Before taking the risk of making what isn’t just about Trump sound like it’s just about Trump, let me quickly remind you of some facts. There are anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican elements in American popular culture, which Trump and others have tapped into to gain political support. The Republican Party’s leadership and Trump’s competitors as a result haven’t actually condemned him for his past or recent comments. In fact, their failure to chime in with Trump in agreement has come under fire within certain parts of the conservative media.
These political ideas, about who can enter or live within the US, knit together a worryingly familiar set of policies. They are the path to success within the Republican Party’s presidential primary and a means to an amount of popularity in broader US politics as well. Even as we recognize the larger context, it seems necessary to note exactly what the political appeal that Trump is. I was one of the earliest to note there is a word commonly used to describe those politics. It is fascism.
During the Bush years, anti-fascist activist David Neiwert penned a series of essays which today read like a careful examination of the different political movements at that time which have ultimately evolved into Donald Trump’s base. One of them attempted to wrestle with one of the most common features in looks at fascism – the various competing lists of fascist political goals, attributes, and policies. There’s not much of a consensus on what a fascist looks, talks, and thinks like.
I think his choice of the ultimately best one, which is also one of the most specific, might be of use when looking over Trump’s rhetoric and plans and doing as Rachel Maddow asked earlier this week – deciding if we can use the word fascism to describe them (spoilers: you can). Neiwert recommended we listen to Oxford professor Roger Griffin in times like these. Griffin’s definition is a full paragraph that we can properly sink our teeth into:
Fascism: modern political ideology that seeks to regenerate the social, economic, and cultural life of a country by basing it on a heightened sense of national belonging or ethnic identity. Fascism rejects liberal ideas such as freedom and individual rights, and often presses for the destruction of elections, legislatures, and other elements of democracy. Despite the idealistic goals of fascism, attempts to build fascist societies have led to wars and persecutions that caused millions of deaths. As a result, fascism is strongly associated with right-wing fanaticism, racism, totalitarianism, and violence.
We can easily break that apart into a few different elements: a call for the regeneration of the country, the basis of that being a policing of who can be assimilated or otherwise included in the nation, which necessitates certain forms of repression and disruption to democratic norms. As Neiwert summarizes it, “palingenetic [phoenix-like in rebirth] ultranationalist populism.”
Here’s how The Donald, his followers, and his competitors stack up against that worldview:
Make America Great Again
His slogan, borrowed from Reagan, is now purchasable on hats, on t-shirts, and bumper stickers. As its origins make clear, almost everyone runs for office with improvements in mind, potentially restorative ones even, but the centrality his campaign gives this phrase does mirror the fascist appeal towards national rebirth.
What little policy specifics Trump has currently doled out hit the exact same note as well – calling for an overhaul of US policy towards China (currently “a typical example of how politicians in Washington have failed our country”), the administrative pile-up at the Veterans’ Administration (“when Donald J. Trump is president, it will be fixed – fast”), and on immigration (present policies “must change”). On taxes, he showcases his plan as a restoration of competitiveness:
“Politicians in Washington have let America fall from the best corporate tax rate in the industrialized world in the 1980’s (thanks to Ronald Reagan) to the worst rate in the industrialized world. That is unacceptable. Under the Trump plan, America will compete with the world and win by cutting the corporate tax rate to 15%, taking our rate from one of the worst to one of the best.”
Gun policy is just about the only issue he doesn’t quite sound this way on, but even there he’s suggested reworking the background check system, instituting a national right to carry, and encouraging concealed weapons in military facilities. After all, when making “America great again, we need a strong military” meaning”we need to allow them to defend themselves” which entails conceal-carry apparently. The resurrection of the nation makes a guest appearance in the end.
Woven into almost everything he does are familiar tropes to almost every major Republican candidacy these days – a witnessing of others feeling stung by being cheated by a broken system, appeals to a better time this country could see again, and so on. None of that is particularly unique to Trump, or unique to fascists, but it’s just one key rhetorical and ideological aspect of their politics that he has similarly centered.
Morning in America: for whom?
So all of the major candidates, especially in the Republican primary, have made their case for how to rework this country into something more efficient, more fair, and just generally better. What Trump has done, at a unique decibel level, is make it incredibly clear that his better world has reserved seating. He literally launched his campaign while making that clear:
Part of what’s made some of the shock over his recent comments seem silly is that he’s been saying this sort of thing all along. He entered the arena blaring this message: that the improvements he promises to work for will come at a price and that’s millions displaced. An emerging plurality in the Republican primary appear to have answered him that that’s not a cost at all as far as they’re concerned.
His more recent statements on Muslims just expand the scope of who, in his theoretical presidency, would be drawn on the other side of a line of acceptance. This cuts straight to the ultranationalist core of fascism. The line demarcating the inside and the outside has to be strictly applied in most historical forms of fascism, and it tends to create elaborate metrics to allow a tight boundary indeed.
The omnipresent role that that issue plays in his campaign is unique within the Republican field. The degree to which he departs from his fellow candidates, however, is not very large. Questions of which broad swathes of the world’s population are beyond the pale are just answered a little more narrowly by the rest of the field.
Marco Rubio is certainly encouraging people to think of essentially all Muslims in that way as well, but not as interested in a Trump-like heavy handed set of immigration and entry policies. Jeb Bush has gone on record in favor of restrictions on Muslim refugees and said quite a few things about “anchor babies.” Arguably, Trump’s successful jump to the top of the polls while fixating on this type of discussion has paved the way for them and others to speak similarly.
Fie the constitution
Trump’s most recent comments of that caliber advocate a set of policies that are pretty unambiguously not legal. While his prior policy proposals have largely stayed within legal lines, he has been curiously cavalier with how he talks about basic constitutional freedoms.
There are the regular conventions – a disdain for the media, which is an essential check within our democratic system – but also a troubling recurrence of intimidation and assault on protesters by his supporters, which Trump has pretty much encouraged. It’s even led to a near death.
Just as there’s been a race to match Trump on immigration and related policies, at least one competitor has tried to match him on illegal demands. Ben Carson all but argued for a religious test for someone to become president – a flagrant violation of the First Amendment’s ban on religious tests for political office.
While Trump and Carson stumble on some rather large and obvious questions of legality, there’s a more casual disregard for democratic convention that’s permeated the Republican primary. A small amount of bucking trends and tradition is probably healthy, but the party establishment and Trump have painted themselves both into a corner. Trump continues to not so subtly hint he might break with the party’s process and make an independent run. The party, meanwhile, has tried to keep hold on him and other candidates all the more tightly in response.
In US politics, our parties are more of a pragmatic organization solution than strictly part of our democracy or constitutionally recognized, let alone mandated. That said, disrupting their normal process could, arguably, have an undemocratic effect, in terms of upending expectations that primary and general voters can have about candidates. In that light, Trump’s fight with party leadership and their own interest in changing around party rules and standards to either accommodate or challenge him both represent a casual departure from democratic norms.
That’s the same “just do what needs to be done” mentality that when applied to constitutional and human rights can lead to dark places, particularly when imbued with the zeal of someone saving their country from an Other which fills them with rage, disgust, and terror.
Speaking of other candidates playing catch-up with Trump, there’s one element of the definition that Neiwert’s three word summary catches and Griffin’s paragraph misses: populism.
Here’s where Trump and the rest of the Republican field most dramatically part ways. While he has promised not to threaten Social Security and other key entitlement programs, almost everyone one of his competitors has suggested something similar. Their tax plans vary a little less neatly, but Trump’s has the distinction of most overtly appealing to the working and middle classes, to a degree that few others really do.
Before someone starts calling Trump a Democrat plant, realize he’s still to the right of Democrats on those and other economic issues. Particularly the Warren wing of the Democrats stands in sharp contrast with him on questions of international corporate tax policy, but their party as a whole is generally fixated on growing and increasing entitlement and pension programs (although, often, not by much). Amid expansion-minded Democrats and restriction-minded Republicans, Trump sticks out oddly, seemingly wanting to keep things as they are more or less.
Within the American political landscape, there’s arguably a large chunk of the electorate who could be described as populists, more than liberals or conservatives. They’re often explained as those who tend to skew towards tradition and other conservative points on social issues, but favor economic redistribution and other liberal policies economically. It’s often bemoaned that members in that group who vote Republican aren’t voting in their own self interest. It’s seldom asked why they’re doing that.
Arguably, part of what Trump has done is very careful tilt his policies in that groups direction. He’s not asking them to give up their benefits to Republican cuts, and his racially-charged campaign is arguably encouraging fears in that group that the Democrats will ask them to give their benefits over to someone scary and different.
One of the recurring questions in this campaign has been the dumbfounded demand of how Trump catapulted himself to the lead in the Republican primary, later replaced with asking how he’s stayed there. Here’s an answer: he’s better replicating this fascist checklist, primarily in terms of a few economic populist policies (available to those on the right side of the nation’s social, cultural, economic, and political boundaries). There’s a ghoulish impulse that taps into, of thinking that if there’s fewer mouths to feed, there’s more for me.
Pairing that with ultra-nationalist rhetoric allows him to maintain significant support among conservatives, but while also being uniquely appealing to many populists sometimes turned off by conservative economic policy prescriptions. They have to be populists who don’t mind extremist rhetoric, or, ones vulnerable to being whipped into fear or anger in the midst of ultra-nationalist fervor.
The language used, particularly when paired with disdainful talk for “political correctness” also helps pick up a scattered group of extremist conservatives, and potentially even some populists, who aren’t scared off by conservative economics but want more intense conservative social policies. In short, it spreads the support thin, but it also picks up support in demographics boilerplate Republicans were potentially overlooking.
The fact that fully stitching together this fascist policy plank helps someone leap to front-runner status within the Republican primary should give you and hopefully everyone in this country pause. Donald Trump isn’t just arguing for fascism on the campaign trail and, unrelatedly, leading in the primary. His articulation of an essentially fascist collection of policy proposals and rhetorical tricks created his lead. He’s giving the kind of people who vote in the Republican primary what they want, and what they want, looks to be fascism.