Is Trump a Fascist?

In “How Fascist is Trump? There’s Still a Formula for That” (Washington Post, August 23, 2020) John McNeill (Professor of history, Georgetown University) has his own scoring system on Trump, more or less compared to Mussolini and Hitler. For each category he gives a score in Benitos, then adds them up. This is an article worth summarizing, plus my ideas for scoring other things. McNeil had earlier scored Trump based on his campaign rhetoric, where his Benito score was only 59%: McNeill claimed that Trump was “the most dangerous threat to pluralistic democracy in this country in more than a century—but not a genuine fascist. As a candidate, Trump was an amateurish imitation of the real thing.” Can we now declare Trump a fascist based on his new scaling or still an amateur? Would Trump be insulted by a low score?

Trump had his fascist setbacks. Under federalism, Washington is not all powerful and there are constitutional checks and balances. His own appointed officials initially kept him in check. Trump fired them, had a Congress that was accommodating (Republicans criticizing Trump were often defeated) and appointed lots of new judges and two justices. Fox News became particularly accommodating, while other mainstream news shows were not overly critical (the FCC could always pull the license of a network). Consequently, he could take pride in his developing fascist cred.

On to the fascist categories and scoring. Each has a possible score of four Benitos:

Hyper-nationalism. “Make America Great Again” and “America First” speak for themselves. In his analysis them damn foreigners take advantage of America, because it’s a zero-sum game; if they have a perceived win, then America is losing. [Forget about Ricardo’s comparative advantage, the benefits of capitalism and productivity through technology.] He only gets two Benitos, apparently because those damn treaties like NATO are hard to break. In a world of global trade and complex trading networks, it’s next to impossible to make tariffs work effectively.

Militarism. This would seem to be a big win for Trump, but McNeill explains that Trump is a piker, not going out of his way to actually invade and start wars. He increased defense spending and seemed to want a war with Iran (seemingly with Canada and NATO, also), but he pulled out of Syria (that very strange move that allowed Turkey to move in and attempt the destruction of the Kurds). He more or less started an economic war with China, but China plays the long game. His most militaristic moves have been on the border and ramping up Homeland Security, including on the border and in Portland (plus that strange event in Washington for a church photo-op). Net result is three Benitos.

Glorification of violence and readiness to use it in politics. In Trump World, this seems a continued example of militarism. McNeill focuses on ICE actions on the border, like taking kids from the parents and putting them in cages. Federal forces were used against protesters, but in McNeill’s telling he’s a piker compared to Mussolini and Hitler. Consequently, he only gets two Benitos.

Fetishization of youth. A big deal for Hitler and Mussolini, but not for Trump—except of course for his own kids. A big zero for Benitos.

Fetishization of masculinity. Trump has the swagger and makes bold statements without much regard for truth-telling or follow through. He insults opponents mercilessly, but there are limits to slapping down women and minorities in 2020. He still gets three Benitos.

Leader cult. Trump played up his scripted role on the Apprentice. Apparently, his followers believe this was the real Trump. He certainly claims to be brilliant and happily disagrees with the experts—because he is the genius, not them. He expects lavish praise from his appointees and happily axes those that don’t. How Dr. Fouci survived is anybody’s guess. (Leaders of hostile countries know how to heap on the praise and play him effectively—but this doesn’t win him any Benitos.) Despite that, he is awarded four Benitos.

Lost-golden-age syndrome. Fascism came out of lost national greatness after World War I and victimhood. Trump played the victimhood card and “Make America Great Again” shows this perspective was central. Canceling every Obama treaty and decision happened quickly. He even signals nostalgia for the Confederacy. An obvious four Benitos.

Self-definition by opposition. Fascists explain what they oppose: socialism, labor unions, democracy, elites, foreigners (obviously racial inferiors). Trump continues this tradition with the typical opposition and hatred, including the media, immigration, plus “the swamp.” Four Benitos.

Mass mobilization and mass party. Mussolini and Hitler built their own parties, who generally remained faithful until the end. Trump took over the Republican Party, but the party actually shrunk in the process and lost seats in 2018. (Plenty became “never-Trumpers.”) Only one Benito.

Hierarchical party structure and tendency to purge the disloyal. Trump has done a great job promoting only those loyal to him and purging the rest (competence be damned). No executions involved, giving him three Benitos.

Theatricality. A big deal for fascists and a big deal for Trump, including hundreds of rallies—which continued during the pandemic (like Mount Rushmore, where inquiries were made to add Trump). McNeill gives him three Benitos.

Eleven total attributes. McNeil adds additional considerations, but these are not unique to fascism.

Chaotic administrations. The one-man-rule does not work in a large country where experts are purged. Trump has his team of vipers, working at cross-purposes with inconsistent, mixed messages and decisions. The pandemic response is the most pronounced example. The extreme number of deaths results in four Benitos.

Information and media policy. Lying to the public is a common feature, especially when contemptuous of the public. Reject reliable media sources and the intelligence community. Self-delusion seems common. Trump set lying records according to the Washington Post count (he crossed 20,000 in mid-July). Unlike others, he did not close down media or arrest journalists. McNeill gives him only two Benitos.

Consolidation of power. This is central to authoritarian rule, destroying the rule of law, banning rivals and send them to prison (or worse), and take over media. Controlling the military also is key. Trump made some progress here, but political order still exists. Two Benitos (possibly three if he’s still in office at the end of January.

Pecuniary and institutional corruption. Mussolini and Hitler seemed more interested in power than money, although underlings enjoyed massive corruption. Trump, family and cronies are corruption masters, but still have some limits based on rule of law. Three Benitos.

Economic policy. War-making is about the only important economic policy of fascists, with military buildups to be paid for by looting conquered countries. Not so Trump; there is no war agenda. One Benito.

Foreign policy. Fascists oppose international agreements and alliances, with full agreement from Trump. Goals should be achieved through warfare. Foreign policy is not Trump’s suit, nor is he inclined to invade countries. Foreign policy seems more designed for theatrical purposes. Without the war part, he gets only two Benitos.

Cultural policy. Fascism was all about fascist culture, including church authorities and youth groups. Universities and science institutes could be filled with fascists, ditto arts and culture in general. Trump does not have a coherent cultural policy, although he does cultivate evangelical leaders, apparently in keeping with anti-Muslim, anti-gay and anti-feminist policies. Two Benitos.

Racial policy. Fascism is associated with the Aryan race, with all others inferior. This resulted in the Holocaust in Germany. Mussolini was not much interested (and even protected Jews in Italy). Trump has racist cred, but little has been legally implemented. Another two Benitos.

McNeill’s scoring gives Trump 47 Benitos out of 76 (62%). A real threat to democracy, but only partly fascist. Given his fascist leanings, there is no telling what would happen in a second term, particularly if Republicans can gain control of both houses.

The worst possible outcome [not covered by McNeill] is if he loses the election, refuses to leave, declares emergency powers and generates enough support from police, military, and militias to stay in power.

This was an interesting, if not altogether serious analysis and gives both a useful review of fascism and how Trump fits in. This also suggests other scoring templates. One factor that seemed to hurt Trump’s fascist score was his overall incompetence, made abundantly clear with his pandemic response. An authoritarian scale probably would be similar to the fascist score. A defining characteristic of Trump would be corruption, which seems to have been expanded throughout his childhood and career. A grifter scale might be the most useful. I may consider any of the above for future blogs or anyone else could take a crack at it.

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© 2016 Gary Giroux