Blogs > Mark Byrnes's Facing Backwards > Trump Isn't a Fascist. He Has Fascist Instincts.

May 24, 2016

Trump Isn't a Fascist. He Has Fascist Instincts.

tags: election 2016,fascism,Donald Trump,Trump

Mark Byrnes is an associate professor of history at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.

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Mark Byrnes is an associate professor of history at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.

- See more at:

Mark Byrnes is an associate professor of history at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.

- See more at:

Mark Byrnes is an associate professor of history at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.

I don’t think Donald Trump is a fascist.

I’ve considered it. I’ve read numerous pieces on Trump and fascism (most recently, Robert Kagan’s Washington Post piece) and come to that conclusion. Vox asked five different experts on fascism (including the historians Robert Paxton and Stanley Payne) who know far more about fascism than I ever will, and they came to that conclusion.

I don’t think Trump is a fascist because fascism is an ideology, and I think that the only thing that Trump believes in is Trump. Specific policies or principles are purely functional to him, to be adopted or abandoned as they either serve or fail to serve his personal interests. That’s why he can say one thing today and the exact opposite tomorrow without missing a beat.  There is no “truth” to Trump—only things that help or hurt Trump. If what helps today hurts tomorrow, he abandons it. He has shown repeatedly that he will say anything. That makes him an irresponsible, rank opportunist, not a fascist.

And yet.

I can’t help but also think people are not wrong to think of fascism when they consider the Trump campaign. There is much about the way he has conducted himself on the campaign trail—and especially about the way people respond to the things he says and does—that is frighteningly familiar and legitimately raises such concerns.

His narcissistic craving for constant adulation leads him to say things other politicians won’t say—for the attention that they garner. He does not say them because they aren’t “politically correct.” He says them despite the fact that they are disreputable, repulsive, or disgusting, because those very traits mean that they attract attention—and there are people who like that kind of thing.

What he has found is that saying fascistic things gets him applause. Trump says them because they get a reaction. Trump has found that there is a political market for such things, and he has tapped into it. When he talks about building the wall, when he longs for the days when protesters could be beaten with impunity, when he talks about banning Muslims from entering the United States and the crowd goes crazy, it feeds his insatiable ego. So he repeats it.

I don’t know whether or not Trump believes anything he says. All I know is that he believes the things he says further his goals. And so far, he’s right. That makes him shameless and reckless, but not a fascist.

But he has no core decency that leads him to rein in his fascist instincts. His “win at all costs” mentality has led him to identify and stoke latent fascistic impulses in American society. Because he believes in nothing beyond himself, he will say anything. He is perfectly willing to feed fascist sentiments if that serves his interests. That is what makes him dangerous.

To the extent that fascism was a specific response to a particular moment in Western history, one that saw traditional 19th century conservatism collide with liberalism and communism after World War I, Trumpism is certainly not that. But in a larger sense, the dynamics that first gave rise to fascism and the things that the rise of fascism showed about the fragility of modern liberal government do seem relevant to this moment.

Writing in 1967, John Weiss in The Fascist Tradition argued that fascism “thrives in societies where older but still powerful conservative classes are threatened by rapid and modernizing social change; change which creates or gives strength to liberal and radical classes antagonistic toward the ‘old ways.’”

Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” clearly suggests such a reactionary yearning for the “old ways.” When he infamously bemoaned that it is no longer acceptable to physically assault protesters, Trump remarked: “we’re not allowed to punch back anymore. I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.” (It is also not insignificant that this particular pining for the past was in the context of inflicting violence on one’s opponents, a common element of fascism’s cult of physical strength.)

Even more importantly, his regular attacks on “political correctness” are undeniably an appeal to those who feel alienated by the rapid social changes that have taken place since the 1960s. When Trump is criticized for his misogyny and bigotry, he routinely dismisses the critique as “political correctness.” What many people in his audience hear is that he prefers the old days when white men could publicly denigrate women, or racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, with utter impunity. That’s what many of them are cheering.

Trump instinctively embraces a social Darwinist view of politics, another fascistic attribute. Winning is all. Rules are for losers. Strength conquers weakness. When he meets with opposition, he doesn’t respond intelligently or rationally. He attacks. He ignores the substance of the criticism and targets the individual, personally and often viciously. His credo is never show weakness. To ever admit error is to be weak and vulnerable, it means you will not win.

For Trump, winning is everything. He ceaselessly repeats “we never win anymore” and promises that under his rule, America will “win” again. His harping on the concept of national humiliation (recall that his latest book is titled Crippled America) is also a common fascist tactic: tell people that they are undeservedly losing and promise them that they will win again—at any cost. He acknowledges nothing superior to the imperative of winning. No tactic is too low to sink to if it produces a win. Decency does not matter. (And if he loses, then the system is rigged.) He promises to torture, and when reminded it is against the law, he says no problem, I’ll change the law.

Weiss also notes that fascists “push many traditional conservative ideas to radical and vulgar extremes,” and says that Hitler in Mein Kampf “translated the sophisticated ideas of aristocratic conservatism into the vulgar language of German lower-middle class culture.”

It would be hard to find a better description of much of Trump’s program. Some right-wing Republicans have been more subtly demonizing Mexicans for years; Trump calls them “rapists,” suggests deporting millions of them, and pledges to build a wall. Muslims have been increasingly marginalized since 9/11; Trump proposes banning them from entering the country. As many people have noted, the political dog whistles of the past have become primal screams in Trump’s campaign. He is unapologetically vulgar.

Compare Ted Cruz and Trump on how each says he would deal with ISIS:

Cruz: “We will utterly destroy ISIS. We will carpet bomb them into oblivion.”

Trump: “I’d bomb the shit out of them.”

Substantively, there is no difference. Both are offering blustering machismo, not thoughtful policy. Cruz uses the term “carpet bomb” to show his alleged toughness, but couches the sentiment in more sophisticated phrasing (“utterly destroy … into oblivion”). Trump uses the simple, direct language of the street. But is there any real difference? Trump clearly intuits that there is anger to be exploited, and that his kind of simple, direct language is inherently more satisfying to angry people than Cruz’s more finely-tuned turns of phrase. So that’s what he uses.

One could argue that is simply good politics. Certainly many Americans have reason to feel frustrated by the political and economic status quo. But Trump’s fascist instincts lead him to misdirect that anger to the “other” (immigrants) and “stupid” leaders who make “bad deals.” While Trump has not to my knowledge made any direct attacks on African-Americans (beyond his dismissal of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is unfortunately a mainstream view on the right), it is fairly clear that many of his most vociferous fans have made that connection.

White working class voters have historically been taught to scapegoat African-Americans during tough times, and Trump has benefited from that. His sudden amnesia about David Duke shows that his instinct was to avoid alienating those followers with a forthright and immediate denunciation of any and all white supremacists. Instead, he eventually ended up delivering an aggrieved and insincere “I disavow, OK?” response, one that telegraphed to such supporters “this is what they make us do, am I right?”

He has done these things so often that now such outrages are met with a collective shrug. Now we have self-avowed white nationalists becoming Trump delegates, reveling in the chance to use Trump to become mainstream: "I just hope to show how I can be mainstream and have these views," one bluntly stated. "I can be a white nationalist and be a strong supporter of Donald Trump and be a good example to everybody." Trump may not be a white nationalist, or like what they represent, but for some reason they really like him.

Last fall, Trump made an appearance on my college’s campus, and I refused to take part in the spectacle. While it was going on, I ran into a colleague on campus, and we chatted briefly about Trump. He dismissed Trump as politically insignificant: “He’s just doing this to improve the value of his brand.” I replied, “It doesn’t matter why he’s doing it. He’s normalizing this kind of speech. That’s why he’s dangerous.”

Trump may not know or care about the dark impulses he’s exploiting. Regardless, he has normalized them. And every Republican who now endorses him is complicit in that normalization. Trump may not be a fascist, and the people who endorse him may have no sympathy for fascism, but they are undeniably feeding a fascist undercurrent in American society.

As the scholars of fascism point out, Trump has not called for overthrowing democratic institutions. But by feeding these reactionary or even fascist instincts, he has done significant damage to those institutions, whether he means to or not. By accepting that damage as a reasonable price to pay for a political victory in a presidential campaign, the Republican Party has done even more damage.

In our system, “winning” is not everything. Process, following the rules, is. The stability of our system requires that people accept losing as a normal part of the process. A commitment to honoring the outcome of the process even when one loses is essential to the stability of the system. Recall Al Gore’s concession speech after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bush v. Gore:

"Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity of the people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession."

Can anyone honestly imagine Donald Trump, in a similar situation, saying that? That’s precisely the problem. Fascism, like other forms of totalitarianism, puts the end above the means. Liberalism does the opposite. Trump may lack the ideological conviction of a fascist, but his instincts are, to say the least, illiberal. 

The Founding generation of this country knew that self-government was difficult to maintain. It has survived many tests over more than two centuries. It will likely survive this one as well. But having been weakened as it already has, can we be confident that an economic cataclysm or terrorist attack would not lead frightened voters to flock to this mere “right-wing populist” who promises greatness? Can we be confident that such a person with such instincts will, once in power, simply accept losing some political battles because of some new-found respect for the system? I wish I could confidently answer yes.

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