Don't Help Trump by Calling Him a Fascist
Donald Trump's critics are making two kinds of mistake when they call him a fascist, or a proto-fascist, or a kind of fascist, or complain that his rallies evoke images of Nazi Germany and so forth. The first mistake is that he isn't any kind of fascist. The second is that this line of attack at best serves no purpose, and at worst makes him stronger.
Trump, to be clear, is grossly ill-suited to be president. He's a divisive, dishonest, bullying, flamboyantly uninformed man, whose ambition is an expression of pure vanity. The kindest thing I'll say about him is that he at least seems to know when he's talking nonsense, which is most of the time: The more vapid the statement, the more careful he is to repeat it for emphasis. He'll repeat that vapid statement. Believe me, he'll repeat it.
Moreover, ridiculous as Trump may be, the thought of the damage he might do with the presidency is genuinely scary. The country has strong constitutional protections -- he couldn't make laws -- but he certainly isn't to be trusted with the military power that the president commands. Even putting military adventures aside, the harm he might do to the country's alliances and global standing hardly bears thinking about. President Trump would be a disaster.
But none of that makes him a fascist. I'll grant that there are intimations -- "echoes," as the historian Robert Paxton calls them. Most obviously, he affects the demeanor of the strongman, ready to cut through the nonsense of politics as usual. But essential components of the ideology are missing.
Trump isn't opposing democracy or promising to scrap the Constitution. He isn't calling for an expansion of state power. He isn't summoning the nation's collective will to purge imaginary enemies at home or abroad. (He's opposed to illegal immigration, not to immigrants as such. His demand to block Muslim immigrants “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on” was a dumb and damaging response to a deadly mass shooting, not a declaration of war on Islam.) He doesn't idolize the military (ask John McCain). He isn't demanding noble sacrifice to right historic wrongs. Could anything be less Trumpist than sacrifice?
If Trump believes in anything, it's deals. Adolf Hitler never promised to make great deals.
Now, you might say, Hitler was dismissed as absurd rather than dangerous in his early days -- and see how that ended up. Nothing is impossible, I suppose. But even if President Trump did decide to become a fascist dictator, he'd have his work cut out. I don't doubt he'd be a disaster, but surely in the farcical mold of Silvio Berlusconi not Benito Mussolini.
In any event, the problem with calling out Trump's supposed fascist tendencies isn't just that the charge is hysterical: What's more important is that it doesn't hurt him. It may very well help him. The accusation is a calculated insult not just to Trump but to his many supporters. Your views aren't just wrong, it says, they're vile and illegitimate: How evil or stupid must you be to support an American Hitler?
This approach is unlikely to change their minds. As I've previously argued, support for Trump, though misguided, is intelligible. And that isn't because his supporters are all racists, bigots or morons. The desire to send a message of protest to America's political elite is by no means unreasonable. There's plenty to protest about. If, instead of paying attention, America's political elite then calls you a would-be Nazi in return, you might be all the more determined to send the message.
In a democracy, it's better to address discontented citizens on the substance of their complaints than to call them disgusting and hope they go away.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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