With Donald Trump still riding high in the polls for the Republican presidential nomination, don’t miss a piece in Vox this week by Dylan Matthews: “I asked 5 fascism experts whether Donald Trump is a fascist. Here’s what they said.”
The f-word is being bandied around a lot in relation to Trump, and Matthews’s discussion – and that of the experts he cites – is absolutely fascinating. Their conclusion is that Trump, despite his many appalling positions, cannot fairly be described as a fascist.
But I’m not sure that they’re right.
The premise of the discussion is certainly true: there’s a danger of “fascist” being used as “an all-purpose insult” rather than a term with a real historical meaning. And for an explanation of the latter, you’re not likely to do better than the experts that Matthews consulted: Matthew Feldman, Roger Griffin, Kevin Passmore, Robert Paxton and Stanley Payne. Nonetheless, there’s something about their perspective on the question that seems to me a bit off key.
Payne, for example, tells Matthews that fascists believe
that violence is really good for you, that it’s the sort of thing that makes you a vital, alive, dedicated person, that it creates commitment. You make violence not just a political strategy but a philosophical principle. That’s unique to fascism.
If you interpret “violence” literally, as street-fighting thugs à la Mussolini’s blackshirts, then it’s true that this doesn’t really fit Trump. But is it really unfair to describe Trump’s program as glorifying violence, in a way that sets him apart from more routine right-wing populists?
I worry that Payne and the others are unduly captive to the specific history of fascism: that they are picking out traits as essential when they were more products of the conditions of the 1920s and ’30s. In other words, they risk making it definitionally impossible to have a serious fascist movement in today’s America, just because some features of the previous fascist era can’t practically be reproduced.
I also think they’re assessing fascism too much with the benefit of hindsight. We know now that Mussolini abolished Italian democracy, but in 1922 – when he took power by completely legal means – all anyone could say was that his rhetoric pointed in that direction. No-one knew how seriously he would try to overthrow the democratic system, much less whether he would succeed.
But here’s Griffin:
There has to be a longing for a new order, a new nation, not just a reformed old nation … As long as Trump does not advocate the abolition of America’s democratic institutions, and their replacement by some sort of post-liberal new order, he’s not technically a fascist.
If that last clause read “he hasn’t admitted he’s a fascist,” I’d have no quarrel with it. But surely “post-liberal new order” is a reasonable description of the sort of state that Trump’s rhetoric points to. It may well be that the institutions of American democracy are strong enough to prevent him doing them serious damage even if elected, but an unsuccessful fascist is still a fascist.
Matthews argues that Trump is better described as “a right-wing populist,” and he cites European counterparts including the UK Independence Party, the Sweden Democrats, Alternative for Germany and the French National Front.
But I think this is setting us on the wrong track as well. There are a lot of parties around that fit the basics of “right-wing populism”; they come from a lot of different places and participate to varying degrees in established political systems. And while no doubt there’s a continuum of sorts, it seems to me there’s a real distinction to draw between those that have an open hostility to the whole idea of liberal democracy and those with more limited objectives.
Trump and the National Front look as if they belong on one side of the line; most of the mainstream Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant groups belong on the other. If “fascist” isn’t the right word to mark out the difference, it’s at least pretty near to it. Perhaps “neo-fascist” is enough to indicate that we are not literally back in the 1930s, just uncomfortably close.
If “right-wing populist” were all we had to go on, there’d be nothing but a question of degree to mark Trump off from most of the modern Republican Party. Or, for that matter, to distinguish Marine Le Pen’s National Front from not just UKIP but the current governments of Poland and Hungary.
Yet I think the difference matters. History matters, too: the National Front has a long pedigree on the French far-right in opposition to the values of modernity. Le Pen is trying to modernise its image and bring it more into the mainstream; she may succeed, as the Italian neo-fascists once did. But as I said back in May, the jury is still out on to what extent that is possible.
Tomorrow night (Australian time), Le Pen will face her biggest challenge yet, with the second round of French regional elections. The National Front led in six regions in the first round; one of those (Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrenees) will certainly go to the centre-left, but one or more of the other five could elect a National Front government, the party’s first. (My preview from last week explains the voting system.)
Whether it’s Trump or Le Pen or the historical fascists of last century, the key question is the same: will the democratic politicians rally in time and unite against the common enemy? Trump’s Republican rivals are certainly becoming less restrained in criticising him, but there’s no sign yet that any of them would actually repudiate him if he were to win the nomination.
Similarly in France, the results tomorrow in key regions will depend on how many voters from the centre-left and centre-right are willing to forget their differences and turn out to vote for the opposing party where it has a better chance of beating the National Front. (Socialist voters need to do that in Grand Est, Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardy and PACA; Republican voters need to do it in Burgundy-Franche-Comté and Centre-Val de Loire.)
Fascist ideas do not have the overwhelming popularity that some of the media coverage suggests. France’s far right won 27.9% of the first-round vote; Trump has maybe 30% of Republican support. The large majority supports mainstream candidates and parties.
It’s up to those parties to keep the defences of democracy strong.