After weeks (years, really) of debate on the subject I realized I’d never really committed to writing my argument about why I think it’s appropriate to talk about fascism in regards to Trump and Trumpism. I do not think it’s so straightforward that Trump or the preponderance of his followers are self-conscious fascists. I think critics of the fascism position have correctly pointed out that the number of hardcore, self-avowed fascists in the United States is quite small and not organized into a formidable force, but nevertheless I would say that Trump represents an incipient or inchoate fascism, as others have argued, and moreover that Trumpism has a fascist structure.
What do I mean by this? Trump’s politics contains an inspired, charismatic leader (“I alone can fix it”) on a mission to restore a diseased national body (“Make America Great Again,” Crippled America, etc.), standing in the way of this are corrupt elites and various unclean ethnic minorities, the use of street and paramilitary violence is part of the solution to this corruption, removing obstacles to the leader’s will. Further, no possible abrogation of the providential leader’s power can be legitimate: it is always ipso facto fraudulent, part of the web of deceit spun by the corrupt elites. Often these elites are imagined to be in vast international conspiracies against the good people of the true nation.
Here I’m following Roger Griffin’s work on Fascism, where he defines generic fascism’s “mythic core” as a “vision of the (perceived) crisis of the nation as betokening the birth-pangs of a new order. It crystallizes the image of the national community, once purged and rejuvenated, rising phoenix-like from the ashes of a morally bankrupt state system and the decadent culture associated with it.” (Griffin, 1995) Or to put it in his more technical terminology: “Fascism is a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultranationalism.” (Griffin, 1993).
This fascist structure of Trumpism, its mythic core, is why hardcore, self-conscious fascists like neo-Nazis and alt-right groups welcomed the emergence of Trump so enthusiastically: they knew this was their kind of politics even if they knew Trump was not an ideologically self-conscious fascist in the way they might like. But they felt with Trump a certain kind of political practice had arrived. Of course, Paxton has pointed out ideological coherence is not the key part of fascist movements, which often revise and abandon their programs in the course of seeking power; the aim of seeking power is what really organizes the movement. Here I’m following Paxton’s observation that “Power came first, then doctrine.”
This does not mean that Trumpism or fascism will be a powerful or lasting part of American politics. Trump never could accomplish popularity and his attempts to seize power were clownish and laughable. I am hopeful that Trumpism will be looked at in the future as a failed fascism, but I do think it’s important to see that this kind of political fantasy does have a foothold in American politics and to recognize that these types of politics are now being practiced. Practically, that does not entail a security-minded “state of emergency” or total political discipline to fight off fascism, after all it appears to be a pretty weak or withering movement. But I do think we need an honest assessment that this sort of ultra-reactionary mass politics has really appeared, just as it has in other mass democracies. I think democracy itself is triumphing over this incipient fascism: it’s just not popular—people don’t like it,— and I don’t imagine it will take a form that has more popular appeal than Trump’s lite, vaudeville, reality tv, insult comic version. But who knows.