Is Donald Trump a fascist? A historical perspective

Trump is most likely more about Trump than about the US and its citizens. Do we really need Plato and Aristotle to remind us that democracy in its correct form (‘polity’) means rule by the many in the interest of the many, while oligarchy means rule by the few in the interest of the few?


The campaign of Donald Trump has overwhelmingly confirmed Godwin’s Law which famously stated that ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one’.[1] The internet overflows with allegations and denials. Is Trump a fascist? ‘Yes’ says the New Republic; ‘no’ says The Economist.[2] Fascism: a distinct political movement during the interwar years, pegged to a unique historical context, in which Germany was home to the most notorious fascist regime of them all, commanded by a circle of reckless, simple-minded monomaniacs who ran their totalitarian regime by a combination of oppression and propaganda. If ‘fascist’ simply becomes another word for ‘bad guy’, we not only short-circuit the political debate, we also deprive ourselves from making useful historical comparisons, in other words, learn from the past.

Maybe we should rephrase the question: Would it make sense to label Trump a fascist? It wouldn’t be the first time the Republican Party was accused of housing adherents of the cause: already in 1966, Republican senator Thomas Kuchel pointed to “A fanatical neo-fascist political cult in the GOP, driven by a strange mixture of corrosive hatred and sickening fear, who are recklessly determined to either control our party, or destroy it.” So, let’s take a look in the rear-view mirror. If we want to bring Germany’s troubled history into the equation for the sake of comparison, there is a twisted irony in the fact that this year’s US presidential elections will take place on one of Germany’s ‘fate dates’: on 8 November 1923, Adolf Hitler staged an inept and unsuccessful Putsch in a Munich beer hall. On 8 November, 16 years later, he escaped Georg Elser’s assassination attempt. On 8 November 1937, the anti-Semitic exhibition Der ewige Jude (‘The Eternal Jew’) opened in Munich. Racist policies and attacks on central government: lots of symbolic currency there.

While it is easy to see why the question arises – is Trump a fascist? – it is just as clear that an answer in the affirmative would shed little light on the Trump case. To be sure, to the extent that we can actually detect anything coherent from Trump’s politically oriented statements, his authoritarian, right wing populism does harbor similarities with Fascism as we know it: the bashing of minorities that are not considered legitimate members of the nation (Latinos, immigrants), appraisal of the strong leader (Putin; himself), radical nationalism, an ambiguous attitude towards guns and violence, hateful attacks on ‘Washington’, the elite, the establishment, ‘the political class’, experts, intellectuals, etc.; the intense rhetoric against things as they are, complemented by a blurred longing for things as they were and a great past. ‘Make America great again’ smacks of Hitlerist revanchism.

But does it make Trump qualify as a fascist? Not necessarily. Radical nationalism, for instance, was never a prerogative of Fascism. Restoring the nation to its former position and strength has always been a predominant theme in conservative thinking, and when expressed by a potential leader of a global player like the US, there is good reason to be on the alert: in an extraordinary February 2016 edition, featuring a cover photo of Trump accompanied by the headline Wahnsinn (‘insanity’), internationally recognized German weekly magazine Der Spiegel commented that  ‘[Trump’s] bid for the White House, long ridiculed, is a fight for a ruthless, brutal America. Behind his campaign slogan “Make America great again!” is the vision of a country that no longer cares about international treaties, ethnic minorities or established standards of decency.’[3] In addition, Trump’s authoritarian populism and minority bashing should probably be seen against the backdrop of a serious economic crisis and the disadvantages of globalization, comparable to what Germany faced in the thirties. The social decline of the German middle class caused by the depression was something Hitler cleverly exploited to the full. So again, there are similarities with fascism.

But it doesn’t make Trump a fascist. Radical nationalism often surfaces in the political culture of great powers on the decline and may turn such states into dangerous players, including the US. But contrary to post WWI Germany or Russia today, the US is running on a democratic legacy that informs and legitimizes political decision-making and is hard to get rid of. You may insist that Trump has little respect for democratic rules and values,[4] and that even though he has to abide by them in his quest for power, so did Hitler – that was, after all, his lesson of 1923. Wasn’t Fascism about replacing democracy by dictatorship? Certainly. Still, even Trump’s lack of respect for democratic procedures does not make him a fascist. You don’t have to be a fascist to dismiss parliamentary democracy. Actually, it‘s not uncommon among business leaders to promote some sort of authoritarian government. After all, big business is not governed by consent but by dictate.

It’s true that Trump has ‘(…) launched an uprising of the indecent, one that is now much bigger than he himself, a popular movement of white, conservative America that after eight years under Democratic President Barack Obama, yearns for a leader who will usher in the counter-revolution’ (Spiegel). But the American ‘white, conservative movement’ is the kind of movement that unfolds in front of the TV. Unlike the fascist movements of the interwar years, Trump is not in charge of a uniformed, obedient and violent, totalitarian mass movement. Instead, he temporarily represents a diminished and split Republican Party that cannot wait to get rid of this joker when it’s all over in November.

And this is not the only crucial difference. Even more importantly, Trump’s regular attacks on the ‘government’ – not the Obama administration alone but the federal state as such – shows him as a true conservative, super rich who, like so many others of his kind, happens to think that because he has been (relatively) successful in business, he will make a terrific statesman too. As a right-wing populist he is well aware that a one-sided program of serious cut-downs on public social spending won’t get him anywhere near the White House, and so he recently ticked a few boxes on the social side of his economic ‘agenda’: daycare should be cheaper; Social Security and Medicare should be protected from savings. Tax cuts, however, still define the greater part of his ‘program’. The populism may resemble that of German Nazism, yet while Hitler’s party propagated and actively worked for a Volksgemeinschaft – ‘people’s community’ – by superficially abolishing class contradictions and excluding ‘second rate people’, and by intervening in social reform and job creation, Trump seems to think that social improvement can happen almost by itself. Fascism, being a totalitarian ideology, needed a strong state. Trump seems to think that you can have strong leadership and a weak government at the same time. German Fascism arranged for a gelenkte Wirtschaft (‘organized economy’), centralizing resource allocation and controlling foreign trade and the labor market. In Trump’s vision, the state will be at the service of capitalism – not the other way ‘round. Hitler had no sympathy for neither big business nor world capitalism which enriched the Jews and had Germany in an iron grip of financial dependence. Trump stands for everything Hitler hated about Liberalism and stock markets. In addition, the Lebensraum imperialism of Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, or the anti-Semitism of Henry Ford or Charles Lindbergh for that matter, are hard to pin on Trump (although he seems to surround himself with advisors who are not so cautious; Joseph Schmitz, a Trump advisor on foreign policy, reportedly stated that ‘the ovens were too small to kill six million Jews’[5]). Again, Trump lacks both totalitarian ideology and a militant, uniformed party or movement to qualify as a true fascist.

In Trump’s one-man-show there’s no one to back him up, which leaves him wholly dependent on his own funding and vulnerable. Should his business fail, he would immediately exit the stage. In that sense, Trump is more of a classical oligarch. He will not be elected president. But the Trump phenomenon points to a danger which is far greater than the ambitions of some politically incompetent real estate tycoon. Trump seems to confirm the fact that the US may be on its way to something different than a democracy; perhaps it’s already passed into oligarchy, as a recent Princeton paper suggested.[6] If wealth and power have effectively replaced arguments and dialogue as stepping stones to Capitol and the White House, we are there already.

On 9 November this year, when elections are over and American voters have finally referred Trump to the dunghill of history, we will still need to ask ourselves what it is that makes a presidential candidate like him possible in the first place (my esteemed colleague, Edward Ashbee, provided an excellent analysis on Trump in the DBP blog last week).

The old thinkers knew that a democracy which had long since passed into aristocracy, oligarchy or something else would for many years still speak of itself as a democracy, praising its citizens for their republican virtues. Power seekers of that society would, however, completely set aside the willingness to devote their abilities to the Republic, replacing it by personal ambition and greed. Wrote Montesquieu about such people: ‘Great success, especially when chiefly owing to the people, intoxicates them to such a degree that it is impossible to contain them within bounds. Jealous of their magistrates, they soon became jealous likewise of the magistracy; enemies to those who govern, they soon prove enemies also to the constitution.’[7]

Had they been alive, politically shrewd thinkers Montesquieu and Tocqueville would probably regard the Trump case as final proof that American democracy has definitively ended. There may be good explanations for this. Good reasons, however are few.






[5] Apart from seemingly tapping into Holocaust denial, the sentence makes no sense in several ways: Contrary to a widespread American misconception, Jews were killed in gas chambers, not in the ovens (which were used for cremation). Gas chambers killed three not six million Jews.


[7] Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, 1752 (1748), Book VIII.Hitler right arm Trump right arm

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