Using the term ‘fascist’ to name someone’s political position can never be taken lightly—it is usually hurled as a term of abuse. Too often it is attached to the ultimate political insult: Nazi. Donald Trump is a fascist but I want to generalise the concept beyond either insult or the detail of its historical roots, which lie in Mussolini’s Partito Nazionale Fascista.
Starting with a trickle, and intensifying over the last couple of months, commentators have been asking ‘Is Donald Trump a Fascist?’. One early Newsweek article, headed by this question, answered, ‘I do not use that word as an insult only. It is accurate’. Unfortunately, except for throwing other associated concepts like ‘nativistic jingoism’ and ‘totalitarian’ into the mix, the article left the undefined concept to do its own work.
Most responses, like the headline article ‘I Know Fascists: Donald Trump Is No Fascist’ in The Atlantic Monthly, effectively normalise Trump as an inconsistent maverick. Its author lived through Mussolini’s fascism and argues Trump is no Mussolini: ‘I know Americans will not goose-step down Broadway; no screaming squadraccia of middle-aged Trump fans will occupy Grand Central’. Maybe not, but disavowal does not help us to understand the phenomenon in its broadest sense. In this way critique is delegitimised in favour of narrow historical specificity. Trump is normalised as a messy crank with a few foibles.
Fascism is an aggregate ideological position that brings together a series of pointed claims, often in tension with each other—claims that go beyond Left and Right. It is usefully defined as authoritarian nationalism that uses populist appeal to cultural and economic revival or rebirth, while blaming or reviling others for the disadvantaged plight of the multitude. In turn, this multitude chooses to respond to the externalised set of threats by being bundled together by a strong leader.
In fact the concept fascist comes from the Latin word fascis, meaning ‘bundle’—specifically, a sheaf of wooden rods. Each fragile rod in the bundle is said to gain political strength through choosing to be gathered together with others, and ‘bound’ to the cause. The supporters of fascism are in these terms drawn together, but not as rights-bearing citizens.
By the same definition they are not necessarily de-individualised either, as some writers have claimed. Supporters of fascism are still able to voice their possessive individualism in private and in public, but at the same time they are symbolic aggregates, stepping into the interpellative space opened for them by a strong leader. They cheer while the leader speaks. This is Trumpism.
Trump may not have much in common with Mussolini, particularly in relation to understanding the role of the state, but neither does labelling the American president-elect fascist depend upon his having a clear right-wing manifesto or being deeply conservative. It depends upon his assumption of the contradictory authoritarian/nationalist/populist/revivalist/xenophobic nexus that defines the term. This helps us to understand why he is dangerous.
In today’s networked world, where the (contradictory) projective agency and subjective fragility of Trump’s supporters come together in ways that were not the case in the 1920s, Trumpism will probably not last long. He is bound to disappoint his followers.
However, the first danger comes simply from his messiness in appealing to supporters’ contradictory needs while he seeks to retain his popularity. The second comes from opening mainstream politics to the blaming of externalised forces, processes and peoples. This allows for the unbundling and rebundling of different alliances of xenophobia that threaten basic civility, local and global. The third, and most present, danger is that in this fragility of political legitimacy, a soft fascist leader will turn from rhetorical authoritarianism to hard-edged closure and legal totalitarianism. This is the ‘unthinkable’ threat that Philip Roth foretold in his novel The Plot Against America. By naming Trumpism a form of fascism, we are alerted to what is possible, including the ‘unthinkable’.