The GOP presidential candidacy of Donald Trump has been seen by many as a hilarious farce. How could this former reality TV star, a multiply-bankrupt billionaire, an all of a sudden family-values champion with four failed marriages, whose official politics have shifted loudly with the political winds NOT be seen as a ridiculous indictment of the spectacle of American electoral politics? As some have noted, his very appeal to some people is in his willingness to say things that normal politicians just don’t usually say… at least, out loud. As several commentators have observed, however, Trump is simply not funny any more. What has changed?
Some have alluded to the eerily fascist-like character of his rhetoric and policies. Many people may consider this to be a ridiculous, hyperbolic, or unthinkable comparison. After all, Hitler killed millions. While Trump may have destroyed communities through his business practices, such a comparison must be wildly inappropriate, or even disrespectful to the victims of early 20th century fascism. In internet culture, this common sense manifests itself in the idea of Godwin’s Law, which argues that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”. The implication of this is that such comparisons are toxic, abused and overused rhetorically, and intended more to de-legitimize an opponent rather than say anything of worth. While comparisons to fascism can certainly be over-used in rhetoric, they are under-used in actual analysis. Fascism, and Hitler in particular, have generally been treated as exhausted signifiers of the kind described by Roland Barthes – drained of metaphorical, conceptual, and descriptive utility. Simultaneously, Hitler in particular has become too mythical and distant of a figure, ensconced firmly within Western national mythologies regarding the moral status of World War II.
It is a fundamental mistake (really more of an ideological maneuver) to imagine that early 20th century fascists were an exceptional evil, emerging out of nothing and returning to that nothing, and that no useful comparisons can be made with them. The politics of Trump and his cousins, Le Pen and the National Front in France, the Golden Dawn in Greece, UKIP (as well as the BNP) in the UK, and a slew of others can show us otherwise. Read the transcripts of Hitler’s early speeches and then listen to Trump’s speeches, as well as his initial reactions to finding out that he is inspiring white racists to assault brown-skinned immigrants. There are differences in historically specific circumstances, of course, but they are appealing to common themes and fears. They are also using similar mechanisms for rhetorically constructing who is the dangerous and corrupting “problem” that needs to be “solved” (even if their targets differ). Trump is a fascist, even if only a fascist out of electoral convenience.
The Anatomy of Trump’s Fascism
Robert O. Paxton, the esteemed scholar of fascism, provides us with a synthesized anatomy of key characteristics of different fascisms. While fascism is – somewhat ironically – not a strictly unified ideology as some imagine, it is a distinct kind of political project and mode of doing politics, and different fascisms have family resemblances with each other. In spite of diverse local expressions (anti-semitism, for instance, is by no means a uniting prerequisite among fascists), they share common themes and priorities that are intelligible and not limited simply to those early 20th century movements, people, and organizations who self-identified as fascists. Fascists need not wear the conspicuous symbols of German Nazis, such as the Swastika, or goose step in jackboots. These were symbols designed to inspire, energize, and even reassure a different national audience at a different time. Paxton warns us that an “authentic American fascism” would not adopt these alien trappings, but instead display “the Stars and Stripes (or Stars and Bars) and Christian crosses. No fascist salute, but mass recitations of the pledge of allegiance. These symbols contain no whiff of fascism in themselves, of course, but an American fascism would transform them into obligatory litmus tests for detecting the internal enemy” (p.202).
After a careful comparative analysis, Paxton defines fascism as
a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion. (p.218)
Fascism is fueled not simply by elite manipulation, but by a variety of “mobilizing passions” spread through a critical mass of a populace (p.219). The overwhelmingly white, less educated (and thus more economically vulnerable), immigrant averse, confederate flag-supporting, “traditional” values-espousing nationalists who think that conditions of poverty for the Black community is mostly their own fault feel a chord struck when Trump speaks. They see themselves genuinely as victims, of precarious economic conditions, the perceptions of waning national ascendance, demographic marginalization, cultural change, and distant federal elites meddling in their way of life. Trump plays on all of these grievances with his promise to “Make America Great Again”.
Offering a sympathetic producerist narrative to these aggrieved souls, Trump will attack immigrants as murderers, welfare parasites, rapists, and drug dealers, while also slamming hedge fund managers as undeserving of their wealth and Ford motors for having operations in Mexico. He dismisses global warming concerns by calling it a Chinese plot to undermine U.S. economic competitiveness. He emptily notes his “understanding” of why Black Americans distrust police, while doubling down on the necessity of police being “tougher” on “crime” and having no tolerance for movements like Black Lives Matter (even hinting that he would fight disruptive protesters himself). He retroactively opposes earlier US involvement in Iraq, since the Iraq war is apparently Bad now among conservatives… likely less because of the mass murder and devastation of the Iraqi people, and more because it has produced a sense of national military impotence and made something Complicated. Except, he also supports a new occupation of Iraq in order to fight ISIS, and/or maybe also Iran (are they different? Who cares, really?), and either taking out or simply taking “the oil fields”, which will mean (in a striking paraphrase of one of the original rationalizations for the 2003 invasion) that “We’re going to have so much money”. With the nuclear deal with Iran, he would be “tough, so tough” and make a deal that is “100 times better”. How? Unimportant! He would be tough, like We can be again (he describes himself as “the most militaristic person there is”, of course).
In Trumpian rhetoric, every supposed geopolitical “threat” from Mexico to China is “laughing at us”, and “killing us economically” (yes, Mexico). The “American Dream is dead”, and “We don’t have victories any more”. Rather than being the long-time victims of military intervention, coups, and debilitating sanctions by a hegemonic U.S. government, Trump’s Iran and “the Persians generally” are devious, master negotiators, diplomatically pillaging the hapless United States. The victimhood of his audience and their feelings of anxiety and resentment are constantly affirmed in heavy-handed fashion. In the same breath, he declares that the immigrants being sent to the U.S. “are not their best” and “are not you” (aw shucks, Donald), reaffirming the out-group’s alien and dangerous character, the legitimacy of his audience’s fears, and the audience’s real, occluded worth. The need to purge, remove defiling elements, and erect armor against out-group forces become primary concerns as a means of restoring group well-being.
This sense of victimhood also provides justification for extraordinary measures to be used against the assailing or corrupting forces. Rights, practicality, legality, and consideration of the needs or well-being of those outside of the group are minimized or dispensed with entirely. For Trump, the U.S. government should have invaded Mexico instead of Iraq, should build an impregnable border wall across the entire Southern border in spite of the billions it will cost (and make Mexico pay for it), and should have a mass deportation of all 11million undocumented immigrants — literally rounding up millions of brown people around the country and forcing them onto buses and out of the country (but in a “very humane” way because Trump is a “great manager”).
While Trump is also not entirely guilty by association, it pays to look at who affirms his politics as being in line with their own. White nationalists have supported Trump’s stance on immigration (even though he has semi-officially declined their support). The two white Bostonians from Southie who brutally beat and urinated on a Latino homeless man said that “Donald Trump was right—all these illegals need to be deported”. The Donald’s initial response was a tepid distancing, while at the same time saying that his supporters are just “very passionate” people. The failure of the normal way of doing politics to prevent the group’s decline requires extraordinary measures in order to secure the group’s rightful place of dominance, prevent challengers, and purge undesirable elements. Much like the 20th century fascists, Trump is posing as a leader who wants to shake up the flaccid, impotent status quo in order to unify and secure the group’s strength and respectability (at least, the “true” members of it). He is seen as “independent”, a strong-arm who knows how to “get things done”, and as less “bought” and corrupted by ineffectual, normal electoral politics precisely because of his wealth.
We can certainly question how much Trump really means anything he says. In his The Art of the Deal, he is quite explicit in his defense of using strategic hyperbole, deception, and whatever tools are at hand in order to win. Hitler and Mussolini were true believers in ways that seem more genuine than Trump. In his own way, though, Trump — the con-man billionaire and former reality TV show star — is embodying other aspects of fascism’s distinctiveness, namely its instrumental, fluid, and sometimes oppositional relationship with rationality, logic, and truth, and its marked lack of concern with building systematic philosophical justification for its policies and doctrine. Logical coherence or justification are often besides the point for fascists (something Mussolini delighted in taunting liberals, conservatives, and socialists alike with). Programs and policies can be cobbled together with little heed paid to whether they are actionable or coherent, and changed just as easily. What is important is the emotional effect of a statement, a policy, a ritual, an aesthetic, in energizing and tempering the pertinent mass of people into a cohesive national body with a renewed sense of primacy, moral certainty, the expression of a unified will, and sense of purpose and even destiny. Fascist truth is whatever brings about this transformation.
There is an deep, affective dimension to Trump’s candidacy that appeals to a mostly-white, racist, xenophobic demographic who feel impotent, but who also hold deep resentment against outsiders and those who seem to embody the destruction of a mythic homogeneous community in which they can feel at ease. They long for security and certainty, and feel their world slipping away, lost from within through traitors (“liberals”, “cultural Marxists”, teachers, etc.), and under attack from without by China, and Mexican murder-rapist-druglords who simultaneously want to steal American jobs and do nothing but make “anchor babies” and collect welfare. He represents a big middle-finger to highly choreographed traditional politicians and the electoral theater (something that also elevated the appeal of early 20th century fascists), but also to empathy, thinking critically about social complexity, about consequences of one’s actions, and about privilege and inequality. He embodies the renewal of a kind of leveling simplicity of the world: certainty about right and wrong, friends and enemies, the recovery of a “lost” (white) golden age, and theatrically exaggerated “common sense” policies that legitimize this demographic’s varied resentments, fears, and frustrations. We may question Trump’s authenticity, but if the politics he is cultivating to ground his support base is a functional equivalent of fascism, resting on the same mobilizing passions, then this line of concern seems immaterial.
Trump is not funny any more, because Trump is a fascist, and the “humor” of a fascist is to “punch down” on the already marginalized and oppressed while at the same time claiming victimhood. I am not saying that Trump and his ilk would kill tens of millions and lead to another world war. We are in different historical conditions now than those of the interwar period. You don’t need to successfully ignite a world war, acquire authority, or even kill many people in order to be a fascist. He is having a measurable effect, however, and will continue to even if he fails to win the primary or get elected. His militaristic and anti-immigrant talk is becoming infectious, shifting the Overton Window and leading to an escalation in the violent rhetoric and proposed policies of the already impressive authoritarianism and racism fueling the energetic base of the GOP. We can laugh at the absurdity of building 20 ft border walls with sentry turrets, underground electric fences, armed drone patrols, moats with sharks bearing lasers on their heads, or whatever stage of hysterical social hypochondria we are at, but a material consequence of this rhetoric will be more dead brown people for as long as we tolerate it. There is a large, angry, racist, xenophobic, reactionary-populist segment of the American populace, and they are taking Trump very seriously as a signal allowing them to embody their cretinous innermost selves.