Sometime just before Thanksgiving, some Establishment Republican flaks began voicing the opinion that immigrant-bashing presidential candidate Donald Trump is a fascist. Libertarian-leaning pundits had begun levying that accusation over the summer, but something about the attack from members of his own party helped the label stick this time.
Now bear in mind: Fascism is not the same thing as Nazism. Contrary to much of the internet chatter around use of the term to describe Trump, this is not a debate about whether or not Trump is a racist or an anti-Semite. The question is whether the policies that Trump is sort of proposing could lead to a marriage of business and government in which ideals become uniform, dissent is swiftly punished, with the whole thing centered around a personality cult similar to that of the National Fascist Party headed by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
Op-ed writers have explored the question extensively as of late, but because I'm definitely no expert in European political movements of the 20th century, I thought it might be wise to run the question past someone who is. So I reached out to Cornell University professor Isabel Hull, a historian whose work focuses on Europe's fascist movements, and is one of America's leading scholars on the role of fascism in history.
In an email exchange, Hull and I discussed where Trump fits on the sliding scale between "Fascist" and "Republican," and what that might mean for the future of the American conservative movement in 2016 and beyond. Below is the lightly edited text of our conversation.
VICE: People are beginning to use the word "fascist" to describe Donald Trump. You seem like an expert in this area, so I thought you might be a good person to ask whether that label is correct.
Isabel Hull: My first reaction is that he is not principled enough to be a Fascist. He strikes me more as a nativist-populist. That is, some one from the right wing, angry about various aspects of the present, longing for a golden past, and focused primarily against his own government, but not equipped with a set of adamantine principles to be put into practice, no matter what, and no matter the cost. Perhaps a more interesting question for you would be to ask if there is a genuine conservative running amongst the Republican candidates, as opposed to what in European history would be known as "revolutionary conservatives."
Commentators have used Umberto Eco's definition of fascism as a kind of litmus test for Trump's fascism. Is that a good approach?
Eco's seven signposts of fascism are an OK start, but Eco wasn't an historian, and most historians would be more specific than that. [Political scientist and fascism historian] Robert Paxton once made the excellent point that fascism in the US would doubtless come from the Christian fundamentalist right—and I think he's correct about that. But the interesting thing about Trump, as [conservativeNew York Times columnist Ross] Douthat pointed out, is that he does not have anything to do with the normal right wing Republican base, especially on such matters as religion and economics.
If Trump doesn't fit the classic definition of "conservative," why is he so popular with people who identify as conservatives?
The problem is that surveillance of presumed domestic enemies, xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, and fear-mongering all have an unfortunately long history in this country. I would say that Trump is interesting more for his methods: the Big Lie—which he refuses to retract, the violent uncouth language that passes for "truth"in some circles, apparently, and the encouragement or at least acceptance of minor violence—pushing and shoving—against dissenters, whether they're journalists or just vocal critics. These things do tiptoe into the extreme right-wing. They all were characteristic of fascist movements before they assumed power, though the violence in that case was much, much more extreme.
Would you say his stated policy positions are fascist?
There are only really two interesting issues: mass deportation of illegal immigrants, which [conservative Washington Post columnist] George Will recently described as "ethnic cleansing," and changing the 14th Amendment on birthright citizenship. Both of these are peculiar and worrisome as indicators of what Trump thinks is apposite for a democracy.
You mentioned a "genuine conservative." What does that mean right now?
Surely it would mean cleaving to the constitution and the Bill of Rights for everybody, rather than wild, interpretive interventionism à la [Supreme Court] Justice [Antonin] Scalia. [It would mean] retaining a strong government, if only for purposes of law and order, trade policy, and foreign policy—that is, not undercutting it by forcing it into huge deficits via uneven tax cutting, and certainly not by running it down as bad in principle. [It would mean] protecting the middle class's economic security, and encouraging conservation. Above all, it would do these things moderately, not by veering sharply this way or that.
InfoWars' conspiracy theorist Alex Jones recently spoke very fondly of Trump, even though Jones tends to be deeply distrustful of the kinds of uses of government power Trump seems to favor. Why does this pairing seem to appeal to some American right-wing people?
I'm afraid I'm not up on Alex Jones. But there are huge contradictions in Republican positions on government. On the one hand, they want to eviscerate it by denying it funds and ruining its reputation with the general public; on the other, they want it strong enough to hermetically seal [the US] off from the world, while bombing much of that world to bits. On one hand, they decry government involvement in people's personal lives—absolute freedom to own anything short of atomic weapons, absolute freedom of property use, and on the other, they want the government to regulate the most intimate details of women's reproductive lives.
So what does this new discrepancy in American conservatism mean for the Republican party?
It may mean that the far-right Republican base is, in fact, through with the party, but hasn't realized it yet. I really hadn't thought of it in that way before.
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