Flirting with fascism under Donald Trump
Updated: Nov 20, 2020
A new strain of an old virus has emerged under the outgoing president of the world's largest democracy.
President Donald Trump has achieved several goals he outlined in his 2016 presidential campaign during his time in Washington. And he has come through on his promises to change Washington, but it hasn’t been for the good of democracy.
Instead, Trump’s Washington has drawn comparisons to Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany in the 20th century rather than past American presidents and Democratic leaders.
College of Charleston visiting assistant professor David Hinton teaches that democracy is the easiest type of government to turn fascist, based on Hannah Arendt’s political theory concerning radicalized democracy. She outlined this in her books on the rise of fascism, and it seems very familiar.
Arendt’s political theory: How democracy becomes radicalized
Political theorist Hannah Arendt believes there are three steps to a democracy becoming radicalized:
First, a leader comes into politics and mobilizes a non-political population - people who didn’t feel like they were a part of the current political conversation - to suddenly become part of the conversation.
Second, these “outsider” groups that were against the party system use that party system to take over and put their ideology in power.
Third, once in power, the leader uses lies to prey upon the gullibility of the masses and stoke cynicism. As a result, the political minority effectively becomes the majority.
Hinton points out that at its core, fascism is just the reactionary form of government against democracy. Once democracy is radicalized by a minority that has become the new political majority, its new power brokers become a symbol of total opposition to democracy itself.
Arendt believed authoritarianism stoked distrust in government, breeding cynicism and belief of rampant corruption - all the while allowing for the blind faith in a leader not connected to the traditional governmental institutions.
Arendt predicted the theoretical rise of a Donald Trump
The German-born political philosopher didn't know she would be predicting the rise of Trumpism with her three steps to radicalization of democracy, but Trump's path to the presidency is eerily similar.
Trump ultimately gained his popularity for the 2016 presidential candidacy when he mobilized the "working man," who had traditionally been non-political. A far-right wing of the Republican Party, known as the tea party, that mobilized in 2009, used Trump to attack "the party system" and adopt the tea party's more racially and socially conservative party agenda.
As the GOP gained power in Washington and won the White House in 2016, it abandoned the tea party's concern for fiscal spending but maintained its politics of outrage and mistrust in government, giving populism new life.
With the non-political becoming political and Trump occupying the spot in the Oval Office, he continued to stoke cynicism and rely on the gullibility of the masses. The non-political minority became the political majority.
And this is where fascism comes into play.
So what is fascism?
Fascism cannot be left in 20th century Europe. Fascism is simply defined by certain characteristics, almost like a formulae of fascism.
Troy Paddock, German history professor at Southern Connecticut State University, has seven characteristics he uses to explain a fascist government to his students.
A fascist government:
Uses violence and propaganda (repeated repeated repeated...designed (to persuade the masses, not intellectuals)
Elevates an aggrieved past
Is Anti-communist (interested in its nation and people, not the global united workers)
Adopts a ‘cult of the leader’ mentality in which the single greatest sin is to disagree with the leader
Employs reactionary modernism
These characteristics don’t apply directly to making or enforcing laws. That is simply authoritarianism, and fascism serves as a foundation for making an authoritarian leader possible.
This authoritarianism could be violent, and it could be oppressive, much like anti-immigration and anti-protest measures or pro-prison legislation. It may not be clearly visible at first as repetition of propaganda to discount the truth would be a primary objective.
An excellent example of this can be seen in Donald Trump’s behavior and rhetoric since losing his bid for a second term as U.S. president in the Nov. 3 election. Since the polls closed on election night, Trump has been talking incessantly about the fraudulency of the mail-in-votes and stoking the belief that voter fraud was rampant, despite offering no proof.
But Trump’s fascist behavior goes back long before the 2020 election, so let’s put his rhetoric to the test in Dr. Paddock’s list.
Does Donald Trump fit the characteristics of fascism?
Spoiler, he fits every characteristic, and here’s how:
Fascism is characterized by an anti-egalitarianism - or a thinking that not all men and women are created equal.
Trump has made it very clear what he thinks about African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, women, and people with disabilities.
In more recent years, during his time in Washington, he has shown clear disrespect and dehumanization toward women and people of color.
He has had multiple sexual assault and sexual harassment charges, including one prominent case filed by E. Jean Carroll, a journalist and advice columnist for Elle Magazine who has filed a rape charge against the president. In a series for The Atlantic, Carroll interviews other women who have also claimed sexual assault or harassment by Trump. She quotes one, Natasha Stoynoff, who compares herself and her fellow accusers to “canaries in the coal mine,” the first to warn the world about “the essential nature of the 45th president of the United States.”
Trump also famously said, “You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy,” when talking about women, which was captured on tape and revealed via Access Hollywood just before the 2016 presidential election.
Yet, it is not only women he dehumanizes. It is also people of color, even citizens of the United States.
In 2011, Trump questioned whether former President Barack Obama was born in the United States - launching his“birtherism movement” against Obama - and usually referred to Obama as Barack Hussein Obama to highlight a Muslim middle name. He even went so far as to dispatch a team of investigators to find Obama’s birth records in Hawaii.
At the same time, a Manhattan developer decided to build an Islamic Cultural Center on a site in Lower Manhattan. Trump was brought on the Letterman Show to talk about it. He said that it was a very inappropriate and insensitive project, suggesting that the Islamic religion and culture were at fault for, “blowing up buildings...and doing lots of bad stuff.”
These two instances reveal Trump’s anti-Muslim and xenophobic sentiments, which continued even after taking office in 2016.
Among the most obvious included attempting a “Muslim Ban” on people from predominantly Muslim countries coming into the United States; referring to African countries as “shithole” nations; wanting more European immigrants; and saying that immigrants from Nigeria “would never go back to their huts” after being in the United States.
There has also been the prominent act of what Dr. Paddock describes as Trump’s racist tendencies via his “courtship of white nationalists.”
A major tenet of fascism is that there are grievances to be avenged, that a group has not been treated fairly or justly and so they must “right that wrong” by coming to power and punishing those who were previously in power.
From his first presidential candidacy back in 2015, Trump has been arguing that Democrats and the media have not treated him fairly.
He has called out specific news outlets and his chief of staff emphasized his message calling the media the, “enemy of the American people.” Trump called out the press for “false, horrible, fake reporting”. He said that reporters are, “very dishonest people”. Then, proceeded to say that the New York Times was a failing newspaper, CNN was terrible, and Buzzfeed was garbage.
Trump did not just stop there; he tweeted a threatening message to said news sources:
Coining the term “fake news” and using it to his advantage against all bad press has become his motis operandi.
In a recent interview with Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes, Trump again complained that she wasn’t being “fair.” He also claimed she was biased and negative - but neither he nor Vice President Mike Pence fully answered her questions.
He posted the interview looking for support against Stahl and the way she handled the interview, referring to it as a “vicious attempted ‘takeout.’” He then posted on Twitter, saying: “Watch her constant interruptions & anger. Compare my full, flowing, and ‘magnificently brilliant’ answers to their ‘Q’s’.”
The interview wasn’t supposed to be published in full. Yet, the White House published to show the public what he claimed was the unfairness of the media against him and his actions - something he has been claiming from the start of his presidency.
'Cult of the leader' mentality
Fascist leaders cultivate a following that sees them as the only answer to their problems, and they do this through a variety of methods, including discrediting governmental institutions, discrediting the free press, and using propaganda to sell their power to the masses.
This has definitely been a trait of Trump’s leadership. Valuing loyalty above any quality, those who have disagreed with him have been ostracized:
"It is possible to see Trump’s fixation on loyalty, the pledging of it, the proof of it, the failure to receive it or provide it, as the animating force behind so many of the defining events of his first year in office. Consider James Comey’s extraordinary dismissal; the “Dear Leader” Cabinet meetings convened for aides to bestow slavish praise; public humiliations of his attorney general and secretary of state; the banishment and subsequent contrition of top adviser Steve Bannon; speculation that Robert Mueller won’t last long as special counsel and the parade of lockstep minions whose forced exits from the campaign or the administration have not squelched their public displays of devotion. By presidential standards, these episodes are bizarre. But in Trumpworld, they fit a distinct pattern. They all trace back to a notion of loyalty that Trump absorbed when he was young—and has never abandoned." - Politico, "I need loyalty"
In 2018, midway through Trump’s term, the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was in full swing. Then Attorney General Jeff Sessions got the brunt of the consequences for this when he was fired by Trump and replaced with known Trump loyalist Matthew G. Whitaker as acting AG.Whitaker was a known loyalist who felt similarly to Trump about the Mueller investigation and had previously stated, “the special counsel’s investigation was a mere witch hunt.”
Democrats immediately demanded that Whitaker not take the lead on the investigation due to conflicts of interest - Trump.
The use of propaganda by fascist leaders is one of the most obvious signs in hindsight but not always easy to notice real time. The trick, as Dr. Paddock pointed out, is that the leader will say it over and over, presenting it as if it is the truth- until it becomes the truth.
Trump has been using propaganda on his Twitter, via Fox News interviews, at his rallies, and in his speeches. There are many phrases used on multiple occasions, on multiple platforms.
Some of his favorite phrases to repeat include, “Believe me,” “We’re going to make...” and “A lot of money.”
Trump also reiterates the same talking points, as hidden propaganda. He has lied so often that a Toronto newspaper has a lie tracker for Donald Trump, and he hasn’t just said these lies once. He’s repeated them many times, again and again.
The most recent lie tracker from The Washington Post, has Donald Trump up to 22,247 false or misleading claims.
Some claims he has repeated that are in fact not true, include comments about China, the economy, and immigration.
“Within three short years, we built the strongest economy in the history of the world....In a new term as president, we will again build the greatest economy in history.” - Repeated 407 times
“We passed the largest package of tax cuts and regulation cuts by far in American history.” - Repeated 232 times
“The wall is being built. It's going to be finished very soon.” - Repeated 262 times
“...no borders, open borders -- everybody just pours right into our country.” - Repeated 196 times
“We took in billions from China." - Repeated 188 times
“For 25 years, China was taken in anywhere between 200 billion, with a B, and $550 billion from the United States." - Repeated 186 times
Promoter of violence
Trump has repeatedly promoted violence - toward journalists, toward Democrats, toward fellow Americans - and he has done so in the open via Tweets and at his rallies.
He promoted police violence and even caused violence by sending Border Patrol and Homeland Security to Portland to threaten its own citizens during strings of Black Lives Matter protests.
One of the larger focus points this past year was that Black Lives Matter. This specific string of protests were a reaction to the many murders of Black men and women this year by not just citizens, but also police. George Floyd’s death was one of the main catalysts for what may be the largest Civil Rights movement in American history.
This movement spanned the entire country and popped up in many other countries after people saw footage of the murder of George Floyd. This was a prime example of police brutality against people of color. But once people started marching for George Floyd, he wasn’t the only one to march for.
After George Floyd was killed by police, there were others: Rayshard Brooks (27), Daniel Prude (41), Breonna Taylor (26), and many more.
After strings of peaceful protests where protestors had to endure the police brutality they were protesting against. This police brutality was seen in many places in the United States; peaceful protests often ended in tear gas and rubber bullets and many jailed. Even in Charleston.
Trump threatened much of the same in his tweets about Washington.
This is exactly how an authoritarian government, under the ideals of fascism, controls the people. Many saw it for exactly that as governors compared his actions to authoritarianism and vowed to pursue legislation or lawsuits to stop him.
Hyper-Ethnonationalist and Anti-Communist
A fascist leader believes in the extreme superiority of his own nation and by extension is not a communist because of the communist support for uniting the working class around the world.
A fascist leader is only interested in his nation. And it is not a support of all people in the nation but rather a specific ethnic majority.
In the case of Trump and America, it is a constant and blatant propping up of white nationalists. He reacted to a 2017 protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which neo-Nazis attacked the protesters by saying there are “very fine people on both sides.”
He also has called immigrants to the United States drug dealers, criminals, and rapists.
Endorsed by the KKK, Trump also told the Proud Boys, a neo-Nazi group, to “stand back and stand by” when asked during a presidential debate to denounce the white supremacist organization. Despite repeated prompts in the debate, he refused to condemn white supremacy.
Trump's anti-communist views are not that different from all American leaders who support capitalism and democracy over communism as a form of government. But to the extent that Trump has sought to punish communist governments like that of China, his anti-egalitarianism and anti-communism are very consistent with a fascist leader. He even discussed banning travel by China’s Communist Party members and their families to the U.S. in July.
The last characteristic of a fascist leader is their reactionary modernism, which simply means they embrace modern technology as a way to control messaging and communication.
Trump has done this primarily through his use of Twitter, where he knows he can say almost anything he wants on the platform, with very little oversight or correction of falsehoods. And he knows he can use it to his advantage.
In a technological world, messages are coming from everywhere. With such an overload of information - and a lot of disinformation - it is not so easy to find out if information is true or false, and Trump uses this to his benefit.
An example of such intended misinformation could be seen recently when Trump retweeted lies made by QAnon, an organization of believers in conspiracy theories such as that Joe Biden had the military members responsible for killing Osama bin Laden killed.
Savannah Guthrie asked him in a 20-minute town hall why he retweeted the conspiracy theory:
Guthrie: “This week you retweeted to your 87 million followers a conspiracy theory that Joe Biden orchestrated to have SEAL Team Six, the Navy SEAL Team Six, killed to cover the fake death of Osama bin Laden."
Trump: “That was a retweet. That was an opinion of somebody. That was a retweet. I put it out there. People can decide for themselves."
Whether Trump thinks people can decide the truth for themselves or not, he shared false information intentionally to sow doubt.
This is outlined by the original modern fascist himself - Mussolini - according to Dr. Hinton.
"He fits the definition that is laid out by Mussolini," the professor said.
Why historians worry about Donald Trump
Donald Trump is not just a random fascist who can be voted out and then everything will be okay again. He is dangerous even out of office.
According to Dr. Paddock, “[Trump] could do as much damage to institutions within the U.S. as Hitler did,” referring to the Fuhrer's destruction of people’s faith in their government.
Dr. Paddock doesn’t stop there, adding that Trump already has been damaging the institutions within the U.S. democratic government structure. These aren’t empty claims, he notes, as there is much evidence this is already happening - especially in the aftermath of the November election that Trump is trying to dispute with claims of fraud.
Dr. Paddock also points out that the governmental bodies charged with checking the executive branch are not doing so - the Supreme Court and the U.S. Justice Department - allowing Trump to go unchecked in his abuse of power.
One of the most obvious ways this has happened is Trump replacing Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General with loyalist William Barr.
Barr has proved time and again his loyalty to the president, promoting such conspiracy theories as the FBI spied on the Trump campaign in 2015 and downplaying Trump's attempt to bribe the Ukranian president to investigate his political rival.
"It's a deliberate miscarriage of justice,” Paddock warns. "We're not going to recover overnight.”
Trump and the 2020 election
Perhaps the most obvious example of many of Trump's most fascist characteristics can be seen in his handling of the lead up to and the outcome of the recent presidential election.
From early attempts at voter suppression all the way to false claims of voter fraud, Trump and the Republicans have been undermining Americans' faith in government, utilizing propaganda - and even stoking violence - particularly via Twitter to state his case.
The current voter suppression leading up to the 2020 November election was a direct result of the “gutting” of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, which had been designed to curb voter suppression tactics historically used by the Republican party. The act mainly did this by taking away power of the federal government to block changes to elections that historically suppressed the votes of people of color.
In this post-2013 environment, voter suppression was apparent, even during the Primary elections, particularly in red states like Georgia.
Many who requested ballots never got them and were unable to vote in person.
For those who did try to vote in person, new machines kept breaking down, and no one in such polling places knew how to fix them. Then, polling places ran out of ballots for people when the machines were down. The average wait time was over five hours outside some polling stations.
Marniea Mitchell was one such voter, who got to the polling place five minutes before it opened. She ended up waiting in line for over three hours and had only moved about 60 feet. Everyone was waiting outside in almost 90° weather, moving nowhere.
Another voter named Terri Russell was waiting in the same line for the same amount of time. She has bronchitis and asthma, but even so came out to vote because “I refuse not to be heard, and so I’m standing in line.”
Georgia had many in-person polling issues, but they happened primarily in Fulton County, the county that includes Atlanta and one of the largest Black populations in the country.
In New York, over 100,000 mail-in ballots were thrown out in the primary, and there was no evidence of fraudulent votes by mail.
But these types of voter suppression tactics did not just happen in Georgia and New York. They happened across the country as states fought for the rights to let all citizens vote easily - particularly during a pandemic when large groups waiting in a line to vote was not advised. States had to fight to allow mail-in ballots. Texas refused to allow "coronavirus" to be a reason for requesting an absentee ballot. States like Oklahoma and South Carolina fought over a requirement that absentee ballots must require a witness signature or be notarized.
Leah Aden, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, litigated many voting rights cases even before the pandemic. "To leave that already flawed system unchanged in a pandemic is injurious.”
At the same time Trump was attempting to suppress the vote, he was also sowing seeds of doubt in the voting process, setting the stage after the election to claim he only lost because of fraud.
Now two weeks after the election, Trump and the GOP have filed more than 30 lawsuits in battleground states attempting to claim fraud in various counties but have won only minor victories (such as getting a hand recount) in just a handful of courts. So far no actual fraud has been found nor have votes been thrown out and the outcome in the election remains unchanged.
In a blatant attempt to override the choice of the voters, Trump even summoned two Republican lawmakers from Michigan to the White House to presumably request that they choose different state electors who would change the outcome in Michigan that Biden won in favor of Trump.
But to have the nation's democratic leader undermine the institution of a free and fair election is what Dr. Paddock believes is the most dangerous sign.
“I think people forget you can have an authoritarian democracy,” Dr. Paddock said.