By Yannik Thiem
Over the recent months the voices warning of seeing in Trump a new fascism rising in America have waxed and waned. With great urgency we hear the alarm sounded that Trump is the Hitler of the 21st century. At the same time, other voices argue that seeing in Trump a neo-fascism that has made its way into the political mainstream is an overstated fear, especially since it looks increasingly clear that Trump is likely to lose the general election. His victories in the primary elections have been handed to him by barely 10% of all the registered voters in the U.S. So how worried should we be?
At least two questions arise here. How adequate is it to compare Trump to Hitler and to see an analogy between the rise of Trump in the United States since 2015 and the rise of Hitler in Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s? And how politically useful is it to call out Trump’s campaign as fascist?
There are eerie similarities between Trump’s current campaign and the rise of Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party of Germany (NSDAP). The slogan “Make America Great Again” fits into the pattern of early 20th-century European fascism that painted an image of a country in demise and that emphasized the urgency of needing to bring the country back to a former glory that is on the verge of being lost forever. Foreigners and ethnic, religious, sexual, and gender minorities are cast as a major threat to the country’s greatness. This perceived threat — often depicted in highly sexualized tropes — was answered by Hitler with both violent rhetoric and the physical display of an aggressive hypermasculinity. What is clearly fascist about Trump’s campaign, evidenced again at the Republican National Convention and throughout his campaign rallies, is the constant fear mongering, especially as it is combined with his stoking hatred of minorities, such as his advocating a registry of all Muslims in the U.S., even citizens, and suggesting a halt to all Muslim immigration as well as his claim that undocumented Mexican immigrants are largely rapists and murderers.
Moreover, there is a similarity in Trump’s not only condoning but directly promoting violence. He has done so on multiple occasions. Not only does he advocate the U.S. embracing torture “far worse than waterboarding,” but he also openly encourages violence against dissent at his rallies. In response to a protester at one of his campaign rallies, he has commented that, in contrast with the “gentle” actions of his security detail, “I’d like to punch him in the face.” And after a Black Lives Matter protester was beaten by Trump supporters at one of his rallies, Trump asserted that “maybe he should have been roughed up.”
Finally, it bears remembering that Hitler was generally underestimated by the governing elites, who originally never believed he would have a chance to come to power. When Hitler began his ascendancy, the German conservative establishment endorsed him because they thought he could be controlled and used to deliver a decisive political defeat to their social democratic opponents. While initially the Republican establishment had distanced itself from Trump decisively, Trump had been garnering mainstream Republican political support as it became clear that he would be the GOP nominee. Only the most recent revelations of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, and accusations of both harassment and assault, led Republicans to voice their criticism of Trump in unequivocal terms. But the fact here stands that the GOP itself has largely remained silent for much of the Trump campaign and now finds itself in the bind that its base is clamoring for the unwanted nominee.
There are, however, notable differences between the current situation in the U.S. and Germany in the early 1930s. The Germany of the 1930s had just lost World War I, had only become a democracy in 1919, and was on the brink of a civil war. Conversely, the political system in the U.S.—as problematic as it may be in many respects—has not undergone any recent radical change and despite the dangerous trend of militarizing the police, the U.S. as of today is not close to a civil war.
While there is certainly cause for concern about economic turmoil in several countries around the world, the economic crisis today has a very different shape than the global crisis that unfolded in 1929. In comparison to Germany in the 1930s or even compared to its own history during the Depression, the U.S. is doing economically quite well at this time. Moreover, totalitarian fascists in Germany perceived individualism as a root cause of the country’s demise. Conversely, in the U.S. individualism remains celebrated as an ideal, and while there is an ardent desire among the electorate for a strong leader, this desire in the U.S. is also coupled with a rejection of centralized government and, at least so far, with the belief in a balance of powers.
Finally, especially against the backdrop of the early 20th-century German and Italian totalitarian movements, fascism is generally understood today as an authoritarian right-wing system of government and society based in nationalism. In the U.S. today, however, the most vocal advocates for overthrowing the state and the current social order are not necessarily white supremacists, even though the radicalization of white supremacist groups over the recent years in response to having a black president of the U.S. for the first time is not to be neglected. But the most ardent and most audible voices, and the most broadly organized ones are still those that seek to establish a state based on religious principles, rather than on race or ethnicity.
So is Donald Trump advocating fascism? And how useful is it to call the Trump movement fascist and to compare Trump to Hitler? The problem with Donald Trump is that no one is actually entirely clear on exactly what policies he is advocating. There is much strongman rhetoric, but comparatively little policy, which in turn has fed into an erosion of substantive political discourse on the conservative end of the political spectrum since the Republican primary elections. More recently, with the presidential debates, this erosion has spread more widely, also because Trump, his running mate Mike Pence, as well as many of the Trump surrogates refuse to engage in discussing facts and policy details. While the polls were showing a close race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, much of the discourse on Trump-as-fascist was focused on the importance of rallying support for Clinton. As the polls have shifted in Clinton’s favor, the question of whether or not Donald Trump is the Hitler of the 21st century U.S. has faded somewhat again. That fading itself is indicative of the fact that the analogy served mostly in the service of mobilizing undecided and indifferent voters rather than as a heuristic tool to analyze the contemporary political landscape in the U.S. So the problem with focusing on Trump-as fascist is that while doing so clearly sounds an urgent alarm, focusing on whether or not and if in what sense Trump is fascist occludes broader problems in contemporary American politics.
What are those problems? I will briefly outline five that I see as particularly pressing. First, an authoritarian and xenophobic strand in American politics is neither a new nor a foreign phenomenon. As scholar-activist Chip Berlet points out, right-wing populist hate mongering has been a part of American politics since Andrew Jackson. Hate speech and race- and ethnicity-based violence need to be addressed, but their existence and use far precede and exceed Trump.
Second, the collective dynamics of the GOP primary election, and the subsequent GOP presidential campaign, have further weakened the traditional role of the press, the so-called Fourth Estate, in the political process. On the one hand, the mainstream media has given Trump and the GOP spectacle a willing platform, because the spectacle guaranteed viewers and readers. On the other hand, Trump and his fellow far-right candidates earlier in the campaign continuously and collectively engaged in delegitimating all investigative reporting and any critical questioning of candidates during press conferences or in the debates, regardless of the political leanings of the news outlets in question. The Republican candidates have actively fostered an environment in which critical reporting (even from Fox News) is automatically perceived as “biased” and reporters from any outlet can be intimidated with impunity and even beaten at rallies. Again, Trump’s candidacy neither initiated nor single-handedly effected this atmosphere, but Trump as the most aggressive and least filtered candidate has greatly exacerbated this dynamic.
Third, a focus on Trump as somehow exceptional and an external takeover of the Republican Party hides how far to the right the GOP has moved in the 21st century. For instance, on immigration policies there was barely any difference between the three front runners Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and the “establishment candidate” Marco Rubio. That the very conservative John Kasich was considered a moderate by many voters was mostly due to his “unassuming image” rather than to his politics, which, noted The Guardian, “put him a big step to the right of what many Americans would consider the middle.” That the vice presidential candidate Mike Pence now appears as preferable to Donald Trump and more moderate is similarly an effect of his appearance rather than his policy positions.
Fourth, Trump’s campaign is creating an atmosphere of acceptability for bigoted, racist, and misogynist violence, but Trump is only the tip of an ugly iceberg in American politics. At the heart of the problem are the persistent sexism, the U.S.’ unresolved systemic structural racism, a longstanding strand of political discourse on the right that combines hate and fear mongering, and the deepening of inequalities brought about by a capitalist economic system increasingly untempered by the social justice policies of the past. But given that 90% of Trump supporters are white, race and racism are central to the dynamic. However, casting Trump and his supporters as outliers, who have been given too much of a platform by the media, whitewashes the U.S.’s problem of pervasive structural racism and occludes how current polls say Trump still is set to receive 42% of the popular vote.
Fifth, focusing on Trump as a fascist threat has come to stifle broader critiques of the current neoliberal economic policies at home and abroad, which Hillary Clinton, the nominee of the Democratic Party, has in the past supported as well. Moreover, casting the issue of averting the threat of the Trump movement’s fascism as exclusively a matter of the vote for President of the United States abets the trend to reduce democratic exercise of political power to casting a ballot every few years. Where democracy means little more than checking a box once in a while, general political apathy ensues, which leads to the experience of powerlessness and resentment against the political establishment that has long benefited from this apathy. As long as the threat of fascism is cast as a question of electoral politics, the necessary broad and sustained political mobilization and participation on local, state, and national levels will not take place.
These are all problems that reside deep in American politics and society and that extend far beyond Trump and will not end with him.
We should never underestimate the power of political movements and candidates that trade on hate and fear. We should decisively oppose Trump’s and his supporters’ violent political visions. But to rally solely behind stopping Trump—whether or not one labels him and his authoritarian movement “fascist”—would be to close our eyes to and leave intact the structural forms of oppression that we need to confront. Mass incarceration and police brutality against black and brown people, the impoverishment of the working class, the ongoing violence against women and sexual and gender minorities, and the disastrous effects of climate change are some of the most pressing issues of our time and demand collective and collaborative political responses to build an egalitarian, democratic, just, and sustainable society.
Yannik Thiem is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University. He received his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in 2009 and is author of Unbecoming Subjects: Judith Butler, Moral Philosophy, and Critical Responsibility.