The Donald is a unique threat to American democracy
by MATTHEW GAULT
Words have meaning. When I called Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump a fascist in a recent article for War Is Boring, I meant it. I did not mean “dictatorial,” though he is. I did not mean “authoritarian,” though he is. I meant fascist — a practitioner of virulent and horrifying ideology that poisons everything it touches.
In the 12 hours since 2016’s second presidential debate on Oct. 9, Trump supporters have employed the common language of fascists and called me a cockroach and a parasite, accused me of harboring an unfair bias against Trump and told me I don’t know what “fascism” even means.
They’re right about my bias. I am against Trump. He’s a unique threat to American democracy — a fascist, wannabe dictator who, even with his plummet in the polls, is entirely too close to the becoming the most powerful person on the planet.
I’m well aware of the full meaning of “fascism.” The label fits Trump perfectly. It’s easy to prove.
When Italian author Umberto Eco wrote “Ur-Fascism” for The New York Review of Books in 1995, he sought to give the world a guide to recognize the ideology when it reared its ugly head again.
As a child, Eco had a front row seat for Benito Mussolini’s Italy and everything that came after. This was a man who understood fascism’s consequences and vicissitudes. He knew it could return — and he knew people should stand against it.
For Eco, fascism wasn’t a concrete political system, but a collection of behaviors that, taken together, forged something vile. “Fascism was a fuzzy totalitarianism,” he wrote. “A collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions.”
Fascism adapts and changes, but some things remain constant.
“Fascism became an all-purpose term because one can eliminate from a fascist regime one or more features, and it will still be recognizable as fascist.”
Late in the essay, Eco made a prescient prediction. “There is in our future a T.V. or internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.”
He was right — and that’s where we are now. Trump’s fascism is new. It’s a reality-T.V. kind of fascism. Uniquely American, born to entertain and fed by the internet. Trump is its prophet.
Despite the fuzzy nature of fascism, it does have features that distinguish it from other political ideologies. Eco described them in his essay. Trumpism lines up with all 14 of Eco’s features of eternal fascism.
The first is a cult of tradition, a hearkening back to an earlier time when everything was better. Republicans have long leaned on this trope, often touting the administration of Pres. Dwight Eisenhower from 1953 to 1961 as particularly wonderful and ignoring the racism, class struggles and systemic sexism of the era.
It was a great time … but only for some Americans. When Trump says he wants to make America great again, he’s saying he wants to pull the country back to a time when everything was great. A time that never really existed.
When Trump holds up his Bible, he’s using Christian morality as a prop. He’s telling his supports he’ll bring America back to a simpler time where the world made sense. Notice how he tells the crowd that, in the old days, people would return lost items. That’s a direct appeal to the cult of tradition.
Next comes a rejection of modernism. Trump loves new technology. He tweets through the night. But a rejection of modernism is not necessarily a rejection of modern technology. The Nazis loved new technology, but eschewed modernism in all its other forms — including art and well, people.
This is where Trump’s fear of the modern comes into play. Equal treatment of women, globalism, free trade deals, the free movement of peoples — these are all thoroughly modern ideas that Trump and his supports reject. When Trump calls globalism a false ideology and insists it’s okay to grab women by their genitals, he’s rejecting the modern world.
This rejection of the modern leads to the irrational desire to act for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection,” Eco wrote. “Thinking is a form of emasculation.”
Hundreds of people have asked Trump to elaborate on his plans for defeating Islamic State and dozens of other issues. His answer is always some refrain on “I’ll handle it and it’ll be great, you’ll see.”
Lately, he’s hidden behind secrecy, saying he doesn’t want America’s enemies to know what his plans are. The truth is, when the time comes to act, Trump will do so without forethought. He’s proven this by unthinkingly tweeting about sex tapes at three o’clock in the morning.
This is a man who believes taking counsel is a weakness and listening to advice is a crutch. Sources close to his campaign constantly leak stories to reporters about his inability to focus, his hatred of debate preparation and his determination to, well, just wing it.
Fascists take action without considering the ramifications. So does Trump.
Fascists cannot stand analytical criticism and refuse to ever accept that they’re wrong. Trump says crime is on the rise. It isn’t. Trump says the inner cities are war zones. They aren’t. Trump claimed global warming was a Chinese hoax, then denied he’d said it. It’s not … and he did.
When caught in a lie or an untruth, Trump doubles down on his assertions and closes his mind to new information. “For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason,” Eco explained. Trump has repeatedly taken advantage of the legal system to bully his critics. NBC sat on the Access Hollywood recordings containing Trump’s lewd and predatory comments about women because it feared a lawsuit.
During the second presidential debate, Trump promised to appoint a special prosecutor to pursue criminal charges against his rival Hillary Clinton for a crime the FBI has already reprimanded her for. He wants to jail his political opponent. That’s fascism.
Fascists exploit people’s fear of The Other. They seek to separate people based on cultural and racial differences. This has been a hallmark of the Trump campaign.
He’s labeled Mexicans as rapists, promised the build a wall along the border with Mexico, called for a ban on Muslim immigrants to the United States and questioned a federal judge’s fitness to serve because of his ethnicity.
Trump claims he will unite the American people, but his actions indicate otherwise. This is a real-estate mogul the U.S. Justice Department sued twice for discriminatory practices. Racism, bigotry and xenophobia are the weapons he deploys to energize his base.
That’s why prominent white nationalist David Duke and thousands of other racists say Trump speaks for them.
“One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups,” Eco wrote. “In our time, when the old ‘proletarians’ are becoming petty bourgeois … the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.”
Trump operates as Eco predicted. He has rallied that new majority around him.
Trump appeals to voters from America’s frustrated middle class — the highly-skilled and poorly-educated men and women left behind by globalism who feel ignored by political elites. These people deserve better than the lot they’ve drawn — and they deserve better than Trump.
Fascists obsess over international plots against their party and country. Sure enough, Trump tells his supports the U.S. political system is rigged against them and that China and Mexico are beating American on trade deals.
“The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia,” Eco explained. “But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside.”
Trump’s form of this feature is different. He doesn’t just obsess over bankers, but also political elites, who he insists have failed the American people and rigged the system in their own favor. This is, in my mind, one of the most dangerous features of Trumpism, because it promises to live on if he loses the election in November.
Trump is, in advance, blaming a conspiracy for his likely, eventually loss. Some of his followers have already pledged to take to the streets after election day. There could be violence.
“The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies,” Eco wrote. “However, the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”
When talking globalization and trade, Trump tells his supporters that other countries are laughing at America. “China’s taking the minerals on the other side,” he told the National Press Club in 2014. “How is it possible that we can be so stupid?”
In Trump’s view, the United States is suffering humiliation at the hands of an ascendant China. Once he’s in power, he promises to fix the problem by renegotiating all the deals. We’re told America will win so hard that we’ll get tired of it.
How will we he do this? See feature three.
Trump has promised to commit war crimes if he’s elected. He’s said he won’t risk war with Russia over Syria, but he’s promised to murder the families of suspected terrorists, fill up Guantanamo Bay with prisoners and double down on torture. Ex-president George W. Bush’s global war on terror is one with no end, and Trump is eager to escalate it.
“For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle,” Eco wrote. “Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare.”
It is important to note that, after 15 years of war, this portion of fascist ideology has become ingrained in the American public. The long years of warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq have changed us — and not for the better. This is a fascist virtue Clinton also extols.
Trump calls his opponents losers, haters and failures. He despises weakness in all its forms. That’s fascist. He routinely says his supporters are the best in the world, the best of all Americans. He makes them feel special, promises he’ll take care of them and make them strong again, while at the same time spitting on his rivals.
“Ur-Fascism can only advocate a popular elitism,” Eco explained. “Every citizen belongs to the best people of the world, the members of the party are the best among the citizens, every citizen can (or ought to) become a member of the party.”
When a fellow Republican fails to support Trump or even withdraws support, Trump turns on them. Even his running mate Mike Pence isn’t safe from his wrath. During the second debate, Trump said he hadn’t spoken with Pence and did not agree with him about Russian aggression in Syria.
In Trump’s eyes, his closest Republican ally is one step away from being a total loser.
Trump supporters feel special. They’re not just voting in an election, but participating in a movement. Trump makes them feel like heroes. He’s empowering them to take back their country.
The clearest example of this comes from Trump’s campaign website, where he entreats his supporters to sign up to be poll-watchers. This is a terrible idea with a gross historical legacy. Poll-watchers often intimidate voters and corrupt the electoral process.
That doesn’t matter to Trump. He wants everyone to be a hero, and being a poll-watcher is an easy way to fight against the allegedly rigged system he so despises.
“Everybody is educated to become a hero,” Eco explained. “In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.”
“Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters,” Eco continued.
“This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons — doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.”
Trump doesn’t need weapons to subsidize his virility, he’s got huge towers instead. He has said he would sleep with his daughter were she not related to him, assured the American people of the hefty size of his penis and bragged on tape about sexually assaulting women.
For Trump, sexuality is nothing but another means of dominating others and exercise his will to power. He makes a beautiful thing — sex — ugly.
Trump claims he is the voice of the American people and that only he can fix the corrupt system that, in fact, he has benefited from his entire life. During his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination, he vowed to work on behalf of the American people to destroy the country’s political elites.
“Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism,” Eco wrote.
This dangerous orange creature has undermined a large portion of the American public’s faith in democracy. He wants to control a system he does not believe in. He wants to use the system to destroy itself.
Eco’s final feature of fascism is Newspeak. “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning. But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.”
Trump is the American T.V. fascist Eco warned us about in 1995. He uses a childish and confusing speech pattern to entertain his followers and confuse his enemies. Like some Orwellian villain, he also deploys softball terms to blunt the edge of his wilder plans. A Muslim ban becomes “extreme vetting.” Internment camps are “safe zones.” Authoritarian domination of trade partners is “winning.”
He’s a fascist. Plain and simple. When I sat down to write this article, go through the checklist and find supporting documentation, I didn’t realize it would be so easy — nor did I think Trump would meet all 14 criteria.
Pulling up clips depicting Trump saying horrible things, expressing racist sentiments, shit-talking America and explaining how much better its enemies are … didn’t take much digging.
Also note that many of the videos of Trump doing and saying horrible things come from pro-Trump YouTube channels. His fans love that he’s a fascist. It’s what they want — a strong man who will take care of them, scare off the bad people and tell them what to do.
This is important because it means Trumpism won’t die with his likely defeat in November. Trumpism will survive, and Trump himself more likely than not will double down on his own sick ideology. He may do something as benign as start a new television network or something as deplorable as call for an armed revolution, but he will take action.
To do any less would show weakness.