Is Donald Trump a Fascist? Part I
Last evening at a dinner at a friend’s, I was asked whether I thought Donald Trump was a fascist? Evidently, I seemed to have implied that he was in some previous references to Hitler and Mussolini in my writings. So I want to answer that query in this blog, and perhaps allow it to be an introduction for one or two more blogs on Donald Trump by offering my answer in the negative. I. of course, have previously considered this question, but I have never articulated a clear reply. Formulating this short answer is helped by an essay of Umberto Eco in The New York Review of Books entitled “Ur-Fascism,” (22 June 1995), which allows me to examine, indirectly and by implication, whether Trump is what Eco called an Ur-Fascist.
Eco opened with a story of Mimo, the partisan leader in the area of Milan where he was living at the end of the WWII. Mimo made a victory speech from a balcony. “Citizens, friends. After so many painful sacrifices … here we are. Glory to those who have fallen for freedom.” And that was it. The lesson Umberto Eco took away: In contrast to the sections of Mussolini’s long mesmerizing speeches that he had been forced to memorize at school, he learned that, “freedom of speech means freedom from rhetoric.”
Rhetoric: short, rambling strings of tweets rather than soaring memorable lines, staccato segments that started and restarted, rhetoric built on “an impoverished vocabulary and elementary syntax in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning,” strangely reminded me of Casey Stengel, the famous American baseball coach memorable for his malapropisms. Donald Trump, in contrast to Mino, believed that there can never be one tweet too many. Trump stands in contrast to the diehard anti-war Bernie Sanders acolytes who were stuck on one phrase and not even a tweet. They yelled out, “No more war” when a contemporary warrior like Mino, the former head of the CIA and Secretary of Defense in Obama’s cabinet who had served seven previous presidents, Leon Panetta, spoke. The Bernie diehards – what a misnomer – booed again and re-shouted the same slogan when John Allen, a retired four-star Marine general and former commander of American forces in Afghanistan, spoke. He had previously been known as a non-partisan soldier who kept his distance from politics, but, backed up by a phalanx of veterans, he delivered a rousing endorsement of Hillary Clinton and a scathing excoriation of Donald Trump whom he claimed was completely unfit to be Commander-in-Chief.
Those true believers in Bernie, those who had sworn to die on the sword for him, Sarah Silverman, a former strong advocate in the Bernie movement, now labeled “ridiculous.” They had not learned another lesson that Umberto Eco had learned after WWII: “the moral and psychological meaning of the Resistance. For us it was a point of pride to know that we Europeans did not wait passively for liberation. And for the young Americans who were paying with their blood for our restored freedom it meant something to know that behind the firing lines there were Europeans paying their own debt in advance.”
Mussolini had been a fiery orator, in contrast to either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, but, like Mussolini, Donald Trump’s campaign has been built on the need for a charismatic singular ruler upon whom the populace relied, on a renewed belief in making America (Italy) great again, on a nationalism that exacerbated divisions and singled out minorities for attack. Unlike Hitler or Stalin, Mussolini was not a totalitarian. But, like Donald Trump, “Mussolini did not have any philosophy: he had only rhetoric.” A ghost stalks the West – a “way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instinct and unfathomable drives” built on a politics of resentment.
Eco wrote that, “Linguistic habits are frequently important symptoms of underlying feelings.” Donald Trunk has been a Balaam, a soothsayer, a man of many words, a long-winded blowhard, but still only capable of stringing together a series of short expressions and expletives. He so clearly has an attention span of only a few minutes. Words count. Words strung together count even more. Those words and the patterns of how they are brought together both reveal his way of unthinking, his seemingly incapacity to feel compassion and empathy whether in shouting, “You’re fired” or advocating building walls or selection and exclusion mechanisms to manage migration.
That means that Donald Trump may not be worthy of being Commander-in-Chief, but, in spite of his attraction for dictators, it is unlikely also that he would be capable of establishing a liturgy and system of costuming that could unite the inchoate cluster of believers and anarchists, deeply hurt workers and fulminating angry Americans who have lost their place in the sun to a rising tide of rivals. The real worry is not that he is likely to become a dictator, but that he is uncontrolled and should not be allowed to have a finger, a pinky, let alone a hand on the nuclear trigger. For though not evidently a dictator, or one with a capacity to become one, he is erratic while delegating detailed planning to others. On the other hand, what makes him attractive to the few diehard Bernie supporters is that he has so few conservative bona fides and might even carry through on some area of social reform, such as more extensive parental leave for parents about to have children and an extensive child-care program, though how he would pay for it would be greatly in question since he also plans to cut even more taxes for the very rich.
When his very capable daughter, Ivanka, delivered this nanny state initiative that had never before been uttered in the Trump so-called platform, when his son, Donald Trump Jr., delivered his right-wing exhortation of anti-Government rhetoric and support for the NRA, it only indicated a fuzzy amalgam of left and extreme right-wing ideas, an inchoate collage rather than a coherent program, what Eco called a “beehive of contradictions,” that is, of buzzing confusion in the semblance of a highly ordered system. If Donald Trump were to become president, “believe me,’ his most disappointed acolytes would be the David Dukes of the world. So although he is bombastic and a blowhard, though he has no clue on how to check whether anything that emerges from his mouth is true, we can be grateful for small gifts. Although he seems to admire dictators of many stripes, he also seems singularly incapable of developing the discipline, the coherent mass organization of uniforms and songs, salutes and signals – “Lock her up is no substitute” – enabling him to become one.
In spite of the Donald’s rants against Mexican rapists and thieves, in spite of his tirades against Muslims as all terrorist suspects, there is no indication that he has a prejudicial bone in his body. Like Mussolini who had a Jewish mistress, Trump has a Jewish orthodox son-in-law, a daughter who converted to Judaism, Jewish grandchildren and a phalanx of Jewish executives. Further, he hires illegals of all ethnic and religious backgrounds and gives every evidence of being an equal opportunity exploiter.
So though he is a nationalist rather than a patriot, though he is a nativist but not a racist, what he clearly seems to celebrate and revel in is speed in decision-making rather than deliberation and does have an attraction to bullying and violence – “punch him out” – rather than to listening to complaints and grievances to enable him to diagnose their roots. And though he pledges to create jobs for those who suffered the most as globalization moved at high speed, he reveals himself in his speech and his actions to be a perilous risk-taker guaranteed to leave an even greater swath of victims in his wake. This was indicated by Trump University which was not used to develop an extension of any great thinker as Mussolini used his fascist youth clubs to develop and expand on the thinking of Giovanni Gentile. It was simply another exploitive development to add to the Donald’s repertoire.
Like Mussolini, Trump is bombastic. Like Mussolini, Trump is a bully. But he lacks any of the discipline and sense of coherent order to be Benito. Donald Trump is no Reagan, but he is also no Mussolini. He might abolish, or, at least, undermine trade unions, he might boycott and even try to punish an unfavourable journalist, but as long as the media attends to him, as long as the media never deviate from observing and commenting on his boorish behaviour, from paying attention to him, Donald Trump seems to lack the killer instinct of an Erdoğan as hyper-sensitive as the Donald is to criticism. He might use the power of the state to squelch dissenters, but, however, horrific, that is not the same as abolishing dissent. He might expand executive power at the expense of the legislature, appoint judges because he favoured them rather than for their capabilities, but there is no evidence he would appoint judges because they conformed to a rigid ideology.
In that sense, he is less dangerous than Ted Cruz would have been. Ted Cruz contributed to wrecking the Republican Party in the final stages of its decline. He certainly contributed enormously in preparing for its transformation from a political party to a movement when he set out to destroy its ability to compromise, destroy its ability to carry out what is the essence of political life, compromising with those with whom you disagree. Ted Cruz helped reduce the Republican Party to a remnant of its former self, a Commodore Hotel ripe for the arts of a takeover artist who can spot a bargain a few hundred miles away.
Ted Cruz has been lauded for standing on principle and refusing to endorse Donald Trump in his Republican Convention speech, but few seem to recognize that it was this same rigid adherence to principle and his affection for the wrecking ball mode of doing politics that had reduced the Republican Party to a wreck worthy only of being offered for sale in a bargain basement store. And the Donald showed that he had the eye, that he had the skills, to enable him to buy it for a bargain and add it to the trophies of the Trump organization.
In sum, whatever the characteristics of a braggart and a megalomaniac, whatever the traits of a psychopath with brutish charm, Donald Trump is not a proto-dictator let alone a fascist. He demonstrates no cult of tradition and has systematically destroyed whatever cult of tradition remained in the Republican Party to make the party his own. But where tradition is no threat to him, where it does not stand in the way for his appetite for takeovers, he can respect, even esteem the traditions of Orthodox Judaism. Donald Trump has no ambitions to take over the Jewish religion.
Though explicitly not committed, and, therefore, not a Burkean conservative, it is a puzzle to me why his support from evangelicals is increasing and coalescing. But Donald is also an opponent of modernism in its most demonstrable form – science. He explicitly and repeatedly says that he does not believe that humans have played a significant part in altering the world’s climate and suggests that is just an excuse for a very expensive tax to make some people a lot of money. (My eleven-year-old granddaughter following the campaign in Princeton now sports a Hillary button and explained yesterday why she doesn’t like Trump. “He doesn’t like science – and Mexico.”) Trump offered another explanation for the purported hoax: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” When and only well after that was met with widespread derision, did he insist that he was only joking.
So he is not an upholder of tradition. He is not a believer in the results of science. What does he believe in? Deeds! And himself. “I can get it done.” I can make a deal.” “I can kill all the members of ISIS.” “I can build a wall and get the Mexicans to pay for it.” He does not believe in deliberation to find what looks like the best solution, but does believe in his own instincts to spot an opportunity and act upon it. This is known as irrationalism. Anti-intellectualism is too weak a term to describe it. Other presidential candidates may have been irrational – William Jennings Bryan comes to mind – but they rarely boasted about it. Trump is a warrior of the twelfth and thirteenth century who revels in the joust and for whom reading and reflection are the purview of wonks and nerds. If you are rich enough, you can buy toadies to do that feminine kind of labour. He not only favours the use of extreme methods of torture – “torture works” – and explains that “eggheads came up with the international law to ban torture,” but he wears his brutality proudly as a badge of honour on his shoulder.
With the help of Alex Zisman