There’s a roaring debate, mostly on the left, over whether or not Donald Trump can be called a fascist. Now that his campaign has stalled a bit, we might be able to step back from the fury and get a better sense of the meaning of Trumpism. To do so, I’d propose visiting In These Times, a democratic socialist magazine created in 1976 by the historian James Weinstein. Last month, Chris Lehmann posted an important piece there that opens by reminding readers of the 1935 classic, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. The book is set during the time it was written, the 1930s, and traces the rise of an authoritarian leader named Buzz Windrip (love that name). The book’s hero, Doremus Jessup, is a newspaperman who ponders how “there could be a dictator seemingly so different from the fervent Hitlers and gesticulating Fascists” arising at the time. This American dictator, Jessup imagined, would possess “something of earthy American sense of humor of a Mark Twain” and could “be ever so funny about solemn jaw-drooping opponents.”
I think that starts to get the Donald right better than simplistic comparisons to European figures like Mussolini, Hitler, or Franco. Lehmann discusses how Trump channels the anger of “a downwardly mobile white middle-class.” Trump’s “anti-free trade and immigration baiting platform” reminds Lehmann of “Pat Buchanan’s fabled 1992 culture-war campaign.” He has turned on high a spirited hatred of “political correctness.” And he has played dumb on David Duke’s endorsement and famously turned his rallies into places where “peaceful black students” are “forced out” and potentially slugged by Trump supporters while being removed.
American racism, especially in the South, where Trump has done well during this primary, is hinged to a hatred of the federal government (it’s the feds who pushed programs of integration), and here we can start to get a handle on why the F-word doesn’t really work to explain Trump. After all, fascists – Mussolini, Hitler, Franco – glorified the state; they loved not just strong leadership but strong government as the highest ideal. That’s precisely the reason why no literal fascist could do so well among Republican voters. Lehmann points to the “antipolitics” of contemporary conservatives. Conservatives hate the state and hate government (and seemingly even the principle of governance). He invokes the “unhinged fantasies of governance as identitarian rebellion by other means,” which further turns American politics into comical theater. He reminds us of the purist Tea Party defeat of Eric Cantor for his Virginia House seat and the attack on John Boehner before he left power. “There was Ted Cruz’s… filibuster designed to provoke a (yes, again) government shutdown bid over (yes, again) Obamacare funding.” And Lehmann points out that anti-politics is the only thing able to explain why someone as dumb as Sarah Palin is still around.
Since many conservatives don’t take government seriously, they might be willing to vote for a candidate who seems, well, a joke at times. Why not choose someone whose roots are in garish real estate and whose façade they probably know from a reality television show. This isn’t to say that Trump isn’t authoritarian or aggressive, the way Mussolini was (you see this in his bluster). There’s also no doubt that Trump is channeling another more American variation of authoritarianism, the model of the Businessman in Politics. Think here of the ghost of Ross Perot – the successful businessman and technocrat who in 1992 garnered a heap of votes by saying that government is like a car whose hood you have to get under to “fix” (something Perot consistently described as “simple”). Consider too Trump’s view of the “lamestream” media – the term is Palin’s but the animus behind it goes back to Richard Nixon. Trump rolls out a rich man’s, narcissist solution: Let people who have the resources sue media outlets if they feel demeaned.
It’s Trump’s narcissism that makes him a few nachos short of a fascist taco platter. Over at the Washington Monthly, Ben Wallace-Wells trolled some Trump rallies and found that the candidate’s speeches seemed to “depend upon Trump’s mood.” Wallace-Wells explains, “Sometimes you get Benito Mussolini, and sometimes it’s just an amiable drunk who keeps forgetting that he’s in the quiet car.” Most significantly, during one speech, Trump talked about winning a contract with General Service Administration (GSA) for his own hotel company. He described the GSA bureaucrats he met with as “unbelievable” and “very talented people.” That’s the sort of thing that shouldn’t warm the hearts of Tea Partiers. But it’s also not a fascist view of government as pursuing the highest purposes of life; rather it’s a wealthy narcissist’s view that if government becomes your servants for the moment, tip your hat to those who are there to recognize your irrefutable excellence.
And so, I would say, that to call Trump a fascist is doing fascism – as both a disgusting and a coherent political theory – a disservice. Trump tilts to the winds, erupts out of sleepless stints to make statements that make little sense (and perhaps shouldn’t be taken very seriously), reacts to issues as they emerge in the day’s news, and reads people as a narcissistic business man would: as those, no matter if they’re government employees or guest workers for a summer, who give him what he wants. Narcissists, after all, always see others as an extension of themselves.
Donald Trump is therefore no European-modeled fascist. He’s authoritarian as hell but also the sort of boss you can grease by playing to his vanity (we’ve all had one in our lives, I’m sure). Meaning: Donald Trump is the quintessential American narcissist.