Whether Donald Trump is a full-fledged fascist or “merely” a proto-fascist depends on which historian’s definition of fascism you prefer. Part six of a series.
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Fascism according to Robert Paxton
In his 2004 book, “The Anatomy of Fascism,” historian Robert Paxton defines fascism as follows:
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. (from Wikipedia)
Trump has tapped into a “preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood” in the American middle class, especially white, blue-collar workers. Trump and his vice-presidential candidate, Mike Pence, are building a movement of purity that rolls back gay marriage and claims to promote “traditional” American and Christian values, but it’s as yet unclear whether this “compensatory cult” will be one of unity and energy as described by Paxton.
Trump’s views are clearly nationalistic, and there appears to be an unofficial militia made up of Trump supporters called the Lion Guard that supposedly organized in order to protect Trump supporters from leftist protestors (their Twitter feed had approximately 1,300 followers as of July 16, 2016, although there are no new posts at the website since mid-July). In addition, so-called patriot groups and militias are generally supportive of Trump, and there’s a nascent Trump Youth movement. However, as of today Trump does not have an official militia.Ever since Trump clinched the Republican nomination, we’ve seen how he and his supporters have begun to work “in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites.” And Trump’s anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim rhetoric is a call for “internal cleansing” (aka ethnic cleansing, a crime against humanity). Trump’s rhetoric has also provoked violence against Latinos and Muslims.
Finally, Trump has called for tighter restrictions on journalism and free speech and has indicated a willingness to require values tests on Muslim immigrants.
So while Trump doesn’t yet meet all of Paxton’s criteria, he meets many of them and appears to be trending in the direction of the others. And in fact, Paxton himself has said that there are “echoes” of fascism in Trump’s use of ethnic stereotypes, his exploitation of people’s fear of outsiders, his presentation style, and his skill at manipulating the media. But as of Slate’s February interview (linked above), Paxton didn’t think Trump was an actual fascist. At the time Paxton viewed Trump and his supporters as “ultra-individualists” rather than anti-individualists and Paxton felt that the economic situation in the US today was too good to create an authentic fascist movement. Individualism at the top of a hierarchy doesn’t preclude authoritarianism, however – it’s more that individualism is great for the Leader, but it’s bad for everyone else. And it’s clear that the white working class are afraid for their economic situations – it’s one of the reasons Trump’s supporters support him.In March, Paxton was interviewed by DemocracyNow about whether or not Trump was a fascist. From February to March, Paxton’s views on Trump changed some. While Paxton still felt that there were “great differences between Trump and fascism,” Paxton also said that Trump shows “a rather alarming willingness to use fascist themes and fascist styles.” And Paxton worried that Trump “would indeed take some kind of nonconstitutional action [in the event of a deadlock with Congress], and people would be afraid to say no.” But Paxton thought that the lack of a blackshirted militia fighting “in the streets” kept Trump and his movement from being actual fascism.
If Paxton is worried that Trump might take “nonconstitutional action,” and if he sees Trump using fascist themes and styles, then it seems like Paxton may be suggesting that Trump is very nearly a fascist without saying so outright.
In 1998, Paxton wrote an article titled the “Five Stages of Fascism” in which he identified five stages that fascism moves through as it matures (or, in most cases, doesn’t). The five stages are
(1) the initial creation of fascist movements; (2) their rooting as parties in a political system; (3) the acquisition of power; (4) the exercise of power, and, finally, in the longer term, (5) radicalization or entropy.
Paxton writes that Stage One fascist movements can arise “wherever democracy is sufficiently implanted to have aroused disillusion,” and that a wide variety of ideologies have the potential to become proto-fascist movements. He points out that there are at least two prior examples of similar movements in the US already – the KKK in the post-Civil War South and the Silver Shirts of William Dudley Pelley. And as for people who claim that the United States should be immune to the ravages of fascism, Paxton has this to say:
Paxton points out, however, that while proto-fascist movements are relatively common, few last enough to transition to Stage Two. He writes that those that do successfully transition all have similar national conditions:
Since fascisms take their first steps in reaction to claimed failings of democracy, it is not surprising that they should appear first in the most precocious democracies, the United States and France (emphasis added)
the weakness of a liberal state, whose inadequacies seems to condemn the nation to disorder, decline, or humiliation; and political deadlock because the Right, the heir to power but unable to continue to wield it alone, refuses to accept a growing Left as a legitimate governing partner.
This describes state of the US federal government ever Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” and government dysfunction has become especially apparent since Barack Obama’s took office and the Republican Party decided to oppose nearly everything Obama wanted to accomplish.
This means that Trump, who meets enough of Paxton’s criteria to qualify as a Stage One proto-fascist, has taken the reins of a Republican Party at the exact moment when conditions are ripe for him and his most fervent supporters to transition into Stage Two.
And if Trump wins the presidency of the United States, he will have progressed into Stage Two – rooting the movement in a political system – and will be well started on Stage Three – the acquisition of power, specifically by way of cooperation with the traditional elites. After all, most of the traditional Republicans who failed to defeat Trump have slowly come around to support him.
Finally, Paxton points out that, so far, fascists haven’t come to power via a coup d’etat, because coups alienate the very elites that fascists need in order to actually acquire and then retain political power. He writes that both Hitler and Mussolini were “invited to take office as head of government” by conservative heads of state who saw an alliance with the fascists as a way to stop the growing power of the Left.
Given how closely Trump matches up with Paxton’s definition of fascism, there’s little question that Trump and his most fervent supporters meet the definition of a Stage One proto-fascist movement.
Paxton has one last important thing to say about the stages of fascism:
The right questions to ask of today’s neo- or protofascisms are those appropriate for the second and third stages of the fascist cycle. Are they becoming rooted as parties that represent major interests and feelings and wield major influence on the political scene? Is the economic or constitutional system in a state of blockage apparently insoluble by existing authorities? Is a rapid political mobilization threatening to escape the control of traditional elites, to the point where they would be tempted to look for tough helpers in order to stay in charge? It is by answering those kinds of questions… that we may be able to recognize our own day’s functional equivalents of fascism.
If we answer those questions with respect to Trump, the answers are clearly yes, yes, and yes. In other words, Trump and his fervent supporters have the opportunity to transition from a Paxton-defined proto-fascism to full-fledged fascism if they are not stopped.
Part Seven – Fascism according to Umberto Eco – will be published tomorrow morning.