The question of what one would do with a time machine—which is a terribly interesting one among, at the very least, 18-year-old boys—often provokes an answer variating on the theme of going back to a historical hero’s heyday to meet him face to face. My own answer, at 18, was one of these: I wanted to go hang around outside the old Scribner’s building with a couple pairs of boxing gloves and challenge Ernest Hemingway to a fight. So many of his stories, and so many stories about him, involve teaching a lesser guy to box. He gave lessons to Fitzgerald. I figured it made me sound macho and cultured at once.
Eighteen-year-old-me’s answer was not as clever as he thought it was, but it was also more clever than he intended it to be. Because at that stage one wrestles with the central question of what kind of thing to become, and in Hemingway—who lived largely, dangerously, often violently and drunkenly, and, it must be admitted, stylishly—there was a ready-made template for what a man should be.
The dictates of this traditional masculinity are ill-defined but strict: First, make a scene. Be big, be brash, do physically courageous and dangerous things. Violent things. Be a spectacle in your actions, but in your thoughts and feelings, inscrutable. Insensitivity to pain and fear in the physical sense is but one side of the coin, and the other is that hallowed quiet strength, the cowboy mystery. Simplicity. Never admit a feeling you can’t control, or an unseen pain you can’t handle. More tersely: Blood yes, tears no.
In the first stanza, Cowley digs mockingly at Hemingway’s hobby du jour (around when he was writing Green Hills of Africa), picturing the novelist on safari with his scattershot weapon, adventuring in rugged places, taking down fearsome animals as his trophies (and satirizing how this looks by picturing him with, of all weapons, a blunderbuss—an especially big and inaccurate type of shotgun that was already well out of date in Hemingway’s day). But with one word, he flips the script on the safari-going, deep-sea fishing, war-going, bullfighting novelist’s sense of himself:
Safe is the man with blunderbuss
Who stalks the Hippopotamus
On Niger’s Bank, or scours the Veldt,
To rape the lion of his pelt;
Safe! If hunting lions is not dangerous, what is?
But deep in peril he who sits
At home to rack his lonely wits
And there do battle, grim and blind,
Against the jackals of his mind.
Alone, in the dark, and with a pack of howling, predatory outsiders closing in seems closer to the truth of how Hemingway, who had a famously volcanic reaction to bad reviews, really pictured himself—closer to home than the swashbuckling rake he wanted the world to see.
By juxtaposing mental demons with big game, Cowley demonstrates what Hemingway would fatally learn: Heroic narratives may glorify action, but in real life it’s the buried psychological strife that will bring down the great hero. Ultimately it is being vulnerable, not bearing pain, that requires the higher form of courage. (And Hemingway was a hero whose jackals, it should be mentioned, have always been rumored to haunt him specifically where it comes to the subject of gender. The themes in his oeuvre did not turn on questions of manliness by random chance.) Beneath the bravado and the whiskey grin, Hemingway was trying desperately to perform manhood. And we all know in hindsight how it ended.
It may not be an original insight on my part, but it’s something every young man has to learn: Performed stoicism doesn’t work. By making men try to seem strong and impervious, it makes men destructive of themselves and those around them. It makes men weak.
Nobody demonstrates this problem like the seductive icon that Hemingway turned himself into, a sensitive, eventually suicidal artist-cum-adventurer who moved one wife out as he married his mistress, and then moved yet another mistress in, three times over. Just think of the pain he felt, and wrought, even as he crafted an ideal so many men would try to emulate. And so as a boy trying to figure out how to become a man, in a quite real sense I was already in a fight with Ernest.
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
So wrote W.H. Auden in his immortal poem September 1, 1939. Today, two weeks before Election Day, is nowhere near as dark. Liars with buildings that grope are still a scourge, but America’s anti-authoritarian immune system seems to be working: Donald Trump’s poll numbers look dismal and he was humiliated by his elite peers at the Al Smith Dinner. The admittedly lame neologism Trumplosion has been coined.
But we should not be incautious; the votes aren’t in yet. The philosophy of rational pessimism dictates that we assume the worst, so we can only ever be surprised positively. And even if the teetotalitarian at the top of the Republican ticket loses big on November 8, we still have to reckon with the meaning of Trumpism and how it could still threaten social stability and U.S. democracy. The latest Atlantic reader to reckon with this, Hannah, continues our discussion over “Ur-Fascism”:
So much has happened in the last week that by now this must seem like a blast from the past, but I wanted to bring in another attempt at articulating the fascist minimum, and to respond to/rebut/complain about your reader Kevin’s email about fascism in the Trail of Tears note. In The Anatomy of Fascism, Robert Paxton, one of the foremost scholars in the field, gives a list of essential characteristics of a fascist movement. Paxton’s list overlaps to a certain extent with Umberto Eco’s Ur-Fascism, but it places more emphasis on the coherence of the group identity:
a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;
the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it;
the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;
dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;
the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;
the need for authority by natural leaders, always male, culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s destiny;
the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;
the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success;
the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group's prowess within a Darwinian struggle.
Much of this list certainly sounds like the Trumpists, but where they diverge is in the coherence of the group identity. The old fascists described this in ethnonationalist terms, where there were Aryans or Italians or whatnot under attack from foreign infiltrators. There were clear cultural programs and, at least in the case of the Nazis, obsessive attempts at defining who was in and who was out.
We hear a lot from The Donald about foreign infiltrators and those who are not in the group—Muslims, illegals, Mexicans, illegal Mexican Muslims—but the group is never clearly defined, perhaps because he is trying to win a general election and needs some sort of cover of inclusivity, or perhaps because American history is too messy to allow a clear definition. A good example of this group incoherence is his rhetorical approach to Black Americans: he doesn’t treat them as full members of the group, but he presents them to his supporters as people in need of his help who might, in time, become fully a part of the group if only they could realize that he is the man for the job. Furthermore, the fascists attempted to unify all social classes under the broad umbrella of the group, whereas Trump’s rhetoric cynically takes advantage of class conflict between arugula-munching Beltway elites like myself and what some people call flyover country.
Now for reader Kevin. He only chooses to list fascist movement that gained a foothold in government, ignoring various French, British, Nordic, and American fascisms that never managed to rise above the level of a street movement. His (very questionable) choice to exclude Nazis serves his thesis insofar as it allows him to cherrypick fascisms that arose in constitutional monarchies, but he isn’t even consistent about this: The Latin American countries he wants to include in the list of fascist regimes didn’t have monarchs. Likewise he fails to mention the Ustasha and other Eastern European and Balkan fascist movements. The Latin American examples do not stand up very well anyway: Most were simple military dictatorships without themes of national rebirth or collectivist ideologies. Franco is a borderline case, since he displaced both fascist and republican factions in aftermath of the Spanish Civil War.
Obviously I do ultimately agree with Kevin that Trump is not a full-fledged fascist, if he is moving us not a few goose-steps further down the primrose path. The traits he describes as Jacksonian (welfare chauvinism and expansionism driven by a petit-bourgeois base) fit nicely at the overlap in the Venn diagram of Trumpism and fascism, but fascism was openly revolutionary. What opposition Trump has shown to democratic ideals and institutions is opportunistic, incoherent, and sporadic rather than ideologically rooted, and he does not himself call for national rebirth through violent overthrow of a corrupt republican order (although some of his followers do).
The effect of Trump’s attacks on the integrity of the voting process is of course antidemocratic, but so far it has been expressed in terms of concern for the integrity of a supposedly corrupted democratic system rather than as a blanket condemnation of democracy itself. The absence of something like the squadristi or the SA follows from this absence of coherent ideological opposition to liberal democracy. If you're looking for the real fascists, they're to be found in the ranks of the West Coast Straussians and the Silicon Valley neoreactionaries.
Of course, given Trump’s promise to keep us in suspense, it remains to be seen what will happen when he loses.
Everybody in this reader thread has mentioned the absence of a squadristi equivalent, and it’s an apt point. But we know Trump is not above encouraging mob violence, and that he wants a massive, armed federal force at his command. Now, with his prospects dimming, the chit-chattering classes are handwringing over his antidemocratic threat to reject the results of the election. They are probably over-hyping the danger, if not the irresponsibility, of Trump’s comments. One more cool-headed take floating around is that if on November 9th he begins singing the song of revolution, calling for an angry mob in defeat, supporters will simply ignore the cooing (so to speak) and not show up.
The task of placing Trump in the frame of evil historical movements is complicated by the reality of his campaign. Like Jackson, he wants to smash the prevailing American leadership culture and drive huge groups of brown people south. He fits the Fascist paradigm even more closely—specifically because it makes him a bad Jacksonian that despite the Fortress America bluster he does not seem hugely concerned with protecting the U.S. from meddling by foreign powers. As a fascist movement, though, Trumpism is a weak one. He neglected to organize the wannabe blackshirts who coalesce around him, and he outsourced the job of delegitimizing the democratic process (to either Russia or an Australian residing in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, depending on whom you ask). He has, in other words, all the aspirations and temptations and neuroses of a fascist demagogue, but he hasn't been able to put together a fascist’s methods for achieving power.
Events may have given us the answer to the great definitional question of Trumpism Theory, and it's not that complicated after all: Donald Trump is an incompetent fascist.
The final verse of Auden’s masterpiece:
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the
Just Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
Update from Kevin:
I read, with a combination of dismay and amusement, reader Hannah’s exposition as to whether Trump can be classified a fascist. Maybe it’s my competitive nature, but I simply have to answer the charges leveled against me of “cherrypicking” examples of fascist governments, and also her assertion that it is “very questionable” to exclude Nazi Germany from a list of identifiably fascist governments.
First, my examples of European countries that became fascist in the 1920s and 1930s is heavily weighted toward constitutional monarchies because so many European countries started the interwar period as constitutional monarchies. (The notable exceptions were corporatist Portugal and the semi-presidential Third French Republic; the latter did not become fascist.) They also were almost all Catholic, the outlier being Romania, which was predominantly Orthodox, but where the national church still collaborated closely with the fascists. The Croatian Ustaše was also unusual, having a puppet government of distinctly Nazi-like ideology (racial eliminationism) while resembling fascism in maintaining a deep entanglement with officials of the national Catholic church. Both the genuinely fascist Austrian government and the sometimes fascist Hungarian government (depending on the prime minister) were overthrown by actual Nazis, the former having already seen a fascist chancellor assassinated by them. When Admiral Horthy of Hungary tried to withdraw from the Axis in 1944, Germany and its Arrow Cross collaborators overthrew his government and installed a puppet state. One of its first acts was to deport 400,000 Jews to Auschwitz and their deaths.
Hungary and Austria illustrate an essential difference between fascism and National Socialism. Racism, particularly eliminationist racism, was not intrinsic to the fascist political system, and the actual treatment of minorities such as Jews largely reflected the traditional conditions of a particular nation. For the fascists, the state was to be the center of all public and private action, and while the individual was to be subordinated to the state, there wasn’t necessarily an ethnic prerequisite for inclusion. For Hitler, race was everything, and every institution, including the state, was to be subordinated to the interest of the Volk. In addition, actual fascisms, in their drive to regain a legendary lost greatness, attached at least a nostalgic and often practical power to such ancien régime institutions as church, monarchy, and military general staff. Attachment to (usually Catholic) Church thought also led to the acceptance and codification of class distinctions along the model of Catholic corporatism—a tradition reaching back through Aquinas to Paul the Apostle (in First—not One—Corinthians).
Fascism was therefore deeply conservative and reactionary. Hitler, in stark contrast, was a radical, rejecting all traditional hierarchies and all elites. His New Germany was to abolish all social classes: the sole unifying force was to be the Aryan race, with all other races regarded as threatening.
Another important difference between Hitler’s National Socialism and fascism was that the Nazi philosophy was arguably not imperialist (because of very limited geographical ambitions) nor even conventionally nationalistic. After all, the race—the Volk—was the thing, not the unnatural construct of the nation-state.
I’ve thought some more on why there are no Trumpist squadristi. Hannah seems to ascribe this to Trump’s ideological incoherence and incompetence. This will not do; the man is far more politically competent than we give him credit for. I’ve come to the conclusion that the Trump campaign needs no stormtroopers, and that in fact their presence would do the campaign harm.
Leave aside the image of a mass of 65 year olds in black shirts—an image straight out of an absurd and disturbing Monty Python sketch. Whatever Trump’s deficiencies in intellect, learning, or discipline, the man is an undisputed media genius. Cable news has long been used to enforce political conformity. Trump’s masterly use of cable and social media has absorbed the technique into the very fabric of a national political campaign. He’s also media-savvy enough to know that realtime images of stormtroopers roaming the streets, beating up Mexicans, Muslims, and journalists would prove instantly fatal to his campaign.
Finally we come to Professor Robert Paxton, the renowned scholar of fascism cited by Hannah. Putting it bluntly, Paxton’s famous book on the subject gets it mostly wrong. He makes several grave errors. There is the usual mistake of lumping National Socialism with Italian fascism. (He dismisses all governments other than these two as not fully fascist.) Paxton’s list of qualities defining fascist regimes implies a racialism that is at the essence of Nazism, but not of Italian and most other fascisms. The five historical stages he insist truly fascist governments must achieve are artificial and reductive, recalling such discredited historicisms as Spengler’s or Marx’s. His analysis is also ahistoric, sometimes relying anachronisms and even flipping the actual roles of the influencer and the influenced among nations. Most importantly, like most academics working in a Western secular milieu, Paxton badly understates the importance of institutional religion in the development of social organizations.
It is inexcusable, for example, that the index of The Anatomy of Fascism includes no entry for Novarum rerum, the 1891 papal encyclical which defined modern Catholic corporatism, nor of Pope Leo XIII, its author. There is, surprisingly, a very short mention of another Leo: Leo Frank, the Atlanta Jewish industrialist who was notoriously lynched in 1915, and another mention of a related topic, the Ku Klux Klan, which was revived at Atlanta in the immediate wake of the Frank case. (Not, as popular lore would have it, because of the premiere of Birth of a Nation.) Here is a prime example of Paxton writing ahistorically and munging up ideological influences.
Paxton sees the Klan, founded in 1865, as “the earliest phenomenon that can be functionally be related to fascism,” not only in America, but in the world. Is this what Hannah seeks when looking for American examples of fascism? If so, she is wrong, and so is Paxton. Fascism was inconceivable in 1865; even in 1915 it existed only in the minds and writings of European antiliberal political philosophers such as Charles Maurras and Georges Sorel. But Jacksonianism had already enjoyed a long run in America, and it completely explains the racism and nativism of the Klan and the antisemitism, antimodernism, and anti-elitism of Frank’s murderers.
To hyperbolize Trump by force-fitting affinity with the fascists (or the Nazis, for that matter) is to make a dangerous misdiagnosis; it also does a disservice to the memory of the individuals who suffered under those regimes. The more immediate danger is it exoticizes Trump as he were a phenomenon outside normal American history. This may be comforting to Americans, because it allows us to forget the great violence Jacksonian populism has done to the country. But like Jackson, Trump is one of us.
One of the strangest things about the Trump phenomenon is that, for something so unprecedented, he’s best understood through the lens of history.
He’s also best misunderstood through that lens. One of the most common historical looks at Trump this year is comparing him to Hitler. (Here’s the most thoughtful and understated effort.) The commonness of this overreach may be the best case for bothering to be precise about what sort of character the Republican nominee is. The problem with the “Trump = Hitler” thesis, after all, is not that it is too difficult to sustain, but too easy; it fails by a long way to take a full measure of the German tyrant. But the reason the argument seems so low-hanging is that Trump has, probably half-unwittingly, turned the demagogy textbook into an instruction manual. Hitler may as well have been offering advice, for example, when he said that “the effectiveness of the truly national leader consists in preventing his people from dividing their attention, and keeping it fixed on a common enemy.” (Update on 10/25: My colleague Uri ably analyzes such Hitler comparisons.)
Some readers thought my note on Trump being an “Ur-Fascist” made a similar error, trying to shoehorn a word where it doesn’t belong. The word “fascism,” after all, recalls a specifically European past, and Trump, certainly as he conceives of himself, is American first. So one reader, Kevin, proposes a term that might be a fit better than “Ur-Fascist”:
I may be getting overly formal here, but fascism was a political movement with very definite philosophical underpinnings, most of them failing to resemble any philosophy that Trump and his followers may hold dear. One may say that Mussolini and the other fascist leaders of the 20th century often ignored them, but what actual political leaders of any movement have always kept faith with their philosopher predecessors?
Real fascisms had definite clerical and royalist associations. They attempted, with various degrees of commitment and success, to implement something like Catholic corporatism as a basis for social organization and the economy. It is no accident that actual fascisms were confined almost entirely to Catholic majority countries, most of them Iberian, Mediterranean, or Latin American. (Needless to say, this is one of the many reasons that National Socialism was not a fascist movement.)
All of these tenets, in addition to the obvious absence of any Trump squadristi, argue powerfully that Trump is no fascist—merely an American authoritarian.
It is in fact entirely misleading to turn to any foreign political model to explain Trump when there is a model in U.S. politics, of nearly two centuries' duration, that applies dead on. It is called Jacksonianism, and Trump is the Andrew Jackson of his day.
Jackson’s movement, like Trump’s, arose in reaction to perceived wrenching social and and economic changes in 1820s and 1830s America. Its adherents were the white yeomen who felt left out of the power structure, as opposed to the propertied elites who in many states had a monopoly on the franchise. The other burning issues that concerned the Jacksonians bore a distinct resemblance to those that concern Trump’s followers today—industrialization and international trade; concentration of wealth in the hands of the old Bourbon planters and the budding Northern industrialists; the control of Congress by such elite professional politicians as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C Calhoun. Add to this President John Quincy Adams, whose 1824 election in the House of Representatives over Andrew Jackson, the leader in popular vote, led to cries of a “corrupt bargain”—that is, a rigged election. Sound familiar?
And, of course, there was race. Not only did the Jacksonian multitudes fear competition from black slave labor (even though they were dead set against manumission). They were also both fearful and envious of the native population, whose land they coveted. It’s easy to imagine a Trumpian Trail of Tears, this time victimizing Latino immigrants and noncitizen Muslims rather than the Cherokee. Enforcing their expulsions would require a large militarized police force uprooting, dividing, and exiling families, all for the perceived benefit of nativist whites.
Like very many Trumpians, the Jacksonians did not fit neatly along the right-left axis as we understand it today. They were all for expanded government, as long as it benefited them and not the moneyed elites, new capitalists, and nonwhites. While claiming to eschew foreign policy interventionism, they were militaristic and better described as unilateralist than isolationist. For instance, they were gung-ho about invading and annexing adjacent territory that belonged to other nations. President James Knox Polk, who pursued the Mexican War, was a Jacksonian nonpareil.
So perhaps Orwell was more correct than you allow. “Fascist” has for nearly a century been a term of opprobrium hurled indiscriminately by certain leftists to attack any person or idea they find uncongenial. More recently, the word has been adopted by the right, with at least as much imprecision—a sure sign it has jumped the shark.
There is a bit of a contradiction here about whether Trump would or would not have thugs at his disposal, but nonetheless this is a strong case that Jacksonianism is the ism that fits better than fascism.
The age of Jackson, like today, produced a vulgar, furiously clannish outsider railing against a dynastic presidential opponent, upending the political categories that had calcified among elites in the ’90s (in this case, the 1790s). Jackson went much further than Trump’s mere quipping that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody” and still not lose voters; Jackson, known for dueling, killed at least one opponent, who had already shot him in the chest.
Jacksonianism did not die with its namesake, not by any means. It has been an important part of American political culture since, acting as a sort of raw animal nature that rises up when it senses attack and lashes out without regard for the sort of moral or moralizing (depending on how you see it) principles that Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and the like worked so hard to codify (if not always live by). The immediate aftermath of 9/11, for example, was a moment of Jacksonian ascendancy.
But if the major factor preventing Trump from being rightfully described as a fascist is that he is American, it begs a question: Without going all HUAC, or all Birther, how American is Trump? More than he resembles Hitler or Mussolini or Franco or even Berlusconi, Trump is of a piece with Eastern European rulers like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán—an opportunistic autocrat with an animating anti-immigrant agenda.
Another reader points out that for practical purposes, we may be being too stingy, rather than too loose, with the word “fascism”:
The only elements missing from the fascist classification is efficacy. If a fascist can only be recognized after they’ve successfully attained power, it truly is a meaningless term.
Part of why Trump is shunned by his fellow members of the Western billionaire class is that he is not, like them, a plutocrat. He’s an aspiring oligarch. Moreover:
Trump demonstrates no interest in what the written Constitution says, let alone much knowledge of it.
Talking about how he would pursue trade negotiations, Trump has made clear that he sees the full faith and credit of the United States as a chip to be bargained away at the earliest opportunity.
And he interprets acts of violence against Americans as personal vindication to be used for political gain.
The word for all this is cynical, which happens to be the catchword that Eastern Europeans in Russia’s orbit use for the flavor of politics that has taken over since the pollyannaish early ’90s.
Another reader, Brian, writes in about why it makes sense to define the word “fascism” expansively in the modern day:
I think that it is easy to put too fine a point on the definition of fascism. For one thing, while it was a recognizable and fairly uniform political movement in early part of the 20th century, it was also driven by authoritarian and charismatic leaders and those leaders’ preoccupations, insecurities and bêtes noires affected its political content in the various countries.
There is also the fact that we are looking at fascism today after 80
years of study, discussion, and historical analysis, and the U.S. in
2016 is very different politically and economically from Italy or
Germany in the ’20s and ’30s.
But I would argue that if, say, Konrad Adenauer could have read
today’s U.S. press from prison after the Night of the Long Knives, or in
his house in Roendorf, he would find much of what he read about Trump chilling and all too recognizable—perhaps more in the Mussolini vein, but frightening all the same.
Just because a term has been overused—and “fascist” is no doubt pretty threadbare—does not mean the patterns in the carpet can no longer be made out.
One point that should not be so absent from this whole discussion: America matters more to the world today than even Germany did in the middle of the 20th century, specifically because it is so powerful. Just American inaction today can wreak more havoc than many countries’ worst intentional mischief.
Academics, history buffs, literary types, and other nerds could probably discuss ad infinitum what words and trends best fit Trump (and let’s! Write to us). But in truth, Trump is likely some combination: a Jacksonian with Ur-Fascist qualities, or vice versa, or something. He’s a little of this scary and a little of that scary.
James Joyce, being a tad simplistic but touching on an important idea, wrote that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Trump, meanwhile, is behind the lectern every night, singing his virulent lullabies.
George Orwell said that “as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless.” He’s not wrong. Since Mussolini’s original Partito Nazionale Fascista rule began in Italy in 1922, “fascist” has become an epithet that’s as easy to dismiss as it is to use.
Yet the term remains important as well as loaded, especially in an American election season when an argument has broken out over whether the Republican nominee for president meets its definition. Writing in The Atlantic in January, Gianni Riotta addressed this question, answering that Donald Trump is not a fascist. And he would know; he grew up in the rubble of the original Italian fascism, lived its recent history, and labored under personal threats from groups of lingering fascists during their moments of revival.
Here is how Riotta defines “fascist” and why he thinks it’s overwrought to use it to describe Trump:
Trump will never master the techniques laid out in 1931 by the then-fascist journalist Curzio Malaparte in his Coup D’etat: The Technique of Revolution, which detailed the clear requirements of the fascist manifesto: Seize and hold state power with a sudden attack, coordinated with cunning and force. There is no fascism without this rational, violent plan to obliterate democracy. From Hitler’s Mein Kampf to Mussolini’s speeches on the Palazzo Venezia balcony, fascists told the crowd openly what their goals were and kept a nefarious, disciplined pace to realize them. Mussolini boasted about reducing Italy’s Parliament “to a fascist barrack,” “stopping any antifascist brain from thinking,” and “creating a new Roman Empire.”
Notwithstanding some obvious shades of “make America great again” and “the experts are terrible” in Mussolini’s sloganeering, by Riotta’s definition Trump is indeed not a fascist—that is, assuming that on November 9, Trump is having one of the days when he says he’s inclined to respect the results of the democratic election, and not one of the days when he’s not.
But the debate over the definition of fascism is much richer than Riotta covered. Some readers of his piece quibbled that there are shades of fascism and that Trump sits somewhere worryingly far along:
Perhaps it’s more accurate that Trump is “fascistic” or “with fascist tendencies” (or, more ominously, “proto-fascist”).
Another reader suggested:
Though all the comparisons to Hitler and Mussolini are off base. Trump is more like Goering in attitude and temperament: pompous, full of himself, and attracted to power.
Fascist-y? Fascist-esque? Generalissimodious?
Clearly the strict binary Riotta lays out doesn’t leave room for people to invoke some of the expressive power of the F-word that Trump seems to compel some to.
How about “Ur-Fascist”?
“Ur-Fascism” is a 1995 essay by the great Italian author Umberto Eco, who was born under Mussolini’s regime in 1932. The essay takes up the challenge that Orwell laid down in 1944 when he called “fascist” nearly meaningless. Even Orwell didn’t propose to abandon the term entirely, merely to “use [it] with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.” Eco takes this seriously, and in doing so he provides the loudest response to Riotta’s definition of fascism as explicitly evoking Mussolini’s worldview:
It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world.
Just because the term is mutable does not mean it’s meaningless. The starting point of Eco’s understanding is, quite unlike Riotta’s, that the modern word has a history in Italian fascism but it need not share precise features with Mussolini’s system. It’s a synecdoche—a part that stands as a symbol for the whole phenomenon of 20th century strongman authoritarianism—in which Italy’s system figures deeply but not definitively.
See if you think Eco was onto something with predictive power in the following passages from his essay. The first:
Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. To have a good instance of qualitative populism we no longer need the Piazza Venezia in Rome or the Nuremberg Stadium. There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.
And here are Trump’s tweets from Election Day 2012, when President Obama won reelection with 332 Electoral College votes over Mitt Romney’s 206 and with a four-point margin of victory in the popular vote:
We can't let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!
Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. In our time, when the old “proletarians” are becoming petty bourgeois (and the lumpen are largely excluded from the political scene), the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.
The Trump campaign’s messaging seems to have internalized this warning as advice:
The next entry from Eco is … well:
Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.
There are many instances of Trump living up to this prediction, the most unsettling being when he spoke about his health on air with fellow TV charlatan Dr. Oz, who mentioned Trump’s slightly higher than average testosterone levels to studio applause. But the moment that most seared itself into public consciousness came in a primary debate with Marco Rubio:
Next up from Eco:
Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.
Trump recently said that there’s a reason for keeping Middle Eastern refugees out of the country beyond national security; it’s a “quality of life” issue, you see! This on top of proposing to create a national force big enough to deport more than 10 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States (meaning he would like to have an armed federal force at his command). That on top of suggesting that the solution for black and Hispanic Americans “living in hell” in inner-city neighborhoods is to institute a national Stop and Frisk policy, which was struck down in New York because the way it was carried out constituted a breach of black and Hispanic New Yorkers’ constitutional rights. After it ended, crime did not go up. Nobody was raped in Central Park because of it—though if someone had been, you can bet Trump would have been behind newspaper ads seeking the death penalty for five juveniles—four black and one Hispanic—who were innocent.
Here’s the last of Eco’s truly Trump-resonant elements of Ur-Fascism:
To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside.
In July, Trump tweeted this since-deleted image:
Oh, and Trump had spent years accusing the first black president of engaging in a massive coverup of the fact that he had been born in Kenya and could not legitimately hold his office—in between accusing him of being a secret Muslim.
The genius of Eco’s answer to Orwell’s question—a question sadly also at hand in 2016 America—is that he grasps that it was the very contradiction and slapdashery in Italy’s authoritarianism that made its name stick to the larger idea. What the eyes of history have recognized at the core of Mussolini’s system is “… a rigid discombobulation, a structured confusion. Fascism was philosophically out of joint, but emotionally it was firmly fastened to some archetypal foundations.”
Nobody would argue the tenor of the campaign has improved since January, when Riotta’s essay came out. Since then, Trump has even gone as far as to question the democratic system—“the election is rigged!”—most ominously by signaling supporters to stake out polling stations in districts where he’s not likely to find much support. Trump has taken on so many of the characteristics of an Ur-Fascist, the strong case is that rather than being a hurled epithet, the label simply fits. (Disagree? Or want to make further connections between Trump and Ur-Fascism? Drop us a note.)
Umberto Eco died in February of this year. But like all the greatest authors, his writing will always feel immediate. Early on in “Ur-Fascism,” he writes:
I spent two of my early years among the SS, Fascists, Republicans, and partisans shooting at one another, and I learned how to dodge bullets. It was good exercise.
This month, Jeffrey Tayler wrote a piece responding to Donald Trump’s unprecedented shrug over whether the United States would uphold its treaty obligations if a NATO ally were invaded during his hypothetical presidency. Tayler argued, in effect, that Trump had stumbled on a good idea in thinking about radically reassessing America’s commitment to NATO, an alliance that raises no end of trouble with Russia and is, anyway, an anachronism. Tayler advocated what he called a “Détente 2.0,” pushing for American foreign policy to do whatever it takes to return to the halcyon days of the Brezhnev era when, Tayler said, things were trending friendly with Russia.
I agree that détente likely did produce better results than its alternatives in the Brezhnev era, and that NATO’s post-Soviet expansion in central and eastern Europe may have been a strategic blunder. As I noted in a recent interview with the NATO scholar Michael Mandelbaum, Russia under Putin has made numerous military incursions into Chechnya, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—all non-NATO countries. Tayler is also right in his analysis that Russia’s geopolitical ethos is based on grievance—grievance as a great historical society laid unfairly low, subject to perceived disrespect and mistreatment by the West—and so Putin is likely to respond more favorably to flattery and bribery than to threats. But something’s off here.
Tayler asks us to “see matters from Russia’s perspective.” While this may be a necessary exercise for policymakers trying to make predictions about Moscow’s policies, it often entails assuming untruths and accepting false moral equivalence between Western action and Russian “reactions” on the world stage. The West inviting an independent country to a defensive alliance should not be equated with Russia sending tank columns into Georgia to seize territory. This is not a matter of perspective. Yet Tayler frequently argues as though Russia’s self-pitying viewpoint is the salient one.
NATO, too, is perturbed by Tayler’s claims. Tayler published a response to his piece by alliance spokesperson Oana Lungescu as a note, along with his own rebuttal. Lungescu complained, rightly, that while Tayler has tremendous sympathy for Russia’s viewpoint, he carefully avoids assigning any blame to Moscow. For example:
Some perspective is in order. When Russia, in its Soviet incarnation, was strong, the United States did not intervene to thwart the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 or combat the Soviet invasions in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Nor did it counter Poland’s imposition of martial law in 1981. As much as the United States supported Eastern European movements for democracy (rhetorically, at least), it recognized they were taking place within the Soviet sphere of influence, where strategically, militarily, and geographically, Moscow held all the cards.
This is all the more so in Ukraine. At the very least, NATO would be wise to evaluate the outcome of its expansions and U.S. support for the post-Yanukovych, pro-NATO regime in Kiev: nearly 10,000 deaths in a stalemated civil war in Ukraine’s east, plus the effective loss of the two embattled ethnic Russian provinces; a politically paralyzed, pro-Western Ukrainian government that is likely at least as corrupt as the one it replaced; the takeover of Crimea; an ominous military buildup in Russia; a risk of nuclear conflict now perhaps as high as it was during the worst years of the Cold War, or higher.
The idea that the blame for the situation in eastern Ukraine rests at the feet of the West is dubious. Who is more responsible for the current chaos and death? Washington, for its tepid support for the Poroshenko-Yatsenyuk government, voted in months after Russia’s unmarked brigades had already seized swathes of Ukraine? Or Russia, for invading its Western neighbor and lying about it, after its attempts to persuade the neighbor’s kleptocratic ruler to back away from a popular pro-Western deal led to his ouster? An Atlantic reader provides a nice reality check:
Nobody forced Putin to invade Ukraine and no one is forcing him to start military competition. Any backing off will simply encourage him to try to rebuild the Russian empire, which is no one’s interest, not even the Russians’. We have no more reason to respect the former Russian empire than we have to respect the former British empire. Russia is a declining power with a GDP about the size of Canada's. It will decline further, and the oligarch-dominated government will neither stop the population decline nor reinvigorate the economy.
Here’s one more paragraph from Tayler’s piece:
As a starting point, the debate should assess whether NATO’s relentless expansion—begun during the 1990s and proceeding in waves, with Montenegro’s eventual accession, once-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia having been promised membership, and even historically neutral Finland and Sweden now pondering participation—played a role in Russia’s increasingly aggressive posturing toward the West. As the world’s most powerful military alliance slid up to Russia’s borders, the West couldn’t have expected Putin to sit idle.
Whatever the merits of NATO expansion, has it been truly “relentless”? Or is it more accurate to say that the 28 members joined on seven distinct occasions over 67 years? Tayler suggests that Putin was clearly provoked by the alliance’s growth, and could not simply leave independent countries alone. Under that logic, challenging Georgia, annexing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, stirring a crisis in eastern Ukraine that has now claimed almost 10,000 lives, and playing the victim while ducking responsibility, was a reasonable response on Putin’s part. These, I would submit, are far from reasonable responses to NATO’s growth.
Yet, in Tayler’s piece, there are more instances of taking Putin’s logic at face value. We are told, for example, that “NATO’s continued European expansion through the decades, like its bombing campaigns in the former Yugoslavia to coerce an end to internecine wars tearing the region apart, demonstrated a willingness to use force in Russia’s backyard against one of its historical allies." It takes some mental gerrymandering to accept this claim: Kosovo is 1,893 kilometers from Moscow. By contrast, it is 697 kilometers from Rome, 567 from Athens, 717 from Vienna, 1,238 from Geneva, and 1,043 from Ankara.
In his analysis, Tayler evaded the fact that Putin’s foreign policy involves invading neighbors, threatening to nuke Danish ships in the Baltic, and conducting assassinations in places like London and Washington. Putin is attempting to morally blackmail the remaining true world powers into treating Russia like one of them, in an effort to maintain his grip on power by way of nationalist appeal. Giving into this blackmail is not a sound strategy.
There are legitimate complaints Russia can and does make against America. Washington has far too close a relationship with the democracy-promoting “quasi-NGOs” or “QUANGOs” in Russia that constitute some of the U.S. support for regime change. (It is, however, worth remembering why an organization that seeks to give a country’s people a say in their own government is inherently inimical to the Putin regime.)
Tayler does not address why it’s the West that should make all the concessions necessary to improve relations with Moscow. It’s especially strange that he does not explore whether Russia might itself help bring this détente, 2.0, nearer by compromising on some of its desires. That seems the better option, since the Russian leader deemed the end of the Soviet empire, under which half of Europe was enslaved, “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.
The most confounding idea in Tayler’s original post is this: “Détente 2.0 would entail the renunciation, in writing, of NATO’s plans to invite Ukraine and Georgia, coupled with Moscow’s recognition that both countries retain the right to join whatever economic or political union they desire.” Tayler asks us to accept a world that effectively offers the countries Russia believes reside within its sphere of influence the choice of any alliance they want, so long as it isn’t NATO—and any geopolitics they like, so long as it adheres to Moscow’s revisionism.
Tayler’s piece, in the end, offers us a choice between letting Russia have its way with eastern Europe and risking war that may well be nuclear. There is every reason to think that this is a false binary. If it isn’t, NATO is more relevant than ever.