Fascism is a term thrown around often by people on all sides of the political spectrum. It is used commonly and casually; anything that one does not like is labeled “fascist.” It seems that few understand the meaning, or they would not use it in the ways they do. For example, to call someone a “fascist socialist” is antithetical and historically ignorant. In reality, fascism is not a term to be used lightly; it is a serious label that carries significant weight. At its most basic, fascism is an authoritarian political movement that rose in popularity in the 20th century, but its depth and impact go far beyond a one-sentence definition. How can we truly understand fascism, and how can we identify it today? This article will present three things: an explanation of the defining characteristics of fascism, as defined by Umberto Eco in Ur-Fascism, how these characteristics are exhibited in the Trump administration, and what this means for how we, as the American public, move forward.
To preface, I state this fact: Donald Trump is a fascist. Let me be abundantly clear: I am NOT calling Trump Hitler or Mussolini, nor am I calling him a Nazi or Blackshirt. As will be evident, every strain of fascism is different in practice, but the stark similarities serve as a warning to all of us. This may seem extreme, but to mince words at this moment would be a disservice to the brave Americans that sacrificed everything to stop fascism from encroaching our shores. Through his words and actions, President Trump has demonstrated to the American people that he seeks to be a fascist strongman.
Umberto Eco, an Italian philosopher and survivor of Mussolini’s fascist regime, wrote a piece for The New York Review of Books in 1995 titled Ur-Fascism, which sought to define fascism and its characteristics. As he makes clear, fascism is difficult to define in one sentence, as it is a general category encompassing numerous totalitarian regimes, each of which has its own ideology and disjointed structure. Yet, all of them are founded on what Eco describes as “archetypal foundations.” He lists 14 points that all fascist movements include in some capacity. As explained below, these points illustrate the realities of fascism and how they relate to our fascist president.
First is a cult of traditionalism that implicitly leads to a rejection of modernism. Oftentimes, this is represented in a promised return to an almost mythologized time of power and supremacy of the interested groups. Mussolini sought to revive the Roman Empire; the Nazis aimed to form the Third Reich, the first two Reichs being the Holy Roman Empire and the German Empire, which were times of pride, prestige, and dominance. For Trump, in “Making America Great Again,” we return to an undisclosed time of American greatness and of traditional family values, a time when the power of the white Christian man was undisputed. As evident in President Trump’s press conference held on September 17, 2020, he declared a commission for “patriotic education,” calling the new idea of examining history through the lens of race “ideological poison,” “left-wing indoctrination,” and “tyranny.” Instead, he favored a “pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history,” calling current historical education “anti-American propaganda.” This single press conference encompasses many of the fascist principles outlined in Ur-Fascism: the cult of traditionalism, distrust in the intellectual world, and a strong basis in nationalism.
Another aspect of the fascist ideology is its inability to withstand criticism. In Ur-Fascism, “disagreement is treason.” President Trump not only reflected that idea in the press conference explained above but on numerous occasions in the past. Anyone who opposes his administration or its actions is considered treasonous. In a tweet on June 25, 2020, he called a statement made by a Black Lives Matter leader “Treason, Sedition, and Insurrection!” He has accused, without any evidence, Former President Obama of treason, called the media “almost treasonous,” called for Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) to be arrested for treason, and called congressional Democrats “treasonous” and “Un-American” for not clapping for him during the State of the Union. On September 21, 2020, the Justice Department declared three American cities “anarchist jurisdictions,” using this as an excuse to cut federal funding to places where anti-Trump sentiments, calls to defund the police, and protests are greatest. For Trump, personal loyalty is a necessity, and any shows of disloyalty are considered treason committed against the state. The fascist ideology necessitates a cult of personality around the leader, an unalterable loyalty towards him as the basis of the party and country.
Eco defines another characteristic as fear of difference, an “appeal against intruders.” This is closely connected to the idea of nationalism and how, in forming a group of privileged individuals who are bound by being born in the same nation, it necessitates an enemy plot to resist, most often an international one. In Nazism, this was the international Jewish plot. In Trumpism, any foreigner or person of color is a threat, and the international conspiracy against the US, and specifically President Trump, is alive and thriving. President Trump kicked off his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans “drug dealers, criminals, and rapists” and has since incited fear of migrant caravans storming our borders. He also questioned why people from “shithole countries,” referring to Africans and Haitians, came to the United States instead of Norwegians. Trump and members of his administration have called for politicians and other officials of color to “go back to their country,” although the majority of the people in question were born in the United States. In the creation of a nationalist state where certain groups inherently belong, it inevitably leads to the exclusion of groups that do not fit the criteria. Racism and xenophobia are byproducts of nationalism. In reference to the international conspiracy the nationalists must resist, Trump has chosen to target the Chinese and the World Health Organization (WHO), whom he can blame for his own shortcomings in his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. He calls it the “China Virus” and the “Kung Flu” and cut US funding from the WHO in the middle of a global pandemic. Withdrawal from the international community- the isolationism and ethnocentric rhetoric- is common for fascists.
A key goal of fascists is to appeal to a frustrated middle class. Eco defines them as “a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.” The fascists of the 1930s were able to appeal to those who were struggling during the Great Depression, those who wanted someone easy to blame. Trump seeks to appeal to working-class white Americans, such as coal miners, and those who have had their jobs outsourced to other countries, promising to bring back these jobs. The idea of appealing to a frustrated class is in close connection to the “fear of outsiders” point. By blaming immigrants for stealing Americans’ jobs, Trump can shift blame for job losses away from himself and towards the “others” that he has already repeatedly vilified and scapegoated.
Although there are other points in Eco’s Ur-Fascism, the final focus is around “machismo.” The Trumpian strong man is one who represents the traditional ideas of masculinity. Trump’s exhibition of his machismo is two-fold: his tendency towards violence and his disdain for women. In his tendency towards violence, he is reflecting the Ur-Fascist qualities of life as permanent warfare and the heroism of the common man. Trump yearns for violence. He called himself a “wartime president” and attacked generals concerned about diplomacy as “weak” and “losers.” Trump refuses to criticize, and often outwardly praises, authoritarians such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un. Trump has incited violence on numerous occasions, and his strongman violent rhetoric has real consequences. He defended the Kenosha Wisconsin shooter, a minor who illegally crossed state lines with a firearm and gunned down protestors, claiming it could have been self-defense. Right-wing pundits went so far as to praise the shooter, Tucker Carlson saying he “had to maintain order when no one else would” and Ann Coulter tweeting she wanted the shooter “as my president.” The idea of the indoctrinated violent youth stepping up as a hero to the nation and to the cause is characteristic of fascism. Coupled with Trump’s calls for “liberation” and constant fear-mongering of the necessity to defend oneself from leftists using guns, Trump’s machismo is on display for all to see. If that was not enough, Trump constantly attacks women, especially women of color. He has at least 26 accusations of sexual assault and takes to name-calling, attacking their looks, calling them “nasty,” and disproportionately criticizing them in comparison to men. His overall condescending and rude attitude towards women is reflective of the machismo that is so appealing to his base.
The fate of the Republic is in our hands. It is abundantly clear that Donald Trump seeks to utilize the Great American Experiment for his own personal gain, a perversion of the Constitution and the dreams of the Founding Fathers. The facts presented in this article do not begin to comprehensively catalog the reprehensible character of the current administration. The United States is facing an unprecedented fascist threat and, for the first time, it is internal, from our very own president. What can we do? The fate of American democracy can only be saved by an active citizenry. The fascist threat does not cease with the removal of Trump on the ballot this November, though it is the essential first step. The entire fascist infection, the Congressional enablers and the exploited antiquated laws, need to be extricated from our government. The government of the people can only be preserved by the people. We must vote, we must protest, we must hold our elected officials accountable. The burden of government is on us, we the people, and only we can progress past Trumpism and towards a more just and hopeful America.
In honor of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, may her memory be a blessing.