The notion that Donald Trump represents fascism, or at least heralds its incursion into the American political landscape, is a dangerous one to throw around unless you really know what fascism means. But knowing exactly what the term "fascist" means is harder than you might think. Arguments rage about whether fascism can be allied with Nazism, whether it's inherently racist, and if there's actually a proper centralized definition, or just several examples loosely joined up by a few different characteristics. This complexity is one of the many reasons why throwing the word as a kind of universal insult is problematic. Fascism is serious; if you're going to give that label to somebody, you need to be educated about it.
To me, the discussion of whether Trump fits the representation of fascism isn't as important as knowing precisely how fascism operates, how it starts, and what it means. Without a nuanced understanding of the term, calling somebody a "fascist" can seem exaggerated and insulting, rather than a judged and considered allying to a political system, and can therefore lose its power. This is a lesson worth remembering in political matters in general, not just in the Trump-Clinton contest; as various governments across Europe move towards the right, the distinguishing marks of fascism need to be remembered as danger signals. (If you're interested in how precisely Trump might fit into the mechanics of fascism, The Atlantic published an article earlier this month in which they comprehensively ally him with what Umberto Eco called "ur-fascism," in which violent fear of intruders, performative machismo, suspicion, and racism are the clear signs, not an overt campaign to emulate Mussolini.)
Considering how many academic arguments exist over precise definitions of fascism, you can never hope to cover them in a genuine fashion in anything less than a book. But here's your short guide: Thinking Of Calling Somebody A Fascist? Read This First.
Fascists Believe In The People Over The Individual
What Does It Mean? The essence of the fascist state (from "fasces," the bundle of elm twigs with an axe head that symbolized power in ancient Rome) is a kind of populism: the individual is no longer the point, and the state and collective hold all power and are the biggest sources of identity. As Mussolini put it in his 1928 autobiography:
The citizen in the Fascist State is no longer a selfish individual who has the anti-social right of rebelling against any law of the Collectivity. The Fascist State with its corporative conception puts men and their possibilities into productive work and interprets for them the duties they have to fulfil.
There's a key distinction here, though: when it comes to actually holding power, what fascists promise is very different to what they deliver. "When holding state power, fascism tends to be rigidly hierarchical, authoritarian, and elitist," Political Research Associates points out. "As a social movement fascism employs populist appeals against the current regime and promises a dramatic and quick transformation of the status quo." Fascists running for power operate an "all in this together" equality, but when they actually get power, the real influence goes to their cronies.
Does Trump Fit This Definition? It's not entirely clear. He has appealed to populist impulses, particularly with regard to "rigged" elections and the rallying cry that he's "not a politician," but has also made it clear that his own personal suitability for the presidency is based on how "exceptional" he, as an individual, has been in matters like business.
They Can Use Democracy To Impose Dictatorship
What Does It Mean? Fascist movements tend to be, by their nature, autocratic and dictator-driven, with one central figure of power surrounded by layers of enforcers and a total lack of viable opposition. This means that they can seem unlikely to occur in systems of entrenched democratic election; but, in reality, fascists in the 20th century proved to be adept at manipulating democratic elections to get power, and then using their influence in office to gradually (or even rapidly) shift the state away from proper democratic operations. Of course, that didn't mean they came into power quietly: the last free election in Italy for nearly 20 years, the general election of 1924, was won by Mussolini largely because he raised troops and threatened the other parties (an opposition leader was later killed).
Does Trump Fit This Definition? He's certainly in the midst of a democratic competition in which he has expressed some alarmingly authoritarian ideas (like creating conditions to jail Clinton if elected, a matter that is, at the moment, illegal). He has also deliberately fostered distrust in the electoral process and its legitimacy, though that's likely to cover him in case he loses.
They Tend To Be Anti-Politics
What Does It Mean? Fascists have, in the past, managed to attain power because they position themselves as "anti-politics," as people who are going to cut through the corrupt current system, whatever it was, and give power back to the people. Politics has always been a relatively unpopular business, but fascism took its unpopularity and turned it into a serious political tool. "Fascism promised people deliverance from politics," Salon noted in an article on the modern fascist movement in America. "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." Fascist politicians were meant to be seen as straightforward and graceless, because they didn't have the "polish" of untrustworthy seasoned politicians, and could therefore be trusted as more authentic.
Some thinkers actually think fascism is meant to be fundamentally "irrational," as in against reason and in favor of emotion as the driving force behind decisions: a "stress on emotion, will, and organic unity and its rejection of the Enlightenment values of individualism and critical thinking," as one expert puts it. Fascist leaders would frequently appeal to the emotional, primitive responses of their followers rather than to their intellect.
Does Trump Fit This Definition? This is one of the closest parallels to Trump's situation. His campaign is designed around the notion that he is the anti-politician, speaking off the cuff, giving emotional responses and "saying what's on his mind," even if what's on his mind is contradictory or deeply problematic. He opposes himself to experienced career politicians, of whom Clinton is the archetype.
Fascists Require Enemies And Define Themselves Against Them
What Does This Mean? There are several models of state in history that have defined themselves using external enemies, but there's something special about the way in which fascists did it. "Fascism found... an alternative principle in the nation, as it defines itself in its struggle against national enemies," one expert notes: the threat was to everybody, as part of the national identity, and was a building-block of the arsenal fascist leaders used to bind people together. It's a criticism once expressed by Leon Trotsky, who thought that fascism needed "external enemies" to satisfy its national supporters. Groups both within and outside of the state will be demonized by fascist leaders, as part of its core ideology, what Matthew Feldman, in Fascism: The Nature Of Fascism, defines as "[the] glorification of war [and] struggle." If you're calling somebody a fascist, you're saying they basically use enemies to justify violence.
Does Trump Fit This Definition? The Mexican "wall" is one of the most xenophobic pieces of rhetoric in recent memory, used to spark support by scapegoating an "other" for the sake of an easy soundbite. (He has also called them rapists, in case you forgot.) Radical Islam and the proposed "Muslim ban" also add to the picture of a Trump-led state that would be highly, almost indiscriminately paranoid about external and internal enemies.
They're Inherently Sexist
What Does This Mean? This is an interesting one: fascism in the 20th century, particularly in Mussolini's Italy, reserved a mystical place for masculinity and the perfect youthful male body, basically worshiping it. The masculine was viewed as the perfection of the human form (particularly if it was being used to beat up the enemies of the State). One academic view holds that fascism was actually one of the biggest influences on the "creation of modern masculinity;" the beautiful male body was idealized alongside the emotions and the will, and helped to form the way we currently think about dudes and how they're supposed to act towards women and each other. Virility and inflexibility were prized, while effeminacy and softness were abhorred. (Women's roles in both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were regarded as primarily reproductive; 1930s posters in both countries encouraged them to give birth to as many children as possible.)
Does Trump Fit This Definition? Trump's rampantly disgusting attitude to women, which has now been documented by everything from his own remarks to the testimony of numerous accusers who allege he sexually assaulted them, is a legitimate part of his platform. Interestingly, though, Trump isn't glorifying the virile male body in general, as is usual in fascism; he just behaves in a way that suggests he is a supreme specimen allowed to treat women like meat. That's not fascism, that's narcissistic misogyny.
They View Violence As "Cleansing"
What Does This Mean? This is one of the most distressing parts of fascist ideology, and the primary reason why it's a very good idea not to throw it around too easily. Many fascist thinkers viewed violence, war, and brutality as something extremely good for the human soul. Not as something to be done if necessary, or an expedient for the sake of a bigger good: something awesome in its own right. "Fascist paramilitary leaders," World Fascism: A Historical Encyclopedia explains, "claimed that violence could cleanse, purify, or regenerate the people and the national mentality." Violence is part of the mythos of fascism, and is what can lead to the "cleansing" of anything or anybody that was perceived to violate the purifying and regenerating of the state. That could be political opponents, the weak, or those distinguished along racial or religious lines. In Fascist Italy, the artistic movement of the Futurists embraced the idea of war in its core principles: it declared that war was "the world's only hygiene."
Does Trump Fit This Definition? This is a worrying one. The rhetoric at Trump rallies among supporters is often aggressive, including discussions of assassinations; and then the memorable time he said that "Second Amendment people" could "take care" of Clinton if she chose to try to overturn it. There are also now allegations that Trump's rhetoric about the potential rigging of polling places might incite significant violence and intimidation. It's not as definitive as the notion of blood as cleansing American soil, but it certainly reveals a taste for the language of violence that is discomforting.
They Promote The Military Excessively
What Does It Mean? The defining characteristic of Mussolini's spending, during his time in power, was a colossal investment in the military might of Italy. But it wasn't just a militaristic state; it was also one that admired the military mindset, of complete obedience, work as a group rather than as individuals, and use of state-sponsored violence. Military coups and heavy support tend to be one of the ways in which fascist states gain and hold onto power, and there are historians who propose that the increased sophistication of warfare in the 20th century, where it became significantly machine-driven, played a distinct role in the self-image of fascist states. The niece of one of the most clear-cut modern fascists, Marine Le Pen of France's far-right National Front, joined the reserve army in July and declared the army to be "ineffective" without many "young patriots" doing the same. Modern fascism isn't just about shouting; it goes a lot deeper than that.
Does Trump Fit This Definition? Trump's attitude towards military matters has been garbled and largely unintelligible, but his understanding of military affairs has emerged in various contradictory ways. He does believe in significant military spending and advocates that force would be necessary in various situations (like with North Korea), but would also be "slower" to go to war than Clinton. He certainly isn't campaigning as a solidly military candidate (and may have alienated significant amounts of that community with his remarks about the Gold Star Khan family and John McCain's wartime injuries).