If Trump Is a Fascist, Why Can’t He Seize Power?

David Moir / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

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:

  1. a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;
  2. 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;
  3. 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;
  4. dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;
  5. the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;
  6. the need for authority by natural leaders, always male, culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s destiny;
  7. the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;
  8. the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success;
  9. 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.