When he called Mexicans rapists, the Hitler comparisons were hyperbolic. When he said he’d ban Muslim immigrants, ‘bigot’ was closer the mark. When the wall got ten feet higher, he was just a nativist. But Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican national convention pushed him beyond typical right-wing populism. Donald Trump is running for president as a fascist.
Unlike some commentators, I’ve avoided describing Trump as a fascist. It’s even caused some heated arguments with friends and family as I’ve defended Trump’s ideas as opportunistic bile, falling well short of genuine fascism. Fascist is a word too often used by the right and the left to discredit almost anyone who disagrees with them. The Tories are ‘fascists’. Social justice warriors are ‘fascists’. Labour members who don’t like Corbyn are ‘fascists’. As a word of generalised abuse, ‘fascist’ had almost completely lost its meaning. Trump has managed to give the word back its original and very important meaning.
Fascism isn’t just a set of deas you don’t happen to like. It is a very real political ideology with unique features interacting in a unique way. It isn’t just extremism or right-wing extremism. Fascism is something very particular and until his speech in Cleveland, there wasn’t enough evidence to prove Trump was actually running a fascist campaign.
In a meandering speech full of self-regard and light on specifics, Trump made two crucial claims that pushed him firmly into fascism. First, he argued for a form of economic populism that turns conservative economic theory on its head. Trump abandoned the supply-side, business-friendly economics that the Republicans have rammed down Americans’ throats for years. Instead, he wants to restrict business freedom, punish companies that move abroad, roll back international free trade and bring back low level manufacturing and coal jobs that were lost as part of major changes in the US economy. This is nothing other than the fascist idea of autarky – what might be called ‘capitalism in one country’. Trump proposed authoritarian government oversight of private industry and moving the economy back to an earlier level. Just like Mussolini threshing in the fields, Trump is selling a fantasy of forcibly altering economic conditions. As in Hitler’s Germany, the regime’s favoured capitalists will thrive. All this from the party that doesn’t think the government should ‘pick winners’.
Second, Trump’s speech went far beyond selling his merits as a candidate in the usual way. ‘I alone can fix this, I alone can keep you safe’ was the biggest takeaway. We’ve heard that before – ‘I am the final justiciar of the German people’. A cult of personality has grown around Trump, encouraged and moulded by the man himself, that is practically indistinguishable from Hitler’s or Stalin’s. So many speeches at the convention were sycophantic brown-nosing, ludicrous flattery and barely believable anecdotes about ‘the great man’. His daughter Ivanka spoke like a cross between a Stepford Wife and Joseph Goebbels. With robotic head movements and unnatural pauses, she seemed like a hostage in a ransom video. But she played the part well enough, painting her father as the protector of American womanhood.
There are now millions of Americans who believe in Trump’s personality cult – his fabricated history as a self-made ‘blue collar’ billionaire, his personal magnetism and hyper-masculinity, his unique ability to fix problems, many of which don’t exist. In his attacks on NAFTA he echoes Hitler’s attacks on the Treaty of Versailles, in his sexual arrogance he’s channelling Mussolini. The ridiculous amount of praise his surrogates direct towards him is eerily reminiscent of Soviet era speeches and poems praising Stalin’s genius. The totality of what he’s said and done, and what the campaign and its supporters have created in America, is a fascist platform.
Most telling of all, and perhaps most terrifying, was the treatment of Ted Cruz. Cruz is as hard core a conservative as you’ll find. His views are theocratic, biggoted and arrogant. But Cruz is a true believer in conservatism. His refusal to endorse Trump during his convention speech was met with howls of abuse. His call to ‘vote your conscience’ was condemned. In the fascist view of the leader, ‘conscience’ is irrelevant. The leader is always right, the leader alone can save us, the leader is the only source of truth. More than any presidential candidate in American history, Trump fits all the criteria for fascism. And he knows it.