Actually, it isn’t a fallacy if it is true and relevant, but that makes for a rhetorically clumsy title. The fallacy I want to talk about here is the argumentum ad nazium (sometimes called ad hitlerium.) This is the “fallacy” of dismissing some person or group as being Fascists or Nazis. We’ve certainly seen a great deal of this in recent years, with President Obama repeatedly denounced in the right-wing media as a Fascist communist Muslim Kenyan/Indonesian (with a time machine to fake his Hawaiian birth certificate.) These accusations are just part of the flood of infantile twaddle that organizations like Fox “News” butter their bread with. But what if someone in the public sphere – for example, running for national office – really is a Fascist?
There are many memes flowing through social media comparing Donald Trump to Hitler. I disagree with these comparisons somewhat, and a glance at the attached picture will indicate the nature of that disagreement (the specifics of THAT disagreement will not be explored here.) I will argue that it is both true and relevant to characterize Trump as a Fascist. However, before proceeding with that particular claim, I will spend most of my time talking about Fascism itself. This concept gets thrown about with promiscuous abandon, and the general disregard for what it really means is a disturbing sloppiness for which I have no sympathy.
A great many people seem to throw the word “Fascism” about as meaning any form of right-wing authoritarian thuggery. But this is hardly anymore cognitively justifiable than calling Obama – who, as a matter of obvious and objective fact, is no more liberal than a Rockefeller Republican – a socialist. Cognitively vacuous abuses of terms as egregious as this are no more excusable when they come from the political left than when they come from the political right, and I’ve elsewhere expressed my impatience with the whole “it’s OK when WE do it” attitude. There are many forms of right-wing authoritarianism, and all of them are variously quite ugly. For most such authoritarian regimes, power flows from the barrel of a gun and the efficiency of the secret police. But Fascism is a special kind of animal whose base of power, while including those two, also involves a very carefully cultivated form of identity politics. While Fascism always aims at achieving power, that power is achieved by popular means.
My entrance into the topic of Fascism is through Robert O. Paxton’s seminal The Anatomy of Fascism. However, rather than mandate a book purchase, I’ll actually direct my comments to Laura Miller’s excellent article from Salon, Apr 19, 2004, “Who’s a Fascist?” which provides a very accessible précis of Paxton’s work.
(I suppose I should briefly mention Jonah Goldberg’s laughable exercise in fatuousity, Liberal Fascism, in which he tries to argue that Fascism is really (no, really) a liberal phenomenon. Goldberg’s ignorance of history is only exceeded by his incapacity for basic logic. A list of posts (from the excellent critical thinking blog, The Non Sequitur) critiquing this supposedly serious work can be found HERE.)
Quoting Miller (quoting Paxton), Fascism is: “… 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.” It is worth noting how this story of cultism and victimhood lines up with Umberto Eco’s classic short essay, “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt.” (Recall that the Italian Fascists were blackshirts; the Nazis were the brownshirts.) However, there is an aspect of Fascism that Eco seems aware of, but fails to state explicitly. Thus, for example, Eco states in point #2 that, “The rejection of the modern world was disguised as a rebuttal of the capitalistic way of life.” However, as Eco is surely aware of (and Paxton explicitly cognizant of) the Fascists did not actually reject capitalism: quite the contrary, they embraced capitalism and finance with enthusiasm, while trampling labor and unions without so much as a “by your leave.” It is here that Paxton’s analysis sets out what is, perhaps, the most important methodological criterion in the understanding of Fascism: Paxton’s work “seeks to find out how Fascism worked. That is why it focuses more closely on the actions of Fascists than on their words, contrary to the usual practice.” (My emphasis, quoted from Anatomy, location 60 of the Kindle edition, but also glossed in Miller’s article.)
In transitioning into a brief reflection on why Trump is a Fascist, it will be useful to examine a few points raised by Michael Kazin in Dissent Magazine that argue he is not. (Kazin’s “leftie cred” is pretty high, so his reluctance to make such an accusation deserves attention.) Kazin notes that Trump, “evinces no desire to create a militarized state that abolishes free elections and jails or executes its critics, as did the former dictators of Germany and Italy. If he expanded welfare programs and commanded industrial firms to produce what he wanted, as did Hitler and Mussolini, Trump would alienate those conservatives who now cheer his hostility to immigrants and the media.” Yet none of these things qualify as essential features of Fascism. Talking about “expanded welfare programs” needs to be taken with a grain of salt, as this was accompanied by the resolute destruction of labor unions. And highlighting things like the assassination of opponents, or the shift from more-or-less market to command economies occurred after the Fascists gained power; further, Hitler only destroyed the electoral system in Germany after the “Night of the Long Knives.” And why should Trump explicitly call for violence when his supporters are so ready to spontaneously engage in it on his behalf? And this is violence which Trump actively praises, rather than discourage or denounce. Kazin insists that, “The Trump phenomenon is better understood as an amalgam of three different, largely pathological strains in American history and culture,” although he only clearly highlights two: the opposition to immigrants, and a disdain for political “insiders”. But these aren’t specifically American pathologies; they are common to all forms of Fascism, and are indicative of an American proclivity for Fascism.
Recall, first, that all real Fascisms have achieved power by posing as populist movements against an established political field. And they got there not by laying out specific and actionable policy proposals (Kazin mentions Trump’s failure to do so, in a context that seems to suggest this should be taken as distancing Trump from Fascism); rather the Fascists achieved power by enveloping their supportive crowds in a cultish mythology of victimhood and us-against-them-ism (Kazin specifically speaks of “Trump’s populism of derision.”) Recall again, the above Paxton quote about, “compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity,” and how this plays not only with the anti-immigrant rhetoric, but with Trump’s endless spew about his health, intelligence, and vigor. (“Purity” might fail here, given his “Lifetime Creepy Award” for wanting to shag his own daughter.) The “ working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites” is still a part of Trump’s success. Even as he has been criticized by his GOP fellow travelers, it is not as though their programs were significantly more moderate. As for the abandonment of “ democratic liberties,” Trump has offered no reason to believe he opposes the GOP’s relentless destruction of voting rights, but he’s not yet in a position to act (rather than just talk – recall, again, above) on this subject. Trump has not spoken about “external expansion” per se, but he has stated that he will destroy our enemies abroad (again, without any program about how that will be done; but specifics are irrelevant to Fascists.) As for “internal cleansing,” “ with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints,” Trump’s recent comments about Mexicans and Muslims certainly seems to advance such a goal.
Waiting for Trump to “prove” he’s a Fascist would require waiting until he’s achieved complete political hegemonic power, and is hands down the most singularly risky political gamble people in this country could make. If he is no more than a Fascist “wannabe,” or a Fascist “in waiting,” that is quite sufficient to make the case that he is a Fascist. Certainly his words and actions suffice to demonstrate the “wannabeism.”