallies, has decided it is appropriate to use the “F-word” – fascist – to describe Trump.
Fascism as an ideology is little understood by most people. It is unlike any other ideology in that fascism does not rest on the use of reason and rational thought, but instead relies on emotion. Fascism does not go for the head, but for the gut. It seeks to motivate people by creating “enemy images” of others. It is anti-intellectual, anti-rational, and usually involves hero and leader worship as well as a strong sense of being part of a “movement” bigger than oneself. It embraces a kind of collective empowerment that can be used to rationalize violence (e.g., roughing up reporters or protesters).
Fascism is not necessarily racist. Because there are no core principles – just a will to power and appeal to emotion – there are no core beliefs and assumptions. Socialism, capitalism, communism, libertarianism, and other ‘ideologies’ are reason-based, resting on assumptions and principles that yield a particular world view. Fascism is considered “far right” because it evokes an irrational appeal to tradition, custom and nationalism. Conservatism traditionally rests on a view of society as a kind of organic collective, held together by tradition and custom. All ideologies of the left (as well as classical liberal views like capitalism and libertarianism) base themselves in reason. But it is not conservative because it warps the customs and traditions it claims to defend.
In a real sense, fascism is anti-ideology. This means fascists pick and choose how to defend their appeal. Hitler was avowedly racist and militarist. The Nazis felt that war shaped the national character and was necessary to keep a people or state vibrant. But Francisco Franco of Spain did not. Though a General, he stayed out of World War II and embraced a very conservative form of fascism that glorified the traditions of the Catholic Church. Benito Mussolini joined the war, but he didn’t have his heart in militarism; he preferred the pomp and spectacle of grandiose Italian nationalism.
Latin American fascists like Juan Peron and Getulio Vargas used emotion to generate support for the people so they could stabilize society and get broad support for a scheme of elite power sharing and control — bread and circuses to keep the masses occupied while big government and big business ran the show. They saw that as more effective than a messy, unstable democracy that could be co-opted by socialist and radical movements.
So what about Trump? His movement contains aspects of fascism. He appeals to emotion, has the macho tough guy image, and many of his fans are “followers” – people who want a leader and admire someone with raw, passionate power who goes after what he wants without regard for what others think.
This appeal has been linked to the “authoritarian personality,” a kind of masochistic desire to yield oneself completely to the power of another in order to experience the thrill of total obedience – experiencing a sense of power and exhilaration through the act of submission.
But fascism so defined is not what most Americans think of when they use the “f-word.” They think of concentration camps, the holocaust, war and racism. They think of Hitler, and equate fascism with National Socialism. Nazism was fascist, but fascism is not Nazism. Fascism is what the leader makes of it. Trump is not a Nazi. He has not embraced militarism – quite the contrary, he’s the only Republican unabashedly critical of the Iraq war. So-called neo-conservatives threaten to support Hillary if Trump is the GOP nominee because she seems more militarist than he does.
Trump certainly appeals to emotion, and disses the educated elite as being the equivalent of out of touch pansies, something that his crowds love. Yet his message is reminiscent of Ross Perot – the US is suffering due to globalization as good jobs are outsourced and the elites get wealthier as the middle class declines. Trump certainly has never questioned democracy. In fact, he argues (much like Sanders) that Washington elite fear democracy and want to protect a kind of oligarchy.
Fascism connects the meaning of life with loyalty to the state and its leader. For Mussolini Italy was to recapture the glory of Rome. Trump is a nationalist, but his rhetoric does not suggest that people need to submit to the state and authority in order to have meaning in life. Again, he’s addressing working class Angst over the way the global economy has threatened the American dream.
So is Trump a fascist? His movement and rhetoric at times have attributes shared with fascism, but I ultimately answer the question with “no.” Joesph Goebbels, propaganda leader for the National Socialists famously said that he learned everything he needed to know from Madison Avenue – the street in New York City home to the big advertising agencies. The appeal to emotion is shared by marketers, and Frankfurt School theorists Adorno and Horkheimer even hinted that the emotion-driven emerging consumer society in the West had fascist attributes.
Trump is using similar tactics to market himself to the people, but his rhetoric and bravado borrows more from pro wrestling than Hitler. It’s the choreographed show with trash talk and calculated political incorrectness designed to drive home the point he is not a traditional politician. Yet at base I think Trump is simply marketing Trump, and is not motivated to try to reshape society into a fascist style system. He wants attention, adoration, and respect – but isn’t planning a nefarious power grab.
So I’ll avoid the f-word in describing Trump, and stick to the “populist” label.