Donald matches more of historian Stanley G. Payne’s characteristics of fascism, 15 months into his term, than he did before the 2016 election.
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Update: Conclusion updated below
In August, 2016, I reviewed historian Stanley G. Payne’s 13 characteristics that define fascism. I found that Donald matched seven, had partial matches to four more, and failed to match two. As of April 2018, I find that Donald now matches nine of the characteristics and has partial matches to the other four.
Payne splits his characteristics up into three groups – ideology and goals, negations (things that fascism is opposed to), and style/organization. In each group, I’ll identify how I rated each characteristic in 2016, how I rate it now, and why.
Ideology and goals
Payne identified five characteristics related to fascist ideology and the goals of fascist movements. They are as follows:
- Espousal of an idealist, vitalist, and voluntaristic philosophy, normally involving the attempt to realize a new modern, self-determined, and secular culture
- Creation of a new nationalist authoritarian state not based on traditional principles or models
- Organization of a new highly regulated, multiclass, integrated national economic structure, whether called national corporatist, national socialist, or national syndicalist
- Positive evaluation and use of, or willingness to use violence and war
- The goal of empire, expansion, or a radical change in the nation’s relationship with other powers
In 2016, I noted that Donald wanted to remake the United States into an ideal that was based in American exceptionalism, but I concluded that he was missing enough aspects of Ideology #1 that he only partially matched the characteristic. Since taking office, however, we have a much better picture of Donald’s governing philosophy. He’s spent most of the last year systematically removing limitations on the ability of the US government to prevent corporations, and powerful individuals to do whatever they will (a la voluntarism). The ideal of American exceptionalism is still regularly espoused, often to the horror of our allies. Donald has been strongly pro-Christian, especially pro-evangelical Christian, which is almost definitionally “vitalist.” At the same time, his “Christian” values are those of dominionism and the prosperity gospel heresy, both of which abandon classical and traditional Christian values. Donald is clearly not trying to create a secular culture, but Payne’s first ideological characteristic doesn’t require that the cultural revival be secular, only that this is the “normal” goal. Given what we’ve seen of Donald’s governing philosophy this last year, I am now convinced he matches this characteristic.
When I first looked at Donald’s authoritarianism and nationalism before the election, I concluded that he only partially matched the second ideological characteristic. Now, with nearly a year of power under him, there’s no question in my mind that his vision of America is nationalistic, authoritarian, and based on something that the world hasn’t really tried until now – a fusion of libertarianism, authoritarianism, and plutocracy. Between July 1, 2017 and March 31, 2018, I counted 406 different examples of Donald or his Administration being authoritarian (plus another 74 explicitly fascist examples). That’s 38.1% of the 1067 examples of horrible behavior I tracked in that time period (and 45.0% when you include the fascist examples, since fascism is authoritarian by every definition). While I haven’t tracked Donald’s nationalism directly, I counted 113 examples of jingoism over that same period of time, and jingoism and ultranationalism are very similar.
My rationale for why I think Donald is trying to create a state that is simultaneously an plutocracy, libertarian, and authoritarian boils down to the following points. First, Donald’s Administration is deregulating anything and everything they can – environmental rules, banking, healthcare, etc. This pro-business, anti-regulation approach is very libertarian. Second, implacable opponents have been put in charge of certain departments (like Scott Pruitt at the EPA or Betsy DeVos at the Department of Education), which only makes sense if Donald’s goal is to totally shut those departments down. Essentially, anything that Donald doesn’t like has been targeted for elimination from the Executive Branch, which ultimately results in taking power from the federal bureaucracy and consolidating into the President directly. This is perhaps best seen in Donald’s comment that the opinion of the Secretary of State Tillerson didn’t matter – only the President’s opinion mattered. And third, the Administration has done a great deal to privilege the wealthy few over the un-affluent many. For example, Donald’s Cabinet and close advisors have an unusually large number of multi-millionaires and billionaires: DeVos (billionaire heiress), Tillerson (former ExxonMobil CEO), Treasury Secretary Mnuchin (billionaire banker and hedge fund manager), Jared Kushner (real estate mogul), Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (billionaire investor). The tax “cuts” and recent tariffs on steel and aluminum are an example of a reverse Robin Hood effect – taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich. This combination of characteristics would be new in the modern world, although it harks back to feudalism.
In 2016, I didn’t think that Donald matched enough of the aspects of Ideology #3 (a nationalized economic system) to say that he even had a partial match. He didn’t seem interested in a regulated and integrated national economic structure that had anything to do with national corporatism, national socialism, or national syndicalism. But after researching national corporatism and reviewing some things that have happened since Donald took office, I now feel that Donald and his Administration partially match this characteristic.
A national corporatist economy would be one that is organized by the government into groups by shared characteristics and shared interests. For example, all agriculture would be collected together into one group, financial services into another group, real estate into a third, “tech” into another, and so on. While the economy has been organized this way for decades, the various industries have largely self-organized this way rather than being organized into this structure.
Since Donald took office we’ve seen a tighter coupling of corporate interests to government interests, and it’s this coupling that I think partially meets the corporatist definition. For example, industries that supported Donald’s election have been favored by the Administration over industries that did not. Solar panel manufacturers favored Donald while solar installers favored Clinton. In early 2018, Donald implemented tariffs on Chinese-made solar panels – even though higher panel prices would cost more jobs in the solar installation industry than the tariffs would create at solar panel manufacturers. Net neutrality hurts US software and media companies while benefiting network delivery companies like Comcast, The software and media companies largely opposed Donald’s election, while the network delivery companies largely supported him. The response of Comcast, AT&T, Wells Fargo, and other Donald-supporting industries to the Republican tax “cut” suggests that both the federal government and industry are OK with overt influence peddling. And that indicates we’re seeing the early stages of an “integrated national economic structure.”
There was no question during the 2016 election that Donald thought that violence was good (Ideology #4). He all but incited violence against protesters at his campaign rallies several times, after all. Since he took office, Donald has demonstrated that he still positively views violence and war, although has yet to actually call for violence or start a war. Donald expanded the use of drones against terrorists in the Middle East. He has threatened war against North Korea repeatedly, including once at the United Nations itself. He refused to clearly condemn the violence of Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia. He spoke approvingly of Philippine President Duterte who has murdered his own citizens without trial (aka “extrajudicial killings”). And Donald encouraged police to be “rough” on suspected criminals. There’s not that many steps between these examples and Donald calling for his supporters to violently attack his opponents.
Donald was calling for a radical change in the United States’ relationship to other countries before the 2016 election, and his actions since taking office have been in line with this last ideological characteristic (#5). Donald has pressed for NAFTA to be changed dramatically in ways that are unfair to both Canada and Mexico. He has continued to attack China, most recently with tariffs on Chinese-assembled goods. He approved moving the US embassy to Isreal from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and when he was criticized for doing so, he threatened to cut off aid to any nation that voted in favor of the UN resolution condemning the move. Donald decertified Iran’s compliance to the Iran nuclear deal, has started turning back the clock on Cuba, and even hired uber-hawk John Bolton as National Security Advisor. And the Administration’s National Security Strategy talked of using nuclear weapons as a response to cyberattacks, breaking a decades-old self-imposed limitation on using nuclear weapons for anything but responding to a nuclear attack. There are more radical changes that Donald could make, but not without breaking alliances or starting a war.
In August 2016, Donald matched two characteristics, partially matched two more, and didn’t match the last. Today, after a year of Donald being in office, both of the partial matches have become full matches and the one non-match has become a partial match, for a total of four matches and one partial match.
Payne identified three characteristics that describe what fascism is against, called “negations.” They are as follows:
- Anticonservatism (though with the understanding that fascist groups were willing to undertake temporary alliances with other sectors, more commonly with the right)
There was no question before the election that Donald was anti-liberal, just as there’s no question now that he remains so. Donald has attacked environmental protections. He has reversed pesticide safety regulations. He or his Administration have repeatedly attacked free speech (protesting NFL players, for example), overturned discrimination protection for LGBTQ people, tried to ban transgender people from serving in the military, and proposed changing federal voting laws so that it would be harder for young people, old people, and minorities to vote. Between July 1, 2017 and March 31, 2018, I counted 100 examples of Donald or his Administration making anti-environmental statements or claims. He called for restricting civil liberties 61 times, rejected treating all people equally before the law 103 times, justified or called to relax the regulations that keep churches out of politics 36 times, opposed gay marriage 17 times, and attacked the press 72 times (which is a wild undercount, given just Trump’s “fake news” tweets). Attacks on liberal institutions and ideals are a daily occurance.
Similarly, there is no question that Donald remains as staunch an anticommunist (or anti-socialist) today as he was before the 2016 election. Donald’s tax “cuts” actually take money from the poor and middle class and redistributes it to the wealthy, and the tax plan eliminates a critical part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – the individual mandate. While the tax plan may be the best example to date, it’s hardly the only one. Donald strongly supported repealing the ACA, even if Congress didn’t replace it, and he was willing to accept tens of millions of people losing their health care as a result. He’s opposed equal pay rules put in place by President Obama. And his Administration is planning to allow states to impose strict work requirements on Medicare, food stamps, and similar programs.
Some of Donald’s positions that I identified as being anticonservative in 2016 have since been reversed. That said, Donald’s words and actions since the election indicate that he’s still staunchly anticonservative, yet willing to ally with conservatives on the issues he cares about. Donald canceled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for undocumented immigrants who arrived as children, but he’s called for Congress to figure out how to grant permanent legal status to them. Granting any type of “amnesty,” even to DREAMers, is definitely not a conservative position (at least, not as the Republican party is currently). Donald has implemented protectionist policies like tariffs and is changing NAFTA so it benefits the United States even more. And he’s only paying lip service to coal miners and even nuclear workers who got sick as a result of building the US’ nuclear arsenal.
In summary, Donald still matches all three negations today just like he did in 2016, although he matches the anticonservative negation slightly less well than he did in 2016.
Style and/or organization
Payne identified five characteristics that describe how fascists organize themselves and their political style. They are as follows:
- Attempted mass mobilization with militarization of political relationships and style and with the goal of a mass single party militia
- Emphasis on aesthetic structure of meetings, symbols, and political liturgy, stressing emotional and mystical aspects
- Extreme stress on the masculine principle and male dominance, while espousing a strongly organic view of society
- Exaltation of youth above other phases of life, emphasizing the conflict of the generations, at least in effecting the initial political transformation
- Specific tendency toward an authoritarian, charismatic, personal style of command, whether or not the command is to some degree initially elective
To date, Donald has not attempted to create a party militia or to militarize his supporters. Instead, Donald has implemented policies that enable the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to slowly transform from mere law enforcement agencies into organizations that more closely resemble a party militia. He has been a strong supporter of local law enforcement, which are often led by partisan sheriffs or mayor-appointed Chiefs of Police. At the same time he has regularly denigrated and attacked the FBI precisely for being strictly non-partisan and professional about law enforcement. These new policies and behaviors indicate that Donald now partially matches this characteristic.
During the run-up to the 2016 election, Donald’s obvious demagoguery and ostentatious use of his own name and US national symbols (lots of flags) suggested that he matched some aspects of this style characteristic, but not all aspects of it. Donald has continued to hold campaign-style rallys, at which he repeats his “make America great again” political liturgy. Between July 1, 2017, and March 31, 2018, I counted 167 examples of demagoguery (out of 1067 examples of horrible behavior, or 15.7%). He announced his Presidential “challenge coin,” which is made of gold instead of silver and copper, has his name on three times, is bigger and heavier, and replaced the Seal of the President of the United States with a custom design. And at least one of his golf courses requested course markers with the Presidential seal on it – which is illegal. At this point I’m forced to conclude that Donald now matches this style characteristic instead of only partially matching it.
Since taking office, Donald has continued to focus on male dominance of the US. Since I started tracking his horrible behavior, I’ve counted 89 examples of misogyny and 84 examples of white male privilege. His Administration is mostly male, he strongly supported Roy Moore during the Alabama special election, he has tried to claim that the Access Hollywood tape wasn’t actually him, he’s still facing sexual harassment and assault allegations from 19 women, and there are credible accusations of adultery with adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playmate of the Year Karen McDougal.
Trump also shows signs of holding an “organic view of society.” This is a theory that holds that society is best organized like an organism, with some parts being the head, others vital organs, and so on. The question is whether his very hierarchical view (plutocrats like him on top, industries that support the government and military next, and with minimum wage earners like waiters and service employees on the bottom) is “organic.”
I haven’t personally heard Donald or others in his Administration talking about roads like arteries, law enforcement like an immune system, and industries like vital organs, but his governing philosophy so far has looked similar. After all, Donald strongly supports a “law-and-order” view of law enforcement. He views immigrants as invaders. He supported a tax “cut” that actively punishes most workers while privileging large companies and the wealthy. Ultimately, though, time will tell how “organic” Donald’s views of society are. He strongly matches the male dominance aspect of the third style characteristic, but only loosely matches the “organic” aspects, so I’d say he only partially matches this characteristic.
In 2016, I found that Donald only partially matched the fourth Style characteristic. While Donald did focus somewhat on generational conflict, his appeal was largely to the mass of unemployed middle-aged men, rather than youths like Millennials or Generation Z. However, while I rated this as a “partial match” in 2016, it was a stretch. I think it’s less of a stretch now, after a year of Donald being in office, but that’s mostly because of his appeals to white supremacy and misogyny. In both cases, he’s targeting men who feel that they haven’t been given a fair chance at jobs because the federal government and companies have been too accommodating of brown people or women. While this appeal still resonates with middle-aged white men, his appeal to the mostly young white supremacists in Charlottesville suggests that they consider Trump an ally. Given this, I think that Donald partly matches this characteristic, but more strongly than he did in 2016..
Finally, there is no question that Donald continues to use a personal, charismatic, authoritarian style that focuses on him being the only person who can solve the nation’s problems. Donald’s “challenge coin” doesn’t even have the Presidential Seal on it – it has the phrase “Make America Great Again” instead. Donald was offended that he couldn’t personally direct the Justice Department and FBI to attack his political opponents. He prefers campaign-style rallies where he can control the message and the audience to public meetings where everyone has to be invited. And his authoritarianism has been strongly focused on attacking or deconstructing the limits on his own personal power, whether it be the Secretary of State, the Congress, the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, the military, or the so-called “deep state.”
In summary, I rate Donald as matching two of the style/organization characteristics, partially matching two others, and not matching the last – exactly the same as I rated him in August, 2016.
In 2016, I found that Donald matched a total of seven of Payne’s 13 characteristics of fascism, partially matched four more, and didn’t match the remaining two. Today, 15 months into Donald’s Presidency, I find that Donald matches nine characteristics and partially matches four. That’s a significant shift toward fascism according to Payne’s definition. In fact, in 2016 I concluded that, per Stanley G. Payne’s 13 characteristics, ” Trump is probably not a proto-fascist,” never mind a full fascist. Now, though, with full matches on two additional characteristics, and partial matches on the two characteristics that weren’t matched at all? I have to conclude that Donald is at least a proto-fascist, and probably an actual, authentic 1930’s-style fascist per Payne’s definition.