July 1, 2016
By Michael Drohan
Historian Robert O. Paxton wrote a book in 2005 entitled The Anatomy of Fascism which defines fascism as follows: “Fascism may, be defined 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.” Using the epithet “fascism” for various individuals, parties, or movements is often done glibly just to name something that a group or individual does not like, thus rendering the term somewhat meaningless. Paxton aids one in being more careful in attribution of this term to individuals, movements, or parties. With the rise of the Trump phenomenon in American politics, many have been struck between the parallels between the authoritarian character of Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler, coming to the conclusion that he is a fascist. Paxton himself does not share this opinion, but many other historians have come to a different conclusion.
Let us explore the various parts of the definition of fascism and see if there are any parallels between it and Trumpism. Elaborating on his definition, Paxton writes, “Fascist leaders made no secret of having no program.” When we look at the Trump program, this seems to be fairly accurate, as his positions are continually changing. He professes to be the embodiment of capitalism and at the same time (at least for now) is against free trade. He was pro-choice, but has now morphed into a pro-lifer. He is against raising the minimum wage at one moment and at the next he is for it. Ideological malleability and policy contradictions seem to be his hallmarks.
Behind Trump’s slogan of “making America great again,” there is clearly a sense that he believes (if he believes anything) that America is in decline and that it can no longer do what it used to do in the world, and that he will set the tables right once more if and when elected President. He does not spell out the nature of the decline, but it seems fairly obvious that he is alluding to the notion that since World War II, the US has been defeated, if not humiliated, in all its foreign wars. This holds true for all the wars presently being engaged in in the Middle East and the prognosis for those conflicts is not good. This of course, is not a new theme in US politics and goes back to the Reagan era of overcoming the “Vietnam syndrome” of defeat and humiliation in that adventure. No doubt the situation in post World War I Germany was very different, with Germany’s massive humiliation and despoliation after the war. But the essential sentiment is the same.
Fascism, as the definition says, is marked by a cult of unity, energy and purity. With Hitler this cult took the form of elevation of the purity of the Aryan race and the program to eliminate Romanis, Jews, and other nationalities not considered to be part of the “master race.” This element of fascism is very clear in the Trump campaign, with his railings against Muslims and Mexican immigrants. Similarly to Hitler, these groups are identified as scapegoats for the ills of the nation. For now, his solution would be the banning of these groups from the country, but that could morph into other Hitler-like solutions.
Even as a candidate for the Republican nomination of that party, Trump has shown complete intolerance for any dissent. Firstly, those who are allowed into his campaign rallies are thoroughly screened with the exclusion of dissenters. The Press is basically allocated to pens. When some dissenters pass through the gates and identify themselves, they are abused by Trump with invectives and then manhandled and expelled. All this happens in the context of having no official power. One can only imagine what repression of First Amendment rights would take place if he were ever elected to office or had any political power.
There are many xenophobic and racist elements to the Trump campaign. In California, one of his delegates belonged to a white supremacist group. When endorsed by David Duke, he maintained with little credulity that he did not know Duke or the KKK. His opposition to President Obama and questioning whether Obama was truly an American has more than a tinge of racism to it. And then let us not forget his misogyny, which is crude beyond words. His disrespect for people with physical disabilities has also to be added to his list of frightening bigotries.
What began looking like a joke has morphed into a specter and a nightmare. In Germany at the beginning of Nazism it was not unalike. It behooves us at the very least to analyze seriously what we are witnessing and not discount the possibility that we are living through proto-fascism.
Michael Drohan This author is a member of the Editorial Collective and of the Board of the Merton Center