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Trump Is a Warning That Fascism Didn’t Die With Hitler and Mussolini

The Trump era, and its insurrectionist end, shows why the insistence of historians who call fascism a ‘demon of the past’ is both inaccurate – and dangerous

Mikael Nilsson
Mikael Nilsson
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U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for a "Keep America Great" rally at Sudduth Coliseum in Lake Charles, Louisiana. October 11, 2019
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for a "Keep America Great" rally at Sudduth Coliseum in Lake Charles, Louisiana. October 11, 2019.Credit: SAUL LOEB - AFP
Mikael Nilsson
Mikael Nilsson

Is Trumpism a form of fascism? Since the attempted sacking of the Capitol, that debate has undergone a notable resurgence. As always, the answer depends upon how we choose to define fascism. Several historians of fascism have weighed in on the topic, and they have reached contrasting conclusions.

There has, though, been a notable recent shift towards the camp that consider Donald Trump a fascist in his own right. Some, such as Jason Stanley and Richard Steigmann-Gall, have argued for a long time that Trump is a fascist.

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Richard J. Evans argues against the idea in an article entitled "Why Trump isn’t fascist" in The New Statesman. Nevertheless, he admitted that Trump’s actions "carry strong echoes of fascism." He notes, somewhat dismissively, that most of the historians that have called Trump a fascist "cannot be called real experts in the field."

That selectivity seems overly convenient to his thesis. After all, Robert Paxton (a leading fascism expert not even mentioned by Evans) also recently stated that Trumpism now has to be considered fascist. Still other experts like Louie Dean Valencia–García of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right recently wrote an article called "This is American Fascism."

It’s worth noting that historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, whom Evans expressly listed as a "real expert" and thus has not called Trump a fascist, tweeted on January 6 that the attack on the Capitol reminded her of "Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922" and that "Trump brings a century of Strongmen tactics home to America." I guess that is as close you can come to calling someone a fascist without actually using the term, and thus qualifying as one of Evans’ experts.

A Trump supporter wearing a red MAGA cap holds a baseball bat which reads, "KEEP AMERICA GREAT" at a campaign rally in South Carolina. October 31, 2020.Credit: Meg Kinnard,AP

If not even Timothy Snyder (whose piece "The American Abyss" states "Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president" and who is described as "a historian of fascism and political atrocity") qualifies as an expert in Evans’ mind, then I doubt that I will either (even though I have researched and published on Hitler and National Socialism for several years), but for what it is worth, here are my two cents.

My assessment, as a historian, is that those skeptics most determined or convinced that Trumpism does not adequately resemble fascism have overlooked several crucial aspects which do, indeed, lead to the conclusion that Trumpism embodies enough fascistic characteristics to be defined as fascism.

To start with, almost no one talks about MAGA as neo-fascist, which is surely a reasonable description. Neo-fascism, just like neo-Nazism, is a contemporary and reframed version of its original far right source, rather than a straight clone. Neo-fascism is accompanied by a trademark faux intellectualism (which in actuality is nothing but fascism’s traditional anti-intellectualism in disguise), a new form of cultural race-biology, and a very strong anti-Marxism and anti-feminism.

Neo-fascism, like its progenitor, is always xenophobic, as a logical consequence of its ultra-nationalism. It is often characterized by agitprop, demonization and Big Lies, flowing from the need to refashion reality to fit the fascist narrative.

It even includes the effort, which has now become almost mainstream, to paint "the Left" as the real Nazis. They were National “Socialists” after all, weren’t they? A rightist, religious fanatic, and hardcore Trump supporter, Dinesh D’Souza leads this illiterate and perverted crusade in the U.S., with the Trump White House itself joining up, with its "1776 Commission" equating American progressives with Mussolini.

A man holds icons of Donald and Melania Trump following a campaign event addressed by Ivanka Trump for Georgia GOP Senate candidates. Milton, Georgia, U.S., December 21, 2020.Credit: ALEXANDER DRAGO/ REUTERS

Evans gave four main reasons for refusing the Trumpism-fascism analogy:

1) Trumpism is not aggressively militaristic towards other nations

2) Trump’s encouragement of violence against opponents at home "has been unsystematic"

3) Trumpism has not seen a "near-total ‘coordination’ of social institutions and voluntary associations"

4) What happened on January 6 "was not an attempted coup" and a comparison to the Hitler’s 1923 Beer Hall putsch fails because the former "was not a pre-planned attempt to seize the reins of government."

Firstly, a point of order: We should not speak of fascism in the singular, but of fascisms plural, because fascism has taken on different forms in time and place. It is therefore a huge mistake to center any judgement solely on comparison between Trumpism and the fascisms of Hitler and Mussolini (the father of fascism) of the 1920s and 1930s.

U.S. President Donald Trump disembarks from Air Force One as lightning splits the sky at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. August 28, 2020.Credit: SAUL LOEB - AFP

Secondly, Evans seems to disqualify Trumpism as fascism because it did not/has not yet reached its final embodied form. To fault a neo-fascist movement in a contemporary society that is still a democracy for not meeting the standards of fascism in the fully-fledged dictatorships in the 1920s and 1930s (and during WWII in the 1940s) seems loaded to say the least.

No one will deny that there are more differences than similarities between the specific personalities of Hitler/Mussolini and Trump, despite the obvious parallels in terms of the cultivation of a personality cult. But that misses the point altogether, since we can never expect historical circumstances to be precisely the same as they were on any other occasion.

It would be just as deliberately obtuse to claim that no movement that does not meet the exact social and historical context of Russia in 1917, and that does not have a leader comparable to Lenin or Stalin, can ever be called communist. No one would ever dream of limiting the term communist according to the structures placed on the term fascist.

Thirdly, let us remember that Hitler too, from 1925 until 1 September 1939, disguised both his militarism – always assuring the world that his intentions toward neighboring states were peaceful – and his encouragement of violence against "opponents" at home. He claimed that massive violence against the Jews – such as the Kristallnacht pogrom – were instigated by overzealous "ordinary citizens" and not masterminded, or incited, by the regime.

A police munition in a crowd of supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in WashingtonCredit: Leah Millis/ REUTERS

Fourthly, it is obvious that the January 6 attack was a part of Trump’s very real effort at a coup, central to which was the attempt to overturn the result of a democratic election and install Trump as POTUS once again. Trump not only declared days before that he had won the election, but on January 6 itself, stated he would never concede.

Trump has clearly tried to take control of central institutions such as the Supreme Court, the intelligence agencies, "the political elite, the army, business, the civil service and the police" (Evans reasons that Hitler’s coup was unsuccessful because he had not managed to command these institutions), and now the parliament.

That is far more than Hitler even tried to do before launching his coup attempt in Munich (not even in Berlin, mind you). The attack on 6 January has to be seen in its proper context as part of a long-term effort of Trump to gain power, and do away with a democracy that didn't re-elect him.

The rally called by then-President Donald Trump to oppose the certification of the 2020 elections, where the president incited his supporters to march on the CapitolCredit: John Minchillo,AP

Fifthly, and more importantly, there are a large number of 20th century fascist movements that were not aggressively militaristic towards other countries, but no one queries their fascist definition, based on their ideology and behavior at home.

These fascist movement include the Romanian Iron Guard; Vidkun Quisling’s Norwegian Nasjonal Samling; the Spanish Falangists; the French Union Populaire Française and Parti Social Française; the Swedish SSS (Lindholmarna) and SNSP (Furugårdarna); the Finnish "Lappo" movement (although they did lay claim to some Soviet territory); the Belgian Rexist Party under Léon Degrelle; the Greek National Socialist Party; the Irish ACA Blue Shirts; the British Union of Fascists under Oswald Mosely; Ferenc Szálasi’s Hungarian Arrow Cross Party; the Dutch NSB.

This holds true also outside Europe as Frederico Finchelstein, among others, have pointed out: Los Descamisados (the shirtless) of Juan Perón’s Argentina; the Chilean Movimiento Nacional Socialista (MNS) and the Brasilian AIB are examples of South American fascism. All were highly anti-imperialist and fiercely nationalist. But not all non-Western fascisms were alike either. The Japanese Tōhōkai fascists, for example, were fiercely imperialist just like their Western counterparts.

תומכי טראמפ מסתערים על בניין הקפיטול, ב-6 בינואר 2021. פרשני פוקס ניוז מציגים בשעות צפיית השיא תמונה אחרתCredit: Stringer ./REUTERS

It is, therefore, a reasonable conclusion that most fascisms of the 20th and 21st centuries have not been militarily adventurist or expansionist in the German and Italian way. Neither have the social circumstances been even nearly the same as in Germany or Italy. Historical context, as well as leadership personalities, obviously play a huge role in determining how fascism is expressed. German and Italian fascist militarism were colonial in kind, and they directed their propensity for violence outwards in the 1930s and 1940s to a large extent because they could.

By the 1960s, colonial violence was no longer a viable venue for any political movement and therefore neo-fascism did away with it, just as it did away with military-style uniforms and often replaced overtly fascist symbols with nationalist ones.

No contemporary neo-fascist movement is imperialist. However, they are all still ultra-nationalist, and glorify the vision of a nation reborn: palingenesis, the concept so central to fascism. This is a core motivation for Greece’s Golden Dawn; the Italian MSI; Sweden's Sverigedemokraterna; Le Pen’s Front National.

And it is a core fuel for Trump’s MAGA (literally: Make American Great Again) movement that has grown out of the still smoldering wreckage of the GOP. Protectionism, not internationalism, carries fascism on its wings, just as it did in the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1930s it came in the shape of the "America First" policy.

U.S. President Donald Trump tosses out a 'Make America Great Again' (MAGA) cap during a campaign rally in Avoca, Pennsylvania. November 2, 2020.Credit: CARLOS BARRIA/ REUTERS

In the MAGA fascist cult, as well as in many other neo-fascist movements, it was expressed as the hatred of the so-called "globalists."

This term, of course, echoes the old, deeply antisemitic fascist hatred of "cosmopolitanism," and the anti-globalism narrative, together with the agents of "cultural Marxism," carry antisemitism with them too. This has been most evident in the metastasizing campaigns against Hungarian American investor and philanthropist George Soros (who just happens to be of Jewish descent).

But Evans writes as if all these other fascisms, not to mention neo-fascism, do not exist. He pretends to have never even heard of any of them. For him, only the fascisms of Hitler and Mussolini exist as a basis for comparison to Trumpism.

Indeed, he calls both fascism and Nazism "the demons of the past" – which is unsurprising, because according to his insistence that only an exact clone can qualify as fascism, the conditions for future fascisms can never return.

Naturally, Trumpism will fall short in a contest against phenomena that don’t exist. No modern example could ever live up to those Hitler-or-Mussolini standards, since no neo-fascist movement has ever come close to starting a world war.

The stubborn insistence on imprisoning any comparison of fascism in the historical framework of Hitler’s and Mussolini’s fascisms of the 1920s and 1930s is a way to "poison the well." It sets up any comparison to fail before it has even begun. But there is another, far more intellectually honest analytic path.

Fascisms have never remained identical over time and space: we have to look at the many central traits that these movements do have in common. On that basis, it is more than reasonable to identify that MAGA Trumpism, and its post-presidency iterations, as eminently suitable candidates for the label "neo-fascist."

Mikael Nilsson is an historian based in Stockholm, Sweden, specializing in Hitler and National Socialism. His latest book is "Hitler Redux: The Incredible History of Hitler’s So-Called Table Talks" (Routledge, 2020). Twitter: @ars_gravitatis

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