Thinking About Fascism
We have never seen anything like it – a major party candidate for the presidency who is a flaming narcissist, has never held public office and elaborates virtually no program. He is politically vacuous. What he does have are hyperbolic slogans, insults, obscenities and a speaking style not above a fifth grade level. But worse, he is a demagogue who appeals to the frustrations of his base and incites anger, even violence. But worse still, he wins the favor of the crowd through the demonization of others – Muslims, Latinos, the disabled, women. Whatever programs he espouses are, for the most part, impossible, and he repeatedly contradicts himself, while making a virtue of his unpredictability. The more he is attacked, the more he rises in the polls. His campaign is outside the bounds of reason. He appeals to the gut, not to the mind.
That a person such as Donald Trump should emerge as a major contender for the most powerful office in the world, is surreal, a Dadaist nightmare. Whatever else, his success so far, should he ultimately win or lose the presidency, is itself a dire statement on the nature of our democracy. Never have I felt that the membrane separating our democratic way of life from authoritarian governance was so thin and fragile.
The Meaning of a Label
The press has become comfortable in labeling Trump a demagogue, and the question has been raised as to whether he is a fascist. This is the question I feel impelled to explore, and it is a difficult and very serious one. The word “fascist” draws a direct association to Mussolini and Hitler, the paragons of political systems identified with the greatest evil history has produced.
Does the term apply here? In the first instance, historical comparisons are very difficult to make and require that they be drawn very carefully. Europe in the 1930s is not America in the early decades of the twenty-first century. To make the identification, if invalid, is to trivialize Mussolini and especially Hitler. It is also to be alarmist without warrant. But if there is any validity here, to fail to do so is to deny what may be impending dangers and to forestall initiatives in an attempt to block them.
What is Fascism?
The first problem with assessing whether Donald Trump is a fascist (and I would not hesitate to apply the same inquiry to Ted Cruz) involves gaining an understanding as to what fascism is, because the term is notoriously difficult to define. The great political systems which flourished in the nineteenth century –liberalism, conservatism and socialism — all have their seminal thinkers and theoreticians with legacies brimming with rich intellectual traditions. Fascism, which is a creature of the twentieth century, does not. According to the Columbia historian, Robert Paxton, fascism is not so much a world-view, an ideology, or propositions, but, in his words, a series of “mobilizing passions.” A recitation of these passions would give us a sense of the contours of fascism. It is worth listing them in full:
- a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions
- the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it
- the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external
- dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences
- the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary
- the need for authority by natural chiefs (always male), culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny
- the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason
- the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success
- the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle
How does Trump stack up to this roster? He does with some points, but not with others. When it comes to overwhelming crisis and the poverty of traditional solutions, Trump continually harps in absolute terms on the weakness and failures of our government, and his solutions, many absurd, fly in the face of conventional approaches. On number two, not so much. He has not condemned individualism, though he has presented himself as a powerful and masterful leader deserving of the adulation of his followers. That we are victims of terrorists, undocumented immigrants, the Chinese and those nations that allegedly bilk us without return, of this, Trump has no doubt. He sees the world in black or white terms with enemies within and without.
National decline is a major trope of fascism, and Trump never tires of reminding his legions of that fact, our condition brought on by alien forces. Purity is also a major fascist theme. Though not proffered explicitly, Trump speaks in nothing but absolutes, extremes and hyperbole, which, by obviating complexity, points to a sense of purity in his vision for America and its society. His abetting violence, if not its glorification, has gotten a lot of exposure and is ominous. Number six is well exemplified by his unbridled narcissism. With a minimum of reasoned argument and appeals to his own instinctive greatness, Trump well conforms to number seven on Paxton’s list, as well. We have already noted Trump’s appeals to violence, and while he hasn’t pandered to the superiority of any ethic group in particular, he has certainly appealed to a crude masculinity and sense of his prowess without constraint. His rallies are exercises in community building among his followers.
The Element of Circumstance
Beyond these similarities, we should be wary of Trump’s contempt for democratic institutions and his popularity among white supremacists. If Trump is not literally a fascist, there are enough echoes of fascism in his persona and politics to put us on high alert.
At the same time, fascism to take hold needs not only fascist leaders, but also the proper circumstances, opportunities and contexts. We need to be vigilant and resist this dangerous man. But we also need remember that contemporary America is not mid-century Germany or Italy. The conditions of those states after World War I were catastrophic. Germany was suffering a great depression; Italy on the brink of civil war. Despite the economic problems we experiences, problems Trump is expert at exploiting, America remains the world’s greatest economic and military power. Our circumstances are much different from those Germany and Italy confronted when fascism took hold.
I will be exploring these issues, difficult but necessary, in my talk of April 3rd. I hope you can join me then.
SANCTUARY COALITION TO HOLD BENEFIT DINNER ON APRIL 2
The renamed and expanded Northern New Jersey Sanctuary Coalition will hold its annual Benefit Dinner on Saturday, April 2nd at 6:00 pm. The Dinner will not be at the Ethical Society this year, but at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church at 118 Chadwick Road, Teaneck, adjacent to Holy Name Hospital. My hope is that Society members will turn out to the event with as much enthusiasm and support as they have for dinners in the past The guest speaker will be Ms. Sally Pillay, the director of First Friends, and organization devoted to supporting asylum seekers and immigrants in northern New Jersey detention centers. She will speak on “Alternatives to Detention.” The program will include music, camaraderie and the presence of the clients in our program. The dinner is free of charge, but we will ask guests for a donation to support the work of the Sanctuary program. I warmly hope to see you there. It’s a worthy cause.