What is fascism?

The neo-conservative Brookings fellow and Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan wrote that the attempt “to treat Donald Trump as a normal political candidate would be laughable were it no so perilous to the republic.” He called him “a singular threat to our democracy.” This is the critical point missing from most media coverage of Trump. So what exactly does Kagan mean?

What he means is that Trump presents a risk that goes beyond his lack of the skills and temperament necessary to be president. The risk is that, as a successful demagogue, he becomes the vehicle by which the virus of fascism, the great scourge of the 20th century, is unleashed in the 21st century.    

While speaking about my first novel, Christian Nation, I realized that a large part of the American public had only a vague idea of the meaning of the words “fascist” and “demagogue.” In this post I explore the meaning of fascism, and in the next I will review what we mean when we accuse a politician of demagoguery. 

It’s not easy to paint a clear picture of fascism, which is a type of nationalist authoritarianism.  It takes on the character of the place and age in which it arises. But wherever and whenever it erupts, fascism generally is characterized by six features: 

·      Nationalism.  Fascism glorifies “the nation,” and is almost always nativist and xenophobic.

·      Resentment of “others.” Fascism usually is based on a narrative of exaggerated humiliations designed to create a sense of victimhood. This narrative in turn always requires someone to blame, whether it be minorities in general, or a specific group like Jews, gays, intellectuals, or immigrants.

·      Fetishization of strength and power; contempt for the rule of law. Fascists and their followers are always marked by the crude worship of strength and machismo. They disdain weakness, which they see as explaining the many humiliations suffered by the nation. They show contempt for the rule of law, which they see as a type of weakness.

·      Aggression. The fetishization of strength and power manifests itself in an approach to foreign and domestic policy that is inevitably aggressive.  Fascism in power endorses violence and almost always results in war.

·      Disdain for the truth. Fascists assert that their core narrative is a type of truth that is “greater” than conventional objective truth. They show contempt for reason and learning. Fascist movements are always characterized by casual and effective lying.

·      Rejection of political convention. Fascist movements transcend and demolish conventional politics. They do not fit neatly on the conventional ideological spectrum. Fascist movements are not about policy, they are about the strongman and his narrative of redressing past insults, restoring national greatness, and eliminating the hated “other.” The fascist disdains the niceties of democratic culture. Because the fascist breaks all the normal rules and conventions of political life, he confounds elites and institutions, which do not know how to deal with him.

The concordance between these six core elements of fascism and the essential features of Trumpism should concern every American, regardless of ideology or politics. Consider each of them in turn:

·      Nationalism. “Make America Great Again” is the archetype of a nationalist slogan. It encompasses Trump’s narrative of decline due to weakness, and of the strongman as redeemer of national destiny (“I alone can fix it.”). “America First” (Trump’s catch-phrase for his foreign policy) was the name of the isolationist anti-Semitic organization that, prior to Pearl Harbor, urged the United States to appease Nazism. Trump has named his policy after America’s last and most disturbing outbreak of proto-fascism.

·      Resentment of “others.” Trump’s narrative is classic:  all will be well if we rid ourselves of the illegals and prevent further immigration. This time it is not Jews, but immigrants in general and Muslims in particular, who bear the blame for economic frustration, national decline, and feelings of insecurity. Trump’s adviser Newt Gingrich called for re-creating the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee to investigate citizens sympathetic to Islamism. Trump tells his most ardent supporters that they are victims of globalization, elites, China, immigrants, and bad trade deals; others are to blame for their troubles. 

·      Fetishization of strength and power; contempt for the rule of law. Trump says that our national humiliation (we are no longer great) is due to weakness: “We have been disrespected, mocked, and ripped off for many many years by people that were smarter, shrewder, tougher.” Of course he admires Putin; I am thunderstruck every time a journalist or pundit finds this to be inexplicable.  Trump admires Putin for his “very strong control over a country,” for his ruthless use of power, and for his authoritarian instincts. Trump’s narrative of strength and weakness is woven into every speech: “the military is going to be so strong” that “nobody is going to mess around with the United States.” And, as is so typical of the proto-fascist, his respect for brute power is matched by his disdain for the restraints posed by the rule of law. In 1989 Trump took out a full-page ad stating “Civil liberties end when an attack on our safety begins.” The New York Times recently gathered the views of legal scholars of all ideological persuasions who concluded that Trump had “a constitutional worldview that shows contempt for the First Amendment, the separation of powers and the rule of law.”

·      Aggression. Given the single axis of the Trump universe (winner/strong vs. loser/weak), it’s no surprise that his policy instincts tend toward the aggressive use of violence, whether the forced deportation of illegal immigrants or, in foreign policy, his promises to: “quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS,” “take the oil out of Iraq,” use torture “much worse” than waterboarding; and order U.S. troops to assassinate the families of ISIS fighters. Trump’s campaign rhetoric also is typical of nascent fascism, with its veiled approval of violence directed at his enemies (“maybe he should have been roughed up” (about a protester assaulted by Trump supporters), “I’d like to punch him in the face”).

·      Disdain for the truth. Trump’s unprecedented disdain for objective reality is the subject my previous posting, Trump and the truth.

·      Rejection of political convention. In seeking the presidency, Trump broke all the rules: he became a candidate without any prior political record, ran a wholly unconventional campaign, and violated every prior standard of acceptable political behavior. He committed repeated political suicide and yet survived (e.g., calling war hero McCain a loser for being captured, calling Judge Curel a Mexican and thus disqualified, disrespecting a Gold Star mother, etc.). His politics, such as they are, are hard to pin down along the ideological spectrum. His primary opponents and party leadership were confounded and unable to respond effectively. The pundits failed to understand him, and tenaciously predicted his political demise. The elites were in turn condescendingly dismissive and apoplectic. And the people loved it, enough to win him the nomination and perhaps even enough to win him the general election.   

As hard as it is to swallow, there can be no denying that by these six measures, Trumpism is a proto-fascist movement (“proto” in this case meaning rising, or precursor to).   

One reason this is hard to accept is that it requires us to take Trump more seriously than he deserves. But this too is a warning sign. Fascism always tends toward the farcical, and is rarely taken seriously in its early stages. American journalists returning from Germany in the 1930s reported of the fascist leader: "This guy is a clown. He's like a caricature of himself." This was consistent with the view of many Germans, who dismissed him as a self-obsessed “dunderhead,” “fool” and “big mouth.”    

Even so, Trump is no Franco, Hitler, or Mussolini. What he flirts with is a new type of fascism, adapted for the age. Carl Bernstein calls it the “fascinating intersection of celebrity and neo-fascism.” Who would have thought, Kagan asks, that after a long absence, fascism would again rear its head in America, not with jackboots and Nazi salutes, but “with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac.”

Nonetheless, the lessons of history are clear: when politics drifts in the proto-fascist direction, it can no longer be business as usual, and the moral burden of stopping it falls on our individual shoulders, nowhere else.