Donald Trump is on a roll, breaking new ground in uses for state power.
Closing the internet? Sure. “We have to see Bill Gates and a lot of different people… We have to talk to them about, maybe in certain areas, closing that Internet up in some ways.”
Registering Muslims? Lots of people thought he misspoke. But he later clarified: “There should be a lot of systems, beyond databases. We should have a lot of systems.”
Why not just bar all Muslims at the border? Indeed, and to the massive cheers of his supporters, Trump has called for the “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
Internment camps? Trump cites the FDR precedent: Italians, Germans, and Japanese “couldn’t go five miles from their homes. They weren’t allowed to use radios, flashlights. I mean, you know, take a look at what FDR did many years ago and he’s one of the most highly respected presidents.”
Rounding up millions of people? He'll create a "deportation force" to hunt down and remove 11 million illegal immigrants.
Killing wives and children? That too. “When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families.”
This litany of ideas has finally prompted mainstream recognition of the incredibly obvious: If Donald Trump has an ideology, it is best described as fascism.
Even Republican commentators, worried that he might be unstoppable, are saying it now. Military historian and Marco Rubio adviser Max Boot tweeted that “Trump is a fascist. And that’s not a term I use loosely or often. But he’s earned it.” Bush adviser John Noonan said the same.
The mainstream press is more overt. CNN’s Chris Cuomo asked Trump point blank if he is a fascist. The Atlantic writes: “It’s hard to remember a time when a supposedly mainstream candidate had no interest in differentiating ideas he’s endorsed from those of the Nazis.”
There is a feeling of shock in the air, but anyone paying attention should have seen this last summer. Why did it take so long for the consciousness to dawn?
The word fascism has been used too often in political discourse, and almost always imprecisely. 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 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. It doesn’t mean much more than that.
Then in the 1990s came Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 100 percent.” 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 the term fascism 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. It is a movement that still exists today, because the conditions that gave rise to it are unchanged.
The whole burden of one of the most famous pro-freedom books of the century — Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom — was to warn that fascism was a more immediate and pressing danger to the developed world than Russian-style socialism. And this is for a reason: Hayek said that “brown” fascism did not represent a polar opposite of “red” socialism. In the interwar period, it was common to see both intellectuals and politicians move fluidly from one to the other.
“The rise of Fascism and Nazism was not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period,” wrote Hayek, “but a necessary outcome of those tendencies.”
In Hayek’s reading, the dynamic works like this. The socialists build the state machinery, but their plans fail. A crisis arrives. The population seeks answers. Politicians claiming to be anti-socialist step up with new authoritarian plans that purport to reverse the problem. Their populist appeal taps into the lowest political instincts (nativism, racism, religious bigotry, and so on) and promises a new order of things under better, more efficient rule.
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 a plant 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 only he can become the purest sort of dictator, with no quid pro quos to tie him down. (My article on this topic is here.)
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 plans beyond putting himself in charge — not only of the government but, 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 — both a reaction to the far left and a fulfillment of its centralist ambitions.
The key to understanding fascism is this: It preserves the despotic ambitions of socialism while removing its most politically unpopular elements. In an atmosphere of fear and loathing, 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’sarticle in the New York Times. As he explains, Trump displays as least seven 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 other American politicians who have been called fascist, writes Douthat. George Wallace was a local-rights guy and hated Washington, whereas Trump loves power and thinks only in terms of centralization. Pat Buchanan’s extreme 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. And, for all his nonsense about jobs going to Mexico, Perot generally avoided racialist dog whistles.
Why Now and Not Before?
Why has genuine fascism been kept at bay in America? Why has the American right never taken the final 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.
Douthat 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. Classical liberalism has universalist longings, embodied in its defenses 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 deep and bizarre 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. And good for Ron Paul for denouncing Trump’s authoritarianism 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. Even so, income growth has stagnated, middle-class social ambitions are frustrated, and many aspects of government services are failing (such as Obamacare). Add fear of terrorism to the mix, and the conditions, at least for some, are nearly right. What Trumpism represents is an attempt to address these problems through more of the same means that have failed in the past.
It’s time to dust off that copy of The Road to Serfdom and realize that the biggest threats to liberty come from unexpected places. While the rank and file are worrying themselves about the influence of progressive professors and group identity politics, they need to open their eyes to the possibility that the gravest threat to American rights and liberties exists within their own ranks.
If you want to understand more about fascism and its history, see this chapter from John T. Flynn’s As We Go Marching.