Whether Donald Trump is a full-fledged fascist or “merely” a proto-fascist depends on which historian’s definition of fascism you prefer. Part five of a series.
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Fascism according to Emilio Gentile
Gentile is an Italian historian who considers fascism to be a form of political religion. The ten characteristics of fascism that he has identified apply to movements rather than individuals, so it’s difficult to apply them to any single individual like Donald Trump. In addition, most of Gentile’s characteristics have multiple sub-elements, making a determination of whether or not an individual qualifies as a fascist even more complicated. And several of his characteristics only apply after a fascist movement has taken power.
Given these complications, it’s reasonable to expect that comparing Trump to Gentile’s list of characteristics will result in fewer strong matches to Trump’s policy statements and a lower confidence in any conclusions we draw from Gentile’s characteristics.
The first characteristic identified by Gentile says that fascism is
a mass movement with multiclass membership in which prevail… the middle sectors, in large part new to political activity, organized as a party militia, that bases its identity not on social hierarchy or class origin but on a sense of comradeship, believes itself invested with a mission of national regeneration, considers itself in a state of war against political adversaries and aims at conquering a monopoly of political power by using terror, parliamentary politics, and deals with leading groups, to create a new regime that destroys parliamentary democracy;
While Trump himself comes from the wealthy elite, his message appeals most strongly to people with less education, moderate incomes, feelings of having been ignored by politicians and lacking a voice in politics, and comfort with a leader who is “willing to break some rules” to get things done. But while his supporters are largely new to political activism, Trump has not yet organized them into something resembling a party militia. Similarly, he has not yet called for his supporters to use violence in order to aid his rise to power.
Trump does want to “make America great again” by preventing immigrants from changing American society and by returning America to a mythical version of the 1950s (if not earlier) when whites and Christians ruled the country and minorities knew their place. In his bid to regenerate America, Trump is dealing with traditional conservatives like mining executives and churches in his Presidential run. And if Trump loses the election, then we may see the more violent side of his supporters if they rebel against an election they consider “rigged.” Such a rebellion might well run the risk of destroying our democracy.
Gentile’s second characteristic calls fascism
It’s not accurate to call Trump antimaterialist, anti-individualist, or anticapitalist, but he certainly qualifies as antiliberal, antidemocratic, and anti-Marxist. He’s a populist who “expresses [himself] aesthetically more than theoretically by means of a new political style.” He’s relying on a mythology of American exceptionalism, but to date he hasn’t created any new rites or symbols in order to transformhis supporters into a new lay religion. And there’s no indication that Trump is trying to “integrate the faith of the masses” in order to create a “new man.”
an ‘anti-ideological’ and pragmatic ideology that proclaims itself antimaterialist, anti-individualist, antiliberal, antidemocratic, anti-Marxist, is populist and anticapitalist in tendency, expresses itself aesthetically more than theoretically by means of a new political style and by myths, rites, and symbols as a lay religion designed to acculturate, socialize, and integrate the faith of the masses with the goal of creating a ‘new man’.
Gentile’s third characteristic says that fascism is
a culture founded on mystical thought and the tragic and activist sense of life conceived of as the manifestation of the will to power, on the myth of youth as artificer of history, and on the exaltation of the militarization of politics as the model of life and collective activity.
There is no indication that Trump’s thoughts are mystical – imbued with spiritual mystery, awe, and fascination. But his language is evocative of the will to power, and his history of not paying people and of repeatedly filing for bankruptcy to avoid paying his debts indicate that he’s comfortable with inflicting his will upon others.
To date, Trump’s appeal has been the greatest among the middle-aged and older, and there are new indications that American youths are overwhelmingly against Trump. This means that Trump hasn’t tried to make youths the creators of a new American history. And thus far Trump has not called for the militarization of politics and society in general.
Gentile’s fourth characteristic says that fascism has
As of the Republican National Convention, Trump had directed a significant percentage of his political spending to businesses he owns, and he has not yet divested himself from his substantial business interests, creating multiple conflicts of interest. However, this has the appearance of a totalitarian conception of the primacy of business, rather than of politics.
a totalitarian conception of the primacy of politics, conceived of as an integrating experience to carry out the fusion of the individual and the masses in the organic and mystical unity of the nation as an ethnic and moral community, adopting measures of discrimination and persecution against those considered to be outside this community either as enemies of the regime or members of races considered to be inferior or otherwise dangerous for the integrity of the nation.
Similarly, Trump doesn’t seem to care about fusing the individual with the masses into some kind of nationalistic organism. But his comments on Americanism indicate that he does want to unify the nation as an “ethnic and moral community” and he has shown a willingness to discriminate and to call for the persecution of people outside his defined community, with Mexicans and Muslims being his favored targets. And Trump’s attacks on both groups have defined them as enemies (Muslims = terrorists, Mexicans = criminals) and as inferior (Muslims don’t share American values, Mexicans are stealing American jobs).
Gentile’s fifth characteristic says that fascism is
a civil ethic founded on total dedication to the national community, on discipline, virility, comradeship, and the warrior spirit
Trump’s ethos is less about dedicating himself to America and more about his own personal charisma, so it’s fair to say that his ethic has some aspect of virility and warrior spirit to it. But Trump himself has no discipline and he doesn’t seem to care much for camaraderie except among his closest and most loyal friends and advisors.
Gentile’s sixth and seventh characteristics are not applicable to any fascist movement that is not yet in power.
a single state party that has the task of providing for the armed defense of the regime, selecting its directing cadres, and organizing the masses within the state in a process of permanent mobilization of emotion and faith;
a police apparatus that prevents, controls, and represses dissidence and opposition, even by using organized terror.
Trump has made no statements that he would put the US armed forces under control of the Republican Party, or that he wants the Party to take over organizing Americans. So at this point there’s no indication that Trump has any inclinations toward making the Republican Party the only American political party.
Trump has declared himself a “law and order” candidate, and he’s been endorsed by members of the US Border Patrol union. But until such time as the police engage in overt repression on behalf of Trump himself, Trump won’t match this characteristic either.
Gentile’s eighth characteristic of fascism says that fascism is
a political system organized by hierarchy of functions named from the top and crowned by the figure of the ‘leader,’ invested with a sacred charisma, who commands, directs, and coordinates the activities of the party and the regime.
Trump matches several aspects of this characteristic quite well. He’s a demagogue “leader” who has a significant amount of personal charisma. His political operation is controlled personally by Trump, who often ignores the advice of his political subordinates. It’s too early to say if he’ll personally coordinate the actions of the Republican Party in an authoritarian manner, but given Trump is generally authoritarian, it’s quite likely. And with Trump’s apparent willingness to consider eliminating entire Executive departments and purge Obama appointees from government service, he might be willing to reorganize the entire government to give him more personal control. But it’s too early to be sure at this point.
Gentile’s ninth characteristic of fascism is the
Trump is anti-union at his properties. He has called for greater government intervention in people’s lives, from demanding loyalty oaths from Muslims to reauthorizing the PATRIOT Act and NSA wiretaps to rejecting net neutrality. It’s not clear that he wants to use technology and solidarity to unify the economy under Republican control, but he does have a strong vested interest in preserving private property and class divisions. After all, as a billionaire and leader, he needs people to bully and those people need others to bully, and so on down to whomever Trump defines as the bottom – like a disabled journalist, perhaps.
corporative organization of the economy that suppresses trade union liberty, broadens the sphere of state intervention, and seeks to achieve, by principles of technocracy and solidarity, the collaboration of the ‘productive sectors’ under control of the regime, to achieve its goals of power, yet preserving private property and class divisions.
The tenth and last characteristic of fascism as defined by Gentile is
a foreign policy inspired by the myth of national power and greatness, with the goal of imperialist expansion.
Trump has called for “Americanism, not globalism.” There are rumors that he’s asked why he shouldn’t use nuclear weapons on our enemies. Trump has said he might not honor the US’ NATO commitments in the event an ally was attacked. He’s OK with torturing the US’ enemies even though information gained via torture is unreliable. He wants to renegotiate trade deals to ensure that the terms are always in the US’ favor, not merely fair for everyone. So his foreign policy is inspired by nationalism, but at this point there’s no indication that it will be inspired by imperialism as well.
Of these ten characteristics, Trump closely matches only two, partially matches four, and doesn’t match the remaining four much at all. If Gentile’s characteristics were the only way to define fascism, Trump would not be a full-fledged fascist. He might not even be a proto-fascist.
The problem with Gentile’s characteristics is that they focus mostly on ideology and what happens during and after a fascist movement takes power. But fascist ideology is famously mutable, and if fascists can only be identified after they’re in power, then the characteristics aren’t useful for identifying fascism before it takes hold in the first place.
Part Six – Fascism according to Robert Paxton – will be published this afternoon.