I am somewhat relieved that Trump lost the Iowa caucuses, although that by no means knocks him out of a race in which he still leads the polls. I’ve made little secret elsewhere that I regard his candidacy as a disaster, although that by no means makes me a fan of many of the others. Cruz consistently seems a little off and until recently he was particularly pusillanimous in his sucking up to Trump (although I doubt he’s the “Manitoban Candidate”), and as for Hillary Clinton, one of the most openly corrupt and autocratic of US politicians? Well I’ve repeatedly referred to a hypothetical Trump-Clinton contest as Aliens vs Predator: “whichever side wins, we lose”.
Trump however does come into a special category by himself. I don’t know whether he actually believes half of what he’s saying, especially as in many cases he’s expressed the opposite opinion in the last couple of years. But he does seem, in both his business and highly publicised (by himself) personal life, to have a very flexible attitude towards keeping commitments. Moreover, while I have a pessimistic outlook on the future of the West, I think Trump’s observable temperament means that any presidency of his could risk accelerating the risk of world war three (and consequent collapse of world trade) from some time in the next decade to within the next eighteen months.
But while Donald Trump is a demagogue and a reality tv star who knows how to pander to a crowd, he’s not a fascist. Some of his followers may be even more worrying. Trump’s political career may (and I stress may) also be on a downward slope. Yet Trumpism may live on. Trump’s rivals doubtless have to try and secure the support of at least some of them, and so may tamper any criticisms. I, however, am neither running for office nor am even American, so I can say what I like.
Yet I am not seeking to merely make a lazy accusation here (and there have been a few). I don’t think all, or even most of Trump’s supporters are driven by racism; I believe the increased visibility of some self-proclaimed “white nationalists” are the work of noisy and poisonous minority. When I accuse “Trumpism” of being “proto-fascistic”, I am referring to certain common threads I’ve seen among a range of Trump supporters, and I am not using fascism in the discredited sense (even in George Orwell’s time) of “something I don’t like”. Nor am I using it in the sense in which it is often used by left-wing groups as “a slur against something right-wing”; an often hypocritical charge, since left-wing political extremism is just a bloody, and here in Britain at least it is Labour who are compromising most on this front with the appointment of people like Seumus Milne, who is an apologist for Stalin’s genocides.
But there are certain common strands to fascistic groups (which – in my view – includes National Socialism, although that had its own rather particular features such as its obsession with race). Some in particular seem – in my view, and in an early, undeveloped state – to find regular expression amongst Trump supporters:
1) “He’s a strong leader”:- Trump is not the most consistent of ideological champions. He has, even in the last couple of years, been on both sides of issues that many Republicans, including his supporters, have said are important: immigration (he felt Romney in 2012 – who did not propose mass expulsions – was too anti-immigrant, now it’s his main issue); health care (he praised single-payer health care – seeming anathema to Republicans who reject Obamacare – in on of the Republican presidential debates last year); abortion (was strongly “pro-choice” until very recently) and many others. It’s difficult to find a policy, or a person (such as his opinions and support for Hillary Clinton – or more recently Ted Cruz), that he hasn’t been on both sides of. The only issue he appears to be consistent on are his protectionist instincts.
Yet any past and indeed present heterodoxies are excused on the basis of him being “a strong leader”. That they are so easily excused is quite baffling, especially when some of his supporters have generally been extremely purist in their approach to politicians in the past, and in fact still are. It’s only on Trump that such rules are relaxed. Indeed, some of his supporters seem willing to change their views to whatever he supports (although the same goes for some of his opponents)! In any case, however, this denigration of abstract principle in favour of appealing to “strength” or perceived “alpha male” qualities is characteristic of (although by no means limited to) fascistic movements. Any inconsistencies or problems with the leader are dismissed out of hand, as with the Führerprinzip, principles are for “losers”.
2) “The Establishment”:- One reason any such inconsistencies is dismissed is because of the perceived impurities of the chosen scapegoat. The Trump campaign and its followers have scapegoated a variety of targets – Mexicans (despite most illegal immigrants now being visa overstays), Muslims (as much as I discourage naivety, picking a fight with all Muslims – most of whom aren’t terrorists – seems stupid) – but none has achieved more mythic proportions than the shadowy “establishment”, who simultaneously are all powerful but cannot get their supposed favourite Jeb Bush higher than a couple of percent in the polls. Despite there being a multitude of other candidates, this “establishment” is supposedly firmly united in their desire to beat Trump so they can lose to Hillary.
It is moreover the “establishment” that are to blame for Obama’s policies, because they didn’t stop him (that Obama is using executive orders, or that to impeach him you’d need a political case strong enough to persaude about a third of Democratic senators to vote for impeachment too are mere details – see below). Nor can they do anything right – Paul Ryan is blamed for passing a spending bill that includes funds to Planned Parenthood, despite him being the first to actually get a bill defunding Planned Parenthood to Obama’s desk, and despite the fact that Trump himself is not in favour of defunding Planned Parenthood. Likewise anyone can belong to the “establishment”, including people praised by the Tea Party just a couple of years ago, while anyone who praises Trump is not “establishment”, no matter how rich and established they may be.
It is a characteristic fascistic tendency to blame present (real or perceived) problems on the malice of shadowy adversaries or outgroups. The Nazis obviously went for racial classifications, but other varieties of fascism show that need not be a factor (Italy, until German pressure prevailed, actually did far more to protect Jews from their ally than, say, Vichy France: 80% of Italian Jews survived). But there is always some group held responsible for the “stab in the back” (the “white nationalists” who have jumped on the Trump bandwagon do of course take a racial approach, including anti-semitism, but again this does not characterize more than a minority of Trump supporters).
3) “He fights”:- Linked to this is the supposed contrast between Trump and “the establishment”: that “he fights!” Fighting apparently solves everything – I have seen repeatedly the response when presented with the arithmetic on impeachment the assertion that if Republicans simply “fought”, they’d get what they want. The mental plan appears to go like this: a) Obama does something b) we “fight” c) ????? d) we win! Similar suggestions are given for election campaigns, as if its simply enough to “fight” the media and the voters, rather than trying to persuade some of the voters to vote for you. Trumps virtue is that he always “fights”. And his followers want a fight.
Fortunately this is violence in a purely rhetorical sense (although Ted Cruz’s proposal regarding ISIS seems to dabble in a similar fallacy that victory is simply a case of dropping more and more explosives). But the valorisation of violence, of “fighting” and of struggle is again characteristic of fascistic modes of thought, including the belief that it is the only, and indeed a sufficient solution (it’s doubtless the line that “violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor” that cause people to misdiagnose Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers as a fascist book, although I’d believe that to be mistaken). “Fighting” solves everything, and so whether Trump “fights” is the important criterion. Few seem to stop and ask “but what is Trump fighting for“?
4) “He’s a winner”:- Linked with the above is that “he’s a winner”. Trump “wins”, and thus he’ll win for his supporters, and again that’s the principle thing. That should have hopefully taken a hit since he actually lost Iowa, though there’s still 49 contests to go and there seems to be a willingness to believe in conspiracy theories (including a ridiculous one where Marco Rubio conspired with Microsoft to go from third place to a closer third place) to explain this apparent not winning. Trump has made this explicitly part of his appeal (“There will be so much winning when I’m elected, you may get bored of winning” – hopefully no one has accused him of being a poet). Implicit (and explicit in the words of a number of his supporters) is the idea that the means don’t matter – it’s okay if Trump resorts to dubious campaign tactics, fights dirty or using extra-constitutional executive orders once in office – if he “wins”. I don’t know if it’s at all necessary to go into this – fascistic movements believed any means were fair if it brought about the desired results (hence their poor track record, amongst other things, of abiding by treaties). Incidentally, I believe this is one of the real connections between Nietzsche and the Nazis. He wasn’t a fascist, and so those scholars who have contested his association with fascism and/or Nazism have a point. The problem with Nietzsche is that the only coherent moral critique you could make of the Nazis based on his philosophy is that they lost.
5) “Make America great again”:- Finally, Trump’s campaign and his supporters indulge in outright nationalism. This characteristic is a widespread feature of fascistic movements, though it is not exclusive: it is the accumulation of these traits, rather than any single one, that leads me to characterise the Trump movement as “proto-fascist”. Certainly a number of his supporters (and not just the “white nationalist” fringe) are attracted by his notion of improving American power, stopping immigration and reversing perceived unfair trade relationships, and I’ve certain seen a few openly acknowledge that he isn’t a “conservative”, but this is outweighed by him being a “nationalist”.
Personally, I believe there’s a distinction between patriotism and nationalism – the former I believe a virtue, while the latter, particularly in its extreme variants, verges on idolatry, especially when it is the nation that becomes the highest virtue. A nationalist is not necessarily a fascist or a proto-fascist (indeed Trump himself is far too incoherent and individualist to be either himself, although I don’t think resembling Andrew Jackson is a good thing either), but its an often universal feature because it presents some collective good that overrides other principles. And indeed, I’ve seen at least a few Trump supporters arguing that the nation must come first, before any other principles.
As stated, a lot of these features are in an early, undeveloped state. In isolation, they may well simple be features of other political tendencies (such as Jacksonianism – though the Trail of Tears argues against taking that as a benign tendency). But together, you have the beginnings of a movement with definite proto-fascist tendencies. With any luck it’ll peter out along with Trump’s own political career. I do not think, however, that this can be regarded with an entirely tranquil gaze.
As for the fringe “white nationalists”, well I hope they go back to what internet abyss they came from. It is perhaps ironic, however, that as much as such people put on an “internet tough guy” approach that they’d have been the first victims of something like “the Night of Long Knives”.