Fascism is hard to explain as a political ideology. Since it disavows reason and rationalism in favor of emotion, power and will, it has clear ideological framework. It’s main traits are extreme nationalism, love of war, rejection of rationality, anti-intellectualism, and hero worship – of the leader, and of military heroes. So does Trump fit the description?
For Fascists, truth is a product of will and power. They operate with the belief there are only competing narratives – different interpretations of reality. Whoever has the power to get people to believe their narrative is thus able to shape truth.
This can be done with force – in class I stand by a student and demonstrating fascism say “the sky is green. What color is the sky?” The first inevitably says “blue,” and I make a pistol out of my finger and shoot her in the head. “It’s green.” The next student meekly says “green” when asked the same question.
But if they relied completely on force they’d be ineffective. By the end of the Soviet Union their totalitarian system relied on force and bureaucratic routine – it collapsed. Fascists succeed when people want to believe their narrative.
Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci was arrested by Mussolini’s fascists and died in prison. But before his health deteriorated he penned his Prison Notebooks which laid out his theory of why the working class had followed Il Duce – the leader, Benito Mussolini.
Marx was wrong, Gramsci said, when he put economics as the only causal factor in historical development. The Fascists, he noted, did not only take power, but created a narrative that told the workers that they were part of a great movement, and had an entire belief system which permeated the culture – what he called cultural hegemony. Once people became believers they were uncritical about the narrative – like religious converts who do not question their new faith, the workers embraced fascism. Moreover, Fascism overtly appeals to emotion – fear, anger, resentment – and that often gets a more visceral response than trying to make a logical argument.
Trump’s rhetoric mirrors this trait of fascism. When Kellyanne Conway talks about “alternative facts,” people laugh. But Gramsci described it as an “alternative narrative” – which is precisely what a fascist version of facts represents. President Trump persistent antipathy to the truth a trait he shares with Fascists.
Another commonality is that fascism puts spectacle over substance – the show and the feelings it generates are what motivate people. Again, emotion moves the masses, not reason. President Trump’s desire for a large military parade, his raucous and rowdy rallies with him at the center would look familiar to Italians and Germans in the 1930s.
Finally, fascism is by definition hyper-nationalist. It puts nation first, and has a clear set of criteria for whether someone is really a part of that nation. Even if you were ethnically Germany, if you were gay, communist, pacifist or Jewish you were not truly German, and hence an internal threat to society. Foreigners are always mistrusted by fascists. Trump’s rhetoric on nationalism and immigration take darkly fascistic tones.
Traits that are contrary to fascism
Fascism traditionally embraces war as an ultimate good – a way to test one’s manhood. So far, President Trump, despite some rash reactions, has not seemed to want to create a war. Moreover, for all his complaints about the press and Democrats, he hasn’t done anything really undermining the system. Taking Acosta’s press pass and wanting strict “decorum” in White House briefings seems to have an authoritarian tone to them, but aren’t fundamental attempts to disrupt the Republic.
President Trump also seems driven more by his own psychological demons – insecurity and narcissism – that a desire for domination. I think he lacks the kind of twisted vision Mussolini and Hitler had, and simply enjoys attention and wants to bolster his ego. This was certainly true about Mussolini too, but Trump lacks any clear political agenda other than promoting himself.
So is Trump a fascist? He certainly shows some disturbing traits and practices, especially in his rhetoric and efforts to create false narratives that his supporters will latch on to due to the emotion they arouse. Things like the “caravan” coming to “invade the US” is an example of how effective this can be.
For some, that’s enough to label him Fascist. I disagree. Fascists create well organized movements to push for change that undermines the system. While spectacle is important to Trump, he doesn’t seem to have a clear agenda. He’s an insecure man, bolstering his self-esteem and using Fascistic methods. But while he loves the spectacle, he’s not doing the work to create a true movement.
Moreover, as the election of 2018 proves, the US has a system designed to prevent Fascism. At times something like it can raise it’s ugly head – McCarthyism in the 1950s was an example – but Americans usually respond and reject such ideas.
Nonetheless, the propensity for people see reality as being nothing but whatever narrative the people can be led to believe, leading to fundamentally different world views on the left and the right (and within each group) is a concern. Trump may not be a true Fascist threat, but the emotions and reactions he invokes suggest that the US cannot consider itself immune from such poison.