In his 2004 The Anatomy of Fascism, historian Robert Paxton succinctly defines fascism in a way that emphasizes what fascists do rather than what they say. He defines fascism as
a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion. (218)
Community decline: Inaugural speeches are usually occasions for rhetoric meant to unify Americans, reconcile with opponents, and offer a vision of a greater America. What stuck out in Trump’s inaugural speech was his vision of “American carnage.” Not even in the midst of civil war did President Lincoln offer such a bleak view of America. Even he did not offer a vision of “community decline,” but, instead, of a future with “malice towards none” and “charity for all.” But, of course, Trump assures us that he is the only one who can Make America Great Again.
Humiliation: Trump is obsessed with the idea that other countries are laughing at us. China laughs at us for our trade deficit. Mexico laughs at us for accepting immigrants. The “world” laughs at us for the foreign aid we provide and because of Obamacare. Iran, the Taliban, ISIS, Russia, etc. are laughing at us for our military weakness. Of course, Trump is the only one who can stop the world from laughing. His frequent solution is to make other countries pay us. Mexico will pay for a border wall. Germans owe us billions for defending them. Ironically, the world now really does seem to be laughing, not at “us,” but at Trump.
Collaboration with traditional elites: I have already written about how Trump has convinced traditional Republicans to cover for and support him with the hope that they could use Trump and his movement for their own purposes.
Abandons democratic liberties: The decline of our liberties is by no means confined to Trump’s presidency. Our Fourth Amendment liberties in particular have been declining under the national security state even before the PATRIOT Act. This decline has been bipartisan. Thanks to Ed Snowden, we know something of the extent to which the at least the NSA has been spying on us. Privacy is nearly dead. And now these powers are in the hands of Trump, a man with a reputation for wanting revenge against critics. He is attacking the free press by undermining its legitimacy, even calling the press that criticizes him the “enemy of the people.” Now he has assembled a commission to investigate non-existent voting fraud and is doing so in a way that has already scared some people enough to unregister. The leader of this commission Kris Kobach has reveled what was probably the real intention of the commission all along, federal laws to make it more difficult to register to vote and easier for states to disenfranchise eligible, legal voters.
Violence: I have already written about Trump using violence in his campaign and the importance of violence to his supporters.
Internal Cleansing: Trump built his campaign on building “the wall” to keep out illegal immigrants and mass deportation to get rid of immigrants already here. He made various proposals for the barring of Muslim immigrants and refugees and even went to such extremes as calling for the monitoring of mosques and the forcible registration of Muslim Americans. In the context of the Black Lives Matter struggle against police violence, Trump called for removing restraints on police, with the clear implication that they could attack blacks with impunity.
I started this series by saying that Trump isn’t a fascist; he’s too stupid and unread to be able to be one. But I worry that he is making acceptable, for a significant number of Americans, actions, policies, and rhetoric that might allow real fascists or other authoritarian movements (left or right) possible and even powerful. Now is the time to resist every shift in that direction.