- Before TrumpOn Comparing Fascism and Trumpism
Another dream, another dream.
We shall have to accept certain limitations
In future, and abandon some humane dreams; only hard-minded, sleepless and realist can ride this rock-slide
To new fields down the dark mountain; and we shall have to perceive that these insanities are normal;
We shall have to perceive that battle is a burning flower or like a huge music, and the dive-bomber’s screaming orgasm
As beautiful as other passions; and that death and life are not serious alternatives. One has known all these things
For many years: there is greater and darker to know
In the next hundred.—Robinson Jeffers, “Battle” (1940)1
I have been contemplating a photograph of Donald J. Trump—businessman, bestselling author, and reality television star—shaking hands with Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House, one day after being declared president-elect of the United States. I fully confess that I was one of those who thought this image, and this moment, would never come: that Trump would not, could not, win the presidency. Indeed, [End Page 27] only days before the election I published a short essay in which I almost took for granted that Trump would lose, arguing for the long-term significance of the Trump phenomenon nevertheless.2
While there are, of course, many factors that could account for the surprise with which the results of the election were attended, foremost among them is the radicalism of the Trump campaign. The “radical” attributes of Trump’s candidacy have by now been widely documented and discussed: his rejection of the norms of modern American civic discourse through statements decried by critics as an affront to “basic human decency” but which Trump and his supporters would defend in the face of a quasi-totalitarian culture of “political correctness”; his rebuke of and by the establishment, including Republican Party elites and conservative commentators and editorial boards like those of the National Review and Weekly Standard; his appeal to the so-called alt-right and other “deplorables,” people famously described by Trump’s Democratic opponent as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it”; his inciting of violence against protesters who disrupted his rallies; and his suggesting, late in the campaign, that he might not accept the results of the election if he lost. Surely, I thought, one cannot commit so many transgressions and yet go on to win. Like so many others, I was wrong.
These same radical characteristics led some commentators to label Trump a “fascist.”3 The leading experts on fascism, however, have largely refuted this charge. Historian Roger Griffin, for example, argues that for Trump to qualify as a fascist he would “have to set about seizing power democratically so as to be able to dismantle or pervert the institutions of liberal democracy entirely.” According to Griffin, “Trump, whatever his faults, has given no sign that he intends the destruction of the U.S. constitutional system and its replacement by a totalitarian ‘new order’ with himself as its charismatic leader for (in his case a short) perpetuity.” Griffin classifies Trump instead as a “radical right-wing populist.”4
Still, even if Trump cannot be considered a fascist, per se, I would suggest that the field of comparative fascist studies might be able to provide us with some invaluable insights into the Trump phenomenon. Clearly, fascism and “Trumpism”—if such a thing can even be defined—have certain features in common: radicalism, populism, and perhaps above all, what Griffin calls “palingenetic ultranationalism” (palingenetic denoting renewal or rebirth—or “making great again”).5 The family resemblances may be imperfect, but they [End Page 28] are there. The problem, though, is that fascism and fascist remain among the most overused, misused, and abused terms in our modern-day political lexicon, invoked all too often by politicians of the left, right, and center in order to portray their opposition as being beyond the ideological pale. Accusing one of “fascism” today is thus analogous to accusing one of “heresy” or “witchcraft” in an earlier era, and mirrors the rhetorical tactics used by historical fascists to attack their enemies.6...