You know, I really do get it.
Fascism is a variety of right-wing populism; so is “Trumpism” to the extent that such a thing exists. Trump appeals to the core demographic that animates fascist movements: the less-educated cohorts of the majority demographic group. And his appeal has a fundamental irrationalism to it. Trump plainly plays on and stokes xenophobia in his followers. He invokes a glorious past, blames our current difficulties on presumptively unpatriotic groups, and promises a return to glory if he’s elected. He encourages a cult of personality, fetishizes action, and displays little regard for democratic and liberal norms. So yeah, I get it.
On the other hand:
It was President Bush who instituted torture as a regular practice by America’s military and intelligence agencies, who routinized indefinite detention without trial, who launched an aggressive war explicitly to reshape another part of the world according to American dictates, and whose deputies argued that through sheer force of will the President could alter reality itself.
Other members of the Republican Party, including major Presidential contenders and candidates, have threatened war with nuclear-armed Russia, have called for the indiscriminate use of force against civilian populations, and have forcefully advocated a return to torture and an expansion of detention without trial.
The point being, the official leadership of the GOP has for some time been exceedingly militaristic and aggressive in its approach to foreign policy, and had little use for democratic or liberal norms when it comes to fighting terrorism. And militarism, reflexive aggression, and a contempt for liberal and democratic norms in the face of emergency are pretty central to the fascist ethos.
Nor is it just the GOP. It was President Obama who argued that the President has the right to order the execution of American citizens on his own recognizances, who routinized the use of deadly force on a global basis against “targets” determined largely on the basis of metadata, and who twice (against Libya and against ISIS) initiated substantial hostilities without even a hint of Congressional authorization.
One can defend all of this, of course. But why are these not more important hallmarks of an incipient American fascism than the fact that Trump regularly sounds like a more obnoxious and egotistical version of Archie Bunker? And why is saying “no Muslims should be allowed onto American soil until we’ve got a process for monitoring them” more outrageous than a threat to “find out if sand can glow in the dark” (Ted Cruz’s threat to nuke ISIS)? Why is threatening mass-murder less horrifying than threatening discrimination in immigration on the basis of religion?
I’m not saying that having a President – or even a major candidate – who spouts xenophobic rants is a good thing. It’s a bad thing. I’m just suggesting that we’ve long since gotten used to things that are much worse, and perhaps we should pay a bit more attention to that fact.
Nor am I saying that Trump’s most recent outrage – banning Muslims from setting foot on American soil until we “figure out what the heck is going on” – is a sensible proposal. It’s quite literally nonsense – there’s no actual proposal there that could be put into practice. But isn’t it a bit odd to suggest that the worst thing about this proposal is it’s discriminatory? Isn’t the right response that it’s foolishly and ineffectively discriminatory? I mean, the no fly list discriminates between people we think are a threat and people we think are not. Religion and country of origin are part of the profile – they just aren’t the whole deal. We’re a bit more . . . discriminating in our discrimination. (And perhaps, given the Kafkaesque absurdities that the no fly list has led to, we should be even more so.)
And by the way, multiple countries around the world – examples include Israel, China, Greece, Russia, Germany and Ireland – actively discriminate in favor of the nationally-dominant demographic group in immigration. I would argue that a policy of that sort would be inappropriate for America, for a variety of reasons. But fascist? Seriously?
Trump is an irresponsible demagogue who would make an exceptionally terrible President. He says stupid, inflammatory things all the time. But he’s not trying to mobilize society in service of a totalitarian state. He’s not organizing a paramilitary wing of his political party or movement. He isn’t even organizing a political party or movement! If he’s a fascist, then perhaps all those who have been talking about incipient fascism in America for years now had a point after all. (And you know, perhaps they did.)
In any event, it feels to me like, pragmatically, not only will this line of attack backfire, but it is kind of an evasion of the real question, which is why somebody like Trump is appealing to such a significant contingent. The “quarantine” strategy is the one that European parties executed over the course of about 20 years, and it has proved singularly ineffective in addressing either the growth of the far-right or the genuine problems that the far right exploits. So, basically, I think Ross Douthat is right:
[F]reaking out over Trump-the-fascist is a good way for the political class to ignore the legitimate reasons he’s gotten this far — the deep disaffection with the Republican Party’s economic policies among working-class conservatives, the reasonable skepticism about the bipartisan consensus favoring ever more mass low-skilled immigration, the accurate sense that the American elite has misgoverned the country at home and abroad.
If Republicans don’t want Trump the phenomenon to turn into an actual movement, if they don’t want the intimations of fascism in his appeal to cohere into something programmatically dangerous, then tarring his supporters with the brush of Mussolini and Der Führer right now seems like a shortsighted step — a way to repress the problem rather than dealing with it, to dismiss discontents and have them return, stronger and deadlier, further down the road.
Donald Trump is way, way more like Silvio Berlusconi than Benito Mussolini. That’s bad enough. And if it’s worse than that, then I think Trevor Noah has it about right in how it could be worse: