Is Donald Trump a fascist?

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Photograph: Gage Skidmore.

It’s this question – being posed in various places – that prompted me to read Kevin Passmore’s superb book, Fascism: A Very Short Introduction (2nd ed).

Of course, before we can decide whether The Donald is an actual fascist, we need to ask what exactly the definition of a “fascist” is. The question of defining fascism is probably the major theme of Passmore’s book. Indeed, one of the most remarkable features of the book is how this second edition interacts with the first edition, also by Passmore.

In the first edition, Passmore explains, he attempted to come up with a definition of fascism that reconciles the competing attempts that have been made by academics from different traditions. For example:

  • Marxist definitions, which see fascism as “the open, terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary elements of capitalism”.
  • Weberian definitions, which see fascism as a reaction against “modernisation” by bewildered traditionalists.
  • Totalitarian theory, which sees fascism as just one species, along with state communism, of a wider category of “totalitarianism”.

Passmore sees strengths and weaknesses in each of these approaches, and his previous definition attempted to synthesise them. However, he concludes that even this attempt was fundamentally flawed, because in the end fascism was too contradictory a phenomenon to be reducible to a clear definition:

Fascism is a contradictory set of interrelated and contested ideologies and practices that cannot easily be categorized in terms of binary opposites such as tradition and modernity or radical and reactionary. (p.151)

Which isn’t to say that it’s a meaningless or useless term:

[O]ur inability to pin fascism down does not mean that we can’t say anything at all, or that it’s all just a matter of opinion. […] Thus, I cover movements and regimes that called themselves fascist or were called fascist by their enemies or by scholars. […] I use fascism as a convenient label, in the knowledge that it covers many meanings. (p.19, emphasis in original)

This leads on the question of whether modern far-right movements can be usefully described as “fascist”. On this, Passmore is sceptical:

There are genuine continuities between interwar fascism and the modern extreme right (extreme nationalism and discrimination against ethnic minorities, antifeminism, antisocialism, populism, hostility to established social and political elites, anticapitalism, and antiparliamentarianism). There are equally significant differences (lack of mass mobilization, paramilitary violence, and the ambition to create a one-party state). More often, the modern far right seeks to exploit the discriminatory potential of democracy rather than overthrow it. (p.107)

In other words, whatever the moral evils of the extreme right, it is not necessarily accurate or useful to describe it as “fascist” in the same sense that this term is used to describe interwar movements such as Fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany, or the Iron Guard in Romania. The differences – particularly the acceptance of democratic means by most far-right parties – are too great.

The obsession with deciding whether or not a given far-right movement is “fascist” can be counterproductive in more than one way. Take, for example, the Front National in France, which rejects the “fascist” label and has adopted instead the terminology first applied to it by pro-Fifth Republic political scientists, who:

depict the FN as a temporary ‘national-populist’ protest on the part of marginal ill-educated people, who seek simple answers for their difficulties in the age of globalization. Besides betraying a certain contempt for ordinary people, this interpretation plays into the hands of the highly educated professional politicians who actually lead the FN. It permits the FN to assert academic support for its difference from fascism and for its claim to represent the voiceless. It’s as if racism is acceptable as long as it isn’t fascist. It would be just as problematic though to label the FN as fascist. It’s potentially a way of discrediting the party, but since FN sympathizers don’t usually see themselves as fascist, one runs the risk of reinforcing their conviction that the movement represents honest people who are contemptuously dismissed by the elite. (p.153)

This, I think, begins to help us answer the question posed by this post’s title. Describing Trump as a “fascist” may make his opponents on the left feel better, but it raises two problems, both of which have highly practical political consequences. First, does this mean that Trump’s racist policies as regards Mexicans and Muslims would be “acceptable as long as [he] isn’t fascist” (thus opening the way for a more “moderate” Republican candidate to pick them up)? And does this labelling of Trump as a “fascist” just reinforce his supporters’ conviction that he “represents honest people who are contemptuously dismissed by the elite”?

In short: Donald Trump almost certainly isn’t a fascist, even if he is tapping into some of the same dissatisfactions, and some of the same unpleasant social and individual tendencies, that have been exploited by fascists. Indeed, Passmore himself has said as much, when asked the Trump question by Vox:

For me, the point about Trump’s proposals is not whether or not they are ‘fascist,’ but whether or not they are moral.

As Passmore puts it in his book:

[T]he question of whether or not the modern far right’s stance is ‘fascist’ has no bearing on the moral acceptability of its proposals. For instance, would the expulsion of non-whites from a country be more acceptable if it was the work of a non-fascist government? To reduce the far right to its similarities with fascism carries the risk of obscuring what is new about it and of diverting attention from the possibility that fascists may not be alone in advocating or practicing policies that others would regard as morally wrong. (p.152)

In the end, Passmore insists, we cannot abdicate responsibility for tackling the far right to academics, asking them to decree which movements are “fascist” (and therefore beyond the pale) and which are “non-fascist” (and therefore – well, what, precisely?). As he writes:

So are we letting the modern far right off the hook by avoiding the question of fascism? Ultimately, responses to fascism depend not upon scholarly assessments of what has happened in the past or on categorization. We cannot oppose the far right by defining it as fascist—however many similarities there undoubtedly are. We must focus rather on the dangers that it represents in the present, and indeed on the recognition that non-fascist movements, including groups that play by democratic rules, can also threaten decent values. (p.155)

In other words, the question we should ask is not “Is Trump a fascist?”, but rather: “Is Trump moral? Is he dangerous? Does he threaten decent values?” And I’m going to leave that as an exercise for the reader…

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