“Fascist.” It’s just about the foulest insult in the political thesaurus, and lately Donald Trump’s been hearing it about himself from people as different as George Clooney, a former president of Mexico, comedian Louis C.K, and Anne Frank’s stepsister. But apart from Hitler himself, which is who people have in mind, what, really, does the word fascist mean? Robert O. Paxton is a history professor emeritus at Columbia University and author of the book “The Anatomy of Fascism.” He explains whether Trump is a textbook-definition fascist, or just seems to play one on television.
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What’s happening now, that the term fascism is surfacing in American politics?
Well, there’s language and there’s style and manner that has echoes of the fascism of Europe in the 1920s and the ‘30s.
What are they?
There’s the claim that the United States is in decline and needs a strong leader. And that was at the heart of what Mussolini and Hitler promised. They offered a recipe for revival: nationalism, aggressive foreign policy, attacks on the enemies inside and out without much regard for due process, an obsession with decline and with enemies like Jews or socialists, foreigners – those are echoes of that today.
As you said in the book, one of the preconditions, the soil, that has to be fertile for a fascist movement or leader is to flourish is a “faltering liberal order.” Is that the case in the United States?
Our country was in terrible disarray at the end of the George W. Bush presidency. One unnecessary war, two failed wars, a severe economic recession, almost a depression. And much of what’s happened since then has been recovery.
But there are people in this country whose diagnosis is different, who are very upset with things that have happened. I think there was also an unavowed unease that there was a black man in the White House; no one wants to say that but it certainly sounds like some people are upset by that.
The former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, used the word “fascist” to describe [Trump]. Do you see characteristics in Donald Trump that match up with your checklist?
Blaming our troubles on the internal enemy as well as the external enemy – well, that goes wider than fascism; it is present in classical fascism. First of all you depersonalize them, and then you attach negative images to them, and then you prescribe measures that are illegal, brutal -- and this is very much what Hitler did with Jews and with Slavs and Mussolini did with socialists. That’s one of the echoes.
Clearly both Hitler and Mussolini had a game plan and had studied politics and knew political philosophy enough to mount successful movements. Do you think Donald Trump is aware of what he’s doing insofar as it matches up with these conditions you speak of?
I’ve been saying that Trump is an impulsive person and that these kinds of diagnoses and the labeling of enemies and so forth stem from an aggressive personality. And it doesn’t come from studying. And so Hitler and Mussolini were very skilled opportunists and I think Trump is also a skilled opportunist, but I think he’s also less conscious politically than Hitler and Mussolini. My impression -- and I know there’s a lot who disagree with it -- is that he’s a blustery, egocentric blowhard. And this comes naturally to him and it has worked. He has an instinct for fears and anger out in the public and he matches up with them perfectly.
I don’t think of Trump as a man who’s studied much of anything. He’s very spontaneous; he has a genius for sensing the mood of a crowd and I think to some degree Hitler and Mussolini had those qualities also. I do not think he’s learned this from a book.
You write that fascism is a 20th-century phenomenon and we don’t really think of it as fitting on a political spectrum of left and right.
In Germany, the two parties that were growing in 1932 were the Nazi party and the Communist party, and Hitler offered himself as the one force that could stop the Communists. So Hitler and Mussolini took countries that were terribly divided and offered them a middle way, a way that could transcend the disputes between left and right. I don’t hear that kind of language here so much. I mean, we have problems but I don’t think we have a Communist revolution in the wings.
The closest to perhaps a fascist figure in this country, an elected figure that I can think of, is Huey Long, who had been the governor of Louisiana.
Yes, Huey Long was certainly considered a fascist, and this was in the 1930s, and Huey Long, I think, would have rejected the label. He had a kind of welfare anti-capitalist plan for Louisiana. He wanted to tax the rich; there was a bit of Robin Hood about Huey Lon, and the atmosphere of the 1930s, people were attacking him as fascist. Well, we had real fascists. We had George Lincoln Rockwell, we had Father Coughlin, a prominent radio broadcaster in the suburbs of Detroit, who was violently anti-Semitic. These people were openly sympathetic to Hitler.
Does it surprise you that the established political parties, especially the Republicans, have recoiled from Donald Trump’s candidacy?
Not at all. I think that what has happened to politics is that the party, the traditional political parties, Democratic and Republican both, have suddenly found themselves divested of the power they used to have to name candidates. Back in the old days, you had the smoke-filled room and the party grandees chose the candidate. People might grumble about it but there was patronage and rewards of various sorts to patch over those grumblings. And then in the 1960s and ‘70s, it was thought necessary to give citizens more of a role, and so you have the caucuses, you have open primaries and so forth.
And now, with a new layer of change, we have social media, with everybody Tweeting each other or emailing each other or sending messages back and forth, the instant political cycle and huge public involvement in the process. And both parties’ outsiders have seized the opportunity. In trump’s case he’s pulled away, ahead of the kind of people who the Republican establishment would like to see nominated. They’re terrified he’s going to divide the party and is not a viable candidate because he has so many liabilities. Maybe they’re wrong about that, and if they decide they’re wrong, they’ll flock to him.
In your book, you point out that fascism rested “not upon the truth of its doctrine but upon the leader’s mystical union with the historic destiny of his people.” That’s a pretty resonant phrase to attach to anyone.
I think Donald Trump falls far short of what Hitler was able to do when he mesmerized these crowds, though he’s certainly better at it than anybody else. But I think my message there was that in some ways, we don’t understand fascism best by having a kind of checklist of programs, because [Hitler and Mussolini] changed quite a few of those. And then, it’s the manner, it’s the kind of style, the aggressive style, the assertion of strength and the image presented of somebody who’s not going to be bothered by little things like the rule of law or political correctness or being polite, and will actually get things done.
Hitler radiated that kind of force in a country that hadn’t been able to deal with the loss of the war and then the Depression. So my thought there was that you understand fascism as a visceral appeal based on style and image, and it’d be hard to see what Trump’s program is exactly. He’s laid out some points but that’s not the heart of his real appeal. The heart of his appeal is the image of somebody who will do things. And it’s awfully tempting when somebody comes along and says, I’m a tough guy, I’ll fix it.
Professor Paxton, I think those people in the audiences, those people who have voted for Trump would be horrified to think that anybody would think of them as fascists, or as voting for a fascist.
Indeed they would. One of the reasons fascism is hard to understand and hard to write about historically and in a scholarly way is that it’s been used as an epithet so much. Almost everybody has been called a fascist.
Well, any kid whose parents take away his smart phone will call them fascist!
Absolutely. It’s the worst epithet we can think of. So I tried to give it some concrete meaning, and I think it has concrete meaning. A label like fascism should be useful to claim things. The trouble with fascism as a label is that it generates so much heat and not necessarily so very much light, so we must remember there are ways in which Trump is not like the fascists.
This thing about the strong state, and everybody regimented, and wearing uniforms, the shirts the same color, arms out the same way – this is not the style of Americans. That would be a huge turnoff.
I think there are many ways in which Trump differs from the fascists. They wanted to regiment everybody and they wanted to have a strong state, whereas nobody in the Republican party wants anything but less regulation. So I don’t think the label works terribly well and I’m not a great fan of these labels anyway. I understand perfectly that no one would want to hear him called fascist, but then he should stop using these images, retweeting Mussolini and so forth.