Wayne O'Leary

A Tinge of Fascism

Since Donald Trump appeared on the scene as a serious presidential contender two years ago, a political question of some consequence has continued to swirl around him: Is the Donald actually a fascist, the first such to achieve power in the United States 72 years after fascism’s defeat in World War II?

There are tantalizing suggestions that he could fit the bill. An adage prevalent in the 1930s, and credited (probably inaccurately) to Louisiana’s populist strongman Huey Long, was that “when the United States gets fascism it will call it anti-fascism.” In other words, our native fascism, though authoritarian, would be based on calls for democratic patriotism.

That’s not far from the Donald’s insistent demands to “Make America great again” and the puerile, super-patriotic chants of “USA! USA!” punctuating his rallies. Fascist rhetoric has always been superficially patriotic, from Hitler’s quasi-religious invocations of the Fatherland to Mussolini’s expressed reverence for the State.

President Trump shares another characteristic with fascists of the past: he has no sense of humor, no self-deprecating wit, no appreciation for life’s ironies. Fascist leaders have always taken themselves very seriously. They’re where they are because God or “the people” placed them there to carry out a historical mission. An outsized ego is part of the critical make-up of a successful fascist demagogue, and Trump shares that personality trait in spades.

Shameless lying in public is another feature of the fascist methodology. Benito Mussolini was famous for his voluminous official propaganda, but Adolph Hitler set the standard, writing in Mein Kampf that “the great masses of the people … will more easily fall victim to a big lie than a small one.” Trump’s lies — that massive fraud cost him the popular vote in 2016, that he’s accomplished more than any other president in his first 100 days, that literally millions are pouring across our southern border bringing drugs and crime — can mostly be laughed off as the nonsense they are. More insidious is the concept of “alternative facts” conjured up by the Trump team, a rationale for outright fabrications that Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels would have doubtless admired.

There’s another, more dangerous and unscrupulous practice Trump shares with history’s fascist dictators: the designation of domestic scapegoats to divert followers from focusing on the real sources of their problems. For Hitler and, to a lesser extent, Mussolini, it was Jews; for Spain’s Francisco Franco, it was Communists. Donald Trump has a selected hate group, too — Muslims, often supplemented by immigrants in general, particularly those from the Southern Hemisphere. Both sets of second-class citizens satisfy the primary requirement for scapegoats: they are minorities and therefore constitute a minimal political threat.

Other attributes Trump has in common with practitioners of fascism include a worship of the military and a belligerent nationalism verging on imperialism. His spiritual predecessors would recognize and applaud the Donald’s flag-waving and threats of coercive sanctions against perceived enemies, as well as his reliance on generals for advice and counsel.

Part and parcel of the militaristic mindset is Trump’s pose as the one indispensable leader, the Nietzschean superhero who embodies the nation and will be its salvation. The Donald’s incessant claims that he, in his greatness, will solve all problems is right out of the fascist playbook. All that’s missing is a little Wagnerian travelling music.

Trumpworld even betrays a touch of corporative statism, a hallmark of traditional fascism, in the president’s actions and pronouncements. His relations with capital and labor — first cajoling, then threatening, and finally exercising paternalism (think the Carrier deal) — bring to mind the economic system devised by Mussolini in the 1920s, which retained capitalism, but employed government intimidation to direct its activities, subjecting or co-opting labor and seeing to it that corporations operated in the interests of the State while still benefitting the wealthy classes. In Nazi Germany, this produced the infamous Krupp arms dynasty. Trump is far from establishing such a system, but his instincts point in that direction.

One final indicator that the Trump government could be meandering toward a form of fascism is its desire to break down the barriers between church and state. Historically, an alliance between religious conservatism and fascist politics goes back to Mussolini, the architect of European fascism (Hitler was a latecomer), who engineered a rapprochement between his secular dictatorship and a Vatican led by the socially conservative and authoritarian-minded Pope Pius XI. Formalized by the Lateran Treaty of 1929, it placed Italy’s Roman Catholic hierarchy firmly in the fascist camp, in exchange for Il Duce’s formal recognition of the church’s religious preeminence in Italian society.

The Trump equivalent is his courting of America’s far-right Christian conservatives, Protestant and Catholic, and his party’s endorsement of their demands regarding sectarian education, “pro-life” health issues, and partisan political activity, in return for their support of a rather irreligious and morally challenged president.

Trump’s religious marriage of convenience was no doubt facilitated by his Svengali-like advisor Stephen K. Bannon, an extreme doctrinal traditionalist whose right-wing Catholicism encompasses an antagonistic attitude toward Islam, as well as a jaundiced view of the liberal Pope Francis and his supposed Marxist views; Bannon has become an unofficial Trump liaison with anti-Francis conservative clergy within the Vatican who are committed to moving the church to the right.

The Bannon-inspired Trump outreach to European hard-line conservatism has extended beyond radical “church militant” types to secular right-wingers like Marine Le Pen, a White House favorite, but has so far fallen well short of approaching the key tenet of historical fascism - - outright autocracy. The original fascists all sought to abolish democracy, whereas Trump and the right-wing parties presently disrupting Europe (improperly labelled “populist”) have remained committed to a democratic framework. Their collective stance can most accurately be described as neo-fascist.

When evaluating the politics of President Trump and the obscenely rich crowd around him, it has to be remembered that, with the possible exception of chief strategist Bannon, they are not driven by high-flown philosophical constructs or complex ideology; they’ve written no political tracts, and they’re not activist theoreticians. What motivates Trump and his grasping retinue above all else is money and how to use government to get it.

At his core, Donald Trump is an opportunistic real-estate developer. That fact alone should keep his incipient fascism in check.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2017


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