It is difficult for most Americans to judge just how dangerous Donald Trump might be. It is not that the clues are missing; there is a daily list of lies, racist comments, misogynist ramblings, and outrageous self-dealing. But most citizens just don’t have the right vocabulary to put his actions into some sort of context, even in these pandemic times.
The left has been more confident about where Trump fits in the general run of very bad presidents. He is simply a fascist, whose behavior is very similar to other calamitous dictators we have seen in the twentieth century. This conclusion becomes increasingly believable when Trump talks about a confrontation that could happen if he doesn’t get his way. “I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”
Trump is not talking about the workings of a democracy, or the endlessly touted separation of powers between the Congress, the Executive, and the Judiciary. Bikers for Trump is simply a Brownshirt organization, waiting for their leader’s call to violence.
When the word fascist is used in print, it always refers to supposed foreign enemies of the state. The term is never used to refer to Americans in high office no matter how egregious or brutal their crimes have been.
Yet the term fascist rarely gets used in polite company. The New York Times is especially careful not to offend mainstream sensibilities. When the word fascist is used in print, it always refers to supposed foreign enemies of the state. The term is never used to refer to Americans in high office no matter how egregious or brutal their crimes have been.
Getting past this simplistic use of the term for enemy leaders, there are some aspects of fascism that fit Trump quite exactly. Comparing Trump’s behavior to the list of fascist characteristics created by the Italian scholar, Umberto Eco, in his essay “Eternal Fascism” is especially revealing.
Trump believes in sudden decisions rather than reflection, or as Eco describes it, “the cult of action for action’s sake.” Eco’s fascists often equate disagreement of their policies with treason, and so too does Trump. Fascist leaders cultivate the “fear of difference” which encourages racist aggression towards minorities and foreigners. In Trump’s world Mexicans are rapists and Muslims are terrorists. Eco refers to another characteristic as an “obsession with plot,” and Trump’s conspiracies come straight from right wing websites without the least pretense of fact checking.
Trump’s own life is a perpetual battle, something he probably learned from his father’s lawyer, one of the chief strategists of the McCarthy Era, Roy Cohn. Eco describes this as a “life of permanent warfare.” Another of Eco’s characteristics of a fascist is a contempt for the weak, or as Trump would put it referring to John McCain, “I like soldiers who don’t get captured.”
Trump’s bragging about his power to assault women, or “grab them by the pussy” fits well into Eco’s description of “machismo,” the application of perpetual war to the sphere of sexuality. This tendency is well documented in the way Trump has treated the rights of women and the LGBTQ community.
Eco describes fascist leaders as using “selective populism,” to manipulate economic discontent into political power, becoming in effect the interpreter of the popular will. Trump’s efforts to kill environmental regulations, close the Mexican border, and end abortion rights are his analysis of what the population wants. In this way, economic anger is redirected towards goals that don’t present a challenge to the rule of the rich elite.
Finally, Eco refers to “newspeak,” the language of Oceania, George Orwell’s fictional totalitarian state. In “Nineteen Eighty-Four” the ruling class controls thought by limiting language. Vocabulary is diminished, ideas are grossly simplified, and any discussion of morality reduced to black and white. Or to put it in “Trump Speak,” all people and events are either “tremendous” or “very bad.”
Jacobo Timerman in his “Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number” adds nuance to this concept of diminished language and simplified ideas. The fascist authorities in Argentina during Timerman’s incarceration feared and hated complexity. Editors like himself were suspect, but so too were psychoanalysts and academics. Multifaceted concepts and theories were considered subversive in themselves and writing about them often resulted in prison and torture. Similarly, “Making America Great Again” never involves more thought than watching Fox News or chanting racist slogans. News is either real or fake. Perspective immigrants are from either great or “shithole” countries.
One characteristic of fascism, missing from more recent descriptions, can be traced all the way back to Mussolini’s Minister of Education, Giovanni Gentile, who wrote about what he called “corporatism.” The word itself has a long history in political theory, but to Gentile it meant an enforced harmony between social classes: workers, employers and the state. Harmony, of course, with one person at the top making most of the decisions. It was an attractive concept for the ruling class, since corporatism would eliminate labor demands and leftist ideologies. “And above all,” wrote Mussolini in 1932, “Fascism denies that class-war can be the preponderant force in the transformation of society.”
On the surface, Mussolini’s rise to power in the early 1920’s had little to do with corporatism. It was based on squads of Blackshirts that murdered thousands of socialists and unionists all across the country. Hitler employed very similar tactics starting in the late 1920’s, using his Brownshirts to beat, torture and assassinate anyone who opposed his Nazi agenda.
Less recognized, however, is the fact that both terrorist organizations had elite corporate sponsorships. For Mussolini, that support starting as early as 1922 and remained consistent until the end of WW II. For Hitler, corporate money came later, in 1928 after he had purged the socialist elements of his party.
While Gentile’s definition of corporatism did not include payoffs by the rich elite to Mussolini, the support of this class proved to be a critical piece in his ascent to power. The same is true for Hitler. Before 1928, his lack of funding was a constant impediment to achieving complete control. After that date, the major corporations saw Hitler as a way to destroy unions, end socialist resistance, and ensure profits.
Is this same phenomenon at work today in paving the way for Trump’s rise to power? An interesting Market Watch study conducted two years into Trump’s presidency found that despite his reckless behavior and contempt for the democratic process, the nation’s top CEOs were giving almost three times as much to Republicans as Democrats. And that just scratches the surface since most donations to the major parties come from company PACs and dark money, controlled in large part by this same CEO class.
The 1920’s were similar to the last decade in several ways. Industrialized countries saw the rich elite prosper greatly during both periods, giving them much more money to influence their political systems. At the same time, economic discontent became more overt as the majority of workers became unable to support their families. Rage at the system became a distinct threat to the very wealthy.
Have the CEOs and the very rich in our time reacted in the same way as they did in the 1920’s? Are they in fact funding authoritarian leaders who will protect corporate profits, using racism and nationalism to turn anger at the system into anger at immigrants, minorities and anyone who disagrees with them?
By avoiding the use of the word fascism, mainstream media analysis fails our democracy in two ways. First, we as citizens can’t look at Trump and judge him by historical standards. His actions may be outrageous and deplorable, but we remain oblivious to the pattern of a fascist leader that he exhibits.
The second way that the media fails is to limit how fascism is described. It is always a person rather than a national movement; a Netanyahu rather than the Israeli people, or a Hitler rather than all Germans. Fascism may be encouraged by someone with the right combination of charisma and viciousness, but in the end it becomes a social illness that moves whole populations towards war and genocide. Perhaps fascism is the madness that comes from true corporatism, or from its most recent manifestation, neoliberalism. It is the deadly mix of greed at the top, misdirected rage at the bottom, and a fascist leader who can turn it all into an engine of mindless destruction.
Fred Nagel is a Vietnam Era veteran and political activist whose articles have appeared in CounterPunch, Global Exchange, Mondoweiss, Popular Resistance, Peace & Planet News (NYC Veterans For Peace publication) and Z Magazine. He also hosts a show on Vassar College Radio, WVKR (classwars.org).
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