The United States did the unthinkable on November 8th: we elected a fascist. No, I don’t mean we elected a Nazi or any leader from the 1930s in Europe or Asia. But we also didn’t elect a neo-fascist, or a proto-fascist. Those caveats diminish the fascism that we face: Trump’s so-called “political campaign” is a fascism movement. While Trump’s fascism occurs in a different historic context than its late-19th and early 20th-century predecessors, and therefore employs different practices, ideas and methods, it nevertheless shares essential elements that distinguish fascism from other forms of politics.
Following Roger Griffin’s Fascism (1995), I view fascism not as a coherent ideology, but rather a set of claims and stories that form a “mythic core” (Griffin 1995: 3). According to Griffin in The Nature of Fascism (1993), fascism is “a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultranationalism” (Griffin 1993:2). In other words, fascism articulates a central myth of national rebirth that drives broad popular support and action. The stories fascists tell animate a powerful emotive response, and a powerful following — exactly what we have seen building in America in 2016. What are the specific elements of Trump’s American fascism?
First: a story of the nation. According to Trump, “America” is a nation with its own ontology. America isn’t “the United States,” a state with a Constitution, a republican form of government, institutions, and laws. Instead, America is an embodied form; an almost life-like being that exists independently of its people and the government. When Trump declares that he wants to “Make America Great Again,” he articulates a vision of America in which there is a national essence akin to the German volk or the Italian “We dream of a Roman Italy.” For Trumpian fascism, America is not its state institutions; it is its essential character. And, of course, the people who hear this ultranationalism see themselves as the “we” embodied within the American nation, and everyone else as enemies of that nation.
Second: a story of decline. For Trump, America is “collapsing,” much of our society is a “disaster,” “outsiders pour” over the border, and “everything is broken.” Too often, Trump’s rhetoric is dismissed as out-of-control, aggressive hyperbole. But Trump’s hyperbole is so much more than evidence that he is “temperamentally unfit” as Hillary Clinton argued, or a “carnival barker” as Martin O’Malley famously said. Instead, Trump is presenting a fascist story about what has happened over time to “our” nation. Rather than specifying when and where America was “great,” he leaves that vision up to the imagination of his audience. Instead, he shouts the imminent collapse of this mythic “America” that holds such emotive meaning for so many people. And millions of Americans came to view their own plight (both economically and culturally) as essential part of the national decline.
Third: a story of rebirth. Because so many Americans have been experiencing economic, political and social distress, they are hungry for a story of rejuvenation. We are going to make America “so, so great,” Trump averred. His opponents, too often, described his speech as bumbling incoherence, but his supporters hear it as reawakening for America. Trump’s supporters are so enthusiastic not because they are raging bigots, or because they are uniquely in agreement with his policies, but because they are hungry for a story of greatness. That’s why critiques of Trump’s policy ideas that focus on his lack of specificity and ideological-coherence miss the point: the policies are immaterial to the story of rebirth.
Fourth: a story of one person’s unique place in history. When Trump declares that “I alone” can fix what ails America, he is being so much more than a bombastic, egotistical maniac. He is placing himself organically at the center of the national rebirth. While it appears to some that Trump is the very definition of a power-hungry egomaniac, to his supporters Trump is an altruist, offering himself as a warrior for the rebirth of the nation. This is commonly known as the “charismatic leader” component of fascism, but those words tend to normalize the sense in which Trump’s followers see him as a soldier for the nation.
Finally: a story of communal sacrifice. Trump calls on his supporters to sacrifice for their nation much as soldiers do. These fascist soldiers willingly devote themselves to their nation, achieving a transcendent sense of meaning. In his speeches — which in a different context, could have been characterized as a call to service — Trump asks of his supporters to sacrifice with him. He calls on his supporters to help him “blow up” the institutions of government in Washington and the “rigged system,” and to stop the “establishment” from protecting that system. In effect, then, Trump’s fascism turns the nation against the state.
These are the essential elements of American fascism. When we focus on what he says — the misogyny, the racism, the xenophobia, the policy incoherence, the inability to articulate complete sentences — we miss why he is saying it: to frame American fascism. And now we will have to live with American fascism. It is difficult now to know the contours of American fascism. What policies Trump pursues, what police powers he expands, what rights he limits. But we can be sure that during this period of American history we will witness at home something we thought was relegated to other times and other places. American fascism is upon us.
10 thoughts on “American Fascism”
Scary. Especially when you think that neither German nor Italian fascism were defeated electorally or by social movements. It took literal, catastrophic war.
Horrifying. I want to say only that the racism, misogyny and xenophobia are built into the myth. Calling his supporters racist, etc. is on target — the myth itself has the “cleansing” of all bad elements in its fabric. I truly hope that war is not the way out and I truly hope (I think futile) that Trump does not start using nuclear weapons because an global war/retaliation is likely and it is unthinkable.
Thank you for this. It also speaks to the disproportionate numbers of Christians of various denominations who voted for Trump, as the skeletal structure of the narrative and its promises mirrors those of a Christian narrative of salvation via rebirth that only committing to a great figure can facilitate. Alongside the language of collapse (end times) and sacrifice, there can be no mistaking the appeal of a familiar though transformed narrative that speaks to a well-ensconced epistemological frame.
I do not understand why the fascist argument resonated with voters during a time in which the US and even the rest of the world isn’t in that bad of shape. I could understand the response if we were in the midst of recession, facing high unemployment or hyperinflation or something… I just don’t get it.
We are collapsing culturally. Whether you agree with trump or not, it is a reality for millions of people that our culture and way of life has changed drastically, and in their eyes it is for the worse, a specially whites and males think that way.
And to be honest, i tend to agree.
Thanks for the thought provoking post!
I agree that Trump skirts many of the political lines of fascism, but I also worry that this label is being used too liberally because of the knee-jerk reactions to his politics. I think we can definitely call Trump somebody with authoritarian or proto-dictatorial politics, but as Robert Paxton, one of the foremost scholars on Fascism today pointed out in an interview earlier this year, there are also many things about fascism as a historical phenomenon that have nothing to do with Trump or the present state of the US.
I worry about using this term too casually, and erasing a lot of important historical factors that are not in play today.
But I do definitely agree with your analysis on the use of the mythic narrative about America, and the emotive appeal this has with many people. Somehow he was able to craft a narrative in which all of his political and business failings vanished, and only those of Clinton prevailed, at least in the mind of many of his supporters. I would love to see someone try and do an analysis of his messaging and how he was able to overcome such clearly offensive political positions and claims when it came to voting.
I have felt you’re fears and intuitions since Trump mentioned his plan for a muslim registry… But if you want or need evidence as to the kinds of young people Trump is inspiring to become publicly racist and fascist, read this: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/10/richard-spencer-trump-alt-right-white-nationalist
Name calling doesn’t help the reality. Fanning the flames of anger and hatred is worse. All we have witnessed is a free society exorcising it’s right to elect officials whom they believe may be able to solve their problems. In many people’s opinions, (including Michael Moore’s) Mr. Obama has not done this. They did not believe Mrs. Clinton would be able to do this with more of the same. Trump in fact said reprehensible things. He is accused of some awful things. So was Bill Clinton. So was Mrs. Clinton. If we only excuse the people we like, those who think as we do, what does that make us? Rise above folks. Move forward. Remember to research your candidates. Insist on honesty and good boundaries from all, not just the people with whom we disagree. Yes, I was shocked on Wednesday morning also. My dismay has only grown when I see on the news that those who protest hate beat a man because they think he was a Trump supporter. That is wrong all day, everyday.
Seems like you need a little more research…
I understand the concern with Trump’s ethno-nationalist ideology, but remember Mussolini’s definition of fascism–it is the merger of corporate and government power. By this measure, Hillary is a fascist, and so is Barack Obama. End fascism within the Left. Otherwise, Republicans will be in control for the foreseeable future.