By Kathleen Frydl
June 1, 2016
Over the holiday weekend, The New York Times ran a piece that placed GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump in the kind of analytical context that his candidacy demands. The “rise of Donald Trump,” the headline read, “tracks the growing debate over global fascism.”
The candidacy of Donald Trump — not just the man himself, but what he has exposed and inspired — overwhelms and frankly exploits normal punditry; by necessity, journalists look abroad, or to the past, to grapple with his bizarre and transgressive campaign.
So it was no surprise to see The New York Times do both, situating Trump within the context global right-wing authoritarianism that begged comparison to mid 20th century fascism. Yet it was disconcerting that the arguments cited in the article to cast doubt on the viability of this framework were not just unpersuasive, but ill-informed.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, often mentioned as a possible running mate to Mr. Trump, argued that Trump “does not have the sort of ideology” that fascists did, a sweeping claim that invites contradiction. In fact, Donald Trump’s vow “to make America great again” and his machismo-laden language of national humiliation is deeply resonant with mid 20th century fascism. It is the defining feature of his campaign, as it was for his more menacing predecessors, who dwelt on the very same themes and invoked many of the same passions.
Gingrich did offer at least one legitimate distinction between his preferred candidate and traditional fascists: Trump does not have the “political structure” that those organizations did, a point that holds particularly true for Nazi Germany — yet not one that discerning people would find greatly reassuring. But even this difference loses much of its force if one replaces the assiduous party building of the fascists with Donald Trump’s relentless courting of the news media — a plausible substitution, given that both ventures were undertaken in order to provide a candidate with a platform.
Nevertheless, one would expect these kinds of deflections from a Trump supporter; more alarming are the misinformed responses of those without an identifiable interest. Volker Perthes of the German Institute for International and Security affairs advised against invoking the fascist framework absent an explicit and repeated contempt for democracy. To which it is reasonable to reply: take a better look at the Trump campaign.
“I am the only one who can solve these problems,” Trump claims in almost every public appearance; it is one of his most common — and concerning — refrains. In his bid to present a “charismatic personality” to voters, Donald Trump does not propose solutions as much as he suggests that he is himself the only one. It is frankly astonishing that this authoritarian incantation meets with no significant skepticism from the press, especially given its role in grounding Trump’s exceptionalism in the eyes of his supporters.
The notion of a “strong man,” while certainly not alien to American history, is in itself deeply abhorrent to the democratic ideal. As has been true elsewhere and in other times, the authoritarian nature of Trump’s campaign renders it nothing short of alarming. Political scientist Matthew McWilliams reported in Politico that, according to his polling, the only statistically significant factor that separated Trump supporters from other Republican primary voters was their penchant for authoritarianism — that is, people who “rally to and follow strong leaders” and “respond aggressively” to those they regard as “outsiders.”
Related to this and disturbing in its own right is the Trump campaign’s propensity toward and approval of violence, a rowdiness unleashed in order to restore a misbegotten notion of “order.” The demonization of dissent and subsequent hectoring of protestors at Trump rallies illustrates the point, but it is important to realize that the embrace of violence as a legitimate means of political expression is not confined to his followers alone. Trump surrogate and advisor Roger Stone not only promised “days of rage” if Republican delegates denied his candidate the nomination at the GOP convention, he vowed to publish the room numbers of delegates who voted against Trump. Those finer points that distinguish a thinly veiled threat of this sort from the brown/or blackshirt thugs of traditional fascism do not supply a sturdy platform for a democratic republic, to put it mildly.
Just as bewildering as the article’s elision over Donald Trump’s unconvincing commitment to democracy is the point raised by Charles Grant of the Center for European Reform in London. “Historically, [fascism] means the demonization of minorities within a society to the extent that they feel insecure,” he told The New York Times.
Certain news items must not be reaching London. There is an actual “Donald Trump hate and violence map”; I strongly advise Mr. Grant and others review it. It preserves the numerous accounts of a “Trump effect”: a surge in violence toward people of color related or linked to Donald Trump’s campaign. One of Trump’s signature policy “proposals” is a patently unconstitutional ban on entry to the United States applicable to all Muslims; another is his absurd nativist indulgence of a “wall” to separate the US from Mexico. The prejudicial exercise of state power, whether along the lines of race or religion, is an acceptable summary of the entire Trump platform.
Since The New York Times published its piece on global fascism (with some careful, as well as some baseless scruples included), the Trump campaign’s disdain for democracy has been made even more obvious by the candidate himself. Faced with a class action lawsuit against a business venture, Trump denounced the judge presiding over the case to his supporters in terms intended to inflame their racism. But he did not stop there. Due to appear in court in November, Trump threatened the judge in the case by venturing that he may appear before him “as president.” Conservative legal scholar David Post matter-of-factly dubbed Trump’s harassment of a member of the judicial branch “authoritarianism.”
Also attracting more notice in the last few days is Donald Trump’s derision of the press. Over Memorial Day weekend, at a special event intended to honor Donald Trump’s charity donations to veterans organizations, many viewers were shocked to see the candidate denounce the media in such categorial and strident terms — “liars” and “lowlifes” are perennial favorites — and that he would do so in response to the journalists seeking verification of donations that Trump claimed he had made.
No one should be surprised. This obsession with the press has been a standard feature of his stump speech, and his entire campaign. Recently Media Matters compiled a catalogue of the Trump campaign’s intimidation of the news media called “Donald Trump’s War against the Media.” When his constant badgering of journalists is paired with his expressed intent to overhaul “libel law,” an alarming pattern emerges. No wonder National Press Club president Thomas Burr felt compelled to release a statement that charged “Donald Trump misunderstands — or, more likely, simply opposes — the role of a free press plays in a democratic society.” Jonathan Chait added his view that Trump’s flouting of accountability to the press and his ferocious mendacity are both features of his “authoritarianism”; “Trump’s version of truth is multiple truths,” Chait writes, “the only consistent element of which is Trump himself is always, by definition, correct.”
As the Donald Trump campaign rolls on, heedless of democratic principles, it adds more credence to a fascist framework. It would be wrong to insist that others adopt it; it is not the only way to discuss or understand the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. More wrong, however, would be to dismiss the comparison on unwarranted grounds. Better to say, as Jochen Bittner of Der Zeit put it, “Mr. Trump is no Hitler, but that’s not the point.” The resemblances are strong enough to be disturbing even if they are not are not identical, and the comparison is damning even when the discrepancies are duly noted.
Indeed there is a global backlash to the neoliberal order, and right-wing authoritarianism of various stripes is one of its constituent parts. In the face of grave danger, better to err on the side of a vigilance informed by history, than a complacency that admits to superficial and imperfect understanding. If and when the institutions of democracy are degraded beyond recognition under a Trump presidency, we won’t be consoling ourselves with the comparatively more robust party mobilization of the Nazis.
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