There is a word that has been getting tossed around more and more lately to describe our incoming administration and PEOTUS, that has caused some people to become concerned. “That’s alarmist! It’s hyperbole!” The word in question? Fascism.
But what is fascism? Are the people comparing DJT and friends to actual Hitler being fair and accurate? Are those shying away from the comparison correct to do so?
Well, as a historian (for real, I have a degree in History!) let us take a look together at what exactly fascism is, what the Trump platform has been, and then you can decide for yourself if it is an appropriate word to use. Often times, especially in online conversations, when people disagree, or wish to express extreme displeasure with another person or idea, they will compare them in some way to Nazi Germany. “You’re a Nazi! You’re Hitler! You’re such a fascist! That is basically the Holocaust!” However, this tactic is what is known as an ad hominum attack. It attacks the person, not the idea. It makes people less likely to listen to our responses. And, it makes light of what is something serious: the ideas of fascism. The actual people who died and suffered in Nazi German or in the Holocaust.
Sometimes, rarely, we find things that should actually be compared to actual Hitler, to the Holocaust, and to Nazi Germany. People who literally favor (or even resort to using tactics such as) the use of genocide, hate crimes, and Social Darwinism for example. How can we know if the thing we’re talking about is just regular dregs of the internet terrible, or actually a literal fascist talking point?
To start with, what is fascism exactly? There are many schools of thought that have helped to form the ideology of fascism over the years, but some of the main components are:
Nationalism can be many different ideas that strongly tie people to the concept of their nation. This is more than Patriotism. This is the center of people’s identity. It unifies people in solidarity behind it. The nation’s self-determination (for example, the nation being able to seize resources around the world) is paramount. Nationalism often times uses race as a unifier, which is why you hear of things such as “white nationalism”.
What about Trump? He did receive many endorsements from white nationalist groups, and many in his base of supporters are white nationalists. Additionally, people in his close circle, including advisers and cabinet choices are white nationalists as well, and he has shown that he has ties (to what extent it isn’t known) to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is also a nationalist. Additionally, Trump, his choice of Secretary of State, and Putin have all spoken openly about wanting the sanctions of Russia to end so that US oil companies could make deals in Russia, despite Russia committing what could arguably be considered war crimes (which was why there were sanctions). They have also spoken about ending relationships with NATO, so that the US could act as it pleases without feeling tied down by alliances or obligations.
That could be perceived as nationalism.
Totalitarianism is a political system in which the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible, without any respect for human rights. Totalitarian regimes stay in political power through such techniques as propaganda, state control of the mass media and educational system, control over the economy, political repression, capital punishment, restriction of speech, mass surveillance, and the establishment of internment or forced labour camps. A distinctive feature of totalitarian governments is an “elaborate ideology, a set of ideas that gives meaning and direction to the whole society”
That may seem like a tall order, and something only feasible in fiction, but in our ever increasingly technological world, these things are more and more possible. Even in democratic societies we see a lot of these aspects, such as propaganda, state control over the education system, state influence at least in the economy, capital punishment to some degree, mass surveillance, and arguably forced labor in for profit prisons. However, it is when we pair totalitarianism up with our next point, that things really get troublesome.
Can we consider our PEOTUS a totalitarian? Well, first of all, he hasn’t actually been inaugurated yet, and so technically he has no power, so no. But, we can look at what he has said he will do, and what he wants to do, and the trajectory he has us headed, and get a good idea if maybe, he will be a totalitarian leader, or on that spectrum.
Trump and his administration, as well as the Party they belong to have a long history of telling people what they can do in their personal lives, from regulating sex, to regulating or enforcing religion. This ties in directly with human rights abuses, and direct threats of internment of Muslim-Americans.
We have even seen frightening political repression of his political opponent, Hillary Clinton whom he threatened to jail during a televised debate. He also said “2nd Amendment folks should take care of her”. He promotes violence, and has, many times taken a position that was in favor of the restriction of free speech. Not just with words, but by threatening to sue journalists and news papers. Just today, his team announced plans to move the press corp from the White House, saying “they are the opposition party”. He and his administration have also spoken in favor of the use of mass surveillance, yet alarmingly, they refuse the read the intelligence briefings about that surveillance, which would indicate that they are interested in it for other reasons.
Lastly, Trump himself is a master of mass media. He duped the media into giving his campaign billions of dollars worth of free air time, he frequently manages to distract from important policy with smoke-and-mirrors tactics, using tweets, and scandal to draw attention just when he wants it. He tweets frequently, which is not something we’re used to in a PEOTUS, and he has been an entertainer, and a producer for a long time, so he knows how to run the show. He has been given the stage, and he knows how to use mass media. Additionally, as we’ve talked about before, he has some kind of ties to Vladimir Putin, who also used propaganda to influence the election.
So, yes, it seems we may be gearing up to head down the road of totalitarianism.
It may come as a surprise, but many people have opposed democracy from Plato, to Nietzsche, to Hitler, and with good reasons. Sir Winston Churchill himself gave a speech to the House of Commons in 1947, after WWII and their victory over fascism:
“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
So why all the democracy haters? Because it’s one of the least effective methods of governance. In fact, our particular brand of democracy in the United States was set up to be even more cumbersome by the Founding Fathers, who didn’t trust people in general with the ability to make their own choices. And so they made the process slow, clunky, and often ineffective in the short run. That way, it would be stable.
Plato felt that democracies created societies which lacked unity and governance followed flights of fancy rather than the common good.
Nietzsche felt that democracy reduced people to herd animals, and that it was inherently religious.
However, when we look at the anti-democratic thought, and we add in the idea of state control of everything from personal life to media, to education, we start getting something worrying. If there is no democracy who controls the state? If there is no democracy, where are the checks and balances on the power over each individuals’ life by the institutions?
What does Trump think of democracy? It’s honestly difficult to say, because he has tweeted a lot on the subject, and often the ideas are different from one another. It really seems like when things are going his way, he likes democracy, and whey they aren’t he doesn’t. This can be dangerous though, because it just shows that what matters to him, our PEOTUS, isn’t democracy, the voice of the people, the common good, or anything like that. It is legitimizing his place as our leader. And that ties back in to some of these other fascist ideas.
So, when we look at Trump’s seeming ambivalence about democracy, and his heavy use of what could definitely be considered totalitarian tactics, we may start to worry. Is this a PEOTUS who values democracy and is going to preserve our freedoms?
This is exactly what is sounds like. In a fascist state, only one political party is allowed. The other parties are either given minimal control, made figureheads, removed all together, or sometimes even jailed as political prisoners.
As we talked about before, it is too early to say if we will see a One-party state, but it would be an easy transition to make. The GOP took back both houses of Congress. They unconstitutionally refused to allow our still current President Obama to appoint his pick to the Supreme Court, meaning they will get to have their pick to the Supreme Court. And the PEOTUS has, as mentioned before, already made threats against political opponents and sought to physically distance himself from those percieved as being in cahots with “the opposition party” even at the expense of freedom of the press.
Personality cult is almost like the leader of the state deifying themselves, except they rely on tactics of mass media and propaganda to present a larger-than-life Charismatic Leader, rather than a Religious Leader. A great fictional example would be Big Brother, in 1984. Historically, a great example of this, would be Hitler. In the cult of personality, the state, and the leader uses mass media, propaganda, or other methods to create and curate an idealized, heroic, and at times worshipful image, often through unquestioning flattery and praise.
This is something that Trump has seemed to be shaping up for, even during the election. He has the grand gestures, he has the punchy, often slightly nonsensical, rhetoric. He is Charismatic. He is a master of mass media, because that has always been what he does. He was already a brand. People call him a business man, and I think that is inaccurate. He markets himself. That is what he has always done. And he cultivated the image of himself, until he was a household world, and an idea that many people longed for (charisma, wealth, strength) and he ran for president on that. Now, we see it again and again, because that is what he wants us to see again and again. Some people are turned on by that, and others are discouraged, and simply fall in line. And that is the point. Of all of these, I would say this one identifies him the best. He could play High Supreme Leader in a movie, and not change anything he’s doing.
Dictatorship is basically the rule by a political entity which uses various mechanisms (mass surveillance, propaganda, violence) to control every aspect of citizen’s lives, and to discredit or do away with political opponents who might threaten power.
When we think of this, in regards to Trump, we may be asking ourselves, if Trump is shaping himself to be a dictator. But I think that is the wrong question. Look at the cronies he has put around himself. Look at the investment Putin has made. There are other forces. A dictatorship doesn’t mean just one person necessarily. It could be an oligarchical dictatorship. Trump reportedly chose his VP by deciding who he wanted to be the person to do the work of the Presidency, because he isn’t interested in doing it, he just wanted to be the face who won. Watching the Senate confirmation hearings this week with his cabinet appointments, it was very clear they all had their own agendas they wanted to accomplish, and none of them had spoken to Trump about those plans. When questions by Congress, a few potential cabinet members seemed baffled why they should discuss national policy with the PEOTUS. But, if they are to be considered just as much in charge, why should they?
This is the belief that a country should have, and be able to use readily, a strong military to defend or promote national interests.
One of the biggest ways we can see that with Trump is his readiness to talk about Nuclear Rearmament.
Direct action can be broken down into violent, and non-violent. Many ideologies use direct action. Malcom X, Ghandi, Susan B. Anthony. Direct action simply means when a group takes action to fix a problem, highlight a solution, or bright to light a social issue. This could mean that many of the tactics employed by Martin Luther King Jr (Happy Birthday!) such as sit-ins and protests would be considered direct actions. However, the Kristallnacht, or “Night of the Broken Glass would also be considered direct action. Direct Action is simply a tactic.
Direct Action is definitely a tactic that Trump supporters have used, and there has been a great deal of fear expressed about this. Mosques have been burned down, reminiscent of the Kristallcacht, and there has been reported a sharp increase in hate crimes committed. While we may not want to see these as direct action because we don’t see the groups affected as “social problems” to be “fixed” we must identify it that way, because that is exactly why they are being targeted. There are those who, due to their strong sense of self, being tied into their own race, as we talked about in nationalism, feel that anyone who does not or cannot fit into that mold is a societal problem who needs to be “fixed”. These are people who have supported Trump, and these are people he has supported until it wasn’t politically expedient to.
This is the kind of economy we have now. People are free to own the means of production, but the government also has ways of imposing regulations and policies to prevent unemployment, prevent wealth disparities, and provide social programs.
What is interesting about Trump’s Administration is that all of his cabinet picks, and Putin stand to make a lot of money during his time in office, especially off of the things they have already proposed doing. That doesn’t make them fascist, it just makes them greedy, but it’s good to remember who is benefiting from what.
Fascism holds the view that social hierarchy and inequality among classes is inherit and should be viewed as a positive aspect of civilization. This is one of the big reasons fascism conflicts with socialism and communism. Everyone is seen as having a role to perform, and everyone is expected to perform their role to better the nation. Things that detract from the nation, such as seeking to better one’s position in society, are strongly looked down upon.
This is a view strongly taken by Trump supporters. They refer dismissively to Left ideas of social justice and civil rights as divisive identity politics. As in politics that revolve strictly around people’s individual identities, and therefore cannot form into anything united. Another term they use is “snowflakes” signifying the same lack of unity or negatively unique quality. These are not necessarily positions Trump has stated, but they are positions his supporters, and close aides, allies, and cabinet members have stated.
This is not an aspect of the fascist ideology that Nazi Germany embraced, but in any ideology, once applied, there are parts that get kept, and parts that get modified. Third Position has to do mostly with peaceful separation of ethnicities and races. They favor peaceful co-existence through segregation. They seek self-determination and cultural preservation of each group. They support national liberation movements, and are in favor of environmentalism.
In Trump’s administration you see much more of this on the spectrum of white nationalism. His Attorney General nominee received heat because of comments he made about black people that could definitely fall into this category. There are a lot of older, white men in the Trump Administration who seem to still think it’s the Jim Crow Era, and see no problem with segregation and all that comes with it. Trump himself has gotten into hot water for categorizing entire races of people from Black people to Mexicans (and frequently, when he says ‘Mexican’ he means anyone of Latina/o heritage), and trying to find ways to separate out Muslim-Americans from, essentially, White-Americans.
This is a concept that, again, is fairly literal. This is the idea of the creation of an ideal new human/citizen to replace the old, non-ideal humans/citizens.
What is important to realize about this concept is that it has a lot to do with eugenics, Social Darwinism and social hierarchy, and racial purity.
We have heard a lot of rhetoric coming out of the Trump camp working toward this idea. They definitely have an idea of what the “ideal” citizen is, or at least, they know what their supporters think the “ideal” citizen is, and that citizen is white. We know that because of all the talk and support about building a literal wall to keep Mexicans out, and the consistent talk about the Muslim Registry, and even some talk about putting Muslim people in interment camps. In fact, the man who proposed that, even compared that to the internment of the Japanese-Americans, in a favorable way. As in, he felt that the internment of the Japanese was a favorable thing.
This is where a country extends it’s power by acquisition of territory.
This one is more nuanced, but as a nation, we definitely have a long, long history of imperialism. The two instances that come to my mind immediately, however, about Trump and imperialism are first, his ties to Putin. Putin is an Imperialist. He is actively seeking to expand Russia back to the size it was at the height of the Soviet Union. a few years ago, he invaded the Ukraine, and still has troops occupying the Crimea. He also has troops in Syria, fighting the rebels who are fighting Assad. Despite all of this, Trump has made it clear, that for whatever reason, and despite meddling in our election, Trump likes Putin. Which potentially makes us complicit in those aggressive acts of expansion, and even, war crimes.
Secondly, and much less frequently recognized, but still very important is Trump’s treatment of Native American’s and his cabinet appointment to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Not only are their land and resources in danger of being privatized out from under them, and the treaties the government made with them in the past not being honored, but at least two people in the administration have shares in the energy companies profiting from Standing Rock. Additionally, the only recourse they have for that lack of ethics is to take it up with the people who are profiting from them, who have said before they don’t value people of color, and who have spoken before their support for police violence. We’re still living in the times of Wars against Indians. That is Imperialism.
Every society has social order to some degree, but fascism escalates it to a degree as a method of control, and to give people a united national identity. Components of this are establishing social norms, and enforces them externally. Norms are different from values in that sense, since values are internal. Social order also encourages social interaction through groups, and through this, status is established. Through these vectors, in a fascist state, peoples’ entire sense of self worth and identity is established. Additionally these are effective tools to educate people, train them in appropriate ways to behave, and weed out “deviant” behavior.
You can see this coalescing in Trumpism, as you see people begin to have the most important thing begin to be that sense of nationalism, and frequently, white nationalism. Another important part of the social order under fascism, and Trumpism both, is very narrowly defined idea of gender. We are seeing that rigid gender identity be something that Trumpsters cling to, as well as the party, by trying to force women down through legislation. In fact, during the election, multiple times #repealthe19th was trending on social media, referring to the 19th Amendment, the right for women to vote. Additionally, many times blatant hatred of women was a good indicator that a person would vote for Trump rather than Hilary Clinton. In these rigid social orders, a woman seeking power is seen as a “deviant” behavior, which must be punished, and many of Trump’s behaviors, which many on the Left found repellent (racism, sexual assault, fraud) were seen by many of his supporters as proof that he was a “real” man.
So, are Trump and his close aides and Cabinet, fascists? It’s up to each of us to look at the facts and decide for ourselves. Now that we know what fascism means, we can watch him as he is actually Inaugurated this next week, and be more aware of what is going on. What trajectory are we on? Where are we going? Most importantly, what are we going to do about it?