The Hitler Problem

After the end of the First World War, there arose in Europe political movements that were nationalist and authoritarian.  Some of these eventually took on the name of fascist, although there were other names like Falangist and National-Socialist.  These were radical movements, but were considered movements of the Right, because they did not support the expropriation of private property as the Marxist Left did.  The nationalist-authoritarian parties used violence, just as the Marxist parties used violence.

Since the era of Hitler, "fascism" has become associated explicitly with Hitler. In public discussions, to call someone a fascist is to claim to associate them with Hitler and all that Hitler himself meant.  It's become no more than a dirty word. While the word used to have a pretty clear political meaning, it has become an insult and is applied to both Leftists and Rightists. And people defending themselves from being called fascists, do so by pointing out how little they, their movement, and their leaders resemble Hitler and the Nazis.

What is lost in all of this is the ability to look at aspects of the various pre-war "fascist" movements in order to compare them to modern political movements. We seem to no longer be able to say that a political movement even looks like it is fascist. And to suggest that there are any parallels between a modern political movement and the rise of national-socialism in Germany is to incite ridicule, because clearly Hitler was a sociopath (etc.); as though nationalist authoritarianism was some kind of one-off event which was invented by Hitler and died with him.

I entirely support the removal of explicit comparisons to Hitler himself (because who can argue with Godwin's Law?), but I think we need to replace the word fascism with something else so that we can talk about authoritarian nationalism. Maybe we can just say authoritarian nationalism, but using a full 25 characters to name something takes a big chunk out of the 140 characters we can tweet. I suggest that we consider using the word Auth-Nat, as in Trump's political movement is an Auth-Nat political movement like many that have existed in the past.

People who don't like authoritarian nationalism as a descriptor will be rather quick to point out that the Left has had a lot of authoritarian leaders as well, especially the Communists. They may even point out that Communist countries have used nationalism in support of their regimes. Fair enough. But Communism has always been about the international working class no matter what the local dictator happens to be saying. The nationalist part of Auth-Nat thereby signals it as Right Wing and different from Leftist movements.

So let's try this out. Trump's political movement is an Auth-Nat political movement. The nationalism is easy enough to see. No one can say "American First" and not be an American nationalist. Is Trump really an authoritarian? If we look past just who he has been appointing to his various executive positions, one other thing that stands out is that he has been trying to undercut what we used to think of as the separation of powers. His rantings about judges in a way where he tries to undercut their authority is telling enough. But also telling is how he is either removing or weakening all of those people who might bring and expert opinion to bear outside of whatever is going on in Trump's head. This includes military advisors, State Department officials (not just the appointed ones but also the experts), legal advisors, etc. This also includes his treatment of the Press. He seems to be trying to remove anyone who can appeal to any independent source. This was also part of the checks and balances system, although since no one has attacked it so directly before we have always taken it for granted.

So Trump is an Auth-Nat politician. He's no Hitler. But no Auth-Nat politician has ever climbed this high up in our government.  

unagidon is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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