We know Donald Trump is a racist. He passes the pretty simple test for being a racist: does he do and say racist things? The answer is yes, regularly and repeatedly.
After the revelations of camps and forced separation, there’s now a bigger question that’s been lurking for too long: is Donald Trump a fascist? Phrases like ‘alt-right’ or ‘white nationalism’ are fashionable ways of avoiding the big f-word.
In one sense, George Orwell was right long ago in 1944 when he said the word fascism is “almost entirely meaningless”, especially as people still “recklessly fling the word... in every direction”. It’s hard to pin down exactly what a fascist is. There are common threads, a fascist family resemblance if you like, such as a glorification and love of violence. However, fascism was different in form, from Spain where it was a kind reactionary oppression to Germany where it was ultimately about racism and genocide. A further problem, as many scholars point out, is that it was easier to work out what fascism was against than what it was for. Even a rough list of what it was against is enlightening when we think about Trump: equality, diversity, democracy.
There are very obvious ways in which Trump isn’t a fascist. He has no armed squads, youth movements or a one-party state. He is surrounded, hemmed in, with democratic institutions. I don’t know if, in the darkest and deepest recesses of his imagination, he wants parades and uniforms and marching squads. Perhaps. Probably.
But are the parades just trappings? Orwell argued that fascism, beyond the marching, was more accurately a state of mind. He went on to say that ‘‘bully’ is a synonym for ‘fascist’’. Trump has been nothing if not a bully, attacking grieving ethic minority fathers of servicemen and kneeling ethnic minority footballers (see the link?) and throwing toddlers in camps. Trump and Trumpism is, in some senses, just politicised bullying of the vulnerable.
Even without the parades, I’d argue Trump does have a fascist state of mind and, at the very least, borrows their way of seeing the world and mode of working. Joe Biden said as much a few day ago. Trump has already done what fascists did, just as Salvini is busily doing in Italy (in the fascist office of choice, the interior ministry). He has poisoned the well of public discourse, pushing away the boundaries of decency and spewing hate. He called Mexicans rapists and publicly mocked a disabled reporter. He went on, while in the office of Abraham Lincoln and FDR, to praise Nazis. Remember? Time and again he has struck the classic famous leadership pose of a man with a ‘grievance against the universe’ and styled himself as ‘the martyr, the victim... the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds’.
In office, again like Salvini, he is trying to undermine democratic norms daily, as if melting democracy from the inside out. He seeks to undermine the very essence of democracy at the push of a tweet: yesterday it’s judges, today it’s the rule of law, and tomorrow it’s the voting system.
What the past week has shown is that his policies too now resemble fascism. He has created a series of camps, yes that word again, camps, perhaps the word that defined the 20th Century. He separated out vulnerable groups and targeted them, testing the waters of extreme policy semi-secretly, to see how the public react. For all the myth of imposition, Fascist regimes too carefully calibrated and re-calibrated policy, while covering them in a smoke screen of denial, partial back down and obfuscation. See how Trump’s defenders argued the nuances of Nazism or what constitutes a ‘cage’ for a toddler?
This is not to say Trump is a full-on fascist dictator, much as he may want to be. He remains constrained, so far. Much of his success has been because others, notably the Republicans and parts of the media, have allowed him, excused him and appeased him. Rather than a new Hitler he perhaps resembles some of the incompetent leaders in Weimar Germany before him, happily eroding democratic defences before letting in (actually inviting in) the Nazis. Most of all, he looks like his idol Mussolini, heading a ramshackle ‘propaganda regime’ long on rhetoric but short on concrete achievements. Before we make ‘hail Mussolini’ jokes, bear in mind , according to Bosworth, that Mussolini was responsible for a million deaths, the dropping of poison gas and the kick starting of a vicious civil war from Italy has not fully recovered.
For those who doubt, perhaps we can turn the question around. Let’s apply the LBJ test and see if Trump can deny it. How often has Trump proved himself not to be fascist and a supporter of democracy? I don’t mean his own imbecilic boasting, but democracy in general? How often has he championed freedom of speech (for everyone)? Or praised an opponent? Or publicly favoured minority rights? Never. Trump’s inclination may not be the full-throated marching fascism of the past but, as Umberto Eco pointed out, it can change forms. So we should assume the worst and point out the worst. Never normalise, never accept. Primo Levi’s warning echoes back to us “it happened, so it can happen again”.