Is Donald Trump a fascist?
Donald Trump spent most of this week in court, facing charges of mishandling state secrets, and massive tax fraud. Other courts cases are pending, criminal and civil in New York and in Georgia. Instead of being angry with Trump Conservatives in the US have been in a state of fevered outrage over two recent speeches by Joe Biden, in which he accused MAGA Republicans of semi-fascism
“It’s not just Trump, it’s the entire philosophy that underpins the — I’m going to say something — it’s like semi-fascism.”
I have long been sceptical about comparisons between Trump and fascists like Hitler.
Adolf had a well thought out, if evil, political ideology, set out in lengthy books, and which everyone was expected to adhere on pain of death. Trump has no ideology whatsoever and makes it up as he goes along. He changes his mind and U-turns continually and his followers are expected to go along with these abrupt changes without question – often cheering each flip flop as a sign of his genius and ability to keep his enemies on their toes. He has never read a long book never mind written one.
The MAGA movement does contain a strongly authoritarian streak. This goes beyond facile calls to “lock her up” and rejects some of the central ideas of liberal democracy.
Liberal democracy may have been under attack over recent years, sometimes from the left, often from the right, but it does contain some important principles which derive from the Scottish englightment, US founding fathers and the French revolutionary philosophers.
There two principles in particular that I have in mind:
Firstly the rule of law exists to protect the rights and freedoms of the individual, not just as themselves, but as members of social groups which might be systematically discriminated against. An independent judiciary exists to place a limit on the ability of the executive to enact laws or policies to the detriment of the rights and freedoms of the individuals
Secondly that there is such a thing as reality over fantasy, and that by scientific method, and observation from nature we can ascertain not just scientific facts but also general guiding principles about ourselves and the world. There is a distinction between truth and lies and that through free speech and a free press we can distinguish one from another
If you stop believing that there is an objective truth, and that facts matter, you have taken a fundamental step away from democracy and towards authoritarianism – which is what Arendt was saying half a century ago, but needs to be re-learned again and again
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
Clearly Trump and the MAGA movement is sharply at odd with all of these concepts.
They have embraced anti-scientism, mostly conspiracy theories covid and vaccines,
They talk loudly about the Founding Fathers but at the same time reject all the ideas of the American, French and Scottish englightments.
They are passionate about protecting free speech, but the only speech they protect is their own, and want to silence any dissenting voices, including banning record numbers of library bools
They share an open hostility to the idea of human rights and an open attempt to turn back the civil rights acts, in particular Roe vs Wade, and voting rights. They seek to replace an Independent judiciary with partisan judges who will place no check on executive power, and who will only protect the individual rights of those on their own side politically. The only rights they respect are those which give them the right to dominate others through force such as the second amendment.
Above all they have abandoned the basis distinctions between truth and lies, reality and fantasy – all that matters is that their side wins, no matter the cost
The retreat into fantasy, often mixed with racial animus has a long history, and is worth discussing again.
It started with McCarthy and his hunts for imaginary reds under the bed. Goldwater turned it into a movement and began it’s long march into fantasy, particularly in his opposition to Civil Rights. This is what Richard Hosftader wrote at the time:
“have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy”
From there to Nixon, a paranoid racist liar, who although grotesque is almost dwarfed by the awfulness of his recent peers. Then Reagan, a man for whom the standards of existence – reality vs fantasy – were always blurred in his film career, and as President dissolved into one colourful mess.
W was a self made fictional character- a west coast wasp with a Harvard MBA who from public life surrounded by rumours of drink and drugs and emerged with a Texan drawl and cowboy boots. With no-one apparently noticing his complete change in personality, accent or biography
Trump was only the latest in this sequence – his only distinguishing feature is that he made public what had previously been kept private – a crazy stew of grievance , paranoia, racial animus, greed, and self entitlement – he let it out in the open, and encouraged it to take centra stage carrying assault rifles and shaking it’s fist on the America that subsidised it’s madness.
But there is something older and darker in the MAGA movement, which embraces some much nastier ideas.
There is in the US a minority who believe that God and the US constitution guarantee Government by white conservative Christians, and that any other form of government is illegitimate. Some of these beliefs stem from love of country and pride in their way their ancestors helped build American, even if their view of US history deliberately misses out the contributions of other groups – this is why history books have become such a hot topic for them.
These ideas go a long way back in Conservative America, as far back as John C Colhoun, the great ideologue of slavery and the Know Nothing Party, which prided itself on it’s ignorance. Father Charles Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest and populist leader, used Radio broadcasts in the 30s to promote antisemitic and pro-fascist views. Charles Lindbergh and the original America First movement backed Hitler warning that “a war within our own family of nations…. will reduce the strength and destroy the treasures of the White race,” and “let us not commit racial suicide by internal conflict.”
This is America’s tradition of blood and soil nationalism – a form of nationalism built on racial identity and the special status of white Christian Americans.
It is from these white Conservative Christian groups that the rejection of enlightenment values, including those of their own revered founding fathers originates. The last few decades has seen a boom in prophecy, speaking in tongues, demonic possessions, and super rich mega churches.
As US Conservatives have retreated into fantasy some of these dark beliefs have crossed over into the mainstream.
The current flap about critical race theory being taught in schools is really an argument about history – whether American children are taught a version of history that is based on the achievements and triumphs of white Christian Americans, or whether the role of all Americans of different races and religions is part of the national story.
Conservative ideologues like Tucker Carlson push the far right “great replacement” conspiracy theory – the idea that America is being deliberately changed to make it less white in order to cement a liberal elite hold on power
This is pretty awful racist stuff, but it also misses the point – the big change in US politics has already happened.
The republicans have only won the popular vote once in the last 30 years of Presidential elections. America has been a liberal diverse country for a generation, and only the quirks of the electoral college and some electoral dark arts have kept the Republicans in the game. It is entirely possible that the GOP won’t win the popular vote again in my life time.
The journey into fantasy, the rejection of enlightenment values, and the embrace of blood and soil nationalism are all linked to this political decline – America is a confident, diverse, multi-racial, well educated successful country that no longer resembles the white Christian land of blood and soil.
The American political system allows the white Christian minority to hold the rest of the country hostage, while taking billions in federal subsidies. But they can feel that last remaining power slip away from them.
This is why America has become such a fertile land for fascist fantasies. But I still puzzle why so many ordinary people get sucked in so easily.
Maybe we all believe fantasies. For most of us those fantasies are benign, or even helpful to get through the day. We believe that life is fair, that if we work hard and do the right thing we will get by. We believe someone out there will love us, or at least want to sleep with us.
And then things happen in life, disappointments, loneliness, isolation, tragedy. Those helpful fantasies become darker and stranger. We get older and we start and see the world as a scary place, full of peril and hostility. We want an explanation of why life wasn’t fair to us, and we look for someone to blame.
We start and cling to identities, racial, political, social hierarchies as some kind of protection against the “other” – the strange and scary group of outsiders who threaten everything, our very way of life.
Once you see the world in terms of conspiratorial fantasies you become an insider. Someone in the know, someone special. You can see the plot against your kind, the great plot, going back years, decades, maybe centuries.
And you are grateful when some of your kind stand up, offer to protect you. Fight back. Reveal the terrible plot against your kind, confirm your terrible suspicions
The US right have traded in these fantasies for years, decades. The only difference is that Trump talked about them out loud. But they were there long before him, and will linger long after he has gone, ready for some other leader to tap into and exploit.
There is something nihilistic about modern US Conservative politics. The areas most likely to back Trump are areas with lots of non-graduate white people with declining life expectancies. The reasons for the decline are diseases of desperation – gunshot, suicide, obesity, opiate addiction. Watching his latest rallies there are clear elements of fascism as his support for QAnon becomes more public, but there is also a desperation here, more Johnstown than Nuremberg
And either America confronts Trump and his jihadis or it wait to see what rough beast slouches towards the Republican Convention, it’s hour to be born