Madeleine Albright, the politician and author, argues that every generation has its own form of fascism. With the resurgence of the far-right in America, the time is ripe to question whether Donald Trump is our generation’s fascist, and what this means for American politics.
Firstly, we must address what fascism is. The core of fascism is nationalism - the belief that people of a nation share a collective identity. In fascism, this national or racial identity is seen as overriding any differences within that group. For example, the historian Kevin Passmore described fascism as having “an implacable hostility to socialism and feminism…seen as prioritising class or gender rather than nation”.
Trump is a nationalistic populist. The motto of ‘America First’ perfectly exemplifies this. The implication is that America has not been given priority and thus calls for a resurgence in nationalist sentiment. Furthermore, it contributes to Trump’s narrative that international organisations undermine the US.
Another example is when he called for kneeling NFL players to be fired in September 2017. NFL players had knelt during the national anthem in protest to police brutality and racial discrimination. Rather than address the issues, Trump presented this as an attack on national identity. By portraying a peaceful and legitimate protest as disrespecting the flag, Trump adheres to the fascist trope.
Secondly, fascism always develops a sense of ‘the other’. This ‘other’ is always portrayed as the opposite of their own identity. For example, Nazi propaganda would depict Germans as ‘strong’ and ‘honest’, while depicting Jews as ‘weak’ and ‘dishonest’. Fascism has been compared to colonialism brought home.
This view of society as divided between the superior and inferior will have been familiar to people living in colonies. Edward Said, in Orientalism, described how Asians have been historically depicted as the contrasting image to the European. Indians, for example, were depicted as ‘barbaric’ to justify ‘civilised’ European rule over them. It is not difficult to draw parallels with Trumpian rhetoric.
Trump’s nationalist sentiment is accompanied by a construction of ‘the other’ as an enemy of America. He began his presidential campaign in June 2015 with a vicious attack on Mexican immigrants. In one notorious speech, he stated: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists”. Trump portrays Mexican immigrants as an enemy within and argues that radical policies are required, such as the construction of a wall.
His policies have also targeted Muslims. For example, his ‘Muslim ban’ prevents immigration from five Muslim-majority countries, citing security concerns. In 2015, he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. This is despite the fact that there were nearly twice as many far-right terror attacks as Islamist ones between 2008 and 2016.
This leads to the third defining characteristic, the need to remove ‘the other’ to return to former glory. Fascism leans heavily on a romanticised view of history. Mussolini depicted Italian expansionism as rebuilding the Roman Empire. Similarly, Hitler emphasised the ‘Third Reich’, returning Germany to power. This ideology of ‘might is right’ is then used to justify inhumane methods. The fanatical belief that German racial purity must be ‘restored’ is what resulted in the Holocaust.
The concept of national decline is also prevalent. Trump has blamed decline on international organisations and foreigners, neither of which are supported by evidence. In April 2016, he claimed that “China is raping this country” in response to high Chinese exports. His slogan of ‘Make America Great Again’ highlights the notion that America has declined due to outside or unpatriotic influences.
The methods he has already implemented to achieve his goals have been controversial. For example, the separation of children of all ages from their parents at the Mexican border. Currently, more than 11,000 children are kept in detention centres that have been compared to concentration camps.
The fourth characteristic are the people that make a fascist movement. Fascist movements are an alliance of far-right nationalists and the economic elite who stand to benefit. Fascism is sometimes mistakenly called left-wing due to use of terms such as ‘National Socialist’. In practice, this was deliberately misleading and, upon taking power, the Nazis banned trade unions and privatised many industries.
Mein Kampf condemns socialism and socialists were among the first placed in concentration camps; they were also targeted by Mussolini’s ‘black shirts’. Giovanni Gentile, who co-wrote The Principles of Fascism with Mussolini, stated that fascism should be called corporatism, as it combines state and corporate power. In Germany and Italy, fascism came to power with the backing of the traditional elite.
Trump’s support base is also comparable to that of traditional fascist movements. Trump has used his position to benefit himself and his allies. The most notable example is his tax reform, passed in December 2017. The most significant change this made was cutting corporation tax from 35% to 21%. Elsewhere, many others taxes for the wealthy have been decreased, such as estate and inheritance tax.
In short: fascism can be summarised to four defining characteristics. These are: nationalism, constructing ‘the other’ as an enemy, the need to remove this ‘other’ to return to glory and a corrupt relationship between nationalists and the elite. Trump is not the only notable politician to use these methods. We should always be cautious of politicians introducing these tropes. Fascism does not arrive waving swastikas and goose-stepping. Fascism arrives as a friend promising to return lost greatness – at a price.