Over recent months, there has been a steady stream of commentary in the Australian and European media arguing that the Trump program is fascist. Based on a couple of discussions with people who know much more than me about 20th century European fascism, I thought these claims were overblown, and that Trump’s program lacked a defining feature of fascism, the co-opting of industry of industry and the economy for ultra-nationalist goals. I’ve since realized this is too narrow a view of fascism, and that its expression is quite dependent on history, culture and period and may take a different form in different places and times. Mark Twain expressed this well when he said “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”.
Wikipedia has a good summary of the debate around definitions of fascism. But I was most struck by some of its quotations from various historians who have specialized in studying 20th century fascism (Wikipedia gives references):
Robert Paxton: Fascism is a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
James Gregor: Fascism is ultimately centered around a mythos of national rebirth from decadence.
Roger Griffin describes fascism has three core components: “(i) the rebirth myth, (ii) populist ultra-nationalism, and (iii) the myth of decadence”.
Jason Stanley: “The leader proposes that only he can solve it and all of his political opponents are enemies or traitors.”
Cas Mudde: While fascism uses populist means, it is ultimately an elitist ideology which exalts the Leader, the race, and the state, rather than the people (who are generally treated with contempt as tools for the enrichment of those in power).
Well, this is more than rhyming. These are all spot on descriptions of the Trump program and its supporters. Trump’s America with a defining slogan “Make America Great Again” and apparently no real policies other than keep out non-whites, own the libs and reverse all efforts to reduce discrimination and dissent fits the descriptions of fascism above. Of course, it doesn’t look exactly like Nazi fascism and is very much shaped by the US social and political context, with its long history of racism, institutionalized discrimination, militarized police forces and more recent history of conflict with Muslim extremists. Trump has been explicitly defining those who do not support him as un-American and that politicians who oppose him should imprisoned or “go back to where they came from”.
Now three days after the election, Trump and Republican officials are openly seeking to stop valid votes being counted and attempting to derail the electoral process. As the election hangs on a knife edge, he is falsely telling the American people that votes counted after polling day are not valid votes, though they are, and that there has been massive voter fraud (the only two known cases are both Republican voters who tried to vote for someone else as well). Trump’s insistence that he won the election, and his efforts to halt counting in states where he is ahead while supporting the continuation of counting in states where he is behind, has to be a clear line for anyone professing to support democracy. There are a handful of Republican officials who are repudiating this behaviour, but the vast majority of Trump supporters are apparently fine with anti-democratic behaviour and refusal to accept the result of the election. This is a defining moment for Trump supporters: either they support democracy and free and fair elections, or they don’t.
And whether Trump wins the election or loses, America has a very serious problem. Almost half the American voting public and one of its two major political parties appear to support a system which will disallow their political enemies from winning government. American democracy is in serious trouble, and may not be far away from having elections like those of Russia and other autocracies/kleptocracies in which its mostly only votes for the government that get counted.
And this is not just about Trump, not much is likely to change if he drops out of politics. The Republican drive to maintain power despite an electorate which is becoming younger and less white or conservative has motivated a long-term systematic program of voter suppression via the purging of rolls, legal restrictions on voting, closing of polling booths and campaigns to deter turnout. Outright refusal to accept the legitimate results of elections, however, marks a step into clear fascism.
An Australian commentator, Bernard Keane, wrote yesterday that the fundamental question for Trump supporters is “Do you actually believe in democracy, or only when your own side wins? Is trashing democracy OK because in the broader scheme of things it’s more important that the “right” candidate wins?”