The Escape Artist

Is Donald Trump a fascist? Let me approach this question by taking a close look at the mechanics of how Trump operates as a candidate – specifically, at his astounding ability to elude the many traps set for presidential candidates during a campaign. Again and again political commentators have announced Trump’s imminent demise, following some gaffe or outrage. Yet the kind of slip lethal to other candidates fails to derail him. Always he gets away with it, and in fact often finds his popularity bolstered, rather than weakened.

How does he do it?  Consider – a propos of fascism -- the exchange between Trump and Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” some months back. It followed the flap over a maxim that Trump had retweeted: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” Inspiring... except, as everyone knows by now, that its originator was Mussolini. Uh-oh!

With Trump as guest on his show soon thereafter, Chuck Todd raised the Mussolini tweet, asking the candidate if he knew its provenance.  “I know who said it,” Trump responded. “But what difference does it make whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else?”

Todd pounced.  “Do you want to be associated with a fascist?” he asked.

“No,” Trump answered; “I want to be associated with interesting quotes. And hey, it certainly got your attention, didn’t it?”

Does anyone still doubt that Trump is a force to be reckoned with? A seasoned TV political journalist, Chuck Todd thought he had Trump on the ropes. I mean, who wants to be associated with a fascist? According to the conventional script, now was when the candidate winces and remorsefully retracts the tweet, expressing regret that it was misunderstood and thanking the journalist for raising the issue. Humility and retreat, in other words.

But not the Donald. No, I want to be associated with interesting quotes! Parry, then thrust: And it got your attention, didn’t it? Touché! In the space of two seconds, via a nifty little rhetorical dodge, Trump turned a looming disaster into a sparkling little triumph. Take that, Chuck Todd and the rest of you! You think you’re going to trap me in some tricky little talk-show snare? Fat chance! No, I’m going to take the little pile of doggy doo-doo you’re trying to get me to step in, and bury you in it! I’m going to turn this garbage into gold!

Trump performs this kind of alchemy again and again. He’s a magician, a Houdini-like escape artist. A Times article portrays some nervousness in the Hillary camp about what constitute the best tactics in campaigning against Trump. They are right to be nervous. I know I am.

As for the question I posed at the outset, well, plenty of people are quite happy to call Trump a fascist. A recent article in the Times quotes everyone from Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to actor George Clooney, comparing Trump with Hitler or Mussolini; William Weld, ex-Massachusetts governor and liberal Republican (ah, remember them?!), equates Trump’s call for building the Mexican wall with Germany’s violent purge of Jews on Kristallnacht in 1938. Last fall the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank called Trump “America’s Mussolini,” and Times columnist Ross Douthat judged him “a little bit Fascistic;” more recently our own Peter Steinfels, in an excellent post of two weeks ago, calls him a “semi-Fascist.”

To help sort this out, readers might want to consult a fascinating 1995 New York Review of Books essay by Umberto Eco, titled “Ur-Fascism,” in which the late Italian novelist -- who was a child during the time of Mussolini – compiled “a list of features typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism.” His list included: “a charismatic ruler;” “an exacerbated nationalism;” “the cult of action for action's sake... taken before, or without, any previous reflection;” “fear of difference [and] an appeal against the intruders;” “the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one;” “contempt for the weak;” and “use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”

Sound familiar? The Eternal Fascist, Eco continued, would propagate “a cult of heroism,” and in doing so would “transfer his will to power to sexual matters,” boasting a “machismo” expressed in “disdain for women.” His supporters would be “a frustrated middle class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups;” their leader would inflame their loathing of the current government as “rotten,” and would blatantly abjure seriousness about political philosophy. (“Mussolini did not have any philosophy,” Eco wrote; “he had only rhetoric.”) Finally, Eco predicted, the next fascist might not appear as the jackbooted brownshirt or Orwellian totalitarian spouting Newspeak. “[W]e must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.”

A popular talk show?! Eco’s views, put forward two decades ago, sound eerily prescient. Two weeks ago the neocon foreign-policy maven Robert Kagan published an op-ed in the Washington Post, titled “This is how Fascism comes to America,” describing Trump as “a singular threat to our democracy.” Echoing Umberto Eco, Kagan writes that

what Trump offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence. His incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: They provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger. His public discourse consists of attacking or ridiculing a wide range of “others” — Muslims, Hispanics, women, Chinese -- whom he depicts either as threats or as objects of derision.

Kagan’s conclusion is clear: if it bellows like a fascist, struts like a fascist, and incites like a fascist, it’s a fascist. And in a generic sense the man and the moment do seem to match up. Robert O. Paxton, the renowned scholar of fascism, points out in the Times article that the prospect of a political provocateur waxing alarmist about a country in decline, overwhelmed by immigrants and outsiders and undermined by enemies within, broadly echoes the realities of Europe (and especially Germany) in the 1930s.

But Paxton and others also single out elements of fascism that Trump lacks: an explicit rejection of democracy; an aggressively militaristic and expansionist foreign policy; a practice of violent crackdown on individual political expression of any kind; an instinctive hostility toward all forms of cultural or lifestyle deviation; and so on. So I understand the caution about labeling the man a fascist. As I’ve written before, the charge has been tossed around too freely over the decades: Richard Nixon was no fascist, nor were the cops vilified as “fascist pigs.” Still, on any number of these counts one sees in Trump traces of the fascist personality and practice. Thus the designation of Fascism Lite, or semi-Fascist, or a little bit Fascistic. If such things are even possible.  

But maybe the significance of Trump lies less in the messenger than the message -- and, even more, in the messagees. Maybe we need to focus not on him, but on us. A piece by Times editor Jonathan Weisman details the chilling list of anti-semitic hate tweets and other slanderous social-media threats and insults he received from Trump supporters – for merely tweeting about the Kagan essay. It’s ugly. Kagan himself, in the essay, writes that what Trump has tapped into “is what the founders most feared when they established the democratic republic: the popular passions unleashed, the ‘mobocracy.’” Conservatives, Kagan writes, “have been warning for decades about government suffocating liberty.”

But here is the other threat to liberty that de Tocqueville and the ancient philosophers warned about: that the people in a democracy, excited, angry and unconstrained, might run roughshod over even the institutions created to preserve their freedoms. As Alexander Hamilton watched the French Revolution unfold, he feared in America what he saw play out in France — that the unleashing of popular passions would lead not to greater democracy but to the arrival of a tyrant, riding to power on the shoulders of the people.

What was it that Barack Obama said during his first campaign? We are the ones we’ve been waiting for? Hmmm.

In his 1995 essay, Umberto Eco warned that “we must keep alert,” since fascism “is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes.” It would be easy, he wrote, if the next fascist appeared in SS garb, agitating to reopen Auschwitz. But “life is not that simple,” he reminded us. Should fascism appear in plainclothes, “our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances – every day, in every part of the world.”

To that end, this Italian novelist summoned the words of an American president, FDR, who amid the gathering clouds of war in November 1938 -- and just five days before Kristallnacht, as it turned out – ventured what he himself called “a challenging statement.” It remains as challenging now as it was then: “if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.”

 

 

 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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