Is Donald Trump a fascist?
The answer to that question, when presented to experts, has more often than not been "no."
Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric, his acceptance of violence at his rallies and his consideration of a special database for registering American Muslims have combined into a blend of nativism and authoritarianism unique in today's Republican presidential field. But his campaign still lacks what a number of scholars consider to be the hallmark qualities of fascism, such as an explicit commitment to overthrowing democratic institutions.
Yet most of these responses have focused on how Trump compares to European fascism. This is not without reason — it was Europe, not the United States, that was torn apart by popular fascist movements in the 20th century, and continues to be vexed by the possibility of their rise again to this day. But the United States does have its own history of fascist and quasi-fascist movements. While relatively small, these movements did leave their mark on American politics, and took on a different form than those inspired directly by Hitler or Mussolini.
To place Trump's rhetoric in the context of the U.S.'s experience with fascism, Mic spoke with Matthew Feldman, a historian and director of the Centre for Fascist, Anti-fascist and Post-fascist, a program at Teesside University in the U.K. which "examines the historical development of far-right politics and culture." Feldman described the unique ways in which fascism has manifested in American history, and the complicated lineage of the ideology that dates back to the early 20th century.
He said Trump's ideas don't emanate from its classic traditions, but they do resemble the ideologies of the radical right from some of the darker chapters of the nation's past, some of which could arguably be considered precursors to fascism. For Feldman, whether Trump meets a formal definition doesn't change the fact that his ideas are dangerous.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity:
Mic: A lot of people in American politics are calling Donald Trump a fascist. What do you think of that characterization?
Matthew Feldman: I think it's mistaken, based on the evidence we have and our understanding of fascists, which is largely agreed upon among scholars. When identifying fascism, we're talking about a revolution from the right that is comprehensive and simultaneously economic, cultural and political — what one scholar would call "palingenesis," or a "rebirth from decadence." I don't think that's what we're seeing.
"That's not the same thing as overthrowing liberal democratic regimes, which is really the hallmark of classic fascist movements."
Yes, there are some [fascist-sounding] things about Trump when seen in a particular light, such as his slogan, "Make America Great Again." But what I really want to stress is that's not the same thing as overthrowing liberal democratic regimes, which is really the hallmark of classic fascist movements, which sprouted up like poisonous mushrooms across Europe and outside after World War I. That's a really important key period, because of the widespread violence and death that came with World War I.
Mic: One striking example of American exceptionalism in history was its immunity to the communist and fascist mass movements that swept across Europe in the 20th century. But doesn't America have its own history of fascist figures and movements?
MF: I think in terms of the classically fascist movements, America's was rather small. The big one was the Silver Shirts in the 1930s. That was a small movement of 15,000 or so people led by William Dudley Pelley, which advocated for what Pelley called a "silver revolution." He ran on a third-party ticket and tried to set himself up as a dictator. It was more laughable than anything. Some of these guys did get involved in conspiracies. In San Diego they were apparently trying to take over a military base.
So we might associate them with classic fascism, by which I mean dressing up in shirts, having a paramilitary movement, perhaps being anti-Semitic — although I don't believe that's at the definitional core of fascism. I think that that's the kind of stuff we're looking at historically.
Certainly there were a number of other fascist movements and parties, but the key difference between pre-1945 fascism and post-1945 fascism is that, after 1945, very few people on the extreme and revolutionary right would call themselves fascists.
After 1945 very few people on the extreme and revolutionary right will call themselves fascist.
If we're tracing the genealogy of American fascism, do you think Trump's campaign follows from these precedents in any way?
I do think they're qualitatively different. When we're talking about Donald Trump, I think we can use a term like far right, even radical right populist, but not fascist. The far right is ultimately reformist, while fascism is ultimately revolutionary.
The key word for me is "populist." Yes, Trump is worth billions, but he's attempting to reach out to the common woman and man. He's doing that through his 5 million Twitter followers, and because pretty much everything that falls out of his mouth is newsworthy. He's very good at using social and mass media.
When thinking of historical parallels — people that might be considered far-right populists or near-fascists — Father Coughlin comes to mind. He was a Roman Catholic priest who started out promoting social justice on national radio in 1930, and eventually gained an audience of over 30 million listeners. He wasn't just looking to support the middle class or the upper class or working class, but trying to build a movement across classes.
Coughlin became increasingly anti-Semitic, and used his platform to support a group called the Christian Front, which was accused by the FBI of trying to stage a coup d'etat in 1940. These guys might not have been running around in jackboots, but I think if your definition of fascism is running around in jackboots, we're not going to see many after 1945. Fascists also know their history.
Henry Ford serialized the Dearborn Independent, almost 100 issues of anti-Semitic bile that ultimately were published as the International Jew. He's also the guy that was popularizing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Huey Long, the so-called Kingfish, was governor of Louisiana and later a senator in the 1930s, who had a trans-class populist appeal through demagogic appeals on the radio and in his charismatic speeches.
Another one is Charles Lindbergh, who was part of America First. He really played on a lot of the same types of noxious scapegoating of certain people, and played around with conspiracy theories. I think that celebrity status, that notoriety — we could see it in Ford, we could see it in Lindbergh. It sets America off.
Another thing we can see shared by those movements is the scapegoating of out-groups or ethnic and religious minorities. But that is not something that only fascists do. In the U.S., just 50 or 60 years ago, black people were treated as second-class citizens, if not worse. Scapegoating or treating other people like parasites or subhuman is certainly not the sole preserve of fascism, but I do think that we can talk about the far right, and in this I would include Donald Trump, as wanting a kind of illiberal democracy. It's easy to say, "Trump's not a fascist, let's congratulate ourselves on the strength of the democratic system" — well, the democratic system has also historically discriminated against other groups.
It's easy to say, "Trump's not a fascist, let's congratulate ourselves on the strength of the democratic system."
Let's grant that Trump is a reformist, not a revolutionary on the right. But what about the argument that this is paving the ground for something darker, or that it's a precursor for fascism?
That I think is much more convincing to me, although we can't predict the future.
Let's take the Nazi Party, for example. They had kinds of precursors in the so-called volkisch movement, not genuinely fully formed fascist ideology. There's also the group called Action Française in France, that was around before the war. These would be called pre-fascist, or avante-fascist groups, because they show many of the hallmarks, but they might've just disappeared without a trace if it wasn't for the subsequent fascist movements.
"License" is a useful term. What Trump is doing is giving license to some of the darker and more hateful prejudices in the United States, and that can certainly be taken further once, as Aristotle Kallis calls it, taboos are broken. These forms of bigotry then become, not necessarily acceptable, but part of the accepted or mainstream discourse. The term that Kallis uses is "mainstreaming." What we see with Trump is a kind of mainstreaming of some of these prejudices.
Words and hate speech can have consequences. I don't know if we would've seen some of the more troubling scenes of, for example, a homeless man beaten up, as someone says, "Oh, Trump is right about Mexicans." There was a Muslim man looking for planning permission for a mosque in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and someone stood up and basically said, "All Muslims are terrorists, you guys need to leave this country, this is outrageous." I wonder if those sentiments would've been able to reach the mainstream without being pushed by Trump. Also, other people in the room aren't shocked, don't stand up, some of them applaud, some of them sit in silence — that making bystanders of people is an important part of mainstreaming of these types of prejudices.
It's important to say that for the first time in a long time, various different faces of the revolutionary right, the neo-Nazis, the KKK and others all see in Trump something that they absolutely do not see in any of the other candidate. He is still within the democratic family broadly, but they absolutely see someone that they can do business with. And that's alarming, frankly.