Is Donald Trump a fascist? Several commentators in America, my adoptive country, on both the left and right, have essentially compared “The Donald” to Mussolini, the fascist strongman who destroyed my old country Italy for a time, leaving behind half a million dead and the lingering poison of civil war.
“The brand of fascism was invented and exported by Italians,” Vittorio Foa, a Resistance hero and the father of Italy’s Republican Constitution, used to quip. He was right and, having grown up in the birthplace of fascism and lived through its aftereffects, I am dead sure: Trump is not a fascist. Using the label not only belittles past tragedies and obscures future dangers, but also indicts his supporters, who have real grievances that mainstream politicians ignore at their peril. America should tackle the demons Trump unleashes in 2016, not tar him by association with ideas and tactics he doesn’t even know about.
Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric, his demagoguery, and his populist appeals to citizens’ economic anxieties certainly borrow from the fascist playbook. Italy’s fascists capitalized on similar themes in a different era of global uncertainty; in their case, it was the unemployment, veterans’ resentments, unions’ strikes, and political violence that beset the country following World War I. But Trump is, fundamentally, a blustering political opportunist courting votes in a democratic system; he has not called for the violent overthrow of the system itself. And whereas it can be impossible to discern any logic or strategy in Trump’s campaign, the fascists who marched on Rome in 1922 were relentlessly, violently focused on a clear goal: to kill democracy and install a dictatorship.
Nearly 30 years after Il Duce Mussolini, Italy’s dictator from 1922 to 1945, was executed by a partisan firing squad, his ideas were still wreaking havoc across the country; the 1970s were years of clashes between neofascist and communist terrorists that we in Italy called the Anni di Piombo, or years of lead. The neofascists were leading riots in Italy’s south; suspected of bombing banks, trains, and political rallies in the north; and accused of plotting a military coup. The violence killed hundreds of innocent people. I witnessed the destruction every day.
In 1971, when I was a senior in high school, a neofascist leaflet denounced me as a “target to be hit,” listing my phone number and address in Palermo, Sicily (my mom still lives there and answers that number). In October of that year, on a day when I was on duty selling the leftist newspaper Il Manifesto, I watched nervously as a squadraccia, a gang of fascist thugs, paraded across the street from me in full arms, heavy bats in hand, chains wrapped around their chests, black helmets on their heads, brass knuckles shining. Fascist dictators were still running Spain, Greece, and Portugal. The neofascists in Palermo had tried to kill the two young sons of a senator, in revenge against a progressive land reform. Watching the squadraccia I wondered if I too would be wounded, or worse.
This was the menace at the heart of fascism, defined by the display of organized violence and terrorism to win political power, and the ultimate imposition of a totalitarian system hostile to capitalism and individual freedom. By my generation, Mussolini himself had been defeated—though it took the devastation of World War II to dislodge two of Europe’s prominent fascists from power, in Italy and Germany, once they had occupied it. What Italy suffered in the 1970s was a failed effort to reimpose his ideas on the country. Thank God I survived that day in October, but it forced me to rush home and quiz my father about the ideology once again threatening the country. Dad had often reminisced about growing up under Il Duce, calmly noting that “In school they taught us that ‘Il Duce’ will soon trash America and those Negroes.’ And I believed them.” It was a Sicilian barber, just returned to Italy after spending much of his life as a steelworker in Pittsburgh, who changed his mind. “I have seen America, worked in America,” the barber told my father. “America is too strong for us.”
And Italy was ultimately too strong for the fascist resurgence, which ended with the arrests of many of the worst terrorists, but also with job growth, welfare programs, and educational reforms that opened up opportunities for the marginalized of Italian society. All of these policies thinned out the angry masses of discontent, underemployed, and alienated people who had been the best recruits for Mussolini and his successors. Thus in the decades after World War II, Western democracies learned how to prevent fascists from taking power again. The danger I see in Trump is that nobody yet knows how to oppose his particular brand of populism, in America or Europe.
Trump, too, is benefitting from voter discontent. Polls show that many Trump supporters come from the white middle- and working-class, a group whose status and salaries have stagnated for decades; these voters are evidently looking for a leader ready to dignify, if not solve, their problems. But 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.”
Trump has no clear plan of any kind. He is not about to dissolve the Democratic Party and banish the Clintons, Obama, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore and Jimmy Fallon to exile on Randall’s Island. Americans will not goose-step down Broadway; no screaming squadraccia of middle-aged Trump fans will occupy Grand Central; Amazon will not be nationalized as a “strategic state asset.” Trump is simply an opportunist, perfectly willing to change course (from, for example, saying America has to accept refugees to insisting he would “send them back” within the span of a month) and say anything (Hillary Clinton, who in 2008 he said would make a “great” president, “got schlonged” in the end). During Thursday’s debate, Ted Cruz, who is battling Trump for voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, accused Trump of holding “New York values,” that “are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro-gay-marriage, [and] focus around money and the media.” Can you imagine Mussolini being accused of endorsing “New York values”?
Trump does however gutsily feel how people distrust the media, and so manages to blur the line between true and false; news organizations’ attempts to check Trump’s “facts” have so far been ineffectual. His campaign is a postmodernist masterpiece: a subjective surrogate for the real world, where truth and reality are irrelevant. It is this, and not the bloody ghost of fascism, that distorts the 2016 race.
Voters are nervously looking for a new political home as traditional parties have proved oblivious to their needs. The same angry migration from the old parties, to fringes of both left and right, is wrecking Europe, as people flock to Marine Le Pen in France, Nigel Farage in the U.K., former comedian Beppe Grillo in Italy, Podemos in Spain, the Finn Party in Finland, Syriza in Greece, and all sorts of populist parties in Eastern Europe. Men and women left in the cold by globalization and rising inequality, scared of immigrants often lumped together with foreign terrorists in the media and the popular imagination: This is not the base for the new Western World Fascist Party, but it is a powder keg powerful enough to inflame societies on both sides of the Atlantic. It will not destroy Western democracies, but it may poison them. Witch-hunts, racism, repression, and state surveillance may plague a democracy without morphing it into a fascist dictatorship.
A sense of proportion is crucial to avoid alienating voters further. Trump’s fans are too few to march on Washington, but way too many to ignore or mock. They want jobs, schools, safe communities. If you keep your eyes on their needs, and not on Trump’s distorted hall of mirrors, you will not see “fascists” but instead people forgotten by both Democrats and Republicans. To successfully oppose Trump’s disastrous agenda, without isolating his base, the 2016 candidates will have find some way to speak to them. As Western democracies continue to face the crises of wars and terrorism abroad, and growing inequality and cultural and political unrest at home, it would be a tragedy to go through them so bitterly divided.