Don’t Call Donald Trump a Fascist
What it means to brand today’s right-wing leaders with the F-word—and why you probably shouldn’t.
“Every age has its own fascism,” the Italian writer Primo Levi warned in a 1974 essay. Responding to the Vietnam War and the rise of military juntas in Chile and Greece, Levi worried that the dehumanization and domination of fascist politics had survived World War II and were now being revived in forms less obvious than the mass slaughter of Auschwitz, which he had witnessed firsthand.
“There are many ways of reaching [fascism],” Levi noted, “not just through the terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system, and by spreading in a myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned, and where the security of a privileged few depends on the forced labor and the forced silence of the many.”
Levi feared we would be blind to fascism’s return. The truth, however, is that most of us are beset by the opposite affliction: We are not oblivious to the possibility of fascism; rather, we see fascism everywhere—including where it is not.
In the 45 years since Levi wrote, most U.S. presidents, for instance, have been maligned as fascists by their angriest critics. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were routinely denounced in such terms. So was Bill Clinton. And Barack Obama’s detractors had trouble deciding if he was more a secret fascist or a secret Marxist. In a December 1975 interview on 60 Minutes, Reagan even claimed that American liberalism generally (in the left-progressive sense of that term) had fascist leanings.
The charge of fascism is always at the ready. Like the other F-word, “fascist” is marvelously flexible and emotive, but it is also an example of language that is more likely to alienate and enrage than promote dialogue—a rhetorical turn that makes people less, rather than more, open to the humanity of those they oppose. While demonization is an ancient political itch always better left unscratched, it is especially harmful to a liberal-democratic political culture since it legitimizes intransigence and extremism in return. Faced with the next Adolf Hitler, any opponent becomes an enemy.
If the reductio ad fascism is inadvisable on pragmatic and even moral grounds, it is also a symptom of cloudy thinking. Comparisons to fascism suffer from two near-fatal problems. First, they almost always have at least some validity. And second, they are almost always accompanied by enormous blind spots, often glancing past what was most salient about historical fascism—namely, its violent methods and revolutionary aims.
There are hazards, George Orwell warned, in allowing language to sink into slovenliness and gobbledygook—a hazard evident anytime we permit jargon or buzzwords to think for us. Already in 1946, Orwell could opine that fascism “has now no meaning except insofar as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’”
For Orwell, the word had decomposed into the kind of ready-made verbiage that infiltrates the mind and produces the “reduced state of consciousness … favorable to political conformity.” Any habituation to careless language makes us vulnerable to ideological control. But the converse is true, too: Political agendas promote verbal insouciance, leading us to select words (and facts) that serve our own ends.
The fascist label becomes trickier when one considers the authoritarian populism of figures like Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin. This is because studying the far-right requires a plunge into a taxonomic swamp, with few patches of firm definitional ground.
A good tour of this morass is a 1995 essay by another Italian writer, Umberto Eco, who laid out 14 traits of what he dubbed “Ur-Fascism.” According to Eco, fascism in the flesh is built from a shifting assemblage of materials: the syncretism of traditionalist beliefs and primeval truths; irrationalism; action for action’s sake; hostility to criticism; fear of diversity; appeals to a disgruntled and humiliated middle class; xenophobia and nationalism; an emphasis on enemies; a view of life as struggle; disdain for the weak; a cult of heroism; machismo and misogyny; an anti-parliamentary populism contemptuous of individual citizens, who exist only to accept praise and acclaim the leader; and a Newspeak-esque impoverishment of language that hinders complex thought.
In Eco’s view, no actual fascist regime perfectly embodies “eternal fascism”—it merely approximates it. Other definitions of fascism stress other features, including militarism, an anti-establishment animus, disdain for human rights and civil liberties, and longing for salvation by a charismatic strongman.
The problem is that most of these traits exist on a sliding scale and are open to some degree of subjective interpretation. How much nationalism or manly bravado or fixation on enemies does it take? At what point does anti-intellectualism or a pitch to tradition cross over into demagoguery and irrationalist nostalgia? When does media-savvy political communication become propaganda? When does a politician impatient with critics become a soapbox tyrant contemptuous of opponents? Much is in the eye of the beholder.
Implicit in this symptom-spotting approach is that fascism is a disorder to be detected, like a psychiatrist consulting the diagnostic criteria for mental illness. But while the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is clear about the threshold of diagnosis for schizophrenia, fascism spotters who proceed with a welter of traits rarely tell us how many boxes need to be ticked before we can cry fascist.
Judging contemporary politics in terms of such lists is slippery business. The partisan-minded can always pick up the odor of fascism if they sniff hard enough. The exercise easily becomes a Rorschach test, prone to confirmation bias and other forms of “motivated reasoning”—social science lingo for all the ways humans are hardwired for tribalism and susceptible to emotion-driven thinking. As the political scientist Lilliana Mason observes of recent trends in U.S. politics, “members of both parties negatively stereotype members of the opposing party. … They view the other party as more extreme than their own, while they view their own party as not at all extreme.”
The ubiquity of the fascist label bears witness to this descent into polarization and fear-based politics. There appear to be few anti-Trumpers, for instance, whose thinking is not plagued by the specter of fascism. In a November 2015 article for Slate titled “Donald Trump Is a Fascist,” Jamelle Bouie argued that Trumpism exhibits at least seven of the traits of fascism laid out by Eco. “This is how fascism comes to America,” Robert Kagan wrote in the Washington Post a few months later, pointing to Trump’s “aura of crude strength and machismo,” his deft exploitation of resentments, and his cult of American victimhood.
Ever since he stepped off Trump Tower’s golden escalator to announce his candidacy in June 2015, a genre of alarmist journalism has sprung up, musing on the links between Trump and fascism. Many are credible analyses of Trump’s threat to American traditions of pluralism and the rule of law; they rightly warn against a politics built on grievance and nativism. But talk of fascism—especially in the title—smacks of clickbait. Digital publishing, and ad-based models above all, is built on luring eyeballs with the lurid, the upsetting, the enraging. The internet’s Darwinian struggle for traffic incentivizes deployment of the F-word over more responsible language.
Sensationalism plagues the hard-copy world, as well. The Trump years have witnessed a tide of admirable books whose true subject is the global rise of authoritarianism but which cannot resist couching that discussion in the language of fascism. A case in point is Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. The Yale University philosopher has his own list of fascist traits, including evocation of a mythic past, creation of a “state of unreality” based on lies and conspiracy theories, and attacks on the alleged lawless criminality of a despised out-group.
Stanley makes astute observations at every turn. He points out that “sexual anxiety” governs the right-wing imagination, which sees a country’s glorious past destroyed not just by globalism and cosmopolitanism but also by “respect for ‘universal values’ such as equality.” Masculine fears of lost status connect easily to feelings of national humiliation, and nostalgia for the father as unquestioned head of the family fits naturally with longings for authoritarian leadership. Celebrating the mythic patriarchal past is not about history, Stanley argues, but about the “imposition of hierarchy in the present.”
Stanley correctly locates this mentality in Hitler’s Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Italy. But he then jumps about wildly, identifying similar attitudes in present-day European far-right parties (such as the Alternative for Germany and Poland’s ruling Law and Justice), American neo-Nazis, the Rwandan genocidaires, the Republican Party, the Hungarian Constitution, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, and the post-Civil War American South. The lack of attention to context is breathtaking. Making patriarchy and national myth definitional of fascism allows Stanley to find proto-fascisms sprouting like dandelions everywhere he looks.
True to his title, Stanley does indeed lay bare the “us vs. them” rhetoric lubricating far-flung illiberal systems. But why fascism better organizes this discussion than alternative concepts like populism, totalitarianism, or even old-fashioned tyranny is a question unasked and unanswered. Stanley tells us only that he has “chosen the label ‘fascism’ for ultranationalism of some variety (ethnic, religious, cultural), with the nation represented in the person of an authoritarian leader.” Though troublesome, such generalization, he argues, “is necessary in the current moment.” For “necessary,” it is tempting to read: pleasing to publishers, since talk of fascism provokes a commercially useful frisson and garners media exposure in a way that more nuanced investigation does not. How Fascism Works is a strange book—a cogent and accessible exposé of the tactics used by modern authoritarians that nonetheless floats on a cloud of conceptual fuzziness one does not expect from an academic philosopher.
Even more baffling is former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s 2018 book, Fascism: A Warning. Albright purports to abhor the reflex that would tar as fascist “anyone or anything we find annoying.” After reciting the customary list of fascist features, Albright settles on an expansive definition of fascism. A fascist, she tells us, is “someone who identifies strongly with and claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use whatever means are necessary—including violence—to achieve his or her goals.”
This view of fascism as a devil’s brew of tribalism, opportunism, and autocratic illiberalism frames Albright’s real purpose: ruminating on “the toils and snares confronting democracies around the world” today. Accounts of Hitler and Mussolini are followed by chapters on present-day figures like Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and, of course, Trump. None of these leaders, however, are by Albright’s reckoning actually fascist; they are merely potentially so, taking cues from a fascist playbook written by earlier despots and demagogues.
The sliding-scale nature of fascist traits—and the element of subjective interpretation involved in gauging the threat—allows fascism to haunt Albright’s book, always lurking and rarely seen. Hers is the vague logic of “signposts” leading, with equal vagueness, into the abyss. The aim is to foster vigilance by implied comparisons—the Trumpian call to “drain the swamp,” we learn, is an echo of Mussolini’s drenare la palude—as much as by direct argument. Albright appears never to have considered whether fearmongering in defense of liberal internationalism is just as bad as Hitler’s tirades against world Jewry or Trump’s bellowing about “bad hombres” crossing the southern border of the United States. Perhaps it really is better, but it is still fearmongering.
Today’s only full-blown fascist regime, Albright has declared in interviews, is North Korea—overlooking the possibility that the Kim dynasty’s dictatorship is better viewed as a holdover hybrid of anti-colonial nationalism and Stalinist state socialism. Experts debate the degree to which North Korea absorbed ideological elements—including an obsession with racial purity and cultic leader-worship—from decades of rule by imperial Japan, a system far closer to fascism. But Albright ignores crucial differences. North Korea’s regime is defensive and entrenched, very different from the militant revolutionary movements of interwar fascism. Historically, its economy has been based on state-run industry and communist collective farms, something fascism, which upheld the principle of private property, never tried. Such haphazard remarks make plain that Albright’s use of the F-word is rhetorical only, never seriously analytical.
Like Stanley, Albright is responding not just to the global resurgence of the far-right but to the decay of political norms and trust in government that has gripped the United States since the Vietnam War. Worries about authoritarianism and nativist populism are surely justified. But these concepts exist already, and we need not invoke fascism to talk about them.
Stanley and Albright are emblematic of a failure to see that resorting to the F-word is too often a symptom of the very political dangers the word warns against. As Orwell recognized, sloppy language and shoddy reasoning cooperate with destructive politics in a snug symbiosis. Surrendering to caricatures and hackneyed phrases promotes the embattled thinking typical of fascism.
Careless talk of fascism is no less pervasive on the right. Leftist readers would do well to spend time with right-wing books that claim to identify fascist tendencies in the left’s own camp—not because such diatribes are persuasive but because the exercise makes clear how easily (and misleadingly) an image of fascism can be created that allows tendentious comparisons to be made.
Dinesh D’Souza’s The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left is a good example of a conservative work that exploits fascism’s murky meaning. A former advisor in the Reagan White House who was convicted of a felony campaign finance violation in 2014 and later pardoned by Trump, D’Souza equates fascism with statism, racism, and a bullying “politics of hate.”
The argument is simple: The Nazis did such things; the Democrats have sometimes done such things (the Jim Crow South was a Democratic stronghold, after all); thus “they are the real fascists.” Like many who toss the F-word around for partisan ends, D’Souza assures us that “[t]he topics of Nazism and fascism must be approached with the greatest care.” D’Souza then perversely calls Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager whose killing helped launch Black Lives Matter, a “leftist thug” and likens him to Horst Wessel, the slaughtered storm trooper who was celebrated as a Nazi martyr after his death in 1930. Fastidious indeed.
D’Souza’s hackery follows a script laid down by Jonah Goldberg’s 2008 book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. Angry at being labeled a Nazi by American liberals, Goldberg, formerly a longtime editor at the National Review, turns the tables, linking the American left to fascism as twin offshoots of an early 20th-century progressive movement that was eager to use state power to build a better society. “[M]odern liberalism,” he bluntly proclaims, “shares intellectual roots with European fascism.” Like D’Souza, Goldberg stresses both fascism’s and progressivism’s tawdry involvement in empire, eugenics, and social engineering. This allows Goldberg to brand everything from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to modern environmentalism, organic foods, Medicare, and smoking bans as forms of “incipient fascism.”
The point is not that D’Souza and Goldberg (or Stanley and Albright) are wrong in every case to find similarities between fascism and their respective objects of loathing. Comparisons to fascism, after all, nearly always have some validity. The trouble is their definition of fascism in terms of a ragbag of ambiguous attributes like “statism,” “tribalism,” or “propaganda”—definitions that work backward from the desire to expose fascists in their own midst.
A smokescreen of scholarly purpose masks narrow polemicism. D’Souza, for instance, makes much of Planned Parenthood’s early ties to the eugenics movement, noting that Margaret Sanger, who founded what later became Planned Parenthood, gave a speech to the Ku Klux Klan and that Hitler praised progressive-era American laws permitting forced sterilization. But D’Souza’s aim is not to tease out complex historical relationships; it is to stretch the Nazi label to encompass present-day Democrats. As the sociologist Michael Mann scathingly remarked of similar claims in Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: “The only thing these links prove is that fascism contained elements that were in the mainstream of 20th-century politics.”
These books are not equally bad—D’Souza’s guilt-by-association screed is by far the worst—but they are equivalently lazy in their attention to what made fascism distinct. They all exemplify the tendency in today’s public sphere for talk of the F-word to fall prey to the fallacy of the undistributed middle: If Hitler did something, and Hillary Clinton (or Trump) also did it, then Clinton (or Trump) is a fascist.
The error is so basic and so dumb that only emotion-driven partisanship, helped along by cynical marketing, can explain it. More often than not, the urge to affix the fascist label reveals the ghosts and cobwebs in our own heads. Indeed, the mind that wanders naturally to Kristallnacht or the Gestapo each time it’s confronted with a political opponent is a mind polarized and fearful of the future.
Scholars of fascism exercise more caution when applying the F-word to today’s politics. This is because they recognize that Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy had millenarian dreams and system-destroying ambitions far in excess of most of today’s far-right. The historian Robert Paxton offers the following definition in his 2004 book, The Anatomy of Fascism. “Fascism,” Paxton argues, is “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood.” These are familiar chords among today’s authoritarians, to be sure. But, Paxton adds, fascism also “abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
Real fascism is revolutionary and dictatorial, practicing a purifying brutality in furtherance of utopian goals. Hitler’s aim was not to build a wall and “Make Germany Great Again.” It was much bolder: the reorganization of the world along hierarchical racial lines and the military conquest of a vast new German empire, in which the biologically unworthy would be killed or enslaved. Trump’s plutocratic tax cuts, enigmatic foreign policy, regulatory rollback, and weakening of federal agencies are hard to square with Hitler’s fascism, his authoritarian personality notwithstanding. Any list of fascist hallmarks that does not put this radically aggressive dimension front and center is more likely to mislead than illuminate.
Serious historians and political scientists generally speak of today’s far-right surge not as the return of fascism but as a swing toward “ethnocratic liberalism,” “apartheid liberalism,” or “illiberal democracy.” All of these terms name an ideology that longs for a xenophobic strongman to restrict rights and political participation to one’s own demographic group and that utilizes media manipulation and a stacked judiciary as means to rig electoral politics in the strongman’s favor and combat perceived threats at home or abroad.
That there are echoes of fascism here is clear enough. But there are echoes of fascism in statist public health measures, too—as conservatives are quick to point out. “Echoes” are not enough to use the F-word responsibly. Roger Griffin, a scholar of fascism who is not shy about applying the label to neo-Nazis and truly radical anti-modernists, nonetheless balks at applying it to nativist populists like Trump or the Brexit engineer Nigel Farage. “You can be a total xenophobic racist male chauvinist bastard,” Griffin colorfully noted to Vox, “and still not be a fascist.”
So what is the relationship between interwar fascism and today’s right-wing populists? A convincing account is provided by the Argentine historian Federico Finchelstein. In From Fascism to Populism in History, Finchelstein argues that today’s populism evolved out of fascism after 1945, expressing the same energies and impulses but repackaged for more democratic times.
Finchelstein leaves no doubt that the F-word can still be applied to segments of today’s far-right—the longing for purifying violence is plain in neofascist movements like Greece’s Golden Dawn—but applying it to the likes of Orban, for example, fails to recognize how his politics reflect an adaptation to democracy.
To grasp the genealogy linking fascism and populism, one must recognize that historical context matters. Wider democratic legitimacy and rapid economic growth after 1945 caused the ghost of fascism to find a new host in a hybridized “authoritarian form of democracy,” Finchelstein writes.
Pioneered by Argentina’s Juan Perón, this populism was distinctly postfascist since it looked back on the World War II legacy of violence and shrewdly rejected dictatorship, concentration camps, and wars of conquest. Postwar populism embraced electoral politics but in an anti-pluralist vein, as the organ through which the “true people” could acclaim the leader as their singular voice. Like fascism before, populism retained a fondness for threats and a fixation on enemies, though now mostly at the level of bombast rather than outright assault.
Today’s populists express the emotional world of Hitler and Mussolini—a continuity better captured by Stanley’s notion of fascism as an “us vs. them” politics than by those, like Goldberg, who present fascism as a totalitarianism of social improvement. But that does not mean all populists are emergent fascists. Indeed, barring a crisis of capitalism and democratic representation on the scale of the 1920s and ’30s, there is no reason to expect today’s populism to revert to fascism.
A complex phenomenon such as fascism rarely repeats because historical conditions are forever in flux. In From Fascism to Populism in History, Finchelstein writes that they “are different chapters in the same transnational history of illiberal resistance to modern constitutional democracy.” Here he points to the real master category uniting today’s right-wing populists and yesterday’s goose-stepping militants. All are cases of what we might call “anti-liberalism of a non-Marxist and ethnonationalist stripe.” (Admittedly, the phrase is less striking than “fascism” on a book jacket.)
Anti-liberalism of this sort views the openness, diversity, and secularism of modern society with horror. It sees cosmopolitanism as chaos, social change as deracination, and individualism as atomization. Ever since the French Revolution, this anti-liberal tradition has clamored for a restoration of the authority—law and order, a self-evident culture, social hierarchies, transcendent beliefs, communal belonging—supposedly corrupted by liberal selfishness and global markets.
Anti-liberals experience modernity as an ongoing political and spiritual crisis. Though in many ways conservative by instinct, they believe the rot has advanced so far that there is little left to conserve, and thus reactionary return or radical regeneration (or a mix of both) is needed. Under this big anti-liberal tent there is ample room for Steve Bannon and Putin, Hitler and Francisco Franco, Augusto Pinochet and Pat Buchanan.
Fascism belongs to this right-wing, anti-liberal tradition as a species belongs to a genus. But it is a bloody and savage species, hungry for destruction and fiery rebirth. “Whether the other races live in comfort or perish of hunger interests me only in so far as we need them as slaves for our culture,” SS leader Heinrich Himmler declared in 1943.
Whatever supposed fascist traits one finds in Putin or Trump—or in “snowflake” campus agitators and “nanny state” progressives—one does not find such barbarity. Avoiding careless use of the F-word does not normalize the far-right; what it resists is the normalization of thoughtless and demonizing political discourse.
Today is not the 1930s. We do not face a crisis on the scale of the Great Depression or a legacy of aroused passions, thwarted hopes, and unprecedented violence to rival the aftermath of the Great War. And while liberal democracy is an anomaly in human history and should not be taken for granted, liberal-democratic norms still enjoy wider legitimacy than they did a century ago.
There is, however, one respect in which our time resembles the interwar years. It remains true, as Orwell argued of his own day, “that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.” Then as now, open societies are still best defended by the willingness to think and speak clearly—not hyperbolically and manipulatively—about the challenges they face.