With growing discussion focused on the far-right movements that have grown in the United States under the Trump Administration, David Renton asks how useful the label of ‘fascist’ is for describing Trump’s own politics.
Is Donald Trump a fascist? Judging by some of the speeches at last week’s Democratic Convention, key figures of American liberalism seem to think so. The election, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in the sixty seconds allowed to her, was about ‘stopping fascism in the United States. That is what Donald Trump represents.’
Barack Obama was more coded, using the word democracy 18 times in his twenty-minute speech; he told listeners, ‘This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win,’ and urged them to resist authoritarianism: ‘Don’t let them take away your democracy.’
Trump’s critics are right to see him as something new and different, a more nationalist and authoritarian form of Republican politics than that which dominated from the start of the Reagan era until 2016. But we need to distinguish between the parts of Trump’s politics which are like fascism – principally, the encouragement of a far-right street movement, for example by actively promoting and retweeting its activists – and the parts which aren’t.
Between 1920 and 1922, fascism emerged in Italy through a campaign of violence against the left and its organisations. Michael Ebner, the historian of these attacks, writes that ‘Blackshirted squadristi beat, shot, ritually humiliated and destroyed the property of peasants, workers, politicians, journalists and labour organisers … Socialists and the working classes were the primary victims.’
From that perspective, the moment at which Trump comes closest to fascism is when he’s on Twitter and when he calls on the support of people who see street politics as the key rather than electoral politics, and who are willing to threaten a similar kind of punitive violence against their liberal and anti-fascist (‘antifa’) opponents.
In the last week, for example, Trump has been actively boosting on social media the supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory which hold that the world has been taken over by evil liberals, that they are holding tens of thousands of children hostage, and that they can be defeated by a military struggle involving Trump, the army, etc.
QAnon myths are promoted by conspiracy theorists for whom the shapeshifting enemy can be lizards, Jews, or liberals, as the fancy takes them. While QAnon is pro-Trump, it looks beyond him. The politics QAnon supporters promote are counter-revolutionary: they demand that the state is purged of people who disagree with them. The logic towards which their politics points is the use of the police and courts to jail QAnon’s socialist and liberal enemies. Before its recent partial deplatforming, something like three million people were in QAnon groups. They haven’t limited themselves to organizing online: QAnon supporters have held large demonstrations, even in Britain.
This part of Trump’s base can accurately be described as fascist. But the further you stretch your use of fascism from something which has the consequences of fascism (i.e. extermination camps and world war), the more you damage our shared understanding of the word, so that if a ‘fascist’ is just someone who votes for the right, then now and into the near future at least 40 percent of the population will be fascist – and how could anyone respond to a threat which is that pervasive and that vague?
The classic Marxist theories of fascism in the interwar years (Zetkin, Thalheimer, Trotsky), saw fascism’s distinctiveness as resting in the way it navigated between two competing instincts – a reactionary fascist politics and a mass movement. Other far-right regimes (which, by 1939, governed almost all of central, southern and eastern Europe) emphasized the first of these at the expense of the second. The fascists, by contrast, were able to keep these two sources of their power in balance: this made them chaotic and energetic. This equal integration of two contradictory aspects enabled them to grow, and caused their regime to self-radicalise in office. (It also made them vulnerable to defeat at the hands of principled and rooted opponents.) Trump is, on this model, far closer to the likes of interwar European dictators like Miguel Primo de Rivera in Spain, or Józef Piłsudski in Poland, than he is to Mussolini or Hitler.
There are a number of ways in which Trump is unlike the fascists of the 1930s. His appointees do not seek to implement his every public message, in the way that Hitler’s supporters rested on his every word. There is not the same dynamic as could be witnessed under fascism, in which the governing party had offered its supporters such an immediate prospect of social change that it had to give them something – and that something changed incrementally from a cultural revolution and the prospect of a ‘new fascist man’, into the reality of mass killing.
With one or two obvious exceptions – such as the Muslim travel ban – Trump hasn’t introduced reactionary laws. He has never introduced an equivalent of the Nazi ‘Enabling Act’ which enabled that regime to govern without parliamentary supervision, nor hinted at anything preliminary to it.
With Trump, in part because he spends so much time online, you see him make grandiose-seeming dictatorial threats. He raises the hopes and ambitions of his most violent supporters – and then does little to satisfy them. Where a reactionary change would require mere presidential guidance (such as over high school bathrooms), or changes to the White House website, he has acted quickly and cruelly. But where it would require changes to the organisation of the state, Trump’s team have not had the administrative competence to carry them through – deportations, for example, have been no higher under Trump than they were under Obama. By autumn 2019, the Mexican wall was just 9 miles longer than it had been in 2016.
While the fascist street movements of the 1930s led only to Hitler or Mussolini, don’t think that today’s far right could or will lead only to more power for Trump.
Unlike the fascist leaders of the 1930s, Trump sees no active role for his supporters other than as a crowd to cheer him. He doesn’t want to see them fighting a war with the state on his behalf, nor is he offering to employ them to staff a new Trump-supporting police and army.
For that reason, and with the notable exception of QAnon, the American far right is independent of Trump. It enjoys his support but is thinking away from him.
Already you’re seeing, for example, Richard Spencer, the poster boy of the American alt-right, announce that he’ll vote Democrat: ‘the liberals are clearly more competent people.’ (His readers will have understood this as a reference to the choice of Kamala Harris to be Joe Biden’s mate, and her record in expanding the carceral state).
Or think of the killer who attacked the Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018, Robert Bower. Bower had been shaped by a Trump milieu, and radicalised by sites such as Gab, a far-right media platform. But, having been influenced by Trump, the killer went beyond him, calling Trump a ‘globalist’ and not a ‘nationalist’. Bower supported political terrorism as the alternative to a regime which promised the far right much and had delivered little.
Trump turned groups of a few dozen people into political figures whose names are widely known. To take just one example. James Allsup, a member of Identity Evropa, first came to the attention of the press in 2016 when he was a student Republican at Washington State University, and a vocal supporter of Donald Trump. Together with fewer than a dozen other people who supported him, Allsup put up a ‘Trump Wall’ at WSU. He later invited Milo Yiannopoulos to speak. Both events were widely covered in the right-wing press. Prior to 2015 and Trump’s run for the Republican nomination, Allsup had no presence on YouTube at all. In August 2019, when YouTube closed his account, his films had enjoyed some 73 million views.
The far right, and its fascist component, have grown enormously under Trump’s patronage. All the rest of us are going to be living with the consequence of that for years to come. But already his street army is showing signs of thinking beyond him.
David Renton’s next book Fascism: History and Theory, is published by Pluto Books in September 2020.