Historian Roger Griffin’s definition of fascism – palingenesis, populism, and ultranationalism – is deceptively simple. There are literally hundreds of examples of things that Donald has done since he took office that support each of the three main points of Griffin’s definition.
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Historian Roger Griffin has developed what he calls a “fascist minimum” definition – the absolute minimum set of characteristics that defines what fascism is, ideally expressed in a single sentence. After he was featured in a May, 2016 Vox article that asked whether Donald was a fascist or not (Griffin said “not” at the time), I analyzed his definition to the list I ultimately reviewed and published in August, 2016. At that time, I concluded that Donald met all three part of Griffin’s definition – palingenesis, populist, and ultranationalist. Since Donald took office 17 months ago, the evidence for this has only grown stronger.
Much like a physics equation, highly reduced definitions of complicated subjects like fascism require a significant amount of explanation. Griffin’s definition is that fascism is a “palingenetic form of populist ultra nationalism.” But what does that really mean? I described each piece and what it means to Griffin in my 2016 analysis. I’ve excerpted those descriptions below.
“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.” In the May 2016 Vox article, Griffin rejected Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan as being palingenetic, saying that “[a]s long as Trump does not advocate for the abolition of America’s democratic institutions, and their replacement by some sort of post-liberal new order, he’s not technically a fascist.”
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.”
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.” (link removed)
In order for Donald to be a fascist according to Griffin’s definition, he needs to seeking a new American nation based on “eternal” principles. So what are the principles around which Donald seems to be trying to create a new America?
First, Donald appears to desire a nation based in American exceptionalism. This is the idea that America is somehow unique among all the nations given our history, our freedoms, and that we have a unique duty to spread our values to other nations. While spreading the ideals of equality and freedom is reasonable, American exceptionalism too often results in a belief that America is always moral and righteous, no matter how horrible our behavior. In an America where we put “America First,” we now have a torturer (Gina Haspel) as the new CIA Director. He moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in a way that specifically makes peace between Arab states and Israel more difficult. America is the largest arms dealer in the world, and we sell arms to autocratic, anti-democratic governments like Saudi Arabia that they then use to murder civilians in Yemen. And instead of working with our allies and neighbors, we’re telling them “it’s our way or the highway” on issues as broad as NAFTA, the Iranian nuclear deal, and border security.
Second, Donald seems to want an America where there are few if any regulations inhibiting the behavior of corporations, the wealthy, and property owners. For example, the EPA hard-rock mining companies (gold and silver, copper, et al) no longer have to pay to clean up their mines, which means that water pollution from mine tailings and flooded mines can flow freely into streams and rivers that are used as drinking water. Two Utah national monuments were shrunk (possibly illegally – federal courts are reviewing this) specifically so that mining could start in the areas that used to be protected for their natural beauty and Native American cultural heritage. Insurance programs used to be required to provide comprehensive health coverage, but Donald’s Administration has granted broad waivers to both requirements. Communities no longer have to prove that they are meeting fair housing requirements put in place to reduce racial segregation. And so on.
Third, Donald appears to be trying to create an America based on the myth that we were founded as a fundamentalist Christian nation. He’s doing this by changing federal law and regulation where he can, and ignoring the law and even the US Constitution where they conflict with fundamentalist Christian values. His Administration is gradually reducing access to abortion services to both US citizens and for undocumented immigrants held in detention. He’s called for overturning the IRS rule that blocks churches from preaching politics directly. He’s granted waivers to the requirement that all insurance plans provide contraception coverage to organizations who say that contraception is against their religion. And perhaps the most disturbing of all, he’s essentially legalized discrimination by medical professionals against people seeking certain medical procedures or prescriptions, such as abortion, gender reassignment, and emergency contraception pills.
Beyond the new America that Donald seems to be trying to create, Griffin also said that Donald would have to be actively working for “the abolition of America’s democratic institutions, and their replacement by some sort of post-liberal new order” in order for Donald to be a fascist. Since Donald took office, we’ve seen him repeatedly attack the State Department, shrinking it by thousands of employees and denigrating it by saying that only his opinion matters – not the Secretary of State’s. He’s attacked the media as an institution nearly every day. He’s working with Congress to partially or completely dismantle Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and similar programs like the Children’s Health Insurance Program. But the most dangerous attack is Donald’s assault on the Department of Justice in general and the FBI. Most of these attacks are tantamount to attacking the rule of law itself, especially when combined with his history of verbal attacks on federal judges, and Donald has done it over 200 times since I started keeping track in July, 2017.
It was clear in August, 2016 that Donald met Griffin’s “palingenesis” criteria. Today, 16 months into his presidency, not only does Donald more clearly meet this criteria, but we can even see the structure of the fascist America that Donald is trying to create. But what about Griffin’s second criteria, populism?
Griffin’s fascist conception of populism has five main criteria. It’s focused on a “regenerated national or ethnic community,” it’s “profoundly anti-egalitarian,” it utilizes a small group of true believers to spread fascist ideals, seize power, and otherwise wake up the members of the national community, it wants to cleanse society of “alien” influences, and to overturn what it perceives as cultural decadence. Donald’s populism hits each of the five characteristics.
In order to determine what community Donald is hoping to regenerate with his populism, we can look at his actions since taking office and see what groups of people those actions have supported the most. The way that Donald’s tax cuts were designed provides the most benefits to states that are largely rural, mostly white, mostly conservative, and strongly fundamentalist Christian. The cuts were designed to hurt more regions that are more urban, black, liberal, and religiously inclusive (Catholic, mainline Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, and other). Donald has spoken of a farm revival, and his trade talks have often focused on boosting agriculture sales to other countries. Donald’s actions since taking office parallels his campaign rhetoric, and his explicitly pro-white, pro-male, pro-conservative, and pro-wealthy actions make it clear that it’s these people who Donald sees as his populist base.
Donald’s actions since taking office have also been strongly anti-egalitarian. He’s instituted a significant number of policies that harm minorities, such as making it harder to get food stamps and housing assistance. He turned a peaceful and respectful protest against police killing black men into a media circus about the national anthem (which is, itself, a racist poem). He belittled Puerto Ricans, initially refused to relax shipping rules to speed aid to the island territory, and pulled federal aid from the US territory well before it had recovered. He blamed “both sides” for the violence at the Charlottesville white supremacist rally. He nominated misogynistic judges and justified allowing insurance to stop covering women’s contraceptives by saying that there was no evidence showing they were effective. I’ve counted 245 instances of Donald or his Administration being racist, 35 instances of race baiting, 98 instances of misogyny, and 55 instances of straight-up white supremacy since last July.
In the 1930s, the “vanguard” of true believers that are part of Griffin’s definition of fascist populism were political militias that literally went out brawling with socialists, democrats, communists, etc. While Donald doesn’t have a militia as such, he does still have a vanguard who spread his fascist vision and are working to seize power. At the grassroots (or astroturf) level, Donald’s vanguard is composed of so-called men’s rights activists and “incels” who think he’s the premier “alpha,” his more virulent followers on Twitter, and the “alt-right,” also known as white supremacists, neo-segregationists, and other miscellaneous racists and bigots. Conspiracy theory websites like Infowars and ultraconservative media sites like Breitbart.com form the middle level of Donald’s vanguard, along with the border patrol and many local law enforcement agencies (think former sheriff and pardoned criminal turned Arizona Senate candidate Joe Arpaio). The top level is made up of businessmen and politicians who have profited or stand to profit from a re-imagined American economy and social structure.
“The People” that Griffin refers to are not the true believers that make up a vanguard, but rather the larger mass of people who should agree with the vanguard’s vision and who should thus support the vanguard when they seize power. In Donald’s case, the vanguard may be composed of Infowars conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, and men’s rights activists, but the People being targeted are the mass of conservatives who watch Fox News exclusively, the millions of Republicans who read Donald’s Twitter feed, the larger population who read Donald’s relentless attacks on the media and eventually reach the conclusion that the President wouldn’t keep attacking unless there was something wrong. And Donald’s neverending campaign rallies give him a way to control both the message and the audience in a way that lets him spread easily-digested propaganda to “the People.”
What are the “alien influences” that Donald wants to “cleanse” out of America? Taken literally, he wants to drive immigrants and refugees out of the US. He’s restricted agricultural visas, the H1-B visas widely used by tech companies, and told visa holders’ spouses they’re no longer allowed to work in the US. He’s cut the number of refugees the US is accepting from war-torn parts of the world and he’s throwing Haitians, Hondurans, and Salvadorans out of the US. And then there’s his Islamophobic travel ban against people coming from the Middle East.
Donald’s purge of “alien” influences is figurative as well as literal, extending to anything he considers to be unAmerican or limiting to personal freedom. His reverse-Robin Hood tax “cuts” increase the freedom of the wealthy and of corporations to spend their money however they see fit. Environmental regulations are being reversed because they limit the actions of corporations. Donald is attacking Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the Affordable Care Act because he views them as “socialist” ideas, and thus unAmerican. And he is actively hostile toward a number of scientific concepts that either restrict human dominion over nature or that Christians feel are heretical, such as climate disruption (aka climate change or global warming) and evolution respectively.
Finally, Donald is trying to turn America away from what he views as its cultural decadence. Based on his attacks on transgender rights, his repeated calls to overturn gay marriage, his attacks on Title IX, his assault on affirmative action, and the manyexamples of social Darwinism he’s advocated since taking office (171 times between last July and April 30), it’s clear that Donald views the ideal of equality in general, and equality under the law and the Constitution in particular, as an ideal that has been pushed too far. He appears to be pushing for public funding for religious education as a way to bring people back to Christianity, and specifically to his own prosperity gospel heresy that implies the poor are hated by God because they’re poor. Similarly, he seems to consider contraception a cultural evil because it freed women to take control of their own fertility and let them contribute outside of maintaining the family unit. And he seems to think that gun control laws are unAmerican (they’re not), but whether that’s a personal belief or political pragmatism is unclear. The irony is that Donald’s own opulence – gold plated furniture, a private plane, his many resorts, et al – isn’t considered a decadence because he supposedly earned his wealth, and being a “self-made man” is part of the American cultural ideal.
There is no question that Donald hits all the criteria of Griffin’s populism category. How about Griffin’s last characteristic – ultranationalism?
As with his other characteristics, Griffin’s conception of fascist ultranationalism is multi-faceted. He describes it as opposing liberal ideals, and as against democracy in general and representative democratic bodies in particular (anti-parliamentary). But Griffin’s ultranationalism also includes the various forms of ethnic bigotry (white male privilege, white supremacy, etc.) that can occur in people who consider themselves members of a particular nation. Finally, fascist ultranationalism gives rise to lots of different expressions of racism and “rationalized” xenophobia.
The American ideals espoused in the Declaration of Independence and many of the Amendments to the US Constitution (especially those of the Bill of Rights) are a good summary of what liberalism is – life, liberty, equality, limited government, the right to a fair trial, and so on. The ultranationalism espoused by Donald attacks most of those ideals since he took office. His attacks on the media and unions are an assault on the First Amendment guarantees of a free press and the freedom of assembly. He’s called for criminals to be executed before they’re even tried and convicted, limiting their right to due process under the Fifth Amendment. He’s added a question about immigration status back into the Census and pushed for changes to fair housing laws that run counter to the 15th Amendment’s guarantees that everyone is has the rights described in the Constitution, regardless of race or immigration status (per the Supreme Court). And Donald’s detention in Iraq of a US citizen, without access to legal counsel, runs counter to the Sixth Amendment.
While Donald has not yet attacked Congress’ power directly, he hasn’t really needed to – Republicans have largely given him what he wants. Instead, he’s called for the Senate to end the filibuster so that Democrats can’t block him so easily. He’s repeatedly attacked Congress, but only when they wouldn’t give him everything he wanted. Beyond that, Donald has attacked the legitimacy of the 2016 election because he won the Electoral College while still losing the popular vote. And he’s supported voter ID laws and voter roll purges which have been widely criticized as disenfranchising young, minority, and elderly voters.
Donald’s ethnocentrism – belief that his own ethnic or national group is superior to others – was well known before the election, but has only become more obvious since. On Columbus Day, Donald honored Italians, but failed to recognize the genocide that Columbus and his fellow explorers visited upon Native Americans. Donald refused to criticize the white supremacists during and after the Charlottesville rallies, and he even went so far as to complain that Confederate monuments were being taken down or moved throughout the South. And he referred to most of sub-Saharan Africa as “shithole countries.”
There are literally hundreds of additional expressions of racism by Donald and his Administration, and they all tie into his belief that white men, especially wealthy white men, are superior to everyone else. An aide to Donald ended funding to anti-white supremacy organizations. Donald tweeted images of him covering up President Obama’s photo and called it the “best eclipse ever.” Treasury Secretary and fellow billionaire Steve Mnuchin opposes replacing slave owning and Native American-slaughtering Andrew Jackson with black abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. Donald has called for the NFL to fire any player who kneels to protest the killing of black men by police and recently suggested players should leave the US. He refused to promise to repair the infrastructure of hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico, and thus far he hasn’t repaired the island territory. He rejected the idea that calling Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” due to her claiming Native ancestry was a racial slur. Donald’s Administration even went so far as to be one of only three countries to oppose a UN resolution condemning Nazism because expressing hatred and fascist ideals is a “fundamental freedom of expression”. But the most egregious example is probably Donald’s attempt at whitesplaining civil rights to civil rights leader and now Congressman John Lewis.
Finally, Donald’s ultranationalism shines clearly through his rationalizations of xenophobia and his dehumanizing of people of color. Donald has claimed that “western values” are under attack by people who “reject our values and use hatred to justify violence against the innocent.” Donald instituted more interviews of green card applicants, ostensibly to reduce fraud in the application process. The Department of Homeland Security has started to collect social media data from immigrants, legal permanent residents, and even naturalized citizens and has started requiring that prospective immigrants turn over access to their social media accounts, ostensibly to protect “the homeland” from terrorists and criminals. The Administration has called to limit immigration only those who are most likely to “assimilate.” And Donald even went so far as to appoint Gina Haspel, a senior CIA agent who oversaw illegal torture at CIA black sites following the 9/11 attacks, to be the CIA director.
There is little question that Donald and his Administration are ultranationalistic according to the characteristics that Griffin has defined.
Griffin’s three characteristics of all fascisms – palingenesis, populism, and ultranationalism – were all met by Donald in August, 2016. But since he took office, there have been literally hundreds of examples supporting each of the principles and criteria that support those characteristics. The shape of Donald’s new American ideal is coming into focus, his populism has led to calls for purges of both government and of immigrants from the United States, and his white supremacist ultranationalism has led to people cheering as he dehumanizes people and rationalizes racism and Islamophobia.
Even if there had been any question that Donald met Griffin’s “fascist minimum” definition before the 2016 election, there is no question any more – Donald is a fascist according to Roger Griffin’s definition.