Fascism is a powerful and controversial term. I believe it should be used very sparingly and only when clearly appropriate. Many people think of fascism in relation to mass murders and dictators. That is an extreme expression of fascism, but it takes many other less monstrous forms. For example, one central aspect of fascism reveals itself when a leader or a political movement consistently exercise tendencies that aim to stamp out democratic institutions and punish their critics. Donald Trump has repeatedly demonstrated over a period of many years that he merits the description entailed in the full meaning of this word, including many other specific elements, as shown below. Keep in mind his hostile reactions to any non-believers in Trumpism (his patterns of thought and behavior) and his effusive admiration toward recent authoritarian and fiercely anti-democratic leaders such as Muammar Gaddafi, Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Un and Bashar al-Assad. Consider that he exhibits all the signs of a person that will likely behave in even more overtly authoritarian and fascist ways as more and more people enable him to do so.
From study on the history of fascism, I can say that it is centered around these actions and goals: hyper-masculinity; emphasizes patriarchy in ways that try to make women distinctly subservient; aggressiveness; glorifies the military in a grandiose manner; intimidates others through harsh speech and violence; extreme nationalism; inaccurately describes those who are politically center-left or liberal as part of a far-left movement, such as authoritarian communism; attempts to radically silence, demonize, eliminate, or discredit all other political parties or opposing views from the fascist perspective on traditional and virtuous culture; considers individual rights as unimportant in contrast to ultimate value of the state or the aims of the individual in charge of the country who effectively sees himself as the state; makes sustained efforts to build autocratic power over all aspects of national life; blames liberals, cultural elites, intellectuals or minority groups for the real or perceived problems in society; thinks of their national leader as having special or quasi-messianic abilities and representing the best of the “real” citizenry and national character; views science as reasonably true only in how it fits with their agenda and otherwise rejects the insights of experts in various fields of academic knowledge; praises the hard work of rural people and distains many of the careers of people in the large cities where they may not use physical labor specifically; regularly feeds biases, prejudices, and fears of people that yearn for a culture of obedience. Trump exhibits all of these characteristics habitually. Even with the expansion of powers for the executive branch of government in recent decades, no other modern president has come close to fascism or authoritarianism.
Getting further into the definition of fascism, I think the video below by political philosopher Jason Stanley is really potent. He recently wrote a book titled “How Fascism Works”. There are many videos on YouTube of him being interviewed or giving lectures. This video shows a highlighted description of ten factors that when grouped together as a cultural movement or within a single leader can be defined correctly as fascism: the mythic past; propaganda; anti-intellectualism; unreality; hierarchy; victimhood; law and order; sexual anxiety; Sodom and Gomorrah (or the depravity of non-fascist culture); and the German phrase “arbeit macht frei”, which means “work will make you free” (or the belief that hard physical labor makes one a truly virtuous person).
Trump has many times been compared to Joseph McCarthy, the infamous senator and firebrand at the center of the Second Red Scare in the early 1950s. The man who advised McCarthy during this time, Roy Cohn, also specifically mentored Trump on how to be ruthless and push big lies as a strategy toward political and cultural power and influence. A significant portion of McCarthy’s and Trump’s behavior fit the role of a demagogue. A basic definition of that word is “a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument”. Synonyms include “rabble-rouser, political agitator, soapbox orator, fomenter, provocateur”. Indirectly or loudly, year after year, Trump incites people to disdain and fear others who are different. His descriptions of the world involve multiple scapegoats: immigrants, refugees, Democrats, Clinton, Obama, China and many more. Often, an enemy of Trump rapidly becomes an enemy of his followers. Anyone who doesn’t fall in line and submissively applaud him is likely to be vilified. His simplistic distinctions between “bad people” and “good people” gives his hearers an easy to understand worldview in which a few select groups of “other” people can be identified as urgent and dangerous threats: the mainstream press, those in the opposing political party and his critics in Hollywood. His followers don’t have to wrestle through those annoying gray areas. Trump’s hyper-macho persona brings out anger and forcefulness in those who desperately want to believe that all the outlandish things he says are true. The Washington Post carefully documented 30,573 false statements he made during his presidency.
His 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns were built on the kinds of wild assertions and incendiary rhetoric that stirred up outrage, suspicion and hysteria in other similar movements during the 20th century. One is the America First Committee of the 1930s, regarding their supreme concern for isolationist policies, quasi-fascist sympathies and alarmist attitudes. Trump has used the phrase “America first” many times, including within his speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention, though it’s not likely that he or most of his listeners are associating this terminology with the former organization. His tone recalls as well the The John Birch Society, founded in the 1950s and obsessed with elaborate conspiracies. They alleged, for example, that President Eisenhower was secretly a communist. Interestingly, this organization was co-founded by Charles Koch, father to the Koch brothers who are the among the largest individual donors to conservative causes today. The Koch brothers, Charles and David, organized a group to give almost $900 million during the 2016 campaign. Compare that to probably America’s most famous liberal donor, George Soros, who’s highest donation years were 2004 and 2016 with $25-30 million each time. The Koch Industries fortune began largely through the construction of factories for both Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler. Trump has further entrenched his legacy of conspiracy theorizing by praising Alex Jones, arguably the world’s “conspirator-in-chief”. Jones uses his very influential multimedia company, Infowars, to distribute an abundance of radio shows, videos and articles. Each piece contains near credible sounding bits of news that sharply expand into predicting our worst fears coming true momentarily. Trump told him in an interview, “Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down.” Jones praised him back and later advocated for the Trump candidacy. He is a man that made millions by spreading a diversity of very frightening underworld stories. A recurring example: many of the most powerful business people and politicians are covertly plotting to mass murder 80-99% of the world population. Why? In order to control and oppress the rest of us or intentionally start World War III.
Dictionary.com defines a fearmonger or scaremonger as “a person who creates or spreads alarming news”. Trump trades in this kind of paranoia, half-truth and emotionally driven judgment that unfortunately taps into some of the worst qualities in the American character.
Many Trump supporters appear to be united and drawn to him by his and their authoritarian tendencies:
A university political scientist that specializes in studies of authoritarianism explains:
“Running a standard statistical analysis, I found that education, income, gender, age, ideology and religiosity had no significant bearing on a Republican voter’s preferred candidate. Only two of the variables I looked at were statistically significant: authoritarianism, followed by fear of terrorism, though the former was far more significant than the latter….Authoritarianism is not a new, untested concept in the American electorate. Since the rise of Nazi Germany, it has been one of the most widely studied ideas in social science. While its causes are still debated, the political behavior of authoritarians is not. Authoritarians obey. They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened. From pledging to ‘make America great again’ by building a wall on the border to promising to close mosques and ban Muslims from visiting the United States, Trump is playing directly to authoritarian inclinations.”
An article from Vox.com notes through reference to other academic research in political science that authoritarianism, when defined as “a desire for order and a fear of outsiders”, is the overwhelmingly central factor uniting Trump supporters:
“Perhaps strangest of all, it wasn’t just Trump but his supporters who seemed to have come out of nowhere, suddenly expressing, in large numbers, ideas far more extreme than anything that has risen to such popularity in recent memory. In South Carolina, a CBS News exit poll found that 75 percent of Republican voters supported banning Muslims from the United States. A PPP poll found that a third of Trump voters support banning gays and lesbians from the country. Twenty percent said Lincoln shouldn’t have freed the slaves….People who score high in authoritarianism, when they feel threatened, look for strong leaders who promise to take whatever action necessary to protect them from outsiders and prevent the changes they fear….
“Through a series of experiments and careful data analysis, they had come to a surprising conclusion: Much of the polarization dividing American politics was fueled not just by gerrymandering or money in politics or the other oft-cited variables, but by an unnoticed but surprisingly large electoral group — authoritarians….Their book concluded that the GOP, by positioning itself as the party of traditional values and law and order, had unknowingly attracted what would turn out to be a vast and previously bipartisan population of Americans with authoritarian tendencies….This trend had been accelerated in recent years by demographic and economic changes such as immigration, which ‘activated’ authoritarian tendencies, leading many Americans to seek out a strongman leader who would preserve a status quo they feel is under threat and impose order on a world they perceive as increasingly alien….
“Trump embodies the classic authoritarian leadership style: simple, powerful, and punitive….Authoritarians are thought to express much deeper fears than the rest of the electorate, to seek the imposition of order where they perceive dangerous change, and to desire a strong leader who will defeat those fears with force….would lead them toward a candidate whose temperament was totally unlike anything we usually see in American politics — and whose policies went far beyond the acceptable norms….Authoritarians prioritize social order and hierarchies, which bring a sense of control to a chaotic world. Challenges to that order — diversity, influx of outsiders, breakdown of the old order — are experienced as personally threatening because they risk upending the status quo order they equate with basic security….
“This is, after all, a time of social change in America. The country is becoming more diverse, which means that many white Americans are confronting race in a way they have never had to before. Those changes have been happening for a long time, but in recent years they have become more visible and harder to ignore. And they are coinciding with economic trends that have squeezed working-class white people.”
Finally, here are some other definitions of fascism:
“an authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization” and “(in general use) extreme right-wing, authoritarian, or intolerant views or practice.” — Google Dictionary
“a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition” or “a tendency toward or actual exercise of strong autocratic or dictatorial control” — Merriam-Webster Dictionary
“a governmental system led by a dictator having complete power, forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism, regimenting all industry, commerce, etc., and emphasizing an aggressive nationalism and often racism” — Dictionary.com
Trump has done all of the things detailed above as much as a new politician could in 21st century America. Historically, increases of autocratic powers have often been gradual. The same has occurred since his presidential candidacy announcement in June 2015 because his authoritarian and fascist impulses have not been effectively resisted and derailed.