Trumpism, Fascism, and the Lessons of History

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By Geoff Read, Cheryl Koos, and Samuel Kalman

The 45th President of the United States

Many articles have appeared in the past year debating whether or not Donald Trump is a fascist.[1] Although some of these pieces are mere exercises in name calling, others offer political, social, and historical analysis. Just prior to the US presidential election, for example, Kevin Passmore, an eminent scholar of the French far right, took up this question in the  Guardian and reached similar conclusions as previous commentators: that fascism is a difficult concept to nail down, that so-called fascists were a diverse group, and that the label “fascist” may not be helpful for understanding Trump and the movement (let’s call it “Trumpism”) that he has inspired.

We don’t argue with the thrust of the first two conclusions. However, unlike Passmore and others, we do think that comparing historical forms of fascism to Trumpism can be a useful exercise. Moreover, the day of Trump’s inauguration is the right moment to revisit this question from a different angle. It strikes us that asking whether or not Trump is a fascist misses the point. The logic of the comparison is as follows: that the majority of rational people can agree that fascism was dangerous and thus if a political movement resembles it, it must be strongly opposed. Surely, therefore, the important question to focus on is what similarities Trumpism shares with the fascists of the past. Pursuing this line of inquiry allows us to see many disturbing points of convergence between Trumpism and fascism without falling into the trap of a semantic debate and does in fact help identify the danger that Trumpism represents. It is not necessary that Donald Trump or his movement be fascist for these similarities to alarm us.

Focusing on the fascists of western Europe between 1919 and 1945, then, what similarities did those movements and governments share with Donald Trump and his followers? To begin with, fascists and Trumpists share the worldview of Social Darwinism, the 19th century idea that nations and sometimes races are locked in a struggle for global domination. The most obvious manifestation of this outlook is that both fascists and Trumpists were and are obsessed with national decline and presented or present their movements as the only solutions to that deterioration. Thus such movements share both hyper-nationalism and a desire to return to a largely imaginary past of national greatness. Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” evokes a Mad Men-esque past when American industry was ascendant and white male heterosexual Americans were firmly in charge; he and his supporters maintain that America “no longer wins”; Trump offers himself as the solution to this problem, saying “only I can fix it.” He claimed that America’s current leaders were “losers” while he is a “winner” who would accordingly right the sinking national ship. Similarly, German National Socialism and Italian Fascism, the two most well-known examples of interwar fascism, ranted against German and Italian democracy as impotent and overseeing countrywide degeneration. Hitler and Mussolini looked to the medieval period and the Roman Empire, respectively, for inspiration and positioned themselves and their movements as the dynamic keys to national rejuvenation.

A Cult of Personality

Similarly, Trumpists and interwar fascists, created a cult of personality around their leaders. The leader is positioned as the only person with the unique vision, will, and skills to lead the nation successfully. Thus the movements became synonymous with their leaders in a way that democratic political parties or movements do not. The chief, Trump in this case, becomes an idol who is worshipped by his followers as a kind of political messiah; he can do no wrong and Trump knows it, as evidenced by his comment that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” When Trump bragged on an Access Hollywood video about sexually assaulting women, his supporters dismissed the video’s release as the product of a media conspiracy against him. Likewise, when the Nazis committed atrocities such as during the anti-Semitic destruction of Jewish businesses in April 1933, their followers saw them as the product of Hitler’s henchmen’s excesses; the Führer himself could not have been responsible for such actions. Thus was born what historian Ian Kershaw terms the Hitler Myth: regardless of what the party/regime perpetrated, the adoring public consistently placed the leader above the fray, a living representation of national regeneration who singularly bound together the nation against its enemies.

This implies that the base of support should be the “common man”, rather than limpid and detached elites, who serve individual interests rather than the national good. Thus like Mussolini, Hitler, and French fascist leader Jacques Doriot, Trump created and exploited an unsophisticated, almost buffoonish persona that was media savvy and appealed to mass support.

Benito Mussolini, former prime minister of Italy and Adolph Hitler, former Chancellor of Germany

Like past fascist leaders, Trump’s persona helps him appear to his followers as substantively different from traditional democratic politicians. For those distrustful of the status quo and who blame political elites for their perceived or real problems, this makes him appealing, as it did Mussolini, Hitler, and Doriot. Further, the exaggerated clownishness of such leaders’ images and behaviour led their opponents to underestimate them. In Germany, conservatives liked to call the Nazi leader “Corporal Hitler” as they sneered at his plebeian military rank during World War I and evinced a belief that a man of such low station and lack of comportment could not be taken seriously. On the left, the German Communists so underestimated the Nazis that they helped them bring down the conservative government in the fall of 1932, triggering the series of events that brought Hitler to power; ironically, Hitler’s first priority upon assuming the reins of government was to attack the Communist Party with devastating consequences. Similarly, political opponents in Italy and France mocked Mussolini and Doriot’s bombastic rhetoric and style and in so doing failed to grasp the nature of their appeal and the dire threat they represented.  In the case of Trump, his opponents mocked him from the moment he entered politics. President Obama himself ruthlessly lampooned him at the 2011 White House Press Correspondents Dinner after Trump stoked the birther controversy. His Republican opponents made fun of him during the primaries and he has been the object of fun for comedians and satirists ever since.

This has been counterproductive, however. The widespread mockery and critique of their champions only fueled interwar fascist supporters’ anger and sense of alienation; it does the same with Trumpists. Every time someone like Alec Baldwin lampoons Trump, for example, his followers take it as a personal affront. Even an event as seemingly banal as a plea delivered to Vice-President elect Mike Pence by the cast of the musical Hamilton to protect the rights of all Americans was perceived as a direct attack and led to an avalanche of trolling and derision. No target is above reproach; Trump lambasted civil rights hero and Representative John Lewis as “sad” and clueless when he suggested that the President-elect might be illegitimate due to Russian meddling in the campaign, and supporters naturally followed suit on social media. For they believe that any ridicule directed towards Trump equally demeans their own character and beliefs. Therefore, perversely, satires and criticisms of Trump and Trumpism continue to have the effect of solidifying his support and helped him mobilize his voters who were motivated to strike back against perceived elites.

Therefore, while many of Hillary Clinton’s supporters felt certain that the Republican nomination of Trump – in their eyes a man manifestly unsuited to be President – ensured her victory, it was not to be. For in addition to allowing his buffoonery to lull them into a false sense of security, Trump’s opponents also failed to work together in another pattern reminiscent of the fascist past. A lack of unity on the centre-left was key to fascist and Nazi success in the interwar years. Only in 1936 did Spanish and French leftist and centrist politicians finally unite in a Popular Front against fascism, but this was too little, too late. During the November election, just like the German Communists in 1932, many on the American center and left abetted Trump’s victory by refusing to vote for Clinton, choosing one of the following three self-destructive paths: 1) voting for a third party candidate who had no hope of winning; 2) not bothering to vote, especially in key swing states; or 3) most bizarrely, voting for Trump as a anti-establishment candidate, as actress Susan Sarandon publicly said she would do.

Sexism and Racism

Many of the origins and motivations of Trumpism are also similar to those of interwar fascism. Sexism and anti-feminism, for example, are, or were, key drivers of both Trumpism and fascism. At the root of both is men’s resentment of the perceived gains of women at their expense. In 1920s France and Italy, for example, there was widespread concern directed towards the “modern woman” who, many believed, had transgressed her biologically defined role as mother and wife and trampled all over men’s prerogatives as breadwinners and citizens in the process. Fascists and conservatives both promised to return gender relations to the “natural” order of things, with women confined to the domestic sphere. For decades, the American far right has advocated the same thing. Trumpists were enraged at Hillary Clinton for having usurped male power as a political leader. A lightning rod for critiques of feminism since her husband’s time as Arkansas governor, Clinton was demonized by the American right and particularly the far right as an activist First Lady for her public role in health care reform and global women’s issues. This cemented a view of Clinton as a feminist she-devil on the far right. Most recently, Trumpists, both men and women, screamed, “Trump that bitch!” and “Lock her up!” at rallies and even openly called for her assassination. Trump himself stoked the blatant misogyny, as evidenced by his seething “You are such a nasty woman” comment during the third presidential debate.

Another commonality between interwar fascism and Trumpism is the targeting of women’s reproductive rights. Mussolini and Hitler outlawed contraceptive literature and devices and criminalized abortion; fascistic Vichy France made abortion a capital crime in 1943 punishable by death at the guillotine. Similarly, Donald Trump has signaled he will seek to appoint Supreme Court judges who will overturn Roe v. Wade at the earliest opportunity and once said that women as well as doctors should be punished for terminating a pregnancy.

“The Eternal Jew” Art Exhibition, The German Museum, Munich, 1937-38

Just as anti-feminism and sexism are at the heart of Trumpism and fascism, so too is racism. While Italian Fascism lacked Nazism’s genocidal anti-Semitism, a sense of racial superiority was foundational to Fascist thinking nonetheless, which was tragically evident during Italy’s murderous campaigns in Ethiopia and Libya. French and Spanish fascists routinely lambasted immigrants as a threat to national security, economic prosperity, and social hygiene. Trumpism too stokes the fires of racial resentment as its leader promises to expel Mexicans and Muslims who are supposedly stealing jobs from white people, committing crimes and/or acts of terrorism, and sponging off hard-working white Americans’ taxes. Thus, Trumpism assures its enthusiasts that white supremacy will be restored. Making America “great again” is essentially making it white and male-dominated again. This appeal proved especially potent in the wake of America’s first African American president whose very presence in the Oval Office confirmed for Trumpists that the “natural” order of things had been violated. It is no coincidence that the incoming President’s initial political success came through his advocacy of the Birther movement, which claims that Barack Obama was a Muslim born in Africa and not a Christian from the United States. That a long demonized liberal feminist was running to replace him only further enraged them.

Conservative Christianity and Elitism

ADN-ZB/Archiv
Kirchenwahl am 23.7.1933 in Berlin. Wahl in der Marien Kirche am Neuen Markt. Nazistische Wahlpropaganda unter Maske des Christentums.

Like interwar fascist movements, Trumpism coalesced broad support from conservative Christian institutions and believers. Like German Lutherans, Catholics, and Seventh-Day Adventists for Nazism, and Catholics for Italian and French fascist movements, American Protestant evangelicals provided a deep reservoir of electoral support for Trump, with 81 percent of white evangelicals voting for him. Despite mispronouncing phrases from the Bible, cherry picking out-of-context verses of scripture at rallies, and publicly stating that he never asked God for forgiveness of his sins, Trump maintained and solidified most white evangelicals’ support. Many evangelical leaders, including Jerry Falwell, Jr., Franklin Graham, James Dobson, and a host of nationally known mega-church pastors extolled Trump’s “strong leadership,” convinced themselves and their followers he was a born-again Christian, and promised to “make America great again” by declaring war on secular elites and humanists. Indeed, much of their support for Trump was born out of their/his belief in Birtherism, their collective hatred of Clinton, who ironically, has been a practicing United Methodist her entire life, and the widespread fear among Evangelicals that the LGBTQ community poses an existential threat to their way of life. Similarly, conservative European Christians and their respective denominations and leaders embraced fascist and fascistic movements and regimes because of who they were not: modern women, Jews, homosexuals, liberals, socialists, or communists.

Moreover, both interwar fascism and Trumpism were or are anti-elitist, anti-establishment, and anti-intellectual. Fascists, in most cases, were outsiders. Accordingly, they cast themselves as a new uncorrupted force that would cleanse the body politic and society of its many ills. Trump, despite his constant bragging about his wealth, managed, similarly, to convince people that he too was a populist outsider. His speaking style, syntax, accent, and ill-fitting suits signalled that he was one of them. Trump, like fascists before him, owes much of his success to his ability to channel popular resentment of social, political, and cultural elites. The criminals of Wall Street and Washington, he promised his supporters, would get their just desserts were he elected president, and the degenerate know-it-alls who insisted upon political correctness would get their comeuppance. While his cabinet appointees are the wealthiest in history and some, like Steven Mnuchin (formerly of Goldman Sachs), have close ties to Wall Street and Washington lobbyists, Trumpists hardly look askance at the new alligators populating the swamp he said he would drain. After all, “draining the swamp” was a promise that Mussolini made as well.

In keeping with this posture, fascists and Trumpists largely reject reason and fact-based decision making. Theirs is a politics of emotion, of vague but uplifting promises to restore national greatness. This politics of emotion in all cases was based on a steady stream of propaganda, what is now euphemistically called “fake news.” As master manipulators of the press and popular media forms, Trump, Mussolini, Hitler, and their 1930s French counterparts expertly used the media to inflame hyper-nationalism and to demonize their opponents. As Trump’s chief media contact, Kellyanne Conway, spins an alternative political reality on television by interpreting Trump’s many tweets, so too did Nazi chief of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels use newspapers, radio, and film to craft a loyal and emotion-driven reality for Hitler’s supporters, demonizing enemies as elitist, racially unfit, or in league with Germany’s external and internal enemies.

In the same vein, François de La Rocque of France’s fascistic movement the Croix de Feu promised his followers a “French order” with the “Fatherland victorious” without specifying what this meant or how it would be accomplished. Similarly, when Trump declared that he would make Mexico pay to build a border wall that is contrary to its interests, his supporters believed him without question despite continual disavowals from the highest levels of the Mexican government. Such claims cannot withstand scrutiny and yet they are repeated ad nauseam as tenets of faith.

As their politics of resentment suggest, while both Trumpism and interwar fascism draw or drew on a socially diverse base of support, their devotees are or were characterized by a sense or intense fear of downward mobility and economic insecurity; their most steadfast support came from people who feel their social position to be under attack. Hitler masterfully exploited the effects of the Great Depression, even though recovery began under Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher in late 1932 before the Nazis came to power. Similarly, French fascists bemoaned the effects of the “slump”, although the eventual economic upturn in France was effectuated by centrist Premier Edouard Daladier. Trump similarly speaks directly to white working-class and lower middle-class men and women threatened by the Great Recession. Despite steady but uneven recovery and falling unemployment figures, Trump voters’ perceptions of their economic insecurity as evidenced by shuttered factories and lost manufacturing jobs belied improving statistics. They, like their interwar European counterparts, believed their way of life to be under threat. Instead of a discussion about the need for government intervention and the benefits of currency devaluation (in post-1929 Europe), or the effect of automation on the global economy and the changing face of labour in a post-industrial world (in the present day US), they berated elites and outsiders, scapegoating them for their perceived problems.

Violence and Militarism

Along with sexism and racism, interwar fascism also had violence as a core characteristic. Fascists, in fact, celebrated political violence as redemptive. Moreover, fascism’s pro-violence stance was not mere rhetoric. Across Europe, fascists physically assaulted and murdered political opponents. They marched in paramilitary uniforms. They attacked perceived racial enemies in the street, and, when in power, they launched wars of aggression and embarked upon genocidal projects. While the violence expressed by Trumpism has not been as organized as fascism, it transgressed accepted political norms in its celebration of violence as a normal and acceptable form of discourse. Thus Trump praised a supporter who punched a protestor in the face during a rally, and asked his followers to exercise their Second Amendment rights to bear arms in the event of a Clinton victory; national political figures supporting Trump called for “pitchforks and torches” if Clinton won. Likewise, he promised to pay the legal fees of anyone charged with assaulting protesters at his rallies and pledged to murder the innocent families of supposed terrorists. Finally, he pointedly stated during the third Presidential debate in October 2016 that he would refuse to accept an electoral loss, raising the spectre of extra-legal actions by his supporters. Trump subsequently tempered his position, yet only out of political expediency, facing public opprobrium, much as Mussolini and La Rocque constantly swayed between being “law breaking and law abiding”. Moreover, taking their cues from their leader’s rhetoric, his followers have taken matters into their own hands and unleashed violence upon ethnic, religious, and sexual minority groups in the wake of Trump’s election. The spike in ethnic violence targeting minorities was worse in the week following the election than it was during the week following 9/11. 

As a component of political violence, militarization played a key role in the rise of both interwar fascism and Trumpism. The ranks of the early fascists across Europe, for example, were replete with veterans of World War I. These men sought to bring the politics and mores of the trenches into civil society following the armistice and the return home. In organizations such as the German “Freikorps” and later the Nazi Stormtroopers, German veterans (along with a sizeable portion of the home front) believed that the German army had been “stabbed in the back” by a shadowy coalition of Jews, liberals, and socialists, a narrative harnessed to excuse the brutalization of political opponents and perceived racial inferiors. In the United States self-proclaimed citizens’ militias invoked parallel fantasies, for example, about President Barack Obama being the head of a United Nations conspiracy to invade the USA and/or a plot to “Islamicize” America from within. These myths are widely accepted among alt-right white identity groups and militias that are often populated by veterans. As in interwar Germany, these ideas hold sway with a considerable component of the general population as well. In both cases, a militarization of domestic politics was or has been one of the long-term consequences of war, and in both cases this has served to radicalize the political scene.

Moreover, as has become increasingly clear in the weeks following his election, Donald Trump’s victory was aided and abetted by a foreign power, Russia. American intelligence agencies have released evidence showing that the Russian government engineered the release of documents that damaged Clinton’s campaign. The release of these documents through Wiki Leaks, moreover, was timed for maximum political impact. It remains unclear whether officials from Trump’s campaign were in contact with the Russians during the campaign but it has emerged that Trump advisor Michael Flynn, set to be the National Security Advisor, phoned the Russian Ambassador to the United States both the day before and the morning that President Obama announced new sanctions in retaliation for Russian meddling.

Pablo Picasso’s interpretation of the Luftwaffe’s Bombing of the Basque Town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War

Like Trump, interwar European fascists were also willing to accept support from foreign interests. Francisco Franco’s three-year insurrection from 1936 to 1939 against the Spanish Republic was bankrolled in part by both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Indeed, both Italian and German combat units fought for the Francoists and used Spain as a military training ground. In France, Mussolini funded a variety of far-right and fascist organizations including the Francistes and the extremist terrorist group known as the Cagoule. In all these cases, far right groups’ willing collusion with foreign interests trumped their hyper-nationalist platforms and rhetoric revealing cynicism and hypocrisy. Trump’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge Russian interference in the election and, most tellingly, his lack of concern at preventing such interference from happening again, shows him to be a crass opportunist at best if not a tool of Vladimir Putin’s at worst.

Manipulation of Electoral Politics

Finally, the manner in which Trumpism attained power is alarmingly similar to the rise of both Italian Fascism and Nazism. In all three cases the movements pursued electoral paths to power; yet, all undermined the very electoral systems that brought them success. Interwar fascists used violence or the threat of violence to intimidate opponents; in Italy, for example, Fascists marched on Rome to intimidate King Victor Emmanuel III into appointing Mussolini prime minister. Trumpism similarly flouted the rule of law, embracing violence, casting aspersions on the electoral process, and speaking wildly of media and government conspiracies to deny the movement power. Thus, as in Italy in 1922, the threat hung in the air that violent insurrection might follow a defeat at the polls as the leader refused to say whether he would recognize a Clinton victory.

Equally extra-legally, FBI director James Comey is being investigated for actions that may have violated the law by publicizing a new investigation into emails that tangentially involved Hillary Clinton less than two weeks before the election. Polling data indicates at least a two percentage point drop in Clinton’s support following Comey’s initial announcement, likely tipping the election in Trump’s favour in key swing states. Since the election, Trump has continued his contempt for both the rule of law and established custom, refusing to divest himself of his enormous real estate and financial empire. He has called, in defiance of the First Amendment of United States Constitution, for people who burn the American flag to be jailed and has continued his assault on the mainstream press media. He has even questioned the legitimacy of the election that handed him power, claiming without proof that millions of “illegal” voters voted for his opponent, giving her a majority of the popular vote.

Nor do the similarities to the Nazi and Italian Fascist path to power end with disrespect for the law and established process. In all three instances too, the rise of these angry populist movements was aided and abetted by conservatives. In the Italian example, industrialists and landowners found Fascists to be useful muscle to intimidate workers, bust up unions, and attack socialists and communists. Moreover, while Mussolini’s supporters pressured the Italian king with the March on Rome, he could easily have elected to call out the army and disperse the Blackshirts, the militias who controlled swathes of the northern and central Italian countryside. Instead, holding conservative, anti-socialist, and anti-communist beliefs, King Victor Emmanuel legitimized Fascist violence and made the movement’s leader the head of government.

In the German case, after an attempted coup d’état during the “Beer Hall Putsch” of 1923, Hitler received a lenient sentence from the conservative justice system, which shared his hatred for the Marxist left. As the Nazi Party’s share of the popular vote grew, moreover, it increasingly received the backing of moneyed interests for many of the same reasons as Mussolini and then was maneuvered into power by traditional conservatives such as Franz von Papen and President Paul von Hindenburg, believing that they could use the Nazis to crush the left while controlling them.

Similarly, Republican congressional leaders such as Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan repeatedly have refused to condemn Trump’s extreme rhetoric and actions because they need him to enact their agenda to privatize Social Security and Medicare, to defund Planned Parenthood, and to repeal Obamacare. With Trumpism we see a populist movement born of decades of extreme rhetoric deployed by the Republican Party and its allies at Fox News, within evangelical churches, on talk radio, and in the NRA. Establishment conservatives such as George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney cynically took advantage this strategy believing that they could manipulate racial and gendered resentments in order to win their support, while controlling, containing, and directing the passionate excesses of the populist wing of the Republican Party. That establishment Republicans, even those who previously distanced themselves from him such as Romney, moved to ally themselves with President-Elect Trump following the election in an attempt to profit from his victory only strengthens the comparison to the fascist path to power.

Conclusion

What then, does this comparison ultimately mean?

To be sure, there are differences between Trumpism and interwar European fascism. Chiefly, these are twofold: first, that Trump has a very different view of the role of the state in the economy than did the interwar fascists. Despite his anti-free trade rhetoric, as a billionaire Trump thinks that government interference with the free market should be minimized whereas fascist leaders believed that the state could and should directly intervene in the economy to serve the interests of the state and nation. However, most fascist regimes did support a pro-business agenda and actively sought the approval of large corporations and their executives. Thus the Nazis sought to galvanize big business by granting preferential contracts to companies like Krupp and Siemens. In the same vein, both the Nazis and Italian Fascists crushed organized labour at the behest of big business, with Mussolini in particular responding to the demands of Confindustria, the Italian big business confederation, in the establishment of a Fascist labour charter. That Trump has staffed his cabinet with fellow plutocrats such as Mnuchin, Betsy DeVos, and Rex Tillerson is evidence that he is not going to upend the neo-liberal order, and in fact may well use his position to directly benefit American corporations if they support his priorities to the detriment of American labour, much like Mussolini and Hitler.

Second, unlike interwar fascist movements, Trumpism has no party apparatus of its own; it has instead attached itself to the willing Republican Party, most of whose members have fallen in line behind Trump’s vision in the quest for political power. Neither does he possess a paramilitary organization under the party’s direct control, although the election season witnessed the emergence of a group called the Lion Guard which adopted a Mussolini quote as its guiding mantra. Moreover, Trumpism’s recent origins may be a mitigating factor here. The Nazi S.A. (Storm Troopers) only became active in 1921, two years after the party’s founding, and the Italian Squadristi similarly appeared well after the emergence of the Fasci di Combattimento in Milan. We should not forget that Trump counts among his most fervent supporters neo-Nazi militias and movements, including the Ku Klux Klan and an array of white identity groups that contain armed auxiliaries.

Finally, much like the interwar fascists the propensity for violence among Trump supporters at rallies and in communities across the United States testifies to the presence of paramilitary-style tactics in embryonic form. In any case, noting divergences should not blind us to the distressing array of similarities. Whether or not one calls Trumpism “fascist,” the convergences and parallels are analogous to fascism and its rise to power.

As such, it is also instructive to consider what happened when fascists or those who evinced fascistic characteristics came to power. Unfortunately, the historical record is not encouraging. Having used the threat of violence to have himself appointed the head of government in October 1922, Benito Mussolini then sought to appear to be a conventional prime minister until having the leader of the Italian Socialist Party, Giacomo Matteotti, murdered in June 1924 and thereafter moving to establish a single-party dictatorship. In Portugal, António de Oliveira Salazar suppressed political opposition after becoming minister in 1932, and thereupon revised the constitution to establish the “New State,” a personal dictatorship that lasted more than forty years. In Spain, after winning the Spanish Civil War and defeating the Spanish Republic, General Francisco Franco’s regime murdered hundreds of thousands of political opponents and remained in power until his death in 1975. In the most well-known example, Hitler, after his appointment as Chancellor in January 1933, and the Third Reich murdered twelve million people including roughly six million Jews, and were responsible for the deaths of tens of millions more. It is worth noting that following his installation many Germans reassured themselves that, having achieved power, Hitler would moderate his tone and posture, and that he would be constrained by the conservatives in his cabinet. This proved to be one of the most tragic miscalculations of the 20th century. Within six weeks of Hitler’s appointment the Nazis had staged the Reichstag Fire in order to justify the seizure of emergency powers via the Enabling Act passed on 24 March 1933. By the summer of that year, all other political parties had been dissolved, thousands of political opponents had been brutalized and/or murdered in concentration camps or in sanctioned street violence, and an unrelenting totalitarian dictatorship had been firmly entrenched.

To be sure, the institutions of US democracy are stronger than those of the Weimar Republic, Italy’s constitutional monarchy, the Spanish Republic, or the First Portuguese Republic. Yet as Paul Krugman noted in the New York Times on 20 December, it would be naïve to place too much faith in checks and balances, for they cannot guarantee the preservation of republican institutions, particularly when the Republican Party controls both houses of Congress and Trump has the ability to appoint at least one Supreme Court justice. Furthermore, Trump regularly resorts to social media and family members rather than policy advisors and fellow Republicans in Senate and Congress, while sparing no occasion to excoriate the press and speaks openly of denying media credentials/access to any newspaper or network that is perceived to oppose his policies and actions; his cabinet nominees are primarily loyalists who supported his campaign either monetarily or endorsed him publicly. Certainly, it seems unlikely that either sober-minded counsellors or the Fifth Estate will restrain the incoming President.

The office of the American President has, furthermore, already accrued increasing power. Barack Obama, facing a recalcitrant Congress governed, much like the German Weimar governments of the early 1930s, by executive order to an unprecedented degree. Using an array of precedents established by his Republican predecessor George W. Bush, Obama expanded the War on Terror through a drone program, in which US forces carried out assassinations and “targeted strikes” with Presidential oversight. Neither was he able to close Guantanamo Bay prison, which remains open, and thus the practices of the Bush era, including the widespread use of torture and rendition, could be easily resurrected. Furthermore, while providing legal protection for undocumented “dreamers” brought illegally to the US as children by their parents, President Obama also authorized the deportation of more undocumented immigrants than any president in American history. The dangerous precedent of governing by executive decree, as pioneered by Bush and continued by Obama, is thus but one of many tools needed to establish tyranny readily available to Donald Trump as he assumes the most powerful office on earth today.

History shows us that hunkering down, sticking one’s head in the sand, and hoping for the best is folly. Given the many unsettling similarities between Trumpism and fascism, this suggests that American democracy will be severely tested in the years ahead and that American citizens should be ready to defend their freedoms, their friends and neighbours, and their Republic actively and with courage.

Editors note, Feb. 5/2017: Thanks to our readers for pointing out small errors in the text, John Lewis was incorrectly identified as a Senator – he is a member of the House of Representatives. The Manchester Guardian is, of course, simply The Guardian.

Geoff Read is a professor of history at Huron University College, Cheryl Koos is a professor of history at California State University, Los Angles, and Samuel Kalman is a professor of history at St. Francis Xavier University. 


Further reading

De Grand, Alexander. Italian Fascism: Its Origins and Development 3rd ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

De Grazia, Victoria. How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy, 1922-1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Kalman, Samuel. The Extreme Right in Interwar France: The Faisceau and the Croix de Feu. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008.

Kalman, Samuel and Sean Kennedy, eds. The French Right Between the Wars: Political and Intellectual Movements from Conservatism to Fascism. New York: Berghahn Books, 2014.

Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2000.

Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2000.

Koonz, Claudia. The Nazi Conscience. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Passmore, Kevin, ed. Women, Gender, and Fascism in Europe. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003.

Passmore, Kevin. Fascism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Paxton, Robert O. The Anatomy of Fascism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

Pollard, Miranda. Reign of Virtue: Mobilizing Gender in Vichy France. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Preston, Paul. The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, and Revenge. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2006.


[1] For the purposes of this essay, the terms fascist and fascism shall be capitalized only when in reference to the Italian “National Fascist Party” or its members.

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