If Donald Trump were a fascist and his regime governed as such, the likely outcome would be that America's true champions of democracy would ultimately dare a revolt in order to defend their freedom. The rest of the West, which stands universally for freedoms like democracy and human rights, would also have no choice but to support this insurrection, even if it turned into a civil war.
So is he a fascist? "Yes, a Trump presidency would bring fascism to America," conservative Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan wrote in May. "Trump is a fascist," SPIEGEL ONLINE columnist Jakob Augstein recently offered. "Trump is a media figure and a fascist of our times," Fred Turner, a communications researcher at Stanford University recently wrote for the German weekly Die Zeit. "This is surely the way fascism can begin," New Yorker Editor in Chief David Remnick wrote the day after Trump's election.
Fascism is both a historical and political term. Historically, it describes regimes from the first half of the 20th century in Europe that were authoritarian and had a high propensity for violence. Politically, it has been deployed ever since as a battle cry used to lump opponents into the same camp as Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in an effort to discredit and silence them. Many perfectly democratic politicians have been blasted as fascists by the left without the slightest justification.
That is not what is happening here. Trump's unscrupulous behavior during the election campaign, his racism and his threat to jail Hillary Clinton (though apparently withdrawn this week) go well beyond what is acceptable in a democracy. No comparisons can be made to George W. Bush or to Ronald Reagan -- Trump is in a category of his own. Unless, of course, what we are seeing is fascism.
What Is Fascism?
If it is fascism, then it would be a disaster on a global scale. See above. But if it isn't fascism, it would be a defamation of Trump's voters to call it that, akin to accusing them of helping to bring a fascist to power and potentially driving them away from democracy forever. That's why we must exercise great care when using the term. What is fascism and how does it relate to Trump? Or to the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party, the Freedom Party of Austria, France's Front National or Viktor Orbán in Hungary?
In February, fascism expert Robert Paxton told the online magazine Slate that Trump "even looks like Mussolini in the way he sticks his lower jaw out." There are also parallels when it comes to his treatment of women: Mussolini was accused of being addicted to sex (a charge, it must be said, that was never levelled at Hitler). At the political level, though, comparison is difficult because there are so many different ideas about what truly constitutes fascism.
Italian fascist dictator Benito MussoliniFoto: Keystone/ Getty Images
Action française, which formed at the end of the 19th century, is considered Europe's first fascist organization. Mussolini's Italy became the first fascist country, followed by Hitler's National Socialist Germany. Hungary, Croatia, Spain and Portugal also developed regimes during the 1930s and 1940s that had fascist elements. But the differences between Nazi Germany and Francisco Franco's Spain were so great that it's difficult to mention them in the same breath. Franco was a dictator, but didn't seek control of his subjects' thoughts and private lives. He wasn't an imperialist and he didn't seek to eradicate Judaism.
One early definition comes from German historian Ernst Nolte, who wrote a fair amount of nonsense in his career but who was an undisputed expert on fascism. He described it as such: "Fascism is anti-Marxism which seeks to destroy the enemy by the evolvement of a radically opposed and yet related ideology and by the use of almost identical and yet typically modified methods, always, however within the unyielding framework of national self-assertion and autonomy." It's a long-winded sentence and it provides little by way of orientation today, given that the Soviet Union no longer exists and Marxism is no longer considered be a real political adversary.
The Features of 'Ur-Fascism'
In the mid-1990s, when fear broke out over the possibility of a new fascism in Russia, novelist and scholar Umberto Eco defined elements of an "Ur-Fascism." The main question he posed at the time was this: Is there a way of defining fascism to make it recognizable during any period of time? Eco had experienced Mussolini's Italy as a boy and wrote about how he won an essay contest in 1942 on the subject "Should we die for the glory of Mussolini and the immortal destiny of Italy?" His answer? Yes, of course we should die. "I was a bright boy," he wrote in the 1995 article, which appeared in the New York Review of Books.
Should we die for Trump's glory and the immortal destiny of the United States? If this question is ever asked of American students, then they will, without a doubt, be living under fascism. In order to prevent his own experiences from happening again, Eco developed an early warning system including 14 different features that define Ur-Fascism -- a fascism test, as it were. It can be applied to Trump in terms of what is known about him politically, knowledge that comes primarily from the campaign.
"The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition," Eco begins. It has to do with the "primeval truth," the pseudo-religious "syncretistic" elements of a fascist movement. That's not a pronounced characteristic with Trump. He hails from the worlds of real estate development and reality TV, and thus far there haven't been any significant signs of religious or philosophical underpinnings to his movement. So that criterion, at least, does not apply.
Feature No. 2 is the "rejection of modernism," of capitalism, but also of Enlightenment and the Age of Reason -- the "Spirit of 1789," Eco wrote, in reference to the French Revolution. Trump is himself a capitalist, but politically he has shown a strong tendency towards the irrational and intemperate. No determination is yet possible on this point.
'Distrust of the Intellectual World'
Clearly applicable is feature three, which includes a "distrust of the intellectual world." In Trump's world, most intellectuals are considered to be part of the hated "Establishment."
Feature four for Eco is an entirely closed worldview that considers any disagreement to be "treason". That kind of worldview to which all must submit is not currently detectable in Trump.
In point five, he writes that Ur-Fascism "seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition." Here, it sounds as though Eco could have been writing directly about Trump, AfD or Marine Le Pen.
Point six states: "Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That was why one of the most typical features of historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups." It would be impossible to more aptly describe Trump's appeal to his voters.
Nationalism is the seventh point in Eco's list -- in other words, Trump in his purest form.
At the halfway point of Eco's symptoms of Ur-Fascism, it's clear that four of the criteria speak in favor of a fascism verdict, two are against it and one is undecided.
Perverting American Democracy
Point eight: "The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies." As a boy, Eco wrote, he was taught that the English ate five meals a day, "more frequently than the poor but sober Italians." He was also taught that Jews were disagreeably rich. Although Trump is said to be a billionaire, many of his supporters are driven by rage against an establishment they see as having enriched itself.
In identifying Ur-Fascism, point nine holds that "there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle." In other words, permanent warfare. That definitely has not been a part of Trump's message.
As for point 10, Eco says that Ur-Fascism reflects what he calls a "mass elitism." Those who are members of the movement, the party or the nation look down on everyone else. Surely some of Trump's white supporters disdain African Americans, but the feeling of indignity is still greater than the idea of superiority.
"The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die," Eco writes in point 11. Furthermore, everyone would be raised in this spirit. That doesn't apply.
Criterion number 12: The Ur-Fascist "transfers his will to power to sexual matters." That is true of Trump.
Point 13: "Whenever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism." That is at the core of right-wing populism. They like to claim that those in power in Washington, Berlin or Paris are out of touch with what "the people" want.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 47/2016 (November 18, 2016) of DER SPIEGEL.
For his last point, Eco writes: "All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning. But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a talk show." These are lines that would likely make Trump grin.
So the ultimate tally: When we apply Eco's fascism test to Donald Trump, eight of the criteria apply, five do not and one cannot be determined yet. Eco did not provide guidelines for interpreting the results. But he did write: "It is enough for one of them to be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it."
So let's perform a cross check. In his classic book, "The Anatomy of Fascism," Robert Paxton cites nine "mobilizing passions" when it comes to fascism. Five of them represent the mood affecting Trump voters -- a sense of overwhelming crisis, dread of the group's decline under the "corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict and alien influences;" the need for a "purer community;" the need for authority by natural leaders; "the superiority of the leader's instincts over abstract and universal reason." The last point applies to Trump and his supporters to a T.
But some of Paxton's mobilizing passions are not, or are only partly, applicable, including: belief in the primacy of the group, to which the individual is subordinated; the belief that one's group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits; the beauty of violence; and "the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law."
A majority of factors in two separate tests, in other words, indicate that fascism could in fact establish itself in the United States under Trump. The results of one test were close, the results of the other were not.
So far, the issue has largely been about what Trump has said and not what he has actually done. Historically, fascism -- in Germany especially and to a slightly lesser extent in Italy -- has been extremely violent, destroyed democracy and political freedoms and ignored human rights. Wars of aggression and the Holocaust are both terms that are permanently associated with fascism.
A Far Cry from Historic Fascism
Is Trump seeking something similar? So far, there is no evidence to suggest this. Yes, he did threaten to put Clinton in jail, and his chief adviser, Stephen Bannon is an unsavory individual known for having made anti-Semitic statements. But that is still a far cry from the crimes committed historically under fascism.
Still, no one yet knows how Trump will perform as president of the United States. Following this election campaign, one can expect that he will poison the political climate and even that he may seek to curb civil liberties and permit discrimination against minorities. But does he want to eliminate democracy, freedom and human rights in the way that past fascist movements have done? And even if he wanted to, would he be able to?
Trump at a campaign rally in FebruaryFoto: © MIKE CARLSON / Reuters/ REUTERS
Paxton advises against calling Trump a fascist because it doesn't contribute to the understanding of his political rise. Even though a number of Trump's themes and tactics may on the surface seem fascistic, the societal dynamic responsible for his rise is a different one, Paxton wrote this summer in Germany's Die Tageszeitung newspaper. Past fascist movements were fueled by the post-World War I humiliation of Germany and Italy. Democracy in both countries was weak and they submitted to their new rulers almost without resistance.
Even if half the voters cast their ballots for Trump, that doesn't mean that they want to get rid of democracy, freedom and human rights. So far, all they have done is to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed voting rights. American democracy is over 200 years old, power is prudently distributed by way of "checks and balances" and the country has a strong civil society. Even if Trump were a fascist, that doesn't mean that he could implement fascism in the US. In Paxton's view, what Trump is seeking is not fascism, but rather a clearly American perversion of democracy.
So where does that put us? Going by the criteria set by Eco and Paxton, there are some indications that Trump could be a fascist and the leader of a fascist movement, though not the kind of organized fascist movements seen in the past. That is alarming, there's no question. But there is no reliable evidence that he will act like a fascist or employ violence to change the system. It's more likely that he will rage within the machine.
Of course, anyone who considers Donald Trump to be a fascist could correctly argue that Hitler and Mussolini didn't show their true faces until they began governing. Still, prior to their election they never hid their disdain for democracy or pretended they would shy away from the use of force.
But as abhorrent as Trump's election campaign was, calling him a fascist at this early stage also implies that his voters stooped to the level of fascism. Half of America. Basically, it means lumping half of Americans into the same camp as Hitler and Mussolini. In Germany, especially, people should consider very carefully before making such comparisons.
The priority must now be that of guiding Trump supporters and those of right-wing populism, wherever they are, away from their leaders and parties. That can only happen through dialogue. It cannot begin with the worst of all political defamations.
Americans who champion democracy ought to heed the words written by David Remnick on the New Yorker website right after the election. "Despair is no answer," he writes. "To combat authoritarianism, to call out lies, to struggle honorably and fiercely in the name of American ideals -- that is what is left to do. That is all there is to do."