Trump as a Philosophical Fascist – Part III

Trump as a Philosophical Fascist – Part III


Howard Adelman

In Sheri Berman’s article, “Donald Trump isn’t a fascist” that I cited in my last blog, she wrote: “This debate over labels may seem merely semantic. But definitions matter. The point of labels is to identify, clarify, understand, and, if relevant, figure out ways of coping with the phenomenon at hand. Labeling Trump or other new-right parties and politicians ‘fascist’ implies something not just about what these people and movements stand for but how the opposition should deal with them.”

Sheri Berman is right, but not quite perfectly. Words matter. Definitions matter. Labels matter. They identify and clarify by implying and connecting with associations that give meaning to that label. However, they only help us understand in a significant way when the associations that provide that meaning are both comprehensive and correspond to empirical reality. Only then can we have the precise tools to deal with the problem at hand.

The critics of labeling Donald Trump a fascist did so because they listed four or seven or whatever number of symptoms that indicate that the political ideology signified by those symptoms was fascism. For Berman, the requisite symptoms are suspicion of capitalism, anti-democratic propensities because one regards democracies as both weak and inefficient, celebration of the use of violence for its own sake and use of a revolutionary rather than an evolutionary strategy.

Other commentators point to prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behaviour towards minorities because of fear of either difference or outsiders or both, a cult of action and celebration of alpha male aggressive masculinity as public political performance, an intolerance of criticism as a psychological characteristic, a pitch to the frustrations of the lower middle class, and populist appeals to national pride, resentment of humiliation and an opportunity for everyman (and woman) to identify directly with the power of the leader.

There is nothing wrong with this list. A few others could be added – such as focusing on the most up-to-date media at the time, whether radio and movies in the 1920s and 1930s, or tweets on the internet currently – to communicate directly to followers. But listing symptoms is not the issue. Of course, it helps to identify them to identify and classify but hardly sufficient.

In medicine, a symptom is a physical or mental feature that is an indicator of a disease or condition; an indicator is not usually the disease itself, but it may be part of the disease process as well as the effects on the body or the mind. In politics, the spectrum is broader. Symptoms which directly track the disease include mental items – such as the psychological (an emphasis on alpha male propensities, narcissism) and the ideological make-up of the politician. Both spheres are reflected in and are manifested by policies that translate into strategies for social change, whether in the democratic political system, the economic (capitalist in our case) system, the emphasis on action and the use of violence to achieve ends versus democratically elected and accountable legislatures and an independent judiciary for achieving goals. It is also helpful to identify the process as either chronic or acute.

In medicine, a patient may be prone to accepting quack beliefs. In politics, it may be a fear of minorities and paranoia about strangers (in medicine, someone with a cleanliness fetish or someone with an irrational fear of inoculation). Recognizing a patient’s openness to falsification and instilling criticisms of inherited folk wisdom when it is inappropriate, is important. Some patients may even have a propensity to want a shaman or witch doctor whom that believe capable of performing miraculous cures rather than a medical practitioner steeped in empirical knowledge of both the objective world and established proven practices as means of attacking problems. So too does it help if we identify conditions that provide ripe grounds for a disease to expand quickly. In politics, this may be rural or small town social groups, declining in numbers and prosperity, and resentful of their declining status.

Thus, it is not sufficient to list indicators. It is important to classify them and differentiate between and among direct indicators of the disease or condition, the best grounds for it to flourish and spread, and the social conditions and belief systems that foster that growth. However, simply identifying indicators with the disease or condition itself is a category mistake. For symptoms qua symptoms are merely the most superficial elements in recognizing a disease. We also must identify the anatomical location, the physiology and aetiology of the development of the disease. Only then can we grasp which interventions are most successful and why.

In the case of fascism and fascist leaders, we are very far from such a developed state of recognition. But we do know some of the factors that go beyond symptomology. Rather than simply via symptoms and conditions for the spread of a disease, fascism at this stage is best recognized by a specific ideological constellation concerning the body politic just as a disease may be identified by its actual effects on the body.

Let me shift from the theory of naming to actual deeper identifiers than symptoms. It should be no surprise then that I turn away from political scientists, historians, social and cultural commentators to a philosopher. Further, it is not just any philosopher. Giovanni Gentile was a leading Italian philosopher of the first half of the twentieth century from his academic post, first at Palermo University and then at the University of Pisa. He enjoyed a long quasi-partnership with Benedetto Croce, usually identified as the father of twentieth century positivist philosophy. The two went through an intellectual divorce in the early 1920s and Gentile became the “philosopher of fascism.” He provided Italian fascist thought with its intellectual foundation.

Though cast within what was dubbed a neo-Hegelian framework, his articulation of “actualist idealism” was not a development upon, but a gross distortion of Hegelian thought. This articulation was not simply the subjectivist extreme of idealist thought, but an intellectual framework that carried idealism over the edge. Those ideas were best expressed in his volume – originally a 40-page extended essay in the 1932 edition of the Italian Encyclopedia – The Doctrine of Fascism (“La dottrina del fascismo”) – that he co-wrote with Benito Mussolini which glorified the fascistic male – Uomo Fascista. Gentile was solely responsible for the first part on the fundamental precepts “Idee Fondamentali” in contrast to the second part, the doctrine of fascism (“Dottrina politica e sociale”) which may have been penned by Mussolini or both authors.

From that work and from H.S. Harris’ 1966 study of Gentile, The Social Philosophy of Giovanni Gentile with a biography of unknown origin, I have extracted the following core elements of fascism. A more accessible source for most readers might be Thomas Clay’s 2009 essay in the journal Gramsci and Educational Thought (41:6, 640-660) “Introducing Giovanni Gentile, the ‘Philosopher of Fascism’.” That essay is available online.

  1. The Cult of the Alpha Male
  2. The Cult of the Nation and the State
  3. The Contempt for both Reason and Empiricism
  4. The Contempt for Universal Human Rights and Liberal Ideals
  5. The Celebration of the Transcendental Mind: Free Will as The Absolute
  6. The Celebration of Populism vs Democratic Responsible Government
  7. A Dystopian View of the Existing World
  8. A Utopian Vision of a New World
  9. The Merging of the Private and the Public
  10. The Dialectic of Conflict to Foster Change and the Victory of the most Powerful Nation.

The first six of these core elements focus on the “anatomy” of fascism. The last four deal with its “physiology,” the depiction of the dynamics of change. Clearly, some of these are akin to specific symptoms mentioned above. However, unlike mere symptoms, these articulations try to address the phenomenology of experience rather than the experience of phenomena. Further, they are the parallel to identifying a mental disorder in the individual rather than an anatomical disease or condition. Only this is a condition which is political and which manifests itself, not simply in deviant individual behaviour, but in a public manic state in which large masses of individuals who consciously or, most frequently, unconsciously embrace fascism, become part of a large and significant political movement that threatens the very life of a democratic and liberal society.

In the next blog or blogs, I will clarify each of these elements in turn and indicate the evidence of Donald Trump being the current poster boy for that tradition. What I intend to make clear is that Donald Trump is merely the face of a much larger social change. That social change was already well underway when Trump became its titular face and leader. I will develop this claim in a follow-up blog on the precursors of the emergence of Donald Trump as president of the USA. If an individual exhibits traits that cause them to feel and behave in socially unacceptable and distressing ways and limit the individual’s ability to function and establish social relations, a collective political condition like fascism is much more damaging and widespread.

Further, there is no incompatibility between Donald Trump suffering from a psychological or psychiatric condition, such as a narcissistic personality disorder, and the spread of a plague of fascism. Donald Trump, as I will argue, is the prime instrument for spreading that plague. But he suffers from it as much as he has become its poster child. At the same time, the characteristics he exhibits in his deformed personality are ideal conditions for becoming a lead player in the spread of the disease of fascism.

That leaves one major problem. Sheri Berman wrote that it is not sufficient to label a disease or condition or anything else for that matter if that label and the underlying characteristics do not allow us to deal with and reverse the condition. In fact, filling out the definition of fascism and illustrating its applicability to the current case is itself subject to the test of whether and how the agents for developing an immunity can be fostered sufficiently to defeat and destroy the danger of that condition.

Donald Trump the Fascist – Part II

Donald Trump the Fascist – Part II


Howard Adelman

Conrad Black in his biography Richard M. Nixon (2007) informed us that, in the 1950 California Senate race, Helen Gahagan Douglas accused her opponent, Richard Nixon, of advocating “nice, unadulterated fascism.” In this morning’s blog, I implied that few of Donald Trump’s American critics had suggested an identification of Donald Trump with fascism. A reader commented that a Google search in 38 seconds revealed 559,000 results connecting Donald Trump with fascism. However, very few Americans claim that DT is a fascist. They generally equivocate in the endless stream of commentary and analysis of Donald Trump. The analogy hangs in the air, but generally does not land on his head.

Trump has been called a proto-fascist and his post-truth is labeled as pre-fascism. Few Americans label him outright as a fascist.  For some, such as Sheri Berman, a political science professor at Barnard College and an expert on the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe, this is because he is a populist, but not one that conforms to four basic characteristics of fascism. (See her article, “Donald Trump isn’t a fascist,” (…/1/3/14154300/fascist-populist-trump-democracy.) For her, Trump was not an ardent pro-nationalist, wherein the individual is in service to the nation; he does not view the nation as an “organic entity”. Trump does not possess a suspicion of capitalism. He may to some degree be overtly anti-liberal, but he is not anti-democratic rooted in the belief that the people must be led by a strong leader since American democracy as inefficient, unresponsive and weak. Finally, although Trump fails to reject violence unequivocally and will even urge police officers not to protect the heads of those arrested when throwing them in the back seat of a squad car, he does not advocate the use of violence as both a means and an end. In any case, fascism comes to power through revolutionary conquest not the ballot. In the rise of populism, there is a gradual erosion of democratic norms and institutions rather than undermining them through radical revolution.

But this is to confuse the rhetoric of fascism at a particular time with its core tenets. Such a definition gives pre-eminence to the tumultuous environment of hopelessness that gave rise to fascism in the 1930s. Berman argues that, although Trump bears a similarity to fascism in promising to protect Americans from the pernicious effects of foreigners and the disruptions of globalization and free trade that have, in his eyes, decimated America as a manufacturing centre, these are populist appeals common to both fascism and populism. But a populist does not a fascist make. Nor are the conditions – such as military defeat and economic depression – ripe for the rise of fascism.

A Toronto Star (2 April 2016) article by Olivia Ward asked, “Is Donald Trump a fascist?” and opined that “Donald Trump’s strong-armed call to keep Mexicans and Muslims out of America echoes last century’s fascist governments.” Ward cited young historian, Fedja Buric, from Bellarmine University in Kentucky, a specialist on the rise of fascism as the successor to Tito’s communism in Yugoslavia. Buric insisted that Trump was merely the face of fascism in America. He even compared DT with Benito Mussolini. New Republic editor Jamil Smith declared unequivocally that, “yes, Donald Trump is a fascist.” But Buric and Smith were foils for Ward who insisted that, “the jaw-jutting reality star doesn’t quite squeeze into the classic 20th-century mold.”

Even earlier than 2016, on 3 December 2015, Ross Douthat in The New York Times had asked, “Is Donald Trump a fascist?” based on his illiberal musings about Muslims and his blatant lying? Douthat even cited Jamelle Bouie in Slate who, referring to Umberto Eco in turn, “argued that Trumpism, however ideologically inchoate, manifests at least seven of the hallmarks of fascism…a cult of action, a celebration of aggressive masculinity, an intolerance of criticism, a fear of difference and outsiders, a pitch to the frustrations of the lower middle class, an intense nationalism and resentment at national humiliation, and a ‘popular elitism’ that promises every citizen that they’re part of ‘the best people of the world’.” Bouie was born in Virginia and I should have qualified my words about most Americans being reluctant to label Trump as a fascist, for Boule is a Black Virginian and Black Americans seem to disproportionately recognize fascism when they see it.

For those who eschew applying the fascist label to Donald Trump, America historically provided poor soil for fascism given the American conservative tradition of “a libertarian skepticism of state power, a stress on localism and states’ rights, a religious and particularly Protestant emphasis on the conscience of an individual over the power of the collective — that inoculated our politics against fascism’s appeal.” However, DT lacked the inoculation against that contagion because he was not an ideological conservative. In spite of the similarities of DT to Eco’s seven identification markers, and in spite of the fact that DT resisted any vaccination against the pox, neither religion, which for him is purely instrumental, nor Perot’s economic nationalist libertarianism and love of small government, nor, finally, Wallace’s deep racism and local and regional chauvinism, were available to save him from infection, for like a fascist, l’état c’est moi, Trump clearly is not averse to centralization as long as he is at that centre. Nevertheless, Douthat concluded that DT was at best a proto-fascist at one end of the conservative spectrum. “Trump may indeed be a little fascistic, but that sinister resemblance is just one part of his reality-television meets WWE-heel-turn campaign style. He isn’t actually building a fascist mass movement.”

Ishaan Tharoor in The Washington Post (28 March 2017) wrote that, “nobody invoking the ‘analogy’ seriously believes the hideous slaughters of another era are imminent.” Not much comfort. Tharoor went on to identify DT’s “reactionary platform in sync with xenophobic rhetoric and the extremist far right politics of Europe. But this just meant that, “The shadow of an earlier moment of demagoguery seems to unavoidably loom over the national conversation.”

The issue is not that there are no American commentators that called DT a fascist, but that the vast majority avoid, for very different reasons, labeling him with the fascist designation and draw back even at the last minute from knighting him as such. Douthat thought that, although DT had not been inoculated against fascism, conservatives in the Republican Party were and would refuse to embrace him if he overtly takes on those traits.

How wrong he was. Further, as my blog tomorrow will indicate, I want to insist that DT’s fascism goes much deeper than the above merely superficial resemblances to fascist performers.  Trump is philosophically a fascist and it is as a philosophical fascist that he is able to wrap conservatives around his little fat pinky.

I am aware that scholars of Italian fascism, such as historian Enzo Traverso, the Susan and Barton Winokur Professor in the Humanities in the Department of Romance Studies at Cornell University, argue that identifying Trump “through the old category of fascism” is not only misleading but useless (World Policy Journal “Trump’s Savage Capitalism: The Nightmare is Real,” 34:1, Spring 2017, 13-17). This scholar insisted that, despite Trump defining himself as the charismatic leader and despite his speeches and meetings having “an incontestably fascist taste,” the fascist analogy remains superficial involving only Trump’s personality. “Fascism is reducible neither to the temperament of a political leader nor to the psychological predispositions of his followers. The fact is that Trump does not lead a mass movement; he is a TV star.”

Isabel Hull, the John Stambaugh Professor of History and colleague of Traverso at Cornell, pointed out that some of the things that paved the way for fascism in Germany are repeated now, such as a weak government that was intentionally undermined by its elites, and “a highly stove-piped national press, such that people only heard and saw what they already thought, and that should sound familiar though it now comes in a different mode.” Another similarity, Isabel Hull pointed to at the Cornell symposium on “Trump and Fascism,” was that Hitler, like Trump, “had no regard for bureaucracy or law or regularity or policies. Under National Socialism, that system of government made it flexible, adaptable, but also self-radicalizing and ultimately completely self-destructive.”

However, for these thinkers, although there are significant analogies, the identification is just not there. Trump is not an imperialist. Rather than arguing for military expansionism, DT is an isolationist. What drives him is his personal business interests and his family. Xenophobic and reactionary, yes; fascist, no. Populism, not fascism, explains DT.

Without denigrating the role of populism and without insisting that DT exhibits all the expressions of fascism in the 1930s. I suggest that DT is at his core a philosophical fascist and not simply a behavioural one or even that some of his behavioural traits share a kinship with fascism.

I make this assertion, not as a scholar of philosophical fascism, but because of knowledge by acquaintance. When I co-taught the graduate course on Hegel at York University, my colleague was the late Professor Henry Silton Harris, H.S. Harris or simply Harris as he was called by his colleagues and friends. He was and remains the foremost Hegelian scholar in the world. What few seem to know was that his PhD thesis was on Giovanni Gentile, subsequently published as, The Social Philosophy of Giovanni Gentile: with a bibliography (1962).

Gentile, already a widely recognized philosopher in Palermo and then Pisa, Italy, before Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922, became Minister of Education in the first Mussolini government of 1923 and ghost wrote Mussolini’s A Doctrine of Fascism (1930). His own philosophic identification with fascism and the characterization of its essential precepts were inscribed in his volume, The Origins of the Doctrine of Fascism. The fascist themes were also indicated in his break with Croce, the intellectual founder of positivism, the doctrine that science provides the model for all thought and explanation, more fundamentally, that all thought is rooted in sense experience.

With the help of Alex Zisman