Is Donald Trump a Fascist?

A Comparative Attempt at Defining Fascism in Contemporary America

“Attempting to define fascism is like looking for a black cat in a dark and possibly empty room.”

– Gilbert Allardyce, 1979

 

Author's note: This was written in May of 2017, five months into the Trump presidency. Since then, a wealth of new data on Donald Trump has become available. I intend to update this piece in light of his continued administration and Robert Mueller's investigation into matters of obstruction of justice, likely in time for the 2018 midterm elections. Stay tuned.

 

Had I been fully aware, when I embarked upon this project, of the depth of the scholarly dispute over how to best define fascism, a term in common parlance so often used and so seldom questioned, I might have thought twice before deciding to delve into the pages (and there are many) of history and theory surrounding the phenomenon born over eighty years ago in the Mediterranean in an attempt to abstract and determine definitively whether it is fair to call Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States of America, a fascist. However, such varied discourse provides ripe ground for analysis – there is no simple answer (but much valuable insight) to be had in exploring the competing prevailing definitions of fascism. In the following pages, I will assess three distinct definitions of fascism: two from political theorists/historians (Walter Laqueur and Geoff Eley) and one from a novelist raised in Mussolini’s Italy (Umberto Eco). Where do they overlap? Where do they differ? I will then take the United States under Donald Trump as a case study, applying each definition in turn and seeing what sticks and what does not, using Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Italy as control subjects. I will dedicate the majority of my time to assessing Trump himself, given that all three theorists take Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany as their base cases, pointing out only when they do not fit the definitions, as it is best not to retrace trodden ground for the sake of brevity.

In the United States in 2017, the fact that citizens and respected news outlets alike can seriously entertain the idea that the President of a nation touted as a beacon of democracy is a fascist makes this work both timely and necessary. It is necessary to distinguish between what is overblown rhetoric and what is accurate diagnosis: if Trump is a fascist and we fail to assess him as a such, we risk finding ourselves a decade down the line wishing we had said something sooner; if he is not and we use the term regardless, we cheapen the term and open ourselves up to the vulnerability of allowing a real fascist to gain power. In short, either we need to call a duck a duck, or we need to avoid crying wolf just to see the town come running.

Ultimately, I find that, as expected, each definition fits differently – from Eco, who would likely positively and definitively term Trump a Ur-Fascist, to Eley, who would likely point out that while the surrounding circumstances seem primed for the rise of a fascist leader, Donald Trump himself exhibits few fascistic traits. However, I can with certainty declare that no one of these definitions is wholly unfit to describe the 46th POTUS, and that he has yet to preclude any one definition from someday being fulfilled in its totality.

 

Geoff Eley and Circumstantial Context

Eley begins by pointing out (as is apparently necessary in any essay defining fascism) that defining fascism is difficult. For Eley, this difficulty arises from the necessity of assessing the historical context in which fascism arose in the first place. To attempt an abstract definition of fascism is near impossible since it cannot be separated from its surrounding history.[1] Eley prefers a “strongly contextual approach” to defining fascism. His solution, then, is not to abstract fascism alone, but to assess it as “a type of politics, or a set of relations to politics” paired with abstractions of the crises that produced it in the first place.[2] He accordingly offers the following definition:  fascism is “the coercively nationalist recourse to political violence and exclusionary authoritarianism under worsening conditions of governmental paralysis and democratic impasse”.[3]

I accordingly atomize his definition into four distinct parts for the sake of assessing each individually to attain a finer level of gradation as opposed to a binary scale. We can first divide the definition into what fascism is and what produces fascism. For Eley, fascism is itself defined by its use of three traits and actions: nationalism; totalitarianism (my interpretation of ‘exclusionary authoritarianism’ for the sake of clarity); political violence; and cross-class appeal. It is brought about by ‘governmental paralysis and democratic impasse,’ which, when one considers that fascism, in the context of Italy and Germany, arose exclusively in democratic systems, become synonyms. Therefore, we might construct a chart comparing each case along such parameters (see Figure 1).

I have rated each of the three chosen cases with regards to each facet of Eley’s definition on a binary scale, such that a one indicates that the case along the vertical axis indeed exhibits the phenomenon listed on the horizontal axis.

Figure 1

Germany in the interwar years, for example, fulfills the entirety of Eley’s definition: the Nazi platform was strongly nationalist, and proscribed party guidelines for everything from art to architecture to vernacular greetings. We can certainly observe political violence in the case of the Holocaust or in political reprisals against opposing political figures, as early as 1919 in the quelling of the Spartacist uprising.[4] Nazism was also strongly universal with regards to class, incorporating everyone from the bourgeois to the working class.[5] Finally, we might consider that Hitler was able to gain power by capitalizing on the failures of the Weimar Republic between 1930 and 1933 and that it was Chancellor Paul von Hindenburg’s cession of emergency powers to Hitler that solidified his political control.[6]

Mussolini’s Italy, too, exemplifies the majority of Eley’s definition: strongly nationalist,[7] politically violent,[8] socioeconomically unified,[9] and enabled by democratic impotence.[10] However, Mussolini “tolerated a degree of individuality” and did not maintain nearly the same total approach to national control as did Hitler,[11] disqualifying Mussolini’s Italy on the count of totalitarianism.

Similarly, Donald Trump and Donald Trump’s America exemplify most, but not all, of Eley’s defining features of fascism. For example, while his ‘America First’ foreign policy[12] and labor policy[13] are both cloyingly nationalist, he also maintains a die-hard affinity for capitalism[14] and seems quite content to defund or dissolve numerous government apparatuses in the name of laissez faire government (see: his cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency[15] and Department of Education[16]). His campaign appealed to millions across class lines, from the hyper-rich who benefit from his proposed tax cuts[17] to working class white Americans who see him as their role model, but we have not yet seen the type of political violence Eley sees as instrumental to a workable definition of fascism.

By far the most striking resemblance to both Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany, however, is the perceived governmental paralysis that has pushed Americans to reject the establishment so forcefully as to see lack of experience as a good thing. Trump slammed Georgia Representative John Lewis for being “All talk, talk, talk — no action or results,”[18] a sentiment echoed throughout his campaign. Public disapproval of Congress has skyrocketed, from hovering in the 50s to 60s in 2009 to the high 70s and mid-80s in the lead up to Trump’s inauguration.[19] Public malaise has reached an all-time high: according to the same Gallup poll, the first time Congressional disapproval ratings ever reached 80 percent was in 2011, and they have not dipped below 67 percent since then. Americans have reason to despair and claim an ineffectual Congress: in sheer numbers of bills passed, Congress has dropped from 772 bills in 1973 to a mere 329 in 2015, decreasing at a rate of 22.6 bills per year with an R2 value of .75 (see Figure 2).[20] Cloture motions (motions to end a filibuster) have moved in the opposite direction, from 44 in 1973 to 128 in 2015, increasing at a rate of 1.7 motions per year with an R2 value of .51 (see Figure 3).[21] Congress is arguing more and doing less, and the American people recognize that.

Figure 2

Figure 3

Wendy Brown provides a convincing argument as to why this might be: As democracies age, whether by conscious malfeasance by government or out of necessity due to ever-increasing complexity, citizens become disengaged in certain policy discussions, namely, the economy since the 1970s and security since 9/11.[22] Eley argues that the government justifies non-accountability by positing that progress requires legislative latitude and precludes transparency: “governments declare their need for emphatic non-accountability at a time when the historic infrastructures of democratic citizenship in capitalist societies … have fallen into advanced decay. For ordinary citizens, developing and exercising a relation to politics becomes disabled by a powerful layering of crisis”.[23] This is likely true – to an extent. It is certainly easier to legislate when the approval of the public or even of congress is not needed. Unilateral moves are inherently more efficient, yet seldom more representative, than are decisions made by consensus. To that end, we support or tacitly accept such actions by leaders with whom we mostly agree.

However, this creates vulnerabilities in democratic systems. So long as we expect that the next leader will continue the same policies as the current leader, or is at the very least, a responsible steward of democracy, the danger of the decay of democracy is not immediate. Whether we believe Donald Trump is or is such a responsible steward or not is irrelevant with regards to future risk – the possibility that someone might come to power at some future date that would use the same unilateral power we might have praised for its effectiveness in a much more dangerous way. However, if Trump is not such a responsible steward, or worse, is indeed a fascist, the danger becomes much more immediate.

While Donald Trump exhibits only half of Eley’s direct symptoms of fascism, the fact remains that the current political climate is particularly dangerous with regards to the possibility of the rise of a fascist leader. Moreover, the two characteristics which Trump does not share – totalitarianism and use of widespread political violence – have not yet been demonstrably precluded from his administration. In his first 100 days, he has already signed 34 executive orders – just one shy of Obama’s average of 35 per year.[24] If he continues at this rate, he will reach over 120 executive orders in his first year, nearly tripling Bill Clinton’s average of 46 and blowing past Bush’s of 36, meaning we might well see a further descent towards totalitarianism. In terms of political violence, while we do not see state-ordered killings or reprisals, during Trump’s campaign we did see instances[25] of[26] violence[27] at a number of his rallies, incited, some claim, by his violent rhetoric and shouts of “Get them out” or references to the way that, in the past, protesters would have been and should be treated.

Trump then, for Eley, is not a fascist – yet. He displays some, but not all characteristics, but is particularly dangerous given the current political climate in the US. He cautions readers to look out for warning signs: the dismantling of an agreed-upon constitution or form of government, even (and possibly especially) in circumstances when the far-right is weak, which can result in the far right seizing power through more violent means in order to capitalize on the chaos already present. Trump is not Hitler, but we still have a ways to go before the danger is past.

 

Walter Laqueur and the Three-Pronged Approach

Laqueur provides the most complex and least straightforward definition of fascism. Where Eley simplifies and abstracts and Eco enumerates, Laqueur expands and explains. In his book, aptly titled Fascism, Laqueur explores the nature of fascism thoroughly, but with little explicit structure. I therefore divide his characterizations into three primary components: The Party, The Circumstances, and the Leader, similar to Eley’s combination of direct characteristics and inciting context. For the sake of signposting, then, I first present a table similar to Figure 1 in the hopes that it might provide a road map for Laqueur’s definition (see Figure 4). I will then explain each point, and assess its validity in the case of Donald Trump.

Figure 4

There is already significant overlap between Eley’s definition and Laqueur’s – in fact, the only trait Eley enumerates that Laqueur does not is totalitarianism, which Laqueur covers in part by including anti-democratism. Therefore, we can carry over our analysis of nationalism, political violence, class solidarity, and governmental paralysis.

The biggest departure in Laqueur’s work is his inclusion of characteristics unique to the leader himself, as opposed to defining solely the broader system of politics over which such a leader presides, making Laqueur particularly useful for assessing whether Donald Trump himself is a fascist. While Eley’s work points out vulnerabilities inherent to the system of governance as a whole, Laqueur takes a further interest in what characterizes a fascist leader. Insofar as fascism is so often understood as a cult of personality, this framework provides further nuance to our definition of fascism, such that we might distinguish between a fascistic party, leader, and system, and examine whether we can observe any single part separate from the whole.

To begin, I will clarify that I take “the party” here not to mean the Republican party under which Trump ran, but rather the party his platform seems to outline in ideal terms.

In terms of militarism and imperialism, Laqueur explains that fascism “was militarist, and whenever the country it occupied was sufficiently strong, it advocated imperialism and territorial expansion.”[28] Donald Trump certainly advocated for a stronger military – from his bemoaning that ‘we don’t win anymore’[29] to his proposed $54 billion military budget increase[30]. When it comes to imperialism, his suggestion that “We should’ve kept the oil. But, okay, maybe we’ll have another chance,” seems to imply an imperial outlook with regards to Iraq.[31] However, I have highlighted this characteristic in red to denote that this is not necessarily conclusive – we have not yet seen outright imperial actions from the Trump administration, though his rhetoric suggests otherwise.

Donald Trump is not technically antidemocratic. He did win the election in November 2016 and come to power democratically, and pays, at the very least, lip service to democratic ideals and norms. We have not yet seen outright denials of democratic process. However, again, as denoted by the red highlight, we have seen questionable rhetoric: slamming the judicial branch for ‘overreach’ when a Hawaii judge blocked his executive order on immigration[32] or preemptively calling the results of the November election into question in case he did not secure enough votes to win in the electoral college[33].

Laqueur goes on to explain that truly fascist parties monopolize power through the use of security services and the army.[34] However, this is not borne out in reality. Similar to the above assessment of political violence, we simply do not see the kind of domestic militarism that one expects to see from a Hitlerite leader. However, this is not to say that such a thing could not occur sometime in the future.

In fascist regimes, “academics [are] regarded with distrust”.[35] Interestingly, this does apply to Donald Trump – one need only consider his declaration that “the experts are terrible”[36] or his refusal to receive his daily intelligence briefing[37] – but does not necessarily apply to Mussolini, which I point out if only to illustrate that the definition is not comprehensive or universal. Mussolini tolerated intellectuals in his movement, at the very least early on, in order to solidify his hold on the various groups that made up his fasci.[38] Thus, according to Laqueur, in this respect, Trump is actually more fascistic than is Mussolini, the father of fascism himself.

Finally, we come to Trump’s mass appeal and ability to capitalize on mass politics. His anti-establishment bent and ability to play the media made him uniquely suited to take the November election by storm. Laqueur, though, offers little on mass appeal – only that “Those who misjudged Hitler were liberal intellectuals who were impervious to his mass appeal or traditional politicians who understood much less well than he did the mass psychology and the mass politics of the twentieth century. Hitler’s appeal to the masses was rooted in the nationalist resentment, the fanaticism, and, of course, his promise to solve the immediate economic and political problems and to lead Germany to a secure and happy future.”[39] Mass appeal itself does not a fascist make – any leader who wins a democratic election could be said to maintain mass appeal – and the dimensions of that appeal are covered either here or in Eco’s definition. Therefore, we will return to Trump’s ability to woo millions of voters in the next chapter.

While Trump exhibits two-thirds of Laqueur’s characteristics in the party dimension, when one considers the social context of the current US political system, again, as in Eley’s definition, Trump’s America is a dead ringer. Laqueur adds four more facets to the context of governmental paralysis in which he believes fascism arises – and in 2017, the US exhibits every single one.

Laqueur, like Eley, points to governmental paralysis as indicative of vulnerability to fascism, though he is additionally explicit that the government stricken by such paralysis be democratic: “The historical record shows that fascism (like terrorism) could succeed only in a liberal democratic system. It had a chance only where it could freely agitate.”[40] Insofar as we accept that the US is indeed a democracy (albeit a flawed one at that[41]) we can classify both these factors in the affirmative.

Laqueur, though, points to three additional dimensions of social context: the facilitation of the rise of fascism by the old guard; the expectation by the old guard that the fascist will become more moderate once power is attained; and economic and social threat to the society. Laqueur explains:

“In both Germany and Italy, the Nazi and Fascist seizure of power was greatly facilitated by the leading figures of the old order in Germany by the Conservatives and Hindenburg's entourage and in Italy by the Conservatives and the monarchy ... Aware of their own weakness, the Conservatives assumed that it would be possible to rein in the Nazis and make them behave "reasonably."”[42]

The parallels to Trump are undeniable: high-profile establishment Republicans, despite initially denouncing, and in some cases running against, Trump, endorsed him as it became increasingly clear that he was the most popular candidate, despite the doubts cast on his dedication to the Republican platform and the plethora of insults hurled between candidates during the primaries.[43]  Responding to concerns that his rhetoric would be too volatile for the presidency, Trump assured the public that he could be more moderate, “but right now I’m fighting all of these guys. All of them or most of them are lying about me. I have to be a little aggressive.”[44] The acceptance of Trump by the Republican party represented not an acceptance of Trump’s policies, but of his ability to win. Senator Rand Paul, another of Trump’s once-opponents, endorsed him saying, “I think it’s almost the patriotic duty of anybody in Kentucky to oppose the Clintons because I think they’re rotten at the core. I think they’re dishonest people,”[45] signaling that he was accepting Trump only to beat Clinton.

The third piece of Laqueur’s contextual puzzle is the socioeconomic threat. He explains that “Fascism prevailed in countries … which felt threatened by economic breakdown and social disorder.”[46] This is most clear from Trump’s speeches, as above in his insistence that we do not win wars anymore, or, most simply, in his campaign slogan: Make America Great Again [47]. America is no longer great according to Donald Trump – it has decayed, and he alone can make fix it.

Finally, we come to the piece of Laqueur’s definition that is shared by neither Eley nor Eco: the leader as individual. Here, Trump scores lower than both Hitler and Mussolini. Laqueur explains that fascist leaders are initially underrated by their opponents, but later adulated by their followers as they seek unlimited power.

“At the very beginning of his political career Hitler was greatly underrated and Mussolini also was not taken seriously.”[48] Donald Trump, too, was disregarded in 2015 by all, by democrats until he won the primary, and by some on the left until the day he won the presidency. Statistical genius Nate Silver’s website, FiveThirtyEight, forcefully dismissed Trump as a real candidate in 2015[49] and even maintained that Trump would lose the presidency until November 8th, 2016[50]. Even establishment Republicans refused to take Trump seriously at first.[51]

Similarly to how I have assessed Trump’s use of violence or his totalitarianism, however, he does not seem, at least for the time being, to be pursuing absolute power over the United States. He has appointed a cabinet to maintain the various departments of the executive branch instead of accruing their powers to the office of the presidency. However, once again, we ought remain vigilant insofar as this is not unchangeable.

Trump is additionally not the subject of the sort of adulation that Mussolini and Hitler received. While he does receive some level of love and adoration (see: “We Love President Donald J. Trump” Facebook group[52]) it seems that the reasons he was elected were that he was not the establishment[53] or his business acumen or his disregard for political correctness or his policies (e.g. Muslim ban, border wall)[54]. However, his personal charisma seems not to have been a part of the equation for the majority of voters.

Having considered, then, the whole of Laqueur’s argument, it becomes clear that Laqueur would be very unlikely to classify Trump as a fascist leader. However, his goals and means are largely fascist with the exception of the use of force, and in terms of the context in favor of which Eley argues so forcefully and upon which Laqueur expands so eloquently, we are witnessing a moment of extreme vulnerability to fascism. Furthermore, four of the five disqualifying factors in Laqueur’s definition are subject to change over time. As such, while Donald Trump is now merely a democratically elected leader who displays fascistic tendencies, in the context of such political vulnerability, it is not unreasonable to assume that this might change. While he is unlikely to inspire much more adulation, he might well turn to violence and force, and pursue a more totalitarian approach to governance, in which case he would score overall just as highly as Mussolini. Thus, for the time being, under Laqueur’s definition, Trump is not a fascist, but remains a fascistic risk.

 

Umberto Eco and Ur-Fascism

Finally, we arrive at the work of Umberto Eco. Eco’s 1995 essay, Ur-Fascism, provides an attractive candidate for reigning definition of fascism. It is the most concise of the works discussed herein, and lists the defining features of fascism numerically for easy digestion and reference. Furthermore, Eco’s definition is the most fungible: he admits that it is not just unlikely for all aspects of the definition to apply to a single case, but impossible because of their contradictory nature. Eco preempts Eley’s concerns about decontextualizing fascism by allowing Fascism to remain in the mid-twentieth century, and instead defining what he calls ‘Ur-Fascism,’ or eternal fascism, outside of time and historical context. Furthermore, for Eco, “it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.”[55] Finally, it is tempting to believe Eco over Eley or Laqueur given the fact that Eco actually grew up in and experienced fascism first hand, whereas Eley had no direct life experience with fascism and Laqueur, despite being born in Germany before World War II, left in 1938. Thus, we have travelled from the purely theoretical to the purely experiential, with Laqueur to bridge the gap in between.

Considering the points Eco sets out in Ur-Fascism, Donald Trump satisfies 13 out of a total of 14 possible points (see Figure 5). Again, according to Eco, only one is necessary to allow for the formation of fascism, making this the highest Trump has scored thus far.

Eco begins with the Cult of Tradition – a combination of contradictions that preclude any new knowledge from being brought into the fold of fascist ideology.[56] However, the importance of Traditionalism to Ur-Fascism is not Traditionalism itself, but the flexibility in syncretism that it exemplifies. While Trump may not be a Traditionalist in the traditional sense, he certainly espouses the syncretism necessary to allow him to bring Traditionalists like David Gelernter, a candidate for White House science adviser, into the fold.[57] It is what allows him to excoriate Obama for involving the US in Syria, and then send Tomahawk cruise missiles to attack Syria. It is what allows him to urge George W. Bush to pull out of Iraq, and then criticize Obama for pulling out of Iraq and ostensibly creating ISIS, and then insisting that we ought remove ourselves from the Middle East.[58]

As a result, fascists tend to reject modernism, and as a result, rationality as a whole.[59] Trump tends to reject any mode of thinking that is not his own – and his own is flawed. He sees the world in entirely zero-sum terms and operates exclusively on a short timeline, ignoring both win-win situations and long-term consequences[60], neither of which bodes well for the survival of rationality in Trump’s America.

Solving the problem of democratic malaise, then, becomes simple for the Ur–Fascist – action is to be taken for the sake of action. The fascist is like a shark in that if it stops moving, it dies.[61] We can cross apply here the above analysis of Trump as the purported solution to governmental ineffectuality. Trump consistently responds to crisis by stating that he will ‘take action’ without outlining what that action[62] might actually[63] be.

The syncretism inherent in Ur-Fascism invites contradiction, and therefore criticism – yet fascism cannot absorb criticism; “for Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.”[64] Take, for example, Trump decrying the Freedom Caucus for refusing to support his healthcare bill[65] or the arrest of a woman for laughing during the Senate confirmation hearing of Senator Jeff Sessions[66].

Diversity, too, is treason, Eco adds, and is thus feared.[67] We can observe such fear of difference in Trump’s comments on how Mexicans who immigrate to the US are “people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us [sic]. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists”[68] or his executive order banning Muslims from certain countries from entering the US[69].

While fascists, according to Laqueur and Eley, appeal to all classes, Eco insists that they have a particular draw on the frustrated middle class.[70] In his inaugural address, Trump insisted that “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,”[71] referencing the middle class he promised to fight for in his campaign. He pays particular lip service to the idea that the middle class has been abandoned by the US, and promises jobs and wealth and campaigned on the basis of painting Hillary Clinton as the corrupt enemy of “hard working Americans,” people she called “deplorables”.[72]

Ur-Fascists further find comfort in an obsession with a plot against the state – that there are detractors within and without the state working to overthrow it.[73] This is perhaps the most dangerous facet Trump embraces. It is the same logic that Hitler used to justify the Holocaust, and which Trump uses now to justify the border wall and ‘Muslim ban’ executive order. Take also his insistence that the election was rigged, or that our previous president was in fact a closet Muslim and enemy of the state.[74]

At the same time, this very enemy is simultaneously too strong to be defeated and too weak to pose any real threat for such a great nation.[75] As such, Trump maintains that fighting ISIS is the number one priority for the US (according to the White House website[76]) while simultaneously saying that he “[knows] more about ISIS than the generals do”.[77] He knows just how to defeat ISIS, and yet it remains more of a concern for his administration than any other global issue.

Eco also states the Ur-Fascism conceives of itself in a state of perpetual warfare, since to strike peace is to capitulate to those who wish to destroy you.[78] Despite fears during his campaign that Trump is an isolationist, in the wake of his election, some instead argue that he is a militarist in rhetoric and action, in line with the above analysis under Laqueur’s definition. “Far from limiting the area of war, he threatens ruthless violence against globe-spanning adversaries and glorifies martial victory.”[79]

Contradicting the idea of fighting for the middle class, Ur-Fascism, given its propensity for hierarchical organization, also necessitates a sense of mass elitism – that you are always better than someone else.[80] Trump sees and proclaims himself as the best, and his followers as the best under the best, inspiring a certain amount of contempt for the weak. Donald Trump is “smart” for avoiding taxes – and everyone else is foolish for not thinking of that.[81] His healthcare plan for replacing the Affordable Care Act, too, punishes the weak by making coverage prohibitively expensive for those with any of a litany of pre-existing conditions.[82]

The one feature of Eco’s definition into which Donald Trump does not fit is the idea that everyone is educated to be a hero – that death is heroic, and to be sought and welcomed.[83] We do not see this in modern day America, and are unlikely to see it in the future for the simple reason that it is unnecessary. Our military is an all-volunteer force, and as such the perpetuation of the state does not require death of those who do not willingly give their lives, and so propaganda convincing the public that such sacrifice is heroic is superfluous.

The next facet, although ostensibly stranger, is almost prophetic in how it fits Trump: Ur-Fascism converts the difficulty of dealing with war and heroism into machismo, “which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.”[84] We need only look to Trump’s record against same-sex marriage[85] or his defense of his ‘tiny hands’[86]. The fragility of Trump’s masculinity has become abundantly clear, and is perfectly in line with Eco’s inclusion of machismo.

Here we arrive at the most telling and instructive piece of Eco’s puzzle. Eco writes that the Ur-Fascist practices selective populism: the People have no rights as individuals, and therefore cannot truly express their Will – indeed, no group of people will ever have such a thing as a Common Will – and yet the Ur-Fascist claims to be the Voice of the People, to be the sole interpreter of their Common Will, and the sole champion of their desires.[87]

“Every day I wake up determined to deliver a better life for the people all across this nation that have been ignored, neglected, and abandoned… These are people who work hard, but who no longer have a voice. I am your voice… I alone can fix it.”[88]

Trump, despite having lost the popular vote in November of 2016 by over 2 million votes[89], despite first-month approval ratings 21 points lower than average[90], insists that he is the voice of the people.

Last, Eco states, Ur-Fascism speaks the language of Newspeak. Although the reference to 1984 is perhaps exaggerated, Eco explains, “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”[91] Trump emulates this fully – in an assessment of the field of candidates in the 2016 election cycle, Trump used the simplest language, often speaking at a sixth-grade level, compared to Hillary Clinton’s eight-grade and Bernie Sanders’ tenth-grade.[92] His simplistic language allows him to both ‘limit…critical reasoning’ and also to connect with an electorate where 40 percent of voters retain only basic literacy.

Having assessed Eco’s definition for fascism line by line, Donald Trump comes out neck-deep in Ur-Fascism. There is no denying that Eco would classify Trump as an Ur-Fascist. Not only does he satisfy some of Eco’s criteria – he exemplifies all but one.

Because Eco concerns himself largely with modes of thinking rather than modes of action (i.e. Eco’s criteria of syncretism, machismo, and selective populism vs. Eley and Laqueur’s criteria of political violence) it precludes the need to wait and see if Trump will act on these internal proclivities in order to classify him as fascist. While Eley and Laqueur’s definitions in part require that the crimes be ongoing before we can say with certainty that they will occur, Eco is happy to predict that Trump will act like a fascist because, inside, he is one, whether or not he has demonstrated it externally.

Thus, in the context of democratic impasse and malaise in the US, Donald Trump is particularly dangerous. If we take Eco’s word (and, given his lived experience, we ought) then we can oppose Trump as fascist now, before we allow violent political reprisals to become an integral part of our political system. Although Eley and Laqueur provide perhaps better and more concrete methods of determining whether someone is fascist, only Eco provides with the predictive power to stop fascism before it takes hold. 

 

Conclusion

What, then, can we take away from this exercise? In all three definitions, we find that the US is ripe for fascism to take hold, regardless of Donald Trump’s standing in the matter. Thus, we ought be wary in of any leader exhibiting other symptoms of fascism. Beyond this, we find that nationalism plays a large role, as does a rejection of democracy. We find that the end result (and most concerning aspect) of fascism is political violence. While Trump has not yet outright ordered violence against political opponents, he has certainly welcomed it at rallies and used rhetoric that borderline endorsed such violence. Furthermore, even if such violence is not currently latent, it might present at a later date. However, the question then becomes, do we really want to wait until political violence becomes part of our government before we call Donald Trump a fascist? Ought we not preempt violence if possible? If the choice is between failing to diagnose fascism early on and risking violence later and falsely diagnosing a leader as violent when in fact he is only an imperialistic nationalist with anti-democratic tendencies who uses the threat of social and economic Armageddon to consolidate his own power, I believe the cost of a ‘false’ diagnosis is far outweighed by the benefit of averting potential violence and death. To return, then, to my previous analogy: it would behoove us to cry wolf, because even if canine-esque silhouette is only a fox, we have a duty to protect the sheep.

As proud, however, as I might be of my farm animal analogy, I will leave it to Eco, far more eloquent than I, to close, and to remind us why this work is necessary and why me must be vigilant:

It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world. Franklin Roosevelt’s words of November 4, 1938, are worth recalling: “I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.” Freedom and liberation are an unending task.

       – Umberto Eco, 1995

May his memory be eternal.

 

Footnotes

[1] Eley 94

[2] Eley 104

[3] Eley 104-105

[4] Eley 102

[5] Eley 102

[6] Eley 101

[7] Whittam 2

[8] Whittam 9

[9] Whittam 7

[10] Whittam 20

[11] Whittam 20

[12] America First Foreign Policy. Trump, Donald J.  https://www.whitehouse.gov/america-first-foreign-policy

[13] “President Trump: Nationalist Capitalism, An Alternative to Globalization?” James Petras. Global Research. 28 Jan 2017. http://www.globalresearch.ca/president-trump-nationalist-capitalism-an-alternative-to-globalization/5571368

[14] “Roll-Back of Federal Regulations Isn’t Easy”. Amy Harder and Colleen McCain Nelson. The Wall Street Journal. 10 March 2016. https://www.wsj.com/articles/roll-back-of-federal-regulations-isnt-easy-1457482577

[15] “What’s at Stake in Trump’s Proposed E.P.A. CutsHiroko Tabuchi. The New York Times. 10 April 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/10/climate/trump-epa-budget-cuts.html?_r=0

[16] “Trump seeks to slash Education Department but make big push for school choice”. Emma Brown and Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. Washington Post. 16 March 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/trump-seeks-to-slash-education-department-but-make-big-push-for-school-choice/2017/03/15/63b8b6f8-09a1-11e7-b77c-0047d15a24e0_story.html?utm_term=.83ed3bee4a82

[17] “Trump wants to give the rich a big tax cut. Here’s what his supporters want.” Max Ehrenfreund. Washington Post. 14 April 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/04/14/trump-wants-to-give-the-rich-a-big-tax-cut-heres-what-his-supporters-want/?utm_term=.cdbffc480d83

[18]‘All Talk,’ ‘No Action,’ Says Trump in Twitter Attack on Civil Rights Icon”. Mark Landler. The New York Times. 14 Jan 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/14/us/politics/john-lewis-donald-trump.html

[19] “Congress and the Public” Gallup polls, http://www.gallup.com/poll/1600/congress-public.aspx

[20] GovTrack.com. Bills by Final Status. https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/statistics

[21] United States Senate. Cloture Motions. https://www.senate.gov/pagelayout/reference/cloture_motions/clotureCounts.htm

[22] Brown, Wendy. Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. Zone Books, New York. 2010.

[23] Eley 92

[24] “Executive Orders”. The White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/executive-orders?term_node_tid_depth=51&page=3

[25] “Violence breaks out at pro-Trump rally in Berkeley”. Peter H. King and Ruben Vives. Los Angeles Times. 5 March 2017. http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-trump-rally-berkeley-20170304-story.html

[26]  “Violence erupts at pro-Trump rally in Huntington Beach”. Cindy Carcamo, Adam Elmahrek, and Ben Brazil. 26 March 2017. http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-trump-rally-20170325-story.html

[27]  “The violent rally Trump can’t move past”. Avi Selk. The Washington Post. 3 April 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/04/03/the-violent-rally-trump-cant-move-past/?utm_term=.ebea4e1c7cf3

[28] Laqueur 22

[29] “Trump says U.S. ‘never wins wars’ anymore”. Dave Boyer. The Washington Times. 27 Feb 2017. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/feb/27/donald-trump-says-us-never-wins-wars-anymore/

[30] “Trump to Seek $54 Billion Increase in Military Spending”. Michael D. Shear and Jennifer Steinhauer. The New York Times. 27 Feb 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/27/us/politics/trump-budget-military.html

[31] “Trump creates new dangers with provocative comments about Iraqi oil”. Steve Benen. MSNBC. 26 Jan 2017. http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/trump-creates-new-dangers-provocative-comments-about-iraqi-oil

[32] “Trump Blasts 'Unprecedented Judicial Overreach' by Courts Blocking Travel Ban”. Zeke J Miller. Time. 15 Mar 2017. http://time.com/4703198/travel-ban-donald-trump-judicial-overreach/

[33] “Why Trump's talk of a rigged vote is so dangerous”. Stephen Collinson. CNN. 19 Oct 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/18/politics/donald-trump-rigged-election/

[34] Laqueur 14

[35] Laqueur 20

[36] “Trump: 'The experts are terrible'”. Nick Gass. Politico. 4 April 2016. http://www.politico.com/blogs/2016-gop-primary-live-updates-and-results/2016/04/donald-trump-foreign-policy-experts-221528

[37] “TRUMP: I'm a 'smart person,' don't need intelligence briefings every single day”. Maxwell Tani. Business Insider. 16 Dec 2016. http://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trump-intelligence-briefings-skip-2016-12

[38] Whittam 82

[39] Laqueur 28-29

[40] Laqueur 18

[41] “US is no longer a full democracy, EIU warns”. Nyshka Chandran. CNBC. 25 Jan 2017. http://www.cnbc.com/2017/01/25/us-is-no-longer-a-full-democracy-eiu-warns.html

[42] Laqueur 15

[43] “Here are the Republicans who endorsed Donald Trump for president”. Chris Sanchez. Business Insider. 30 Sept 2016. http://www.businessinsider.com/who-endorsed-donald-trump-for-president-2016-9/#sen-ted-cruz-1

[44] “President Trump will be more “politically correct” than candidate Trump, says Trump”. Tara Golshan. Vox. 25 Jan 2016. https://www.vox.com/2016/1/25/10828244/trump-politically-correct-president

[45] “Here are the Republicans who endorsed Donald Trump for president”. Chris Sanchez. Business Insider. 30 Sept 2016. http://www.businessinsider.com/who-endorsed-donald-trump-for-president-2016-9/#sen-ted-cruz-1

[46] Laqueur 16

[47] emphasis mine

[48] Laqueur 28

[49] “Why Donald Trump Isn’t A Real Candidate, In One Chart”. Harry Enten. FiveThirtyEight. 16 June 2015. https://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/why-donald-trump-isnt-a-real-candidate-in-one-chart/

[50] https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/2016-election-forecast/

[51] “Ignoring Donald Trump didn't work for Republicans. What now?” Cathleen Decker. The Los Angeles Times. 9 Dec 2015. http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-ca-donald-trump-analysis-20151208-story.html

[52] https://www.facebook.com/WeLovePresidentDonaldJTrump/

[53] “The Optimism and Anxiety of Trump Voters”. Clare Foran. The Atlantic. 20 Jan 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/01/trump-inauguration-popularity-voters-approval/513602/

[54] “Election 2016: Trump voters on why they backed him” BBC. 9 Nov 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/election-us-2016-36253275

[55] Eco, Umberto. “Ur-Fascism”. The New York Review of Books. 22 June 1995.

[56] Eco

[57] “The Appeal of Trumpism to Traditionalists”. Rob Goodman. The Atlantic. 12 March 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/03/david-gelernter-and-trumpism/519207/

[58] “Trump Hypocrisy: Blaming Syrian Chemical Attack on Obama”. David Corn and AJ Vicens. Mother Jones. 4 April 2017. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/04/trump-syria-obama-tweets-hypocrisy-chemical-attack

[59] Eco

[60] “Is President Trump irrational — or just playing a different game than everyone else?” Steven J. Brams. The Washington Post. 1 March 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/03/01/is-president-trump-irrational-or-just-playing-a-different-game-than-everyone-else/?utm_term=.c74c0e16b43f

[61] Eco

[62] “U.S. will take additional action 'as necessary' on Syria, Trump tells Congress”. Gregory Korte. USA Today. 8 April 2017. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/04/08/trump-war-powers-notice-to-congress-on-syria-strikes/100165628/

[63] “Trump 'will take action' to end any North Korea threat to US: top security adviser”. Nicki Rossoll. ABC News. 16 April 2017. http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/trump-action-end-north-korea-threat-us-top/story?id=46819528

[64] Eco

[65] “‘We Must Fight Them’: Trump Goes After Conservatives of Freedom Caucus”. Glenn Thrush and Jonathan Martin. The New York Times. 30 March 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/30/us/politics/freedom-caucus-donald-trump.html

[66] “Jury Convicts Woman Who Laughed At Jeff Sessions During Senate Hearing”. Ryan J. Reilly. Huffington Post. 3 May 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/jeff-sessions-laugh-congressional-hearing_us_590929bbe4b05c39768420ef

[67] Eco

[68] “What Donald Trump has said about Mexico and vice versa”. Tal Kopan. CNN. 31 Aug 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/31/politics/donald-trump-mexico-statements/

[69] “EXECUTIVE ORDER: PROTECTING THE NATION FROM FOREIGN TERRORIST ENTRY INTO THE UNITED STATES” Donald J. Trump. The White House. 27 Jan 2017.

[70] Eco

[71] Trump, Donald J. Inaugural Address, Washington D.C. 21 Jan 2017.

[72] “Is Trump an Ur-Fascist?” Nicholas Clairmont. The Atlantic. 5 Oct 2016. https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2016/10/fascism/502841/

[73] Eco

[74] “Is Trump an Ur-Fascist?” ibid.

[75] Eco

[76] https://www.whitehouse.gov/america-first-foreign-policy

[77] “The dangerous anger of Donald Trump”. Chris Cillizza. The Washington Post. 13 Nov 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/11/13/the-remarkably-unappealling-anger-of-donald-trump/?utm_term=.7ac710292d32

[78] Eco

[79] “Quit calling Donald Trump an isolationist. He’s worse than that.” Stephen Wertheim. The Washington Post. 17 Feb 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/02/17/quit-calling-donald-trump-an-isolationist-its-an-insult-to-isolationism/?utm_term=.a2b424a1679e

[80] Eco

[81] “Donald Trump’s defenses of not paying taxes pretty much say it all”. Aaron Blake. The Washington Post. 2 Oct 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/09/28/donald-trumps-defense-of-not-paying-taxes-is-remarkable/?utm_term=.6afde756851a

[82] “What's in the Health-Care Bill the House Just Passed?” Vann R. Newkirk II. The Atlantic. 4 May 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/05/what-we-know-about-the-american-health-care-act/525426/

[83] Eco

[84] Eco

[85] “Hillary Clinton says Donald Trump 'wants to undo marriage equality'”. Joshua Gillin. Politifact. 3 Nov 2016. http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2016/nov/03/hillary-clinton/hillary-clinton-says-donald-trump-wants-undo-marri/

[86] “Is Trump an Ur-Fascist?” ibid.

[87] Eco

[88] Trump, Donald J. GOP Presidential Nominee Acceptance Speech. 2016 Republican National Convention. 21 July 2016.

[89] http://www.bbc.com/news/election/us2016/results

[90] http://www.gallup.com/poll/204050/trump-job-approval-points-below-average-one-month-mark.aspx

[91] Eco

[92] “Donald Trump speaks like a sixth-grader. All politicians should.” Allison Jane Smith. The Washington Post. 3 May 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/05/03/donald-trump-speaks-like-a-sixth-grader-all-politicians-should/?utm_term=.24ec79cb1b97