I experienced several startling moments while reading historian Robert Paxton‘s 2004 The Anatomy of Fascism during these early days of Trump’s presidency. My point is not that Trump is a fascist – he’s probably too stupid and too poorly read to be a fascist – but he does, at the very least, have authoritarian tendencies. He has helped to reveal and mobilize those forces in our country that could accept a semi-democratic and white supremacist authoritarianism. I’ll highlight some of these tendencies over the next few posts through some quotes from The Anatomy of Fascism.
Paxton identifies nine elements of the “emotional lava that set fascism’s foundations” in inter-war Europe. Not all of them apply to America today, but some of them are alarming. Here are four relevant elements (page 41):
the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;
Trump campaigned substantially on a message of white men as victims of conservative and liberal elites, the press, blacks, immigrants, and political correctness. Recall during the general election campaign Trump himself and some of his supporters, including elected officials, called for assassination, coup, revolts, and violent revolution if Clinton won. Trump himself was coy about whether or not he would accept the results of the election if he lost.
Trump also repeatedly egged on his supporters to attack their opponents during his campaign rallies.
dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;
Trump invoked an image of decline with his phrase “American carnage” during his inaugural speech and, during his campaign, specifically targeted the resentment of white working-class men whose income and job security have declined during the deindustrialization of America led by America’s economic and political elites of both major parties. And that’s an easy case to make. Sure, it’s too simple to blame NAFTA alone for the decline of good-paying industrial jobs and labor unions; America’s deindustrialization began well before NAFTA. But that decline was substantially the result of choices made by America’s elites. There’s nothing natural or preordained about deindustrialization. Trump also stoked white working-class resentment of immigrants, blaming them for declining wages.
the need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s destiny;
During his nomination acceptance speech, Trump stated, “I alone can fix [the system].” He also told his supporters, “I am your voice.” Trump, by his own force of will, was supposed to achieve what no other president could or would do. He didn’t need concrete policies or the ability to build coalitions to achieve his goals. He didn’t need to respect the law or our institutions to do so either. He sees himself as the embodiment of leadership.
the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;
Is any of the above enough to start worrying about America having the conditions for, if not fascism, at least increasing authoritarianism? Well, the guy got elected, didn’t he? Even if most of his supporters didn’t vote for him because of any of the above, they were still willing to vote for him despite the above.