At long last, we are seeing mainstream recognition of the incredibly obvious: Donald Trump is a fascist. What prompted the realization was Trump’s passing endorsement of registering Muslims in a national database. This was the wake up call.
But come on: all the signs have been there since the beginning of his campaign. Why did it take so long?
It’s a bit like the boy who cried wolf. You warn about wolves so much that no one takes you seriously when a real one actually shows up.
Lefties since the late 1930s have tended to call all non-leftists fascists — which has led to a discrediting of the word itself. As time went on, the word became nothing but a vacuous political insult. It’s what people say about someone with whom they disagree.
Then in the 1990s came Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” This law provided a convenient way to dismiss all talk of fascism as Internet babblings deployed in the midst of flame wars.
Godwin’s Law made worse the perception that followed the end of World War II that fascism was a temporary weird thing that afflicted a few countries but had been vanquished from the earth thanks to the allied war victory. It would no longer be a real problem but rather a swear word with no real substance.
Fascism is Real
Without this term used as an authentic descriptor, we have a problem. We have no accurate way to identify what is in fact the most politically successful movement of the 20th century. Never mind that the whole burden of one of the most famous pro-freedom books of the century — Hayek’s Road to Serfdom — was to warn that fascism was a more immediate and pressing danger to the developed world than Russian-style socialism. Hayek’s book was evidently more talked about than read.
Last July, I heard Trump speak and his talk displayed all the features of fascist rhetoric. He began with trade protectionism and held up autarky as an ideal. He moved to immigration, leading the crowd to believe that all their economic and security troubles were due to dangerous foreign elements among us. Then came the racial dog whistles: Trump demanded of a Hispanic questioner whether he was sent by the government of Mexico.
There was more. He railed against the establishment that is incompetent and lacking in energy. He bragged about his lack of interest-group ties — which is another way of saying that that only he can become the purest sort of dictator with no quid pro quos to tie him down.
Trump is clearly not pushing himself as a traditional American president, heading an executive branch and working with Congress and the judicial branch. He imagines himself as running to head a personal state: his will would be the one will for the country. He has no real reform plans beyond putting himself in charge, not only of the government but, as he imagines, the entire country. It’s a difference of substance that is very serious.
The rest of the campaign has been easy to predict. He refashioned himself as pro-family, anti-PC, and even pro-religion. These traits come with the package. The key to understanding fascism is this: it preserves the despotic ambitions of socialism while removing its most politically unpopular elements. It assures the population that it can keep its property, religion, and faith provided all these elements are channeled into a grand national project under a charismatic leader of high competence.
As the realization has spread that Trump is the real deal, so has the quality of reflection on its implication. Most impressive so far has been Ross Douthat’s article in the New York Times. As he explains, Trump displays as least 7 features of Umberto Eco’s list of fascist traits: “a cult of action, a celebration of aggressive masculinity, an intolerance of criticism, a fear of difference and outsiders, a pitch to the frustrations of the lower middle class, an intense nationalism and resentment at national humiliation, and a ‘popular elitism’ that promises every citizen that they’re part of ‘the best people of the world.’”
In this, Trump is different from others in American history who have been called fascist, writes Douthat. George Wallace was a local-rights guy and hated Washington, whereas Trump loves power and only thinks in terms of centralization. Pat Buchanan’s fascistic nativism was always tempered by his attachment to Catholic moral teaching that puts brakes on power ambitions. Ross Perot was called a fascist but actually he was a government reformer who wanted to bring business standards to government finance, which is very different from wanting to manage the entire country. Also, Perot avoided racialist dog whistles.
Why has genuine fascism been kept at bay in America? Why has the American right wing not finally taken the step that might have plunged it into authoritarian/nativist aspirations? Here Douthat is especially insightful: “part of the explanation has to be that the American conservative tradition has always included important elements — a libertarian skepticism of state power, a stress on localism and states’ rights, a religious and particularly Protestant emphasis on the conscience of an individual over the power of the collective — that inoculated our politics against fascism’s appeal.”
Note that he singles out libertarianism as an ideological brake on fascist longings. This is precisely right. Libertarianism grows out of the liberal tradition which is about far more than merely hating the ruling-class establishment. It has universalist longings, embodied in its long defense of free trade, free speech, free migration, and freedom of religion. The central-planning feature of fascistic ideology is absolutely ruled out by libertarian love for spontaneous social and economic forces at work in society.
As for “energy” emanating from the executive branch, the liberal tradition can’t be clearer. No amount of intelligence, resources, or determined will from the top down can make government work. The problem is the apparatus itself, not the personalities and values of the rulers who happen to be in charge.
(I’m leaving aside the strange and deep irony that many self-professed libertarians have fallen for Trump, a fact which should be deeply embarrassing to anyone and everyone who has affection for human liberty, somewhat reminiscent of the intellectual support for Hitler. And good for Ron Paul that he has denounced this Trump in no uncertain terms.)
Can He Win?
Douthat seriously doubts that Trump can finally win over Republicans, due to “his lack of any real religious faith, his un-libertarian style and record, his clear disdain for the ideas that motivate many of the most engaged Republicans.”
I’m not so sure. The economic conditions that led to a rise of Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, and Franco in Spain are nowhere close to being replicated here. But Americans are wimps with extreme responses to even the slightest evidence that things aren’t quite right — and by extreme I do not mean in the love of liberty. There is a strong authoritarian streak in the GOP and it the enduring appeal of Trump is proof of this.
It’s time to dust off that copy of Road to Serfdom and realize that the biggest threats to liberty come from unexpected places. While the GOP masses are still worrying themselves about the influence of leftwing professors, they need to open their eyes to the possibility that the gravest threat to American rights and liberties exists within their own ranks.