Donald Trump, his Administration, and the Republican Party have become fascist according to four multiple historians’ definitions. Part one of three.
For links to other writings on American fascism, please click here. For the other parts of this series, click here.
In 2016, then candidate Donald Trump’s demagoguery, use of propaganda, attacks on women, minorities, the poor, and the disabled, as well as his stated policy aims all added up in my mind to something very dangerous. I’d studied Fascism and Nazism in my junior year of college and there were too many uncomfortable parallels between what I was seeing in Trump and what I’d learned then and in my occasional studies of the subject since.
So I sat down to determine whether or not Trump was a fascist, a proto-fascist, or not a fascist at all. In the course of my research I came across many Marxist definitions of fascism but also five definitions by non-Marxist historians and one by an Italian intellectual who had grown up in Fascist Italy. So I took those definitions, added what I’d learned from my studies, and compared Trump to those seven different definitions.
What I found was disturbing. This list was the summary of my findings in 2016:
- Derived from “The History of Fascism and Nazism” class, spring 1994. Conclusion: Trump is almost certainly a full fascist
- Fascism according to Stanley G. Payne’s 13 characteristics. Conclusion: Trump is probably not a proto-fascist
- Fascism according to Roger Griffin’s “fascist minimum” definition. Conclusion: Trump is almost certainly a proto-fascist and probably a full fascist
- Fascism according to Kevin Passmore’s definition. Conclusion: Trump is probably a proto-fascist
- Fascism according to Emilio Gentile’s ten characteristics. Conclusion: Trump is probably not a proto-fascist
- Fascism according to Robert Paxton’s definition. Conclusion: Trump is almost certainly a proto-fascist and is on a path to become a full fascist if he can take power and retain it
- Fascism according to Umberto Eco’s 14 characteristics of Ur-Fascism. Conclusion: Trump is very likely a fascist
I ultimately discounted Payne’s and Gentile’s findings for two reasons. First, their definitions apply to groups of people rather than individuals. Second, Trump’s ideology was unclear at the time and fascist ideology is notoriously flexible. And as a result, I concluded that Trump was definitely a proto-fascist and probably a fascist.
But there was always a chance that I was wrong. Several people whom I respect claimed I was wrong, others pointed out some flaws in my approach, and some people who claimed to know the history of fascism and Nazism better than me claimed I was reading too much into things. I disagreed, but at the same time I hoped I was wrong. No-one wants to be correct about the rise of fascism in their country.
It’s now 2020 and the next election is less than 40 days away. As a result, we need to ask the question yet again: Is Donald Trump a fascist? This time, though, we can also ask whether or not his Administration has been a fascist one. And we have an opportunity to ask the same thing of the Republican Party that Trump has reshaped to match his own ideology.
If Trump is a fascist, then it is existentially critical that he not win another four years. The history of fascism worldwide shows what damage fascists can and will do to their own people, and a fascist United States of America would be a threat not just to her own people but to the entire world.
And if Trump is a fascist, then he would match more of the historians’ definitions of fascism, and more of the characteristics of each definition, today than he did back in 2016.
Author’s note: Due to time constraints, in most instances I have relied on recent news (the last month or two) in order to not need to provide links. Trump’s own words and the recent action of his Administration are generally enough to provide examples of whatever characteristic I’m analyzing at the time. However, between July 1, 2017 and December 31, 2019 I collected thousands of different news stories that provide overwhelming evidence of each and every claim. The database is available at this link for anyone interested in diving deeper.
Characteristics of fascism as I learned them in 1994
Is the Trump Administration fascist according to what I learned in my college Fascism and Nazism class in 1994? Without question. The following is a summary of the main characteristics of fascism as I learned them in 1994, as taken from my 2016 post Donald Trump is a fascist, Part One.
Fascism is characterized by authoritarianism, nationalism, xenophobia, racism (but not always based exclusively on skin color), supporting and using violence for political gain, and blaming others for your own failures. It occurs in an environment of long-term unemployment, broader economic malaise, fear, and after years of political indoctrination.
Let’s look at the Trump Administration and see if they match the characteristics I learned in 1994.
- Authoritarianism: Trump has said the Constitution lets him do anything he wants, and his Attorney General thinks so too. Trump ignores the Constitution’s separation of powers. There is no question Trump is authoritarian.
- Nationalism: “Make America Great Again.” Attacking people who kneel during The Star Spangled Banner. Touting American Exceptionalism. Also no question Trump and his Administration are nationalists.
- Xenophobia: Remember family separations and kids in cages? MS-13 and how Mexicans were supposedly coming to rape and murder Americans? And now forced hysterectomies of women in private prisons? Xenophobia is definitely part of the Trump Administration.
- Racism: Demands that black athletes be fired for kneeling during The Star Spangled Banner. Cuts to equal housing loans. Attacks on the Affordable Care Act that disproportionately affect minority women. And let’s not forget the fact that Trump’s own cabinet and advisors are overwhelmingly white themselves. Definitely racist.
- Using/supporting violence for political gain: Portland. Kenosha. Deploying the Customs and Border Patrol’s racist SWAT unit to Democratic cities. Calling for extrajudicial murders of protesters. To say nothing of support for militia intimidation tactics and threatening to not accept the outcome of the election if he loses.
- Blaming others for your own problems: Trump blames Democrats so much he’s claiming he should get more than just two terms, against the Constitution. “I take no responsibility.”
Now for the environmental factors.
- An environment of economic malaise: By the end of the Bush years we were in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. And now we’re dealing with the economic fallout of the worst pandemic since the Spanish Flu of 1918. Definitely.
- An environment with long term unemployment: Unemployment was high when President Obama took office, but fell steadily after programs were put into place. The problem is that the gains were not equally spread across the country, and rural areas where Trump’s support was strongest saw the weakest job gains.
- An environment stoked by fear: InfoWars conspiracy theories. Black helicopters. New World Order. Fox News. “They’re coming for your guns!” Now QAnon and the rise of The New Protocols of the Elders of Zion, revised edition for 2020. Fear as far as the eye can see, and arguably going back to the mass insanity of the US people after 9/11.
- After years of political indoctrination: Fox News. Rush Limbaugh. The dissolution of the public interest standard by Ronald Reagan. Grover Norquist. 40 years of the Heritage Institute, The Hoover Institution, the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and every other Koch, Scaife, Dunn, and Mellon-funded “conservative” think tank out there. And the indoctrination continues.
No question about it – Donald Trump and his Administration are fascist according to what I learned in 1994. For my original review from 2016, click the link above. For my 2018 update, click here.
But let’s look at definitions of fascism by historians rather than by a class I took 26 years ago.
Fascism according to historian Stanley G. Payne’s definition
Payne breaks down fascism into 13 separate characteristics that fall into three main categories – fascist ideology and goals, the fascist negations, and fascist style and organization. In my 2016 assessment, I found that Trump was “only” a proto-fascist according to Payne’s definition because Trump only matched a seven of Payne’s 13 characteristics, partially matched four more, and didn’t match the remaining two. But in my 2018 reassessment, I found that Trump had shifted noticeably toward actual fascism and matched nine characteristics and partially matched four.
What about today?
Fascist ideology and goals
Five of Payne’s characteristics fit into this category
- Espousal of an idealist, vitalist, and voluntaristic philosophy, normally involving the attempt to realize a new modern, self-determined, and secular culture: Trump has gone out of his way to support versions of Christianity, especially evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity, which generally oppose scientific explanations for human life and consciousness, has spent his term removing restrictions from corporations and billionaires and letting them do whatever they want, and talking up the ideal of American exceptionalism. Add this to removing self-imposed limitations on US international behavior and adherence to international norms to “Make America Great Again,” and there’s no question that Trump and his Administration match this characteristic today as they did in 2018 (but only partially matched in 2016).
- Creation of a new nationalist authoritarian state not based on traditional principles or models: As I pointed out in 2018, Trump and his Administration appear to be creating a libertarian, plutocratic, nationalist state, which would definitely not fit any traditional models. And in the process Trump has turned so-called libertarians into willing foot soldiers for an authoritarian government. Trump also values personal loyalty over competence and undercuts his Cabinet and any experts whenever he feels like doing so. Trump has matched this characteristic since 2016.
- Organization of a new highly regulated, multiclass, integrated national economic structure, whether called national corporatist, national socialist, or national syndicalist: While Trump has been deregulating industries since he took office in 2017, he has also been rewarding companies and industries who do his bidding while punishing those who do not. As a result, we’re seeing the slow erosion of corporate independence and the emergence of a national corporatist system whereby the economy is organized and regulated by corporations that swear allegiance, either explicitly or implicitly, to Trump and his Administration. Trump didn’t match this characteristic in 2016, partially matched it in 2018, and still partially matches it today. [For reference, the Italian Fascists were national corporatists, the Nazis were national socialist, and the French and Spanish fascists were national syndicalist.]
- Positive evaluation and use of, or willingness to use violence and war: Trump and his Administration have been calling for violence to be used against protesters. There was no apparent attempt by law enforcement to arrest a murder suspect in Oregon and Trump called it “retribution” for the alleged murder of a white supremacist Patriot Prayer member. Trump has approved of militias intimidating protesters with open-carry firearms and called for police to be rough on criminals up to and including actions that cause permanent harm and death. Trump has matched this since 2016.
- The goal of empire, expansion, or a radical change in the nation’s relationship with other powers: There remains no indication that Trump wants an American empire (although maintaining the current de-facto empire is a different question), but he’s been radically changing the US’ relationship with other nations since 2016. For example, withdrawing from the WHO, attacking NATO allies, pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accord, threatening Iran with being “ended,” pulling the US military out of Syria and allowing ISIS prisoners to go free as a result, and so on. Trump and his Administration have matched this characteristic since 2016.
All told, Trump and his Administration stand today where they did in 2018 – full matches against four of five characteristics and a partial (but growing) match to the fifth.
The fascist negations
Three characteristics fall into what Payne called fascist “negations,” or the things that fascism specifically opposes.
- Antiliberalism: Anti-environmentalism. Attacks on minorities. Radical limitations on immigration and immigrants. Re-banning transgender people from serving in the military. Too many attacks on the media to count. Rejecting many of the First Amendment’s protections while touting the Second’s. And on and on. Trump clearly matched this characteristic in 2016 and the evidence to support that match has grown massively since.
- Anticommunism: Not only does Trump and his Administration regularly attack anything that involves a public good as “socialism” (even things that are clearly not socialist in any way) but the Administration’s policies also attack public goods. Repeated attacks on the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). Overturning equal pay regulations. Requiring pooling of tips to benefit restaurant and bar owners. Allowing states to impose mandatory work requirements for Medicare, Medicaid, and food assistance. Proposing the permanent elimination of payroll taxes that would end Social Security entirely within five years. This characteristic has been a strong match since 2016.
- Anticonservatism (though with the understanding that fascist groups were willing to undertake temporary alliances with other sectors, more commonly with the right): Paying lip service to coal miners (while supporting coal CEOs who kill miners) and nuclear weapons technicians. Attacks on warfighters as “losers” and “suckers.” Canceling the DACA program arbitrarily and capriciously even though punishing children isn’t usually a conservative value. Trump matched this in 2016, had flagged off it a little in 2018, but now matches it strongly again.
Trump and his Administration have matched all three characteristics since 2016 and that remains unchanged today.
Fascist style and organization
The last five characteristics fall into style and organization.
- Attempted mass mobilization with militarization of political relationships and style and with the goal of a mass single party militia: Trump and his Administration have called for his supporters to watch voting sites and to challenge anyone they think might be voting illegally. Health and Human Services communications director Caputo called on Trump’s supporters to buy ammunition in preparation for an armed insurrection to keep Trump in power. And while Trump hasn’t outright called for bringing militias under party control, he’s inciting them into targeting liberal protesters and several people have already died around the nation as a result of it. Trump did not match this characteristic in 2016, only partly matched it in 2018, but matches it completely now.
- Emphasis on aesthetic structure of meetings, symbols, and political liturgy, stressing emotional and mystical aspects: Trump had “challenge coins” made for supporters. MAGA caps and shirts. Non-stop campaign-style rallies since 2017 that were paid for by his campaign so he didn’t have to let the public or out-of-favor media outlets attend. Trump has even claimed that a nearly all white crowd of Wisconsinites had “good genes,” echoing the Aryan eugenics of the Nazis. While Trump partially matched this characteristic in 2016, he matched it fully in 2018 and has matched it even more strongly since.
- Extreme stress on the masculine principle and male dominance, while espousing a strongly organic view of society: Trump surrounds himself with male advisors. He regularly denigrates women in general and intelligent, powerful women in particular. He views himself as an “alpha” male and has inspired incels and men’s rights groups since 2016 at least. And his administration has turned its back on sexual assault victims in favor of male assaulters. But to date I haven’t heard Trump compare the United States to an organism, where, for example, immigrants are a cancer and militias are the cure. As such Trump and his Administration only partly match this characteristic.
- Exaltation of youth above other phases of life, emphasizing the conflict of the generations, at least in effecting the initial political transformation: Trump defended the 17-year old Kenosha shooter. White supremacists and “western chauvinist” groups composed largely of younger men are strong supporters of Trump and his racist policies and were even before Trump’s show of support after Charlottesville. His appeal remains primarily to older white men, but younger white men have been drawn to him and his bellicose rhetoric for a while now. While he only partially met this characteristic in 2016 and 2018, I think recent events have moved it just over the threshold into a full match.
- Specific tendency toward an authoritarian, charismatic, personal style of command, whether or not the command is to some degree initially elective: Trump claims to have all the decision-making authority in the government, and he demands personal loyalty to him rather than to the United States of America. He continues to claim that only he can solve America’s problems even as he refuses to take responsibility for them. He has repeatedly tried to have the Department of Justice and the FBI target his political opponents and, because they would not do so, he went around the State Department in an attempt to coerce Ukraine into attacking Joe Biden and was impeached for his troubles. There is not now, nor has there ever been, any question that Trump matches this characteristic.
All in all, Trump now matches four of the five style and organization characteristics and partially matches the fifth.
Out of Payne’s 13 separate characteristics, Trump now matches 11 and partially matches two more. This is an increase from 2018 when he only matched nine and partially matched four. This means that Trump’s march toward fascism according to Payne’s definition is essentially complete.
Fascism according to historian Roger Griffin’s definition
Roger Griffin’s definition is the kind of definition that only a historian could love. It’s an attempt to use the fewest number of words to define the minimum set of characteristics required for a movement to be fascist. The problem is that it uses highly specialized language in order to do so, and those specific terms need to be defined for your average person to understand the definition.
So here’s Griffin’s definition:
Fascism is a political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra nationalism.
And here are the explanations I generated for each of the critical pieces of the definition back in 2016.
“Palingenetic” as it applies to politics literally means a national rebirth, but Griffin writes that this is not a “restoration of what has been,” but rather a “‘new birth’ which retains certain eternal principles (e.g. ‘eternal’ Roman, Aryan, or Anglo-Saxon virtues) in a new, modern type of society.”
Plutocracy (rule by the wealthy) is nothing new. Neither is right-wing radical evangelical Christianity. Nor is libertarianism. And nationalism has been around for a long time. But the fusion of them into a new vision of America is new, even as Trump and his Administration claim that it’s what the Framers intended. It’s an America where wealth is a sign that God loves you and poverty is proof of sinfulness. An America where ultimate power is vested in the President and all other sources of power (including the supposedly co-equal branches of the Congress and the Supreme Court and the co-equal state governments) should show obeisance to the Presidency (and specifically Trump). And an America that believes that, if America does it, it must be moral because we’re America.
Griffin defines “populist” as a “regenerated national or ethnic community” that is “conceived in a profoundly anti-egalitarian spirit,” where “a vanguard is necessary to undertake the heroic task of spreading the vision and seizing power” in order to wake up “the People,” cleanse society of “alien” influences, and overturn “decadence.”
Trump has flat out said that only he can save America from a scourge of “illegal” immigrants and the “socialism” of Democrats who want to destroy America and take everyone’s guns. His appeal is blatantly racist and he’s willing to overlook the conspiracy theories of his supporters if they support him (looking at QAnon’s revamped antisemitic blood libel here). He is literally calling on supporters to intimidate opposing voters into not voting in order to help him retain power.
Ultra-nationalism, as Griffin defines it, is “not just an overtly anti-liberal, anti-parliamentary form of nationalism” but a form of nationalism that also includes “the vast range of ethnocentrisms which arise from the intrinsic ambiguities of the concept ‘nation’” and the many ways that “racism can express itself as a rationalized form of xenophobia.”
Overtly anti-liberal? Check. Overtly anti-parliamentary (attacks and ignores Congress)? Check. Racist? Check. Xenophobia? Check.
Even though Griffin himself didn’t consider Trump a fascist in May 2016, by August 2016 when I did my assessment it was clear that Trump met all of Griffin’s criteria. Trump met them even more strongly by 2018, and even more so today.
Fascism according to historian Kevin Passmore’s definition
Historian Kevin Passmore’s definition comes from his book “Fascism – a very short introduction,” and as such it’s quite friendly to non-historians. The definition can be found here.
- Fascism is a set of ideologies and practices that seeks to place the nation… above all other sources of loyalty: Since 2018, Trump and his followers have regularly attacked the media and liberals/leftists as being unAmerican just for not being supporters. Even Trump supporters who claim to be nominally Christian go so far as to support blatantly unChristian policies as family separation, putting immigrants in concentration camps, and denying healthcare to the poor. And at this point Trump defines personal loyalty to him as equivalent to loyalty to America – and his followers agree. This criteria has been matched since 2016 and remains so today.
- [The nation is] defined in exclusive biological, cultural, and/or historical terms: Christian (but not Muslim, Hindu, maybe Catholic, and certainly not atheist). White. A belief in American exceptionalism and perpetual morality. Holding a belief that cultures based on European colonialism are inherently better than whatever indigenous cultures existed. Those are the characteristics of the nation being defined by Trump and his Administration. This criteria has also been matched since 2016.
- [Fascism seeks] to create a mobilized national community: Beyond Trump’s support for the military, he has poured money into turning ICE and the Border Patrol into his own personal alternative military. He and his Administration have called on people to be ready to fight in the streets with guns around the election. He has fortificed the White House and used unidentified federal agents to suppress dissent in Washington D.C. So while he only partially matched this criteria in 2016 and 2018, he fully matches it today.
- Fascist nationalism is reactionary in that it entails implacable hostility to socialism and feminism, for they are seen as prioritizing class or gender rather than nation: Trump and his Administration are not only attacking “socialism” and women in tweets and statements, they’re also trying to destroy Social Security, cut Medicare and Medicaid, shrink food assistance, roll back women’s health care, and there have even been reports of forced sterilizations of immigrant women by private prisons. Trump matched this criteria in 2016 and 2018 and continues to match it today.
- [For fascism,] the defeat of socialism and feminism and the creation of the mobilized nation are held to depend upon the advent to power of a new elite acting in the name of the people: In many respects, the new elites are similar to the old rural Confederate plantation owners, but since Trump has made racism and white supremacy acceptable again, they’re coming out of hiding to overtly take political power. Fundamentalist evangelical Christians, “conservative” billionaires and multi-millionaires, rural whites who believe that they have been ignored (in some cases with good reason) by the liberal elites in the cities, and anti-government libertarians and sovereign citizens, all allied together. And again, this criteria has matched Trump and his followers since 2016.
- [The] new elite [will be] headed by a charismatic leader: I’ve already addressed this one above. Trump has matched this criteria since 2016.
- [The] new elite [will be] embodied in a mass, militarized party: As I’ve mentioned previously, Trump is collecting disparate militias under his banner, and while he hasn’t explicitly turned them into a party militia, he and members of his Administration are certainly inspiring movements in that direction. This criteria wasn’t matched in 2016, partially matched in 2018, but is a full match today.
- [Fascists] are prepared to override conservative interests – family, property, religion, the universities, the civil service – where the interests of the nation are considered to require it. Fascist radicalism also derives from a desire to assuage discontent by accepting specific demands of the labour and women’s movements, so long as these demands accord with the national priority.: Trump initially bowed to religious interests and claimed to stop family separations, but six months after the practice was officially ended the number of children who had been separated had still increased, just quietly. Eminent domain is usually hated by conservatives, but the Trump Administration has used it many times to acquire land on which to build his border wall. And federalism is only acceptable when it benefits friendly Republican-run states, and it’s regularly ignored when the Trump Administration can use it to harm Democratic-run states. The Administration also supported reduced drug prices because it served the national interest more than it served the interests of drug makers, and the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement includes labor protections for Mexican factories (long a goal of labor organizations) because it makes Mexican labor more expensive. The Trump Administration and Trump himself have matched this criteria since 2016.
- Access to these organizations and to the benefits they confer upon members depends on the individual’s national, political, and/or racial characteristics.: Administration policies like tariff bailouts and tax policies have been targeted on rural, lower population states that are more likely to support Trump himself and the Republican party in general. Whites benefit more than minorities, evangelicals more than Catholics or non-Christians, the wealthy more than the middle class or the poor, and so on. And while Trump only partially matched this criteria in 2016, he fully matched it in 2018 and matches it today.
- All aspects of fascist policy are suffused with ultranationalism.: America First (which was a fascist slogan before World War II). MAGA and KAG. American flags. Attacking athletes and their supporters who won’t stand for The Star Spangled Banner. Jingoism. Withdrawing the US from the World Health Organization in the middle of a pandemic. And so on. Trump partially matched this criteria in 2016 but has fully matched it since 2018.
Put all together, Trump and his Administration fully matches nine of Passmore’s ten criteria for being a fascist and partially matches the last one. That’s a major shift toward fascism since 2016 when Trump met only six of the criteria, partially met another three, and didn’t meet one at all. And it’s even a shift since 2018 when Trump matched eight criteria and partially matched the other two.
All of the definitions we’ve reviewed so far show that Donald Trump and his Administration are just as fascist or more so in 2020 as he was in 2016. And this includes one definition – Stanley G. Payne’s – against which Trump was not fascist at all in 2016.
This is not good.
Part two will assess the three remaining definitions.
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