Herewith is an update on my earlier thoughts about Donald Trump, set down in the balmy days of late summer, when one could take him less seriously.
How seriously do we have to take him now? I’m fascinated by the hermeneutical nature of Trump – the way he is less a polished and serious candidate than a social and political phenomenon begging for interpretation. What explains his improbable rise? Many frameworks have been put forward. There’s the anti-political-correctness framework, which is essentially what I argued back in August. There’s the white-male-working-class resentment framework. The Ayn Rand, worship-of-capitalist-titans framework. The triumph-and-travesty-of-entertainment framework. And, most recently, the “unstoppable digital virality” framework.
And then there’s the fascism-revisited framework. If any political trope needs to be handled with caution, it’s this one. The charge of fascism was a staple of 1960s protest, and its subsidence in the decades since has been a blessing for political discourse. But what about in this case? Dana Milbank in the Washington Post last month called Trump “America’s Mussolini,” accusing him of using “many of the fascist’s tools: [showing] a contempt for facts, spreading a pervasive sense of fear and overwhelming crisis, portraying his backers as victims, assigning blame to foreign or alien actors and suggesting that only his powerful personality can transcend the crisis.” Milbank notes that Trump “endorsed the violence done to a dissenter at one of his rallies.”
And that same week in the Times, Ross Douthat – hardly a tribune for lefty causes -- wrote a column, “Is Donald Trump a Fascist?”, in which he argued that “Trumpism, however ideologically inchoate, manifests at least seven of the hallmarks of fascism” as identified in a 1995 New York Review of Books essay by Umberto Eco. From Eco’s list Douthat checked off:
A cult of action, a celebration of aggressive masculinity, an intolerance of criticism, a fear of difference and outsiders, a pitch to the frustrations of the lower middle class, an intense nationalism and resentment at national humiliation, and a “popular elitism” that promises every citizen that they’re part of “the best people of the world.”
In the end, Douthat decided that although Trump is “a little bit fascistic,” he crucially lacks the power to orchestrate the violent mayhem required for an actual fascist movement. In a more recent piece, Douthat follows other commentators who see in Trump the advent of a “European-style nationalism and boastful authoritarianism [that] might be a genuinely new thing in U.S. politics.” It is Trump as a hybrid of Vladimir Putin and Marine Le Pen, with a sizable proportion of Americans cheering him on. Douthat: “[T]he fact that so many disaffected voters find it attractive is a revelation, an objective correlative to polls showing declining faith in democracy, and a window, perhaps, into a more illiberal politics to come.”
In the meantime, Douthat predicts, the Republican party is likely to prove fairly well “inoculated” against Trump. I tend to agree. Regarding how he will fall, I continue to think that despite his seeming imperviousness, and the way he has completely rewired the campaign Gaffe-ometer, Trump is still capable of producing a disqualifying utterance. It is far from impossible, for instance, to imagine him using the C-word (apologies for the annoying euphemism) in reference to Hillary. Would that be enough? We won’t know until it happens. There are certainly things that even Trump can’t get away with saying; we just don’t know exactly what they are yet.
More likely perhaps is that as other candidates drop off, Trump’s numbers simply won’t grow, and the 28% of Republicans who poll in his favor will turn out to be not a base, but a ceiling. One way or another, I would still bet all my chips against a Trump presidency, and bet heavily against a Trump nomination.
Tactically, as a liberal and a Democrat, I should rejoice at the prospect of a Trump candidacy, which would hand the White House to Hillary on a platter. But immediate gratification is hardly the whole story. How do liberals feel, looking back at Goldwater’s 1964 nomination? They may have been gloating about that electoral landslide when it happened – but they certainly weren’t gloating about it fifteen years later, or now for that matter. Sometimes a controversial candidate who loses badly signals a paradigm shift to come. I’m not worried about the Donald himself, but only about his popularity. A third of the adherents of one of our two major parties is cheerleading for a candidate whom conservative commentators consider borderline fascist. That he may be “several degrees of ugly away” from actual fascism, as Douthat writes, is cold comfort.
Donald Trump is not going to be President. But that's not what matters. What really matters is the meaning history eventually assigns to his candidacy and to him. Will he go down as a curiosity... or a harbinger? A footnote to history, or the first instance of something new? Now that is a much harder bet to gauge.