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Is Donald Trump a Fascist?
Some have claimed that Donald Trump represents a kind of fascism. Is there any substance to it? Nonetheless, what is most unnerving is Trump’s authoritarian personality – which, in many respects, is embedded in the character of fascism.
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BÅRD LARSEN, historian and project manager at the liberal think-tank Civita.
Some American pundits have recently compared the absurd performance show unfolding itself alongside the presidential election with counterfactual literature. It’s an interesting thought.
In 1933 the Nobel prize winner Sinclair Lewis published the novel It Can’t Happen Here, which related about the populist fascist Buzz Windrip who brilliantly wins the presidential election following his promises of extensive social and economical reforms to the people, and to revive patriotism and traditional values (Make America Great Again?).
Windrip pounces quickly on American state institutions, pursues an alliance with Berlin and introduces a dictatorship based on a German model. The book is quite high-flown and has an air of the interwar period’s very real fear of the collapse of civilization.
A different book, written by Phillip Roth, is more subtle and relevant to our time. In The Plot Against America, Charles Lindbergh puts forward his candidacy for the Republicans in 1940.
The loser is the president in office, a friend of Europe and antifascist Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, in a slightly too arrogant reliance on democracy, completely underestimates the appeal of Lindbergh. In the real world, the pilot hero and the nazi-friendly anti-Semite Lindbergh was central to the movement America First.
The goal of the movement was that the US would refrain from involvement in the war in Europe. In The Plot Against America Lindbergh sets out his campaign defending isolationism and a shrouded conspiracy narrative about a global, Jewish stratagem. As president, Lindbergh signs a treaty with Germany, but in contrast to Sinclair Roth doesn’t depict a US succumbing to totalitarianism. Rather, the state governed by the rule of law is partly gouged out, the freedom of expression is limited and the Jews are «relocated». Roth relates, using counterfactual accounts of his own Jewish family, how fear and prejudices chafe their way into America’s civil society, and open the path to a gradual demolition of the liberal state of order.
According to Simone Zelitch in the weekly Forward, Trump may be interpreted as an amalgam of the novel characters Windrip and Lindbergh. The anti-Semite and far-right Lindbergh was a taciturn and distinguished man from the Midwest, while Windrip was a vulgar poser. Lindbergh expressed his hatred of Jews in more subtle forms (but interned Jews and issued anti-Jewish laws), while Trump, on the other hand, does not at all attempt to curb the rhetoric aimed at Muslims and other immigrants.
The main point here is of course whether the comparison has something to it. For is Trump really a fascist?
Is Trump a Fascist?
Trump’s political platform is paradoxical in terms of being demagogic and pretty much lacking in substance at the same time. The most alarming is that it’s not Trump’s outrageous policy statements that stand out as the worst part, rather it’s his labile and narcissistic personality.
Trump is seemingly incapable of meeting democracy’s fundamental requirements of fingerspitzgefühl and abilities to negotiate. Trump is not cut out as democratic. («I alone can fix it»). By observing Trump’s behaviour, an ostensible prospect is that if he were to be offered the dictatorship on a silver plate, he would eagerly grab it.
Following The Second World War, the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno and some of his colleagues undertook mapping out the psychological profile of fascism, or more accurately: They developed an analysis of what they referred to as The Authoritarian Personality. The work is certainly debated by experts (among other things, Adorno emphasized the assertion that development of the authoritarian personality already emerges during childhood), but to us lay people it affords a sense of meaning, at least if we take into view those traits that distinguish the adult demagogue’s character. Among these, Adorno with friends emphasize a strong ego (narcissism), which overrides its own insecurity, lack of impulse control, an aggressive and cynical view on humanity, rigidity, ideas of exerting unrestrained toughness, anti-intellectualism, conspiracy ideas, inclination towards stereotypes and banishing groups, together with intolerance and a general disregard of nuances.
Further conducts are less relevant in terms of Trump. He is for example no classical traditionalist, nor is he a right-wing revolutionary (though, he did encourage to march on Washington) or an explicit supporter of the one-party state. This is where Trump differentiates from the typical fascist. Yet, he’s still in line with the radical right-wing populism typical for our time, and, which can’t be labelled as fascism within the definitions political theory offers.
The trend among these is seemingly democratic, in which the goal is to steer governmental institutions in one direction while maintaining an appearance of legitimacy, such as those we know from Russia, Turkey, and more recently from Poland and Hungary.
Cause for Alarm
Obviously, in short-term Trump is unlikely to be able to add big changes to the American state govern by law. The institutions (The Congress, The Senate, Supreme Court, the existing power balance) stand strong compared their equals other places in the world. In some ways we may hold that the American Founding Fathers drew up the constitution aiming to hinder «fixers» like Trump to gain expanded mandates.
Still there’s cause for alarm. The Western post-war era (particularly after the fall of the Berlin wall) was largely dominated by ideas on the liberal govern of law as something eternal and unalterable, so rational and historicizing that no one would dismiss it on voluntary grounds. But we have witnessed several examples of the opposite, though in states without protracted democratic traditions. Could this also happen in countries with a liberal history?
In such respect, historians who have worked with authoritarian ideology and the collapse of civilization tend to be less convinced with indomitable optimism for the future. One example is the conservative Robert Kagan who wrote an op-ed for Washington Post titled This is howfascism comes to America. Today, democratic states are often assigned the role of onlookers when it comes to dictatorships’ treatment of their civilian populations. The offshoot of a Trump victory may be an unpleasant one: The international society will in a foreseeable future consist of two parallel, global systems, authoritarian and liberal, with Trump positioned as an intermediary with sympathies for the autocracy in Moscow.
It’s also disturbing to watch radical populists, to the right and the left alike, exhibit such bottomless lack of understanding of what a modern democracy comprises. A modern democracy is not solely based on the power of the majority. A modern democracy aims to, more than anything else, secure the rights of the minority. It’s interesting to see how the so-called horseshoe effect, a theory stating that the fringes of politics are inclined to converge when things take their toll, is wholly confirmed.
The far-right and the far-left seem united in their belief that Trump is a better choice than Hillary Clinton, because the aforementioned is an isolationist and against free trade. We noted plenty of similar tendencies during the Brexit referendum. Times ahead will be trying for moderates, considering the numerous destabilizing and very real challenges knocking on the door.
Clinton has nearly become trite during the presidential election campaigns. The upcoming election is all about preventing a catastrophe, which, in a worst-case scenario could imply that the counterfactual novels of Roth and Sinclair will be remembered as prophetical.
Translation: Sian O'Hara
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