[Cross-posted at Orcinus.]
People who have studied the extremist right as a historical and sociopolitical phenomenon in depth are acutely aware of a simple truth: America has been very, very lucky so far when it comes to fascistic political movements.
And now, with the arrival of the Donald Trump 2016 phenomenon, that luck may be about to run out.
Nor is this phenomenon just a flash in the pan. Trump is the logical end result of an endless series of assaults on not just American liberalism, but on democratic institutions themselves, by the American right for many years. It is the long-term creep of radicalization of the right come home to roost.
Fascistic elements and tendencies have always been part of America’s DNA. Indeed, it can be said that some of the worst traits of fascism in Europe were borrowed from their American exemplars – particularly the eliminationist tendencies, manifested first in the form of racial and ethnic segregation, and ultimately in genocidal violence.
Hitler acknowledged at various times his admiration for the American genocide against Native Americans, as well as the segregationist policies of the Jim Crow regime in the South (on which the Nuremberg Race Laws were modeled) and the threat of the lynch mob embodied in the Ku Klux Klan. According to Ernst Hanfstaengl, Hitler was “passionately interested in the Ku Klux Klan. ... He seemed to think it was a political movement similar to his own." And indeed it was.
Despite the long-running presence of these elements, though, America has never yet given way to fascism. No doubt some of this, in the past half-century at least, was primarily fueled by the natural human recoil that occurred when we got to witness the end result of these tendencies when given the chance to rule by someone like Hitler – namely, the Holocaust. We learned to be appalled by racial and ethnic hatred, by segregation and eliminationism, because we saw the pile of corpses that they produced, and fled in terror.
Those of us who study fascism not just as a historical phenomenon, but as a living and breathing phenomenon that has always previously maintained a kind of half-life on the fringes of the American right, have come to understand that it is both a complex and a simple phenomenon: in one sense, it resembles a dynamic human psychological pathology in that it’s comprised of a complex constellation of traits that are interconnected and whose presence and importance rise and fall according to the stages of development it goes through; and in another, it can in many ways be boiled down to the raw, almost feral imposition of the organized violent will of an angry and fear-ridden human id upon the rest of humankind.
That’s where Donald Trump comes in.
In many ways, Trump’s fascistic-seeming presidential campaign fills in many of the components of that complex constellation of traits that comprises real fascism. Perhaps the most significant of these is the one component that has been utterly missing previously in American forms of fascism: the charismatic leader around whom the fascist troops can rally, the one who voices their frustrations and garners followers like flies.
Scholars of fascist politics have remarked previously that America has been fortunate for most of its history not to have had such a figure rise out of the ranks of their fascist movements. And in the case of Donald Trump, that remains true – he has no background or history as a white supremacist or proto-fascist, nor does he actually express their ideologies.
Rather, what he is doing is mustering the latent fascist tendencies in American politics – some of it overtly white supremacist, while the majority of it is the structural racism and white privilege that springs from the nation’s extensive white-supremacist historical foundations – on his own behalf. He is merrily leading us down the path towards a fascist state even without being himself an overt fascist.
The reality that Trump is not a bona fide fascist himself does not make him any less dangerous. In some ways, it makes him more so, because it disguises the swastika looming in the shadow of the flamboyant orange hair. It camouflages the throng of ravening wolves he’s riding in upon.
There is little doubt that Trump is tapping into fascistic sentiments, which is why so many observers are now beginning to finally use the word in describing Trump’s campaign. From Rick Perlstein and Digby and Chauncey deVega (as well as a number of other writers) at Salon, to Thom Hartmann at AlterNet to the typically staid Seattle Times, “fascism” is the word more and more people are using in relation to the campaign that Trump is running. Even some of his fellow conservatives are beginning to use the word.
And they have a valid point, because Trump fills out so many of the key components that collectively create genuine fascism. And while it’s true that, as Josh Marshall suggests, there really is no single, agreed-upon definition of fascism, there’s also no doubt that we can grasp the idea of fascism not just by studying its history, but also by examining the various attempts at understanding and defining just what comprises fascism. And in doing so, we can recognize exactly what it is that Trump is doing.
What it’s decidedly not, no matter what you might have read, is the simple-minded definition you’ll see in Internet memes attributed to Benito Mussolini: “Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.” As Chip Berlet has explained ad nauseam, not only did Mussolini never say or write such a thing, neither did the fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile, to whom it is also often attributed.
For one thing, as Berlet explains: “When Mussolini wrote about corporatism, he was not writing about modern commercial corporations. He was writing about a form of vertical syndicalist corporatism based on early guilds.” The Skeptical Libertarian explains that the term “corporatism” and “corporate” meant an entirely different thing in 1920s Italy than it means today:
“Corporations” were not individual businesses. Under fascist corporatism, sectors of the economy were divided into corporate groups, whose activities and interactions were managed and coordinated by the government. The idea was to split the difference between socialism and laissez faire capitalism, letting the state control and direct the economy from the top-down without itself owning the means of production.
… The bottom line is that corporate groups meant classes of people in the economy, which were allegedly represented through appointments to the Council. The system was not about welfare for private companies, but rather about totalitarian central planning of the whole economy through legislation and regulation. Corporatism meant formally “incorporating” divergent interests under the state, which would resolve their differences through regulatory mechanisms.
Moreover, as Berlet explains, this fake definition of fascism directly contradicts many of the things that Mussolini himself did in fact write about the nature of fascism. If he or Gentile ever did actually say it, it’s likely it was a bit of propaganda intended to ease and mislead business-minded followers.
Another thing that fascism decidedly is NOT is the grotesque distortion generated by Jonah Goldberg, to wit, that fascism is a kind of socialism and therefore “properly understood as a phenomenon of the left.” This claim, in fact, is such a travesty of the idea of fascism that it functionally negates its meaning, rendering it, as George Orwell might describe it, a form of Newspeak. Indeed, it was Orwell himself who wrote that “the idea underlying Fascism is irreconcilably different from that which underlies Socialism. Socialism aims, ultimately, at a world-state of free and equal human beings. It takes the equality of human rights for granted. Nazism assumes just the opposite.”
Fascism, in reality, is a much more complex phenomenon than either of these definitions. Let’s look, by way of example, at some of the more recent efforts at defining it:
Stanley Payne, in Fascism: Comparison and Definition (1980):
A. The Fascist Negations:
-- Anticonservatism (though with the understanding that fascist groups were willing to undertake temporary alliances with groups from any other sector, most commonly with the right)
B. Ideology and Goals:
-- Creation of a new nationalist authoritarian state based not merely on traditional principles or models
-- Organization of some new kind of regulated, multiclass, integrated national economic structure, whether called national corporatist, national socialist, or national syndicalist
-- The goal of empire or a radical change in the nation’s relationship with other powers
-- Specific espousal of an idealist, voluntarist creed, normally involving the attempt to realize a new form of modern, self-determined, secular culture
C. Style and Organization:
-- Emphasis on esthetic structure of meetings, symbols, and political choreography, stressing romantic and mystical aspects
-- Attempted mass mobilization with militarization of political relationships and style and with the goal of a mass party militia
-- Positive evaluation and use of, or willingness to use, violence
-- Extreme stress on the masculine principle and male dominance, while espousing the organic view of society
-- Exaltation of youth above other phases of life, emphasizing the conflict of generations, at least in effecting the initial political transformation
-- Specific tendency toward an authoritarian, charismatic, personal style of command, whether or not the command is to some degree initially elective
Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, p. 218:
Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal constraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
Paxton's nine "mobilizing passions" of fascism:
-- a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;
-- the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether universal or individual, and the subordination of the individual to it;
-- the belief that one's group is a victim, a sentiment which justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against the group's enemies, both internal and external;
-- dread of the group's decline under the corrosive effect of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;
-- the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;
-- the need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group's destiny;
-- the superiority of the leader's instincts over abstract and universal reason;
-- the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group's success;
-- the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group's prowess in a Darwinian struggle.
Roger Griffin, author of The Nature of Fascism:
Fascism: modern political ideology that seeks to regenerate the social, economic, and cultural life of a country by basing it on a heightened sense of national belonging or ethnic identity. Fascism rejects liberal ideas such as freedom and individual rights, and often presses for the destruction of elections, legislatures, and other elements of democracy. Despite the idealistic goals of fascism, attempts to build fascist societies have led to wars and persecutions that caused millions of deaths. As a result, fascism is strongly associated with right-wing fanaticism, racism, totalitarianism, and violence.
To these I would add one other important component, taken from Harald Oftstad’s Our Contempt for Weakness: Nazi Norms and Values – And Our Own (1989), namely, the logical extension of the Darwinian struggle against the “lesser” that pervades so much fascist literature: the deep-seated hatred and contempt in which all persons deemed “weaker” (be this ethnic, racial, medical, genetic, or otherwise) are held, and the desire to eliminate them entirely that it fuels.
In Hitler’s own words:
The stronger must dominate and not blend with the weaker, thus sacrificing his own greatness. Only the born weakling can view this as cruel, but he after all is only a weak and limited man; for if this law did not prevail, any conceivable higher development of organic living beings would be unthinkable.
… [We will try to] “save” even the weakest and most sickly at any price, and this plants the seed of a future generation which must inevitably grow more and more deplorable the longer this mockery of Nature and her will continues. [Mein Kampf]
Taking a careful look at Trump’s campaign, the fascist traits immediately emerge:
- 1. Eliminationist rhetoric is the backbone of Trump’s appeal. His opening salvo in the campaign – the one that first skyrocketed him to the forefront in the race, poll-wise, and proved wildly popular with Republican voters – was his vow (and subsequent proposed program) to deport all 12 million of the United States’ undocumented immigrants (using, of course, the deprecatory term “illegal alien”) and to erect a gigantic wall on the nation’s southern border. Significantly, the language he used to justify such plans – labeling those immigrants “criminals,” “killers,” and “rapists,” contending that they bring crime and disease – is classic rhetoric designed to demonize an entire class of people by reducing them to objects fit only for elimination.
- 2. The palingenetic ultranationalism. After the race-baiting and the ethnic fearmongering, this is the most obviously fascistic component of Trump’s presidential election effort, embodied in those trucker hats proclaiming: “Make America Great Again.” (Trump himself puts it this way: "The silent majority is back, and we’re going to take the country back. We're going to make America great again.")
- 3. Trump’s deep contempt not just for liberalism (which provides most of the fuel for his xenophobic rants, particularly against the media) but also for establishment conservatism. Trump’s biggest fan, Rush Limbaugh, boasts: “In parlaying this outsider status of his, he’s better at playing the insiders’ game than they are, and they are insiders. He’s running rings around all of these seasoned, lifelong, highly acclaimed professionals in both the consultant class, the adviser class, the strategist class, and the candidate class. And he’s doing it simply by being himself.”
- 4. Trump constantly proclaims America to be in a state of crisis that has made it “the laughingstock” of the rest of the world, and proclaims that this has occurred because of the failures of (primarily liberal) politicians.
- 5. He himself embodies the fascist insistence upon male leadership by a man of destiny, and his refusal to acknowledge factual evidence of the falsity of many of his proclamations and comments embodies the fascistic notion that the leader’s instincts trump logic and reason in any event.
- 6. Trump’s contempt for weakness is manifested practically every day on the campaign trail, ranging from his dissing of former GOP presidential candidate John McCain (a onetime prisoner of war) as “not a hero” because “I like people who weren’t captured,” to his recent mockery of a New York Times reporter with a disability.
Trump’s appeal in this regard ultimately is about forming a “purer” community, and it has been relentless and expansive: When an audience member asked him at a town-hall-style appearance when and how he was going to “get rid of all the Muslims,” he responded that “we’re going to be looking at a lot of different things.” He now also claims that if elected, he will send back all the refugees from Syria who have arrived in the United States: “If I win, they’re going back,” he told one of his approval-roaring campaign crowds. And shortly before he encouraged a crowd that “maybe should have roughed up” a Black Lives Matter protester, he told an interviewer that the movement is “looking for trouble.” Most recently, he tweeted out a graphic taken from a neo-Nazi website purporting to demonstrate (falsely) that black people commit most murders in America (though he later claimed that he hadn’t endorsed the graphic).
That’s almost the letter-perfect embodiment of palingenesis – that is, the myth of the phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes of an entire society in its “golden age.” In the meantime, Trump’s nationalism is evident not just in these statement but are the entire context of his rants against Latino immigrants and Syrian refugees.
This list could go on all day. But eventually, as we consider the attributes of real fascism, we also can begin to discern the difference between that phenomenon and the Trump candidacy.
Fascists have, in the past, always relied upon an independent, movement-driven paramilitary force capable of enacting various forms of thuggery on their opponents (as in the Italian Blackshirts, aka the Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale, and the German Brownshirts, the Sturmabteilung). Trump, however, has no such force at his disposal.
What Trump does have is the avid support not only of various white-supremacist organizations, as well as that of very real paramilitary organizations in the form of the Oath Keepers and the “III Percent” movement, many of whose members are avid Trump backers, but neither of which have explicitly endorsed him. Moreover, Trump has never referenced any desire to form an alliance or to make use of such paramilitary forces.
What Trump has done is wink, nudge, and generally encouraged spontaneous violence as a response to his critics. This includes his winking and nudging at those “enthusiastic supporters” who committed anti-Latino hate crimes, his encouragement of the people at a campaign appearance who assaulted a Latino protester, and most recently, his endorsement of the people who “maybe should have roughed up” the “disgusting” Black Lives Matter protester who interrupted his speech.
That’s a clearly fascistic response. It also helps us understand why Trump is an extraordinarily dangerous right-wing populist demagogue, and not a genuine, in-the-flesh fascist.
A serious fascist would have called upon not just the crowd to respond with violence, but also his paramilitary allies to respond with retaliatory strikes. Trump didn’t do that.
That, in a tiny nutshell, is an example of the problem with Trump’s fascism: He is not really an ideologue, acting out of a rigid adherence to a consistent worldview, as all fascists are. Trump’s only real ideology is the Worship of the Donald, and he will do and say anything that appeals to the lowest common denominator of the American body politic in order to attract their support – the nation’s id, the near-feral segment that breathes and lives on fear and paranoia and hatred.
There’s no question these supporters bring a singular, visceral energy to the limited universe of the GOP primary, though I don’t know anyone who expects that such a campaign can survive the oxygen and exposure of a general election. Indeed, it is in many signs an indication of the doom that is descending upon a Republican Party in freefall, flailing about in a death spiral, that it is finally resorting to a campaign as nakedly fascistic as Trump’s in its attempts to secure the presidency.
This is why Trump has never called upon the shock troops of a paramilitary wing for support, and why he has always kept an arm’s-length distance from the white nationalists and neo-Nazis who have become some of his most enthusiastic backers. He isn’t really one of them.
What he is, as Berlet has explained elsewhere, is a classic right-wing nativist populist demagogue: “His ideology and rhetoric are much more comparable to the European populist radical right, akin to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, the Danish People’s Party or Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. All of them use the common radical right rhetoric of nativism, authoritarianism and populism.”
Of course, it’s also important to understand that fascism, in fact, is a subspecies of right-wing populism, similar to the Klan in nature – that is, its malignant, metastasized version, crazed in its insatiable lust for power, fueled by fear and hatred, and fed by the blood of its vulnerable targets.
Trump is clearly not fascist primarily because he lacks any kind of coherent, or even semi-coherent, ideology. What he represents instead is the kind of id-driven feral politics common to the radical right, a sort of gut-level reactionarism that lacks the rigor and absolutism, the demand for ideological purity, that are characteristic of full-bore fascism.
That does not, however, mean he is any less dangerous to American democracy. Indeed, he may be more dangerous than an outright fascist, who would in reality be far less appealing and far less likely to succeed in the current milieu. What Trump is doing, by exploiting the strands of right-wing populism in the country, is making the large and growing body of proto-fascists in America larger and even more vicious – that is, he is creating the conditions that could easily lead to a genuine and potentially irrevocable outbreak of fascism.
Recall, if you will, the lessons of Milton Mayer in his book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945 – namely, the way these changes happen not overnight, but incrementally, like the slow boiling of frogs:
"You see," my colleague went on, "one doesn’t see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even talk, alone; you don’t want to ‘go out of your way to make trouble.’ Why not?—Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.
… "But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.
"And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jewish swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in—your nation, your people—is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God. The system itself could not have intended this in the beginning, but in order to sustain itself it was compelled to go all the way.”
It is by small steps of incremental meanness and viciousness that we lose our humanity. The Nazis, in the end, embodied the ascension of utter demonic inhumanity, but they didn't get that way overnight. They got that way through, day after day, attacking and demonizing and urging the elimination of those they deemed their enemies.
And this is what has been happening to America – in particular, to the conservative movement and the Republican Party – for a very long time. Donald Trump represents the apotheosis of this, the culmination of a very long-growing trend that really began in the 1990s.
That was when we first saw the popular rise of eliminationist hate talk, wielded with thoughtless glee and great regularity by an increasingly rabid set of right-wing pundits led by Rush Limbaugh, and then deeply codified by the talking heads who have subsequently marched across the sound stages at Fox News. It rose to the surface with the vice-presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin in 2008, followed immediately, in reaction to the election of Barack Obama, by the birth of the Tea Party, which is perhaps the single most significant manifestation of right-wing populism in the nation’s history.
Trump aligned himself very early with the Tea Party elements, remarking in 2011 that “I represent a lot of the ingredients of the Tea Party.” And indeed he does – in particular, with its obeisance to the captains of industry and their untrammeled right to make profits at the expense of everyone else.
This is a phenomenon known as Producerism, and it is one of the hallmarks of right-wing populism. It's accurately defined in Wikipedia as:
a syncretic ideology of populist economic nationalism which holds that the productive forces of society - the ordinary worker, the small businessman, and the entrepreneur, are being held back by parasitical elements at both the top and bottom of the social structure.
... Producerism sees society's strength being "drained from both ends"--from the top by the machinations of globalized financial capital and the large, politically connected corporations which together conspire to restrict free enterprise, avoid taxes and destroy the fortunes of the honest businessman, and from the bottom by members of the underclass and illegal immigrants whose reliance on welfare and government benefits drains the strength of the nation. Consequently, nativist rhetoric is central to modern Producerism. Illegal immigrants are viewed as a threat to the prosperity of the middle class, a drain on social services, and as a vanguard of globalization that threatens to destroy national identities and sovereignty. Some advocates of producerism go further, taking a similar position on legal immigration.
In the United States, Producerists are distrustful of both major political parties. The Republican Party is rejected for its support of corrupt Big Business and the Democratic Party for its advocacy of the unproductive lazy waiting for their entitlement handouts (Kazin, Stock, Berlet & Lyons).
Berlet has written extensively about the long historical association of producerism with oppressive right-wing movements and regimes:
Producerism begins in the U.S. with the Jacksonians, who wove together intra-elite factionalism and lower-class Whites’ double-edged resentments. Producerism became a staple of repressive populist ideology. Producerism sought to rally the middle strata together with certain sections of the elite. Specifically, it championed the so-called producing classes (including White farmers, laborers, artisans, slaveowning planters, and “productive” capitalists) against “unproductive” bankers, speculators, and monopolists above—and people of color below. After the Jacksonian era, producerism was a central tenet of the anti-Chinese crusade in the late nineteenth century. In the 1920s industrial philosophy of Henry Ford, and Father Coughlin’s fascist doctrine in the 1930s, producerism fused with antisemitic attacks against “parasitic” Jews.
The Producerist narrative is why Henry Ford – who, as the ostensible author of The International Jew, a 1920 conspiracist tome that inspired Hitler’s paranoia, and whose capital later helped build the Nazi war machine in the 1930s, was also (and not coincidentally) perhaps the ultimate American enabler of fascism – is such a seminal figure for American right-wing populists, both as a leader in the 1920s and ‘30s, as well as a figure of reverence today. (Glenn Beck, in fact, on several occasions on his old Fox News show referenced Ford as something of a holy figure for his efforts to resist FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s.) The same narrative is also why, in today’s context, Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged – a tendentious novel speculating on the disasters that would befall the world if its great industrial leaders suddenly chose to stop producing – are so important in their mythology.
Right-wing populism is essentially predicated on what today we might call the psychology of celebrity-worship: convincing working-class schlubs that they too can someday become rich and famous -- because when they do, would they want to be taxed heavily? It's all about dangling that lottery carrot out there for the poor stiffs who were never any good at math to begin with, and more than eager to delude themselves about their chances of hitting the jackpot.
The thing about right-wing populism is that it’s manifestly self-defeating: those who stand to primarily benefit from this ideology are the wealthy, which is why they so willingly underwrite it. It might, in fact, more accurately be called "sucker populism."
Nonetheless, right-wing populists have long been part of the larger conservative movement – though largely relegated to its fringes. Some of the more virulent expressions of this populism, including the Posse Comitatus movement, Willis Carto’s Populist Party, and the “Patriot”/militia movement of the 1990s, have been largely relegated to fringe status. However, there have been periods in America’s past when right-wing populism was not thoroughly mainstream but also politically ascendant. Probably the most exemplary of these was during the wave of Ku Klux Klan revival between 1915 and 1930.
This Klan crumbled in the late 1920s under the weight of internal political warfare and corruption; many of its field organizers later turned up in William Dudley Pelley’s overtly fascist Silver Shirts organization of the 1930s. After World War II, most of these groups – as well as the renowned anti-Semite radio preacher Father Charles Coughlin, and lingering American fascist groups like George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party – were fully relegated to fringe status. So, too, were subsequent attempts at reviving right-wing populism, embodied by Willis Carto and his Populist Party, as well as other forms of right-wing populism that cropped up in the latter half of the century, from Robert DePugh’s vigilante/domestic terrorist organization The Minutemen in the 1960s, to the Posse Comitatus and “constitutionalist” tax protesters in the 1970s and ‘80s, to the “militia”/Patriot movement of the 1990s. As it had been since at least the 1920s, this brand of populism was riddled with conspiracist paranoia, xenophobic white tribalism, and a propensity for extreme violence.
Yet beginning in the 1990s, as mainstream conservatives built more and more ideological bridges with this sector – reflected in the increasing adoption of far-right rhetoric within the mainstream – the strands of populism became more and more imbedded in mainstream-conservative dogma, particularly the deep, visceral, and often irrational hatred of the federal government. One of the more popular "mainstream" figures among this bloc in the 1990s was Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. And so when he created something of a sensation with his campaign for the Republican nomination in 2008, it meant that these ideas and agendas started receiving widespread circulation among the mainstream Right -- and with it, an increasing number of conservatives who called themselves "libertarians", when what they really meant was "populists."
But if Ron Paul opened the door for right-wing populism, though, he scarcely could have anticipated the overnight political star who would, in short order, come waltzing through it to great fanfare – namely, Sarah Palin. Hers is a somewhat different, more mainstream-friendly brand of right-wing populism – and as a result, it was embraced by a significantly greater portion of the American electorate.
Her populism emerged for national view shortly after John McCain announced her as his running mate. It was more than just the aggressive, McCarthyite attacks on Obama as a “radical” who “palled around with terrorists” and the paranoid bashing of “liberal elites” -- most of all, there was the incessant suggestion that she and McCain represented “real Americans” and were all about standing up for “the people.”
Populism, yes, but indisputably right-wing, too: socially and fiscally conservative, business-friendly, and hostile to progressive causes. The Producerist narrative was a constant current in Palin’s speeches, particularly when she would get the crowd chanting, “Drill, baby, drill!”
The populism whipped up by Palin’s candidacy became manifest as a national movement in short order with the rise of the Tea Party in 2009. Indeed, not only was the Tea Party overtly a right-wing populist movement, it soon became a major conduit for a revival of the 1990s expression of this populism, the “Patriot”/militia movement. Many of these Tea Partiers are now the same Oath Keepers and “III Percenters” whose members widely support Trump’s candidacy.
Of course, most of these extremists are only one step removed, ideologically speaking, from the neo-Nazis and other white supremacists of the racist right, and both of those segments of the right lean heavily on nativist and authoritarian rhetoric. And there really is no other good word for Trump’s rhetoric, and the behavior of many of his followers, than “fascistic.” So it’s only somewhat natural that Trump’s right-wing populism would be mistaken for fascism – they are, after all, not just kissing cousins, but more akin to siblings.
All of which underscores the central fact: Donald Trump may not be a fascist, but his vicious brand of right-wing populism is not just empowering the latent fascist elements in America, he is leading a whole nation of followers merrily down a path that leads directly to fascism.
Consider, if you will, what did occur in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s remarks about “roughing up” Black Lives Matter protesters: Two nights later, a trio of white supremacists in Minneapolis invaded a Black Lives Matter protest there and shot five people, in an act that had been carefully planned and networked through the Internet.
What this powerfully implies is that Trump has achieved that kind of twilight-zone level of influence where he can simply demonize a target with rhetoric suggestive of violent retribution and his admirers will act out that very suggestion. It’s only a step removed from the fascist leader who calls out his paramilitary thugs to engage in violence.
America, thanks to Trump, has now reached that fork in the road where it must choose down which path its future lies – with democracy and its often fumbling ministrations, or with the appealing rule of plutocratic authoritarianism, ushered in on a tide of fascistic populism. For myself, I remain confident that Americans will choose the former and demolish the latter – that Trump’s candidacy will founder, and the tide of right-wing populism will reach its high-water mark under him and then recede with him.
What is most troubling, though, is the momentum that Trump’s candidacy has given that tide. He may not himself lack any real ideological footing, but he has laid the groundwork for a fascist groundswell that could someday be ridden to power by a similarly charismatic successor who is himself more in the mold of an ideological fascist. And it doesn’t take a very long look down the roll of 2016 Republican candidates to find a couple of candidates who might fit that mold.
Trump may not be fascist, but he is empowering their existing elements in American society; even more dangerously, his Tea Party brand of right-wing populism is helping them grow their ranks, along with their potential to recruit, by leaps and bounds. Not only that, he is making all this thuggery and ugliness seem normal. And that IS a serious problem.