Trump as a Philosophical Fascist – Part III
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.
- The Cult of the Alpha Male
- The Cult of the Nation and the State
- The Contempt for both Reason and Empiricism
- The Contempt for Universal Human Rights and Liberal Ideals
- The Celebration of the Transcendental Mind: Free Will as The Absolute
- The Celebration of Populism vs Democratic Responsible Government
- A Dystopian View of the Existing World
- A Utopian Vision of a New World
- The Merging of the Private and the Public
- 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.