No, Donald Trump isn’t a fascist. And the efforts of a considerable number of columnists, reporters, and even university professors to make him out to be a second Hitler or Mussolini testifies, I think, to their ignorance about fascism.
Even a fine scholar like the University of Maryland’s Jeffrey Herf, who begins by saying Trump is not a fascist, gives us a long discourse on the ways in which the Trump campaign resembles European fascists and Nazis: the cruelty of his language, his tendency to embrace conspiracy theories, and the theatrics of his rallies. So Herf, the best of the commentators I’ve read, says that while Trump isn’t actually a fascist, he’s got a lot in common with them, and there’s plenty to worry about. And Bret Stephens follows suit:
(Is) Donald Trump the second coming of Il Duce, or that yesteryear’s Fascists are today’s Trumpkins? Not exactly. But that doesn’t mean we should be indifferent to the parallels with the last dark age of Western politics.
This is not a productive discussion. It has very little to do with fascism itself. For the most part, we hear about style, not ideas or ideology. We hear a lot about vulgarity, about the enthusiasm of crowds, and about threats to basic freedoms. All serious subjects, to be sure, but by making them reiterations of fascism (all the while saying they aren’t really fascism), we yank them from their proper context and make proper understanding of both fascism and our current crisis impossible.
Italian fascism, which came to power in 1922, was a war ideology. They argued that the country should be governed by the heroes of the First World War. The fascists fought violent socialist bands in the streets of Italy’s major cities (not so much a doctrinal conflict as a reaction to the Socialists’ opposition to the war). The street violence was not a monopoly of either fascists or Socialists, but characterized the whole society. Indeed, it characterized the whole continent. Remember that the Bolsheviks had seized power in Moscow, and were calling for global revolution. The Italian left was inspired by this revolutionary event, and fascism was in part a response to this threat.
This is not to say that fascism was purely a reaction to leftist revolutionary action, for there were radical leftists within the ranks of the Fascist Party, and the fascist movement claimed to be a revolutionary force that recognized the French Revolution as its spiritual inspiration. The “new fascist man” Mussolini claimed to represent was to usher in a new era of creativity, and welcome the diversity of national traditions.
This very important component, about which there is a substantial literature (starting with my doctoral thesis), believed that fascism was destined to triumph throughout the West. In the end, it thankfully failed, as Hitler redefined fascist objectives. Revolutionary fascism was gradually suppressed, and by the mid-1930s Mussolini’s regime had taken its well-known form: a totalitarian, anti-Communist and anti-democratic dictatorship.
That process took a decade, and throughout the ’20s there were efforts to “export” the fascist revolution throughout Europe.
There’s none of this in Trump, who’s anything but a revolutionary, and who does not purport to speak for military virtue, as Mussolini did. Nor does the current moment resemble Italy’s post-war crisis. We have not been humiliated on the battlefield, as the Italians were, nor have we been cheated in international negotiations, as the Italians felt they had been (they mostly blamed this on Woodrow Wilson). We certainly have our quota of political violence on both ends of the spectrum, but nothing like the organized militias the Europeans produced in the 1920s.
I’m not a Trump fan at all, but calling him a “fascist” distorts the history of the last century. If you’re looking for real fascists in the modern world, you’ll do better looking at the jihadis, who believe they’ve been tricked into previous defeats, unleash slaughter on those who oppose them, seek to dominate the world, and destroy free societies. Trump’s not one of those.
Michael Ledeen is the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @michaelledeen.