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.