Donald Trump and the Rise of American Fascism

Fascism is a difficult subject to discuss. Mostly it’s because fascism itself was never truly and properly defined but was always one of those, “I’ll know it when I see it,” sorts of things. Unfortunately ever since the end of WWII the, “I’ll know it when I see it,” aspect of defining fascism basically boiled down to, “Fascism is when my political opponents do something I don’t like.” The internet has made it even worse, with everything immediately going to name-calling of the “Hitler” and “Nazi” variety.

The most interesting thing about attempting to define fascism is that looking for comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis isn’t really a useful place to start. German fascism was very different from Italian fascism and different again from Spanish fascism. They started from different places but ended up in a similar space that we’ve labeled “fascism” ever since.

So we must start by talking about where fascism came from. We can actually get a pretty big clue from the origins of the word itself. The term originated with “fasces,” a Latin word for an ax bundled inside of elm or birch rods. It was a symbol of authority in the Roman Republic. In the late 19th Century the image was appropriated by workers’ parties in Italy, the most famous of which, eventually, was the one run by Benito Mussolini.

In the aftermath of WWI Mussolini and his compatriots were angry with the Italian government for not taking advantage of the end of WWI and expanding Italy’s borders. They believed Italy was the true heir to the Roman Empire and that the key to survival as a nation was to take that heritage in philosophy and action. This is why Mussolini claimed that his ultimate goal was to turn the Mediterranean into a “Roman lake” yet again. In Italy, then, the root of fascism was imperialism. The fascists appealed to a mythological interpretation of Italian history as descending directly from and deserving of the laurels of the Roman Empire.

Spanish fascism, as lead by General Franco and the Nationalists, was a different story. It was rooted in civil war and fear of both communism and anarchism. Franco and the Nationalists declared themselves defenders of Christian civilization against the slavering hordes of communists and anarchists who were trying to destroy Spain.

German fascism grew out of anger. The reparations foisted upon the Germans after Versailles were punitive and impossible. It was, at its core, anti-communist and racist, appealing to a German national identity that we all recognize now as the Aryan supremacy. The attempted extermination of all Jews receives the most attention, but the Nazis were indiscriminate, attempting to exterminate homosexuals, gypsies, and all other undesirable elements in order to create a purified Germany. One of the interesting things about the early years of the Nazi party was that although it was deeply rooted in anti-communist rhetoric and action it also did not support the notions of a wealthy class or unrestrained corporate power.

This was, in fact, one of the key aspects of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s. They believed in a merging of the government and industry and complete mobilization of the citizenry to achieve the national goals of prosperity and strength. This is not all that different from the communist ideal of the workers taking over the means of production and, I believe, one of the many reasons that current discussion of fascism confuses and obliterates the distinction between communism and fascism. The communist ideal, however, was for the workers to rise up and throw off the shackles of their bourgeois oppressors. The fascist ideal was to put the government in charge of the means of production in order to dictate the actions of the state.

This aspect of a fascist revolution is difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of in America today. It is deeply embedded in the rhetoric of the right, however. We hear it every single time a conservative talks about how regulations, any regulations, strangle business. We hear it when right wing pundits spout off about how the Affordable Care Act was Barack Obama taking over the entire medical industry. Government regulations are a necessary part of making the world work to the satisfaction of as many people as possible. At no point did Obama nationalize the health care system and anyone who knows anything about how much money the Affordable Care Act put into the pockets of the insurance companies knows that the ACA was anything but an attempt to break the back of Blue Cross Blue Shield.

In order to understand American fascism, then, we must look at other aspects of the great fascist movements of the 20th Century. Many historians with much better credentials than I possess have tried and failed to come to a universal understanding of fascism so I won’t even try. I only wish to draw in broad strokes.

First of all, the fascists were all deeply nationalistic. Moreover, within that nationalism they were tribal, appealing to a notion of the proper Italian, German, or Spaniard. This notion of the proper person was different and based on the ideal of that particular nation. Having identified a true and proper person they then defined their enemies. Communists were always on the top of that list.[1] Jews were on the list in Germany because of good, old-fashioned anti-Semitism and the ancient notion that the people were poor because the rich Jewish bankers had stolen all of their money.

Second, they were based on a mythology of power. The Italian fascists pointed back to the Roman Empire as their true birthright. The Nazis were heavily into the occult as a source of mythic power from ancient German and Christian symbolism.

Third, they required a narrative of stolen glory. The Italian fascists believed the government had sold the Italian people short in the wake of WWI. The Nazis believed they were being victimized by the reparations in the wake of WWI.[2] In each case, though, the nation was once great and had been destroyed. There was then a group or collection of groups that were responsible for that downfall. The failures were emphatically never the responsibility of the state or the right kinds of citizens.

Fourth, fascism itself is, at its core, a cult of personality. Mussolini and Franco were leaders of their parties and drew their followers to themselves as much as, if not more than, the parties they represented. The Nazis chose Hitler as their leader because they saw him as a galvanizing and controlling force over the people. We would not have had the Fascist Party without Mussolini and the word itself would still just be a description of a Roman ceremonial device languishing in the minds and books of professors of antiquity. The Nazis would be a footnote in the history books without Hitler.

One of the most interesting things to note here is that it can easily be said that the United States had its own form of proto-fascism long before Mussolini popularized the term. The South in the years after the end of the Civil War built up the Lost Cause myth, gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan, and blamed all of their problems on freed slaves, Northern carpetbaggers, and Southern scalawags. What the South was missing in the years immediately following the Civil War was the cult of personality. Nathan Bedford Forrest is the only figure I can really consider having the necessary clout but he did not extend his influence beyond the Klan itself. The most obvious person to take on the mantle of would-be proto-fascist strongman was Robert E. Lee, but he was far too much of a gentleman to involve himself in such things. The South would get their strongmen during the Civil Rights Movement in the form of George Wallace and his ilk. By then the game had changed, however. Still, it should come as no surprise that as I discuss the notion of American fascism the people who most resemble that notion are the heirs of the old South and oftentimes still fly the Confederate flag.

When I say that the game changed I’m talking about Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Presidential election, and the Southern Strategy. This is the part of American history that apparently never happened according to everyone’s racist uncle on Facebook. According to the racist uncle the Democrats are the real racists and the Republicans are the real defenders of freedom because Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and the Democrats were the party that seceded in 1861. What this ignores is the events of 1964 and 1965 when Lyndon B Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act into law, effectively reversed the Democratic Party’s stance from the century before, and essentially completed Lincoln’s legacy.

The main opponents to the Civil Rights Act in 1964 were Southern Democrats, known as the Dixiecrats. The primary Senate opposition came from Richard Russell, Robert Byrd, and Strom Thurmond, all Democrats from Georgia, West Virginia,[3] and South Carolina, respectively. Two months later Strom Thurmond would switch party affiliation to the Republican Party. In 1968 he was a key figure in gaining the South for Richard Nixon. In this he was assisted by George Wallace, who split the Democratic ticket with Hubert Humphrey that year.[4]

This was the realization of the Southern Strategy. It began in 1964 when Barry Goldwater won the Deep South as a Republican on his way to losing the election to Lyndon B. Johnson. The Republicans simply did not win in the South up until that point but the Democratic Party’s increasing support of civil rights was angering Southern white conservatives. In 1968 the Republicans specifically targeted the South and, aided by George Wallace’s third-party run and the switchover of prominent Dixiecrats, won the South. The Republicans have held onto the South ever since, save for the 1976 election when Jimmy Carter, a Georgian, managed to wrestle it away, and 1992 when the Clinton/Gore ticket, consisting of an Arkansan and a Tennesseean, managed to nab a couple of the Southern States.[5]

The Southern Strategy has long depended on the Confederate sympathies of the South and that proto-fascist streak that has lived in the hearts of the unrepentant secessionists who still make up a vocal minority of the population below the Mason-Dixon Line. Much as the South simply lacked the capability of winning the Civil War the retrograde elements of the Southern electorate aren’t enough to carry the entire country in an election. The lessons learned in 1964 and 1968 taught the Republicans that there are enough people out there who can be swayed by a Southern Strategy style campaign to win elections. This is what gave us the rise of the Tea Party and right wing rhetoric against immigrants and Muslims and homosexuals. Immigrants and Muslims and homosexuals all represent a form of other that’s scary to some segment of the American population.[6]

This is the electoral ring into which Donald Trump threw his Make America Great Again cap last year. I honestly believe he thought he was just going to have a laugh and sell a few books. I don’t think he set out to become an American Mussolini but he managed to do exactly that. His rhetoric actually hits on all of the main points of fascist propaganda starting with that Make America Great Again ball cap. It says that America was once the pinnacle but has been dethroned and someone needs to step up and fix it. Who is it that ruined American greatness, according to Trump’s rhetoric? Illegal immigrants, liberals, the media, and non-white people in general. He then presented himself as the strong man with all of the answers to all of the problems and his followers created the cult of personality that’s the final key to the fascist movement. It’s terrifying to watch in real time and, worse, it’s escalating as time goes on.

One of the new themes in Trump’s rallies is the kicking out of protestors. I have now read many accounts of Trump rallies where protesters are regularly surrounded, security is summoned, and the protesters are removed from the building. All the while Trump stands on stage and eggs on the spectacle. In most of the accounts I have read some of the protesters are actually making noise, but most seem to be people who are there and minding their own business. One account I read was of a pair of black teenage girls who were wearing anti-Trump shirts but interacting pleasantly with the people around them until suddenly the crowd turned against them.

Historians have often asked how Germany went insane in the 1930s. This is the answer to that question. It starts small. It starts with people turning against their neighbors in small ways. It starts with the leadership applauding the actions of those who turn on their neighbors. Germany did not wake up one morning and say, “Hey, let’s put Hitler in charge and kill all of the Jews.” The Nazis took over a small percentage of the Reichstag and eventually rose to just under 40% control. From there they stopped the government from doing anything while forcing von Hindenberg into declaring Hitler Chancellor. Even that was met with protests.

All of this leads us, for the moment, to Chicago on Friday. The Illinois primary is on Tuesday[7] and this is the first time in a long time when Illinois actually mattered in the primary election.[8] Trump scheduled a rally in Chicago on Friday night and ended up cancelling it. Violence ensued.

The initial reports were that anti-Trump protesters in Chicago got violent and Trump called the rally because of that. I initially reacted by saying that it was a disgrace that Chicago had descended to Trump’s level. Then on Saturday morning new information came to light. Eyewitness reports indicated that the anti-Trump crowd was generally peaceful and it was also far too large to be bullied like the scattering of anti-Trump people at his usual rallies. So Trump cancelled the rally. That was when everything went to hell.

Trump has since claimed that the Chicago protesters violated his First Amendment rights to free speech. That’s beyond stupid, but par for the course for most of America these days. The First Amendment guarantees that the government won’t suppress free speech but says nothing about whether or not protesters are allowed to try to stop or drown out someone else. That’s also beside the point.

The big lesson here: you don’t fuck with Chicago. We don’t put up with Trump’s shit. I expect that as we continue our death march to the Republican Convention Trump will be met with larger and better organized protests. The country is starting to take him seriously. The fight started in Chicago but won’t end here.

Trump’s Presidential run is scary. His supporters are scarier. It’s hard not to see the undertones of fascism in Trumps rallies. I fully expect that if Trump wins the nomination the rallies will get more dangerous, the protests will get louder, and that there will be at least one headline about someone getting killed at a Trump rally.

This is how fascism comes to America. There is nothing inevitable about President Trump. What we need to do is recognize the roots of American fascism and remain vigilant. We must realize that “it can’t happen here” is incorrect. It is happening here. We can stop it. We can’t stop it with Twitter hashtags or passing around memes making fun of Trump’s hair. We have to stand up and say, “No, we won’t allow you to be the loudest voice in the room.” We have to recognize that anger at the other is the first step to oblivion.


[1]This opposition to communism was more or less opportunistic. The communists were simply the bogeyman and a visible force to rally against. Communist philosophy was a natural foil to fascism, though, as the ultimate goal of communism is the obliteration of the machinery of the state in favor of the workers while the ultimate goal of fascism was the transcendence of the state itself.

[2]This, for the record, is a valid complaint. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles were ruinous to Germany. Which is one of the great tragedies of WWI. As far as wars go it was basically morally neutral. There was no great good v. evil frame for WWI. It started by accident and snowballed because of an interlaced web of treaties and protection agreements. In the aftermath of the war, though, Germany was treated as if it had singlehandedly undertaken to destroy the world while the Kaiser cackled maniacally and clapped with glee. It’s entirely likely that this reaction was based on the overall horror of the war itself but had the unintended consequence of forcing the German people to turn to monsters to protect themselves.

[3]The West Virginia part there is interesting, as West Virginia effectively seceded from Virginia when Virginia went with the Confederacy. West Virginia’s legacy since then has not been one rich in liberalism, however.

[4]Byrd, it should be noted, remained a Democrat and would later renounce his opposition to the Civil Rights Act. He remained a conservative voice in the Democratic Party but he did see the light on the issue of civil rights.

[5]There’s a cautionary tale built into the electoral maps for Hillary Clinton. Her biggest primary wins were in Southern states where she holds a major lead in the black vote. Barack Obama, who got something like 97% of the black vote if my memory serves, didn’t win a single one of those states in 2008 or 2012. This is an electoral mine field for the Democratic Party, as Bernie Sanders has been winning in the states that will probably go blue in the general. It’s possible that we’re headed for a perfect storm of Democratic Party malaise that will open up a path for Donald Trump to actually win in November.

[6]There is, of course, nothing new under the Sun here. America has a long and troubled history of immigrants closing the doors on the next group trying to get in. Eastern Europeans and Southern Europeans were once thought of in the same way that a lot of Americans think of Mexicans today. The election of John F Kennedy was a major coup, as Americans had long thought of Catholics as a dangerous religious group beholden to the Pope over the President.

[7]I’ve already taken advantage of early voting, as is my wont. Feel the Bern!

[8]There were two times in my life when I had the chance to vote for Barack Obama and didn’t. The first was the 2004 general. I was out at school at the time and never quite got around to figuring out how to vote outside of my home precinct. That election would have marked my switch from conservative to liberal, as I voted for Bush in 2000 but intended to vote for Kerry in 2004. That was also Obama’s Senate election, where he was initially running against Jack Ryan, former husband of Jeri Ryan, who played Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager. Ryan dropped out of the race in disgrace when it the proceedings from his divorce came to light and the public learned that he had a thing for sex clubs and public sex in general and the whole thing was super weird (but, in Jack Ryan’s defense, if I was married to Jeri Ryan in the ‘90s I would totally want to have sex with her in public because, holy shit, people, look at me having sex with Jeri Ryan!). The Illinois Republican Party then seriously attempted to recruit Mike Ditka as their candidate. Da Coach was not interested. They eventually recruited professional runner-up and general disaster Alan Keyes to run against Obama. Obama won that race by so much that he actually sent his money and volunteers to work for other Democratic campaigns. It was this that paved the way for Obama’s keynote at the 2004 Democratic Convention and caused everyone to declare him the future of the Democratic Party.

I voted for Dennis Kucinich in the 2008 Democratic Primary. By that point Obama had the nomination locked up and I had an irrational love of Dennis Kucinich. He was kind of a proto-Bernie but he also believed in aliens and shit and was just generally amusing. I remain convinced that he’s actually some kind of magical elf.

2 thoughts on “Donald Trump and the Rise of American Fascism

  1. The working concept I use for fascism is “everybody agrees, at least in public, that the leader knows best”. Industry does what the leader says, as you point out, but also so does everyone else. This is more or less your points 0 and 4, I think.

    (As far as this outsider could see, the ACA was phrased the way it was specifically so that the politicians bought by Blue Cross Blue Shield wouldn’t vote it down.)

    I think the Nazi occult angle is often overstated. There was a sort of secular mythology built round the “Aryan” thing, and a certain amount of archaeological effort made to gather supporting evidence, but it wasn’t a key part of the worldview.

    If you read popular literature of the 1920s and 1930s, you’ll see an amount of admiration for the developing fascist systems that’s quite remarkable from a modern perspective. I think that’s because of the general mood after the First World War: the old systems had failed to put down the menace of communism, which was spreading, and the workers were talking back and demanding actual wages and safety and things, and there could be a violent bloody revolution at any moment… what fascism seemed to offer was a combination of resolute anti-communism and a sense that everyone would “do his part” and, ahem, “make the country great again”.

    (Quite a lot of those books also make at least one of their nasty communists Jewish, because, well, everybody knows about them. Dangerous intellectuals.)

    • The thing about everyone agreeing with the leader is that as a form of government that’s the longest (and most successful, if we’re just going by time) form of government in human history. I think the reason we spend more time debating fascism than, say, “Why did people just give in to Cyrus the Great?” is because fascism came on this side of the Enlightenment, so we’re forced to ask, “How do people give up their freedoms like that?”

      And this is another blog post. Hopefully I’ll have time this weekend.

      You’re also partially correct about the ACA. In that case it was a law written to mimic existing conservative health reforms from The Heritage Foundation and Mitt Romney’s term as governor of Massachusetts. There’s no way we would have actually gotten real health care, but Republicans were okay with a massive handout to the insurance companies. And then they still called Obama a commie tyrant. Because in America if you’re a Republican you get to have your cake and eat it, too. If you’re a liberal you get nothing. If you’re poor you get called evil.

      Also, I agree that the Nazi/occult connection is a bit overplayed, especially in recent years as they’ve been attached to every goddamn occult show The Bullshit Channel has put out from the Illuminati to the ancient aliens. There was definitely an occult angle to the foundations of the Nazi Party and I think it informed Hitler and Goebbels et al. of how to create their mythology of power. The problem for Germany in the 1930s is that they didn’t have a convenient narrative of former greatness like Italy or Spain. The Holy Roman Empire would have been too attached to the Pope. Their recent greatness was because of the Prussian old guard, who were the people the Nazis were trying to scapegoat for Germany’s failures. So what do you do? You go with Wagner and the old Norse tales and create a civil religion of Aryan purity.

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