Election 2016

Trump’s Not Hitler, He’s Mussolini: How GOP Anti-Intellectualism Created a Modern Fascist Movement in America

Fascism is about the most powerful epithet one can use -- but it fits with Donald Trump. A historian explains why.

Photo Credit: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock

In an interview with Slate, the historian of fascism Robert Paxton warns against describing Donald Trump as Fascist because “it’s almost the most powerful epithet you can use.”  But in this case, the shoe fits.  And here is why.

Like Mussolini, Trump rails against intruders (Mexicans) and enemies (Muslims), mocks those perceived as weak, encourages a violent reckoning with those his followers perceive as the enemy within (the roughing up of protesters at his rallies), flaunts the rules of civil political discourse (the Megyn Kelly menstruation spat), and promises to restore the nation to its greatness not by a series of policies, but by the force of his own personality (“I will be great for” fill in the blank).  

To quote Paxton again, this time from his seminal The Anatomy of Fascism: “Fascist leaders made no secret of having no program.” This explains why Trump supporters are not bothered by his ideological malleability and policy contradictions: he was pro-choice before he was pro-life; donated to politicians while now he rails against that practice; married three times and now embraces evangelical Christianity; is the embodiment of capitalism and yet promises to crack down on free trade.  In the words of the Italian writer Umberto Eco, Fascism was “a beehive of contradictions.”  It bears noting that Mussolini was a socialist unionizer before becoming a Fascist union buster, a journalist before cracking down on free press, a republican before becoming a monarchist.

Like Mussolini, Trump is dismissive of democratic institutions.  He selfishly guards his image of a self-made outsider who will “dismantle the establishment” in the words of one of his supporters.  That this includes cracking down on free press by toughening libel laws, engaging in the ethnic cleansing of eleven million people (“illegals”), stripping away citizenship of those seen as illegitimate members of the nation (children of the “illegals”), and committing war crimes in the protection of the nation (killing the families of suspected terrorists) only enhances his stature amongst his supporters.  The discrepancy between their love of America and these brutal and undemocratic methods does not bother them one iota.  To borrow from Paxton again: “Fascism was an affair of the gut more than of the brain.”  For Trump and his supporters, the struggle against “political correctness” in all its forms is more important than the fine print of the Constitution.

To be fair, there are many differences between Italian Fascism of interwar Europe and Trumpism of (soon to be) post-Obama America.  For one, Mussolini was better read and more articulate than Trump.  Starting out as a schoolteacher, the Italian Fascist read voraciously and was heavily influenced by the German and French philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Marie Guyau, respectively. I doubt Trump would know who either of these two people were.  According to The Boston Globe, Trump speaks at the level of a fourth grader.

There are other more consequential differences of course: the interwar Italy was a much bigger mess than the U.S.A. is today; the democratic institutions of this country are certainly more resilient and durable than those of the young unstable post-World War I Italy; the economy, both U.S. and worldwide, is not in the apocalyptic state it was in the interwar period; and the demographics of the U.S.A. mitigate against the election of a racist demagogue.  So, Trump’s blackshirts are not marching on Washington, yet.

Also, as a historian I have learned to beware of historical analogies and generally eschew them whenever I can, particularly when it comes to an ideology that during World War II caused the deaths of 60 million human beings. The oversaturation of our discourse with Hitler comparisons is not only exasperating for any historian, but is offensive to the memory of Hitler’s many victims most notably the six million Jews his regime murdered in cold blood.

Finally, rather than explaining it, historical analogies often distort the present, sometimes with devastating consequences.  The example that comes to mind is the Saddam-is-like-Hitler analogy many in the George W. Bush administration used to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which was an unmitigated disaster.  The overuse, or misuse, of a historical analogy can also make policy makers more hesitant to act with equally disastrous consequences: the prime examples are Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s when the West attributed their inaction to stop the slaughter in each country by arguing that these massacres were “not like the Holocaust.”

Thus, for a historical analogy to be useful to us, it has to advance our understanding of the present.  And the Trumpism-Fascism axis (pun intended) does this in three ways: it explains the origins of Trump the demagogue; it enables us to read the Trump rally as a phenomenon in its own right; and it allows those of us who are unequivocally opposed to hate, bigotry, and intolerance, to rally around an alternative, equally historical, program: anti-fascism.

The Very Fascist Origins of Trumpism

That white supremacist groups back Donald Trump for president of the United States, and his slowness to disavow the support of David Duke, all illuminate the fascistic origins of Trump the phenomenon.  In fact, Paxton acknowledges that while Fascism began in France and Italy, “the first version of the Klan in the defeated American south was arguably a remarkable preview of the way fascist movements were to function in interwar Europe.” That the KKK was drawn to the Trump candidacy, and that he refused to disavow them speak volumes about his fascistic roots.

Like Fascism, Trumpism has come about on the heels of a protracted period of ideological restlessness.  Within the Republican Party this restlessness has resulted in a complete de-legitimization of the so-called GOP establishment.

Benito Mussolini came to the scene in the 1920s at a time when all the known “isms” of the time had lost their mojos.  Conservatism, which since the French Revolution had been advocating for monarchy, nobility, and tradition, was dealt a devastating blow by the First World War, which destroyed four major empires (Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and German), made universal male suffrage (mostly) the norm, and eliminated a generation of aristocrats.  Although initially seen as victorious, liberalism, in its emphasis on equality, constitutions, parliaments, and civil debates, quickly proved unable to solve the mammoth problems facing Europe after the war.  To the millions of unemployed, angry, and hungry Europeans, the backroom politicking and obscure party debates seemed petty at best, and deserving of destruction at worst.  Shoving millions of Europeans into nation-states they saw as alien to their ethnicity created huge minority problems and sparked irredentist movements including fascists and their many copycats.  The success of Lenin’s Bolsheviks in Russia and their protracted, terrifying, civil war made Communism unpalatable for most Europeans.

Enter Fascism. Fascism promised people deliverance from politics.  Fascism was not just different type of politics, but anti-politics.  On the post-WWI ruins of the Enlightenment beliefs in progress and essential human goodness, Fascism embraced emotion over reason, action over politics.  Violence was not just a means to an end, but the end in itself because it brought man closer to his true inner nature.  War was an inevitable part of this inner essence of man.  Millions of European men had found this sense of purpose and camaraderie in the trenches of the First World War and were not going to sit idly by while politicians took it away from them after the war (famously, after the war Hitler was slow to demobilize and take off his uniform).  Fascists’ main enemies were not just Marxist politicians, or liberal politicians, but politicians in general.

It is therefore no coincidence that the most common explanation Trump supporters muster when asked about their vote is that “he is no politician.”  Trump did not invent this anti-politics mood, but he tamed it in accordance with his own needs.  Ever since the election of Barack Obama the Republicans have refused to co-govern.  Senator Mitch McConnell’s vow that his main purpose would be to deny the president a second term was only the first of many actions by which the Republicans have retreated from politics.  The Tea Party wave meant an absolute refusal to compromise on even the most essential issues, which were central to the economic survival of the government if not the entire country (the Debt ceiling fiasco anyone?!).  But since then it has gotten worse: now even the establishment Republicans who had been initially demonized by the Tea Party, such as Mitch McConnell, have openly abrogated their own constitutional powers by refusing to exercise them.  This has been most evident in their blanket refusal to even hold a hearing for a Scalia replacement on the Supreme Court.  In other words, the Republicans themselves, not Trump, broke politics.

The anti-intellectualism of Trump has also been a long time in the making.  It was the Republican establishment that has for decades refused to even consider the science of climate change and has through local education boards strove to prevent the teaching of evolution. Although not as explicit as the Fascists were in their efforts to use the woman’s body for reproducing the nation, the Republican attempts at restricting abortion rights, and women access to healthcare in general have often been designed with the same purpose in mind.  Of course American historians have pointed to this larger strand of anti-intellectualism in American politics, but what is different about this moment is that Trump has successfully wedded this anti-Enlightenment mood with the anti-political rage of the Republican base.

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