The charge that Donald Trump is a fascist has now become the staple meme, the meta-story, if you will, of leftist rhetoric and media coverage of the president. Legal scholar Juan Cole describes Trump’s election this way: “How the U.S. went fascist.” Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns terms Trump’s presidency “Hitleresque.” MSNBC host Rachel Maddow reveals, “I’ve been reading a lot about what it was like when Hitler first became chancellor, because I think that’s possibly where we are.”
These accusations, in some form or another, are endorsed by leading lights in the Democratic Party, by foreign leaders, and even by such Republicans as John McCain and Christine Todd Whitman. Even some fascism experts have endorsed the analogy between Trump’s America and fascist regimes. Historian Ron Rosenbaum, author of “Explaining Hitler,” insists that Trump’s tenure so far is based on a “playbook written in German. That playbook is ‘Mein Kampf.'”
Certainly the Left at times accused Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush of being fascists. But that was throwaway rhetoric. In Trump’s case, they mean it. The charge of fascism is used to justify unprecedented forms of resistance to Trump: attempting to subvert his election even after he won, refusing to attend his inauguration, disrupting inauguration events, seeking impeachment even without a shred of impeachable evidence, advocacy of a military coup, and even presidential assassination. If Trump is a fascist or some kind of Nazi, it seems legitimate to get rid of him — by any means necessary.
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But is he? Here I examine the five main characteristics that are routinely cited to prove Trump’s fascism and nascent Nazism.
Reactionary. The reactionary charge, recently circulated in The New Yorker, is convenient for the Left because it associates conservatism and fascism with the past, and distinguishes it from progressivism, which is obviously concerned with the future. What makes the charge believable on the surface is that Trump, like most conservatives, seems to want America to get back to the good old days. Isn’t that what Hitler promised to do? Wasn’t his Third Reich a reactionary attempt to restore the First Reich of Charlemagne and the Second Reich of Bismarck?
Perhaps, but Trump’s promised restoration is concerned with bringing back jobs. It is also about making government smaller and less bureaucratic. It is not about repealing progress in America on civil rights or women going to work. It is not about sending gays back into the closet. So, too, modern conservatism is about restoring the ideals of the founders, not the actual agrarian, undeveloped world in which the founders lived. So the right seeks to apply old principles — which it considers enduring or permanent truths — in our new situation today, so as to create a better future. There is nothing reactionary about that.
Nor were Mussolini’s fascism or Hitler’s national socialism reactionary in the classic sense. “All of Hitler’s political ideas,” Stanley Payne writes in “A History of Fascism,” “had their origin in the Enlightenment.” Historian Richard Evans that “none of the voters who flocked to the polls in support of Hitler” sought “to restore a lost past. On the contrary, they were inspired by a vague yet powerful vision of the future.” This vision invoked symbols from the past, but it “did not involve just looking back, or forward, but both.”
One of the groups that most strongly supported fascism in Italy was the self-designated futurists. Led by Filippo Marinetti, the futurists championed fast cars and new technologies and viewed themselves as on the cutting edge both of the sciences and of art. This was the group that encouraged fascism and Nazism to use new advances in technology and up-to-date techniques of media and propaganda. Historian Zeev Sternhell concludes that far from being reactionary, “The conceptual framework of fascism … was nonconformist, avant-garde, and revolutionary in character.”
The fascists and the Nazis sought to create a new man and new utopia freed from the shackles of the old religion and old allegiances. The whole mood of fascism and Nazism was beautifully captured in the Nazi youth depicted in the movie Cabaret, who sings not about a lost past but rather that “tomorrow belongs to me.” Fascism’s appeal was, as both its critics and enthusiasts recognized at the time, more progressive and forward-looking than it was backward and reactionary.
Authoritarianism. This is a big one, based on what the Left insists is a shared characteristic of Trump and fascist dictators. Even historian Timothy Snyder, a reputable scholar of fascism, affirms that Trump is an authoritarian in the manner of Hitler and Mussolini. Now Hitler and Mussolini were indeed authoritarians, but it doesn’t follow that authoritarianism equals fascism or Nazism. Lenin and Stalin were authoritarian, but neither was a fascist. Many dictators — Franco in Spain, Pinochet in Chile, Peron in Argentina, Idi Amin in Uganda — were authoritarian without being fascists or Nazis.
Trump admittedly has a bossy style that he gets from, well, being a boss. He has been a corporate boss all of his life, and he also plays a boss on TV. Republicans elected Trump because they needed a tough guy to take on Hillary; previously they tried bland, harmless candidates like Mitt Romney, and look where that got them.
That being said, Trump has done nothing to subvert the democratic process. While progressives continue to allege a plot between Trump and the Russians to rig the election, the only evidence for actual rigging comes from the Democratic National Committee’s attempt to rig the 2016 primary in favor of Hillary over Bernie. This rigging evoked virtually no dissent from Democratic officials or from the media, suggesting the support, or at least acquiescence, of the whole progressive movement and most of the party itself.
Trump has criticized judges, sometimes in derisive terms, but there is nothing undemocratic about this. Lincoln blasted Justice Taney over the Dred Scott decision, and FDR was virtually apoplectic when the Supreme Court blocked his New Deal initiatives.
Criticizing the media isn’t undemocratic, either. The First Amendment isn’t just a press prerogative; the president, too, has the right of free speech.
Authoritarians undermine legitimate structures of authority; has Trump or the GOP done this? Some progressives accused the GOP Senate leadership of undermining checks and balances by invoking the “nuclear option” to shut down a Democratic filibuster and confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Yet these progressives forgot to mention that it was former Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid who first invoked the “nuclear option,” and Republicans were thus merely acting on his precedent.
Authoritarians often try to run your private life. Think of the way that authoritarian regimes like the Nazis and the Soviets sought to regulate the way that people worshipped or what they read or how they conducted their everyday life, a mindset captured in the Nazi saying that “only sleep is a private matter.” Do you think Trump remotely cares how you live your private life? Does it matter to him which deity you worship or what book you read? Of course not.
Authoritarians strike fear into their opponents, while the very fact that Trump is flayed daily across countless media platforms shows that his opponents feel quite free to speak their minds. Consider a telling contrast. Hitler wiped out his opponents in the infamous Night of the Long Knives on June 30, 1934. Mussolini silenced his critics by taking over the presses and had one of his prominent opponents, Giacomo Matteotti, murdered.
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Consider what Trump did, by contrast, to the singer Cher, who once said “some nasty sh**” about him. “I knocked the [sh**] out of her” on Twitter, Trump boasted, “and she never said a thing about me after that.” He let her have it on Twitter. This is hardly the mark of an authoritarian.
Nationalism. If there is one feature that progressives consider essential to fascism and Nazism, it’s nationalism.
Clearly Trump is a nationalist, and the modern American Right is nationalist and comfortable with the symbols of traditional patriotism, such as the waving of the flag or boisterous renditions of the national anthem and “God Bless America.” By contrast, the modern Left is internationalist — it has little patience with displays of traditional patriotism — and this seems to distinguish the Left on the one hand, from the Nazis, the fascists and the American conservatives on the other.
Yet is nationalism or even ultra-nationalism sufficient to make one a fascist? Was Mussolini more of a nationalist than, say, Churchill or De Gaulle? George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were nationalists. The French revolutionaries were all nationalists. Nelson Mandela was a nationalist. Castro was a nationalist who coined the revolutionary slogan, “The Fatherland or Death.” Che Guevara was a nationalist, as was Pol Pot. Even when he lived in England and South Africa, Gandhi was a dedicated Indian nationalist. Stalin was a nationalist who championed “Mother Russia.” Obviously it makes no sense to call these men fascists.
It is also worth remarking that if Hitler and Mussolini were nationalists — as they unquestionably were — they were nationalists of a very different type than American conservatives. “Mussolini was not a traditional nationalist,” historian Zeev Sternhell writes. A. James Gregor goes further. “Mussolini was opposed to traditional patriotism and conventional nationalist appeals.” Early in his career Mussolini ridiculed the Italian flag and called the army “a criminal organization designed to protect capitalism and bourgeois society.” Hitler called himself a nationalist but he refused to call himself a patriot.
Both sought a new type of nationalism which involved loyalty not to the nation as it was but to the new nation they sought to create. Fascist nationalism called upon citizens to subordinate their private concerns fully to the centralized state. This type of nationalism — let’s call it statist or collectivist nationalism — more closely resembles the American Left than the American Right, since the American Right holds, with Reagan, that “government is not the solution. Government is the problem.”
Militarism. Another characteristic regularly used by progressives to link Trump to fascism and Nazism is his alleged militarism. In March The Washington Post featured a headline charging, “The Trump Presidency Ushers in a New Age of Militarism.” Now fascism and Nazism were indeed militaristic. Hitler and Mussolini were both veterans of World War I, and of course they were, along with their Japanese allies, the joint perpetrators of World War II.
Even so, historian Stanley Payne writes that “fascism is usually said to have been expansionist and imperialist by definition, but this is not clear from a reading of diverse fascist programs.” Indeed “several fascist movements had little interest in or even rejected new imperial ambitions,” while others advocated war that was “generally defensive rather than aggressive.”
I mention this not to exonerate fascism and Nazism on this score, but to highlight that we should not confuse the incidental features of an ideology with its central characteristics. If fascism was imperialistic because it flourished in the interregnum between two world wars, it doesn’t follow that fascism is inherently militaristic or that militarism is one of its defining features. By analogy, if the American founders were farmers, it doesn’t follow that farming was central to the American founding. Leftists seem to routinely attribute the accidental features of Nazism and fascism to the ideologies themselves.
Trump is not a militarist. He is, in fact, less militarist than his party. Of course Trump wants to defeat ISIS militarily, but this is because ISIS is a terrorist organization that seeks to destroy America. In early April this year, Trump ordered a strike against a Syrian airfield. This seems to have been an outraged response to horrific pictures Trump saw showing the victims of a chemical gas attack by the Syrian despot Bashar Assad. Trump’s action was a surprise to his critics and supporters alike, neither of whom expected Trump to intervene in this way.
The conventions of social media do not require that we check out the backgrounds of the people that we retweet.
Trump’s Syria action seems anomalous given his general semi-isolationist stance. While the GOP generally supported Bush’s invasion of Iraq, for instance, Trump campaigned for the presidency on his opposition to the war. If Trump wanted to annex Mexico and make it part of Greater USA, then he could be accused of imitating Hitler’s Lebensraum. But nothing could be further from Trump’s mind. He has outlined a vision of a less interventionist America that focuses on its own internal problems.
Racism and xenophobia. This is the final and most incendiary charge. Every comparison between Trump and the Nazis goes here. By way of a single sample, Elizabeth Warren explains Trump’s rise as the product of an “ugly stew of racism.” Perhaps the strongest basis for the charge is that the Left has uncovered some white supremacists and anti-Semites who say they back Trump. One of them, Richard Spencer, held a notorious rally in which he and his few dozen supporters cried out, “Hail Trump.”
Spencer seems here to be doing his best Hitler imitation. Yet if these racists and anti-Semites endorse Trump, Trump himself doesn’t endorse them. The best the Left can show is that Trump has retweeted some statements by white nationalists even though the statements themselves are benign. I retweet people all the time without knowing much about them. The conventions of social media do not require that we check out the backgrounds of the people that we retweet.
Notice that over the course of American history, many racists voted for Lincoln — who actively courted the anti-immigrant, Know Nothing Vote — and Wilson and FDR, who also actively sought the votes of avowed racists. It doesn’t follow that Lincoln, Wilson and FDR were racists. Lincoln clearly wasn’t a racist. Wilson was; the evidence on FDR is somewhat ambiguous. My point here, however, is simply that the racist vote by itself doesn’t make its beneficiary a racist.
Obviously, the question still remains: Why do these guys like Trump if Trump isn’t a racist like them? One possible answer is that these are jobless guys, losers in society, some of them total imbeciles. Whatever they call themselves — fascists or whatever —frankly, I don’t believe they are fascists or know much about fascism. Hitler would have sent most of them straight to the gas chambers. (Let’s recall that one of the earliest categories of people Hitler euthanized were the so-called “imbeciles.”) It’s quite possible that these guys support Trump because they expect him to bring back unskilled jobs. In other words racists might still like Trump for reasons that have nothing to do with racism.
Trump was being at worst somewhat insensitive. Insensitivity is not the same thing as bigotry.
Once the charge of having racist supporters is relinquished, not much else remains. Is Trump a racist and xenophobe because he “hates immigrants” and once called a Hispanic federal judge a “Mexican?” Yes I know; the judge in question is a U.S. citizen. I’m a U.S. citizen, so that would be like calling me an “East Indian.” Even if someone else intends to insult me by calling me an Indian, I’m not offended; what’s the big deal? Even for those who are thin-skinned, Trump was being at worst somewhat insensitive. Insensitivity is not the same thing as bigotry.
Trump’s statements about Muslims cannot be termed racist for the simple reason that Islam is a religion, not a race. Can they, however, be termed xenophobic? Let’s consider Trump’s executive order banning travel to America from several Muslim-majority countries. These happen to be countries that breed terrorists. They are also countries where the vetting of people, some of whom have been displaced from their homes and communities, is especially difficult. Locke says that whatever other tasks a government undertakes — whether humanitarian or otherwise — its primary duty is to protect its own citizens from foreign and domestic thugs. That isn’t fascism; it’s classical liberalism.
Similarly, classical liberalism holds that a liberal society is a social compact among citizens who agree to come together for certain benefits and protections that they seek in common. In exchange for these protections and privileges, they give up the exercise of some of their natural rights. The point here is that natural rights belong to everyone, but civil and constitutional rights are the product of a social compact. It follows, therefore, that civil rights belong only to citizens. Aliens who are not part of the American social compact don’t have any constitutional rights. Again, Trump in denying that illegal aliens have a constitutional right to be here is in the mainstream of the liberal tradition.
Trump isn’t against “immigrants” for the simple reason that illegal aliens are not immigrants. Leftists in Congress and the media routinely and deliberately conflate legal and illegal immigrants, as in New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s comical rant, “We are all immigrants,” and this front page headline in The New York Times: “More Immigrants Face Deportation Under New Rules.”
According to this leftist narrative, my wife Debbie (immigrant from Venezuela) and I (immigrant from India) are Trump’s targets, and we should be living in fear. But this is a lie, and Cuomo and the editors of The Times know it. Trump has no intention to send us packing to our countries of origin. Trump’s distinction is between legal immigrants and lawbreakers who seek to circumvent the immigration process.
This is not a racial distinction. Trump has never said that America is a white man’s country or that brown or black people should not emigrate here. Most legal immigrants today come from Asia, Africa and South America, and Trump seems fine with that.
Contrast Trump’s position with that of Hitler. The Jews of Germany were legal immigrants or descended from legal immigrants. They were German citizens. Yet Hitler did not consider them to be true Germans. The Nuremberg Laws stripped Jews of their German citizenship. So for Hitler the line was not between legal and illegal immigrants. It was not even between immigrants and native-born Germans. Rather, it was a racial line between Nordics or Aryan Germanic people on the one hand, and Jews and other non-Aryan “inferiors” on the other.
Finally, there’s anti-Semitism, a charge that has been made against Trump by Senator Al Franken, among others. But nothing could be more absurd. Trump is, if anything, philo-Semitic. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. He has a Jewish daughter-in-law, a Jewish son-in-law who is also one of his closest advisers, a daughter on whom he dotes (who converted to Judaism), and Jewish grandchildren.
As we can see from his April 2017 Holocaust remembrance speech — widely praised by Jewish leaders — and his May address at Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial, Trump is unapologetically pro-Jewish and pro-Israel in way that his predecessor Barack Obama never was. In the words of Israel’s prime minister, Netanyahu, “There is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than President Donald Trump.” In sum, Trump is no racist, no anti-Semite, and no fascist.
Dinesh D’Souza’s new book, “The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left,” is published by Regnery.
(photo credit, homepage and article images: Gage Skidmore)