People were branding Trump a fascist long before he proposed banning all Muslims from the United States, but his most blatantly xenophobic idea has certainly increased the popularity of comparing him to the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. However, “fascist” is a notoriously overused term, one often divorced from its historical context. While there are some clear parallels between the social and economic conditions that gave rise to fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, Trump does not possess either the same goals or institutional support that characterized early fascist movements.
The destruction brought to Europe by World War I left many people impoverished, disconnecting them from the comforts of bourgeois life. Embittered by this decline in social status, they turned hostile in equal measure to the working class, mobilized by trade unions and communist parties, and to the political Old Guard of aristocrats and bureaucrats. Similarly, the recent financial crisis has shifted numerous Americans out of middle class existences. The fact that a majority of U.S. citizens are irate with “political insiders” and “business as usual” politics is plain to see, but is also apparent that the moribund labor movement is not perceived as a threat. Instead, conservatives are alarmed about “cultural Marxism” rather than an economic sort, and the “agenda” of LBGT activists, illegal immigrants, the “political correctness police,” and so on. From their perspective, the mainstream parties have failed them and, accordingly, many of them have rallied to populist, non-mainstream candidates like Trump, Ben Carson and Tea Party darling Ted Cruz.
This phenomenon is not unique to the United States. In the United Kingdom, the British National Party (BNP) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) have turned animosity toward immigrants and Muslims into major political capital. The National Front (FN) in France, initially leading in recent regional elections, only tasted defeat because left-wing parties encouraged supporters to endorse mainstream conservative candidates. The list goes on. Throughout Western Europe, also hit hard by the Great Recession as well as the subsequent Eurozone crisis, right-wing movements have benefitted from major economic crisis — just as was witnessed in the aftermath of the Great Depression.
The major difference, however, is that Trump (and his European counterparts) do not want to do away with liberal democracy. Under a Trump administration, there would presumably still be a “free society” — at least as it is now presently defined. Historical fascism had as one of its pillars the establishment of totalitarianism, wherein the individual would be completely subordinate to the state. Moreover, it was supported in this endeavor by the elites of the economic class, who feared the militant working class and growing Soviet influence. Better to have Mussolini and Hitler in control than to lose profits through greater radicalism and resistance from workers. As Trotsky put it: “After fascism is victorious, finance capital directly and immediately gathers into its hands, as in a vise of steel, all the organs and institutions of sovereignty, the executive administrative, and educational powers of the state.” For all his controversial statements, Trump has not lauded the state as a solution to all U.S. problems — only the imagined “threat” of foreigners.
In that respect, Trump is actually well-within U.S. political tradition. For time out of mind, the U.S. has placed restrictions on immigration out of a paranoia over ethnic diversity — from the Irish “hordes” of early America to the “yellow peril” of Chinese workers to today’s Syrian refugees. That his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the country causes outrage and controversy today says more about the evolution of social standards than it does about the bravado of Donald Trump. That most mainstream conservatives have not repudiated Trump because of his views suggests a broad resentment in the U.S. not just to Muslims but to people who generally do not conform to the white male Christian status quo. Rather than direct their ire toward the people responsible for their misfortune, they attack phantoms that have no real bearing on their lives: the terrorist under the bed, the transgender person in the public bathroom, the poor ethnic minority seeking more “entitlements,” and so on.
This suits finance capital just fine. If unions had not been busted and the U.S. labor movement made impotent, there could be a real danger of a politically conscious and galvanized working class to ally with the disenchanted middle class to use democracy to affect radical change. With the attention of the middle class on fictional social and moral decay, however, democracy remains manageable. If they cannot get a “safe” Republican candidate to serve their interests, they will make do with Hillary Clinton — the very embodiment of the Washington careerist, the national manager who prioritizes efficiency over principles. Besides, even in the eventuality that Trump won, which is more likely: him leading a Jeffersonian Revolution that redefines the executive office, or him backing off his more provocative positions for the sake of protecting vested interests? Both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama rode popular discontent to massive mandates, along with sweeping promises of reform; in the end, their ability to overturn the Establishment floundered against the power of its entrenchment. Even Hitler and Mussolini, with their violent militias and “defense leagues,” required the assistance of the elite power to undo the democratic experiment and bring about systemic change. For U.S. conservatives today, the question is not so much changing from democracy but solely about preserving a traditional national “character.”
So how is racism and nativism sufficient for the media to brand Trump a totalitarian fascist? It is possible because of a selective amnesia about what is and is not considered acceptable and proper for candidates to suggest. To ban all people generally based on their race, religion or some similar variable strikes most Americans as radical because most Americans choose to forget that institutional racism and jingoism has long defined U.S. government policy at all levels.
This is not to say that Trump’s racism does not make him dangerous and that we should not be concerned by his support in mainstream quarters. The Islamophobia he is promoting, at the very least, normalizes and gives credence to mistrust of Muslims and anti-Muslim violence. Much as how the sensationalist rhetoric around Planned Parenthood selling “baby parts” played a role in the recent attack on one of the organization’s clinics in Colorado Springs, one of the leading Republican candidates urging a blanket ban on Muslim migrants gives sanction to the prejudice that has done such damage to a targeted demographic in recent decades.