Yes, Donald does fascism. If there were a fascist hall of fame, Donald Trump would certainly be qualified for membership. He combines in his personality – and in his actions – many of the criteria that have been used over the years to characterize this dark political syndrome. Where do we begin?
The term Fascism was coined in Italy during World War One and gained a following with the rise of fascist political movements in Europe in wake of that disastrous war, when ancient European monarchies were collapsing, political revolutions were spreading, and economic hardship was rampant. What evolved during the 1920s and 1930s was a new kind of totalitarian one-party state that rejected the values of the French Revolution (human rights, freedom, democracy, liberalism) in favor of strict social discipline, political repression, racial solidarity, nationalism, anti-communism, and, most notably, charismatic authoritarian leadership. The archetypes for this new kind of one-man rule were Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolph Hitler in Germany, although there have been many other imitators and wannabe’s in other countries both then and in the years since.
Much has been written about the underlying psychology of fascism, because it seems to contradict the Western Enlightenment model of human nature as being essentially rational, reasoning, and democratic. For instance, one early theorist, the pioneer psychologist Wilhelm Reich, claimed that fascism was the result of sexual repression. Nowadays, this Freudian explanation seems highly implausible. More recent, and more nuanced theories focus on social and economic insecurities. However, there is something else that goes much deeper, I believe, with psychological roots that can be traced back even to our remote pre-human ancestors.
For millions of years, our hominin forebears lived in small, interdependent hunter-gatherer bands where leadership played a vitally important role, especially in situations that were challenging and stressful for the group and required close cooperation. To this day, our species has a propensity to rally around a strong leader when times are tough. It’s a collective response to fear and perceived threats. And whenever an existing political regime fails to deal with a society’s deep social and economic problems, an ambitious demagogue may be able to tap into this deficiency and exploit it. Donald Trump has been following the classic formula.
Although there is no universal checklist of defining traits for a fascist leader, there are a number of common symptoms. Consider Mussolini and Hitler. They displayed extreme narcissism and an inflated view of their own abilities and skills; they were authoritarians who believed there should be no limits to their power; they demanded personal loyalty and punished (or imprisoned and executed) anyone who was disloyal or opposed them; they undermined traditional institutions; they had contempt for democracy and the rule of law and were willing to corrupt the legal system to serve their own ends; they created or inflated racial and ethnic divisions; they used extra-legal force to exert control and suppress opposition; they purveyed systematic, self-serving lies and propaganda; they rejected reason and science insofar as it posed a threat to their authority; they created or exacerbated both internal and foreign conflicts; and, not least, they had powerful and persuasive public speaking skills.
We can check off all of these boxes with Donald Trump. However, Trump has been notably less successful at it than his notorious predecessors and contemporaries[PC1] – at least so far. There are a number of reasons for this. First, Trump has confronted well established democratic institutions that have existed for more than 200 years, including regular elections, a strong opposition party, and a well-established and generally respected rule of law. Second, he has had to deal with a constitutional system in which power is distributed among three distinct branches of government and the 50 individual states, as well as having an often partisan but well-established free press. Third, and especially important, his demagogic appeal has been directed to a minority of the electorate with serious grievances – people who have been losing out and feel threatened -- while the majority of us have not been alienated from the democratic system or the economy and have pushed back against Trump’s demagoguery in various ways. Fourth, Trump’s blatant, illegal self-dealing on behalf of himself and his business has led to multiple scandals, including an impeachment by the Congress and much more to come if he is defeated in November.
But most important, Trump has been a personal failure at the job. He has systematically insulted and alienated various constituencies – blacks, Latinx, Asians, Muslims, women, the elderly, moderate Republicans, our foreign allies, even the military – while catering to a narrow but loyal white working-class base and hard-core Republicans. His main political accomplishments, beyond a major tax cut favoring the wealthy (notably including himself), have been destructive – from undermining the Affordable Care Act to stripping away environmental and safety regulations, gutting consumer protections, and reducing safeguards for the natural environment. His outpouring of lies has been so prolific (more than 20,000 so far, according to the Washington Post, or currently about 15 per day), and so often outlandish, that his words are now widely discounted and mocked. Or used against him. Or even taken down from the Internet by Facebook for being a falsehood! But his biggest failure has been to avoid taking responsibility and exercising leadership in the coronavirus pandemic and the economic meltdown, even to the point of actively undermining our national response to this existential crisis.
In the end, the Presidency of this country is not about appearances, or rhetoric, or role-playing, or rallies. It is about leadership. Trump has floundered. He will soon be gone.