One of the few unbroken conventions in this unconventional presidential campaign is the tendency of partisans of each side to resort to name-calling, often in hyperboles. This practice has reached new heights, or rather depths, with the mislabeling of Donald Trump as a “fascist.”
Fascism is rooted in nationalism, an ideology that admittedly does seem to appeal to and identify with the Republicans more than the Democrats. But to call Trump a fascist is to misstate what fascism actually is.
Fascism is significantly more extreme than mere expression of national pride, in four ways. First, it promotes the idea that a “natural aristocracy” is born to rightfully lead the nation. In other words, the little people should keep their place while the elitehood runs the country. In contrast, Trump’s platform extols empowering the disestablished against what he decries as a political establishment that not only is dysfunctional, but also has failed the nation.
Second, fascism deliberately appeals to popular emotion with overdone pageantry: brightly colored Roman-style banners, stirring traditional music and the like. That kind of tone is not characteristic of Trump’s campaign rallies, which notwithstanding his rhetoric looks much like any other presidential candidate’s campaign events.
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Third, fascism embraces the military culture in a way that moderate nationalism does not. This trait explains the frequent appearances of Mussolini and Hitler in military uniforms, as well as Italy’s and Germany’s foreign adventurism before and during World War II. In contrast, Trump and his associates do not wear military uniforms and Trump has repudiated military adventurism in American foreign policy.
Fourth and most importantly, fascism promotes the individual duty to serve the state and even rebrands that duty as a right. A fascist state expects its people to willingly make extreme personal sacrifices to serve what fascists claim to be the greater interest of the state’s power and glory. Only communism and the Nazi ideology are more authoritarian. This is another trait that poorly describes Trump’s platform or campaign style.
So why the label?
Why then is Trump being mislabeled a fascist? There are two likely reasons. One is that his rhetoric and delivery have been more provoking and bombastic, and less sensitive and humble, than the style to which the American electorate is accustomed. Audiences have an innate (and unfortunate) tendency to conflate style and substance, even though doing so is almost always inappropriate.
The second reason is that Trump’s style and substance have evoked unusually visceral reactions, particularly from the left. Most attributions of fascism to Trump are grounded in emotion rather than dispassionate thought, by a culture that over-indulges “feeling.” They may also instantiate the coarsening of American political discourse, in which “fascist” and “Nazi” labels are affixed to whatever the speaker of the moment deems undesirable at the moment. This is a most unfortunate trend, for such practice only cheapens the horrors suffered by victims of real fascists like Mussolini, Hitler, and Saddam Hussein.
The left’s mislabeling of Trump bodes ill for this campaign, as well as the national political climate should Trump win the election. It also foreshadows the potential for an even nastier tone in the next presidential campaign. If this particular form of hyperbole is not reined in, then the door is open for Republicans to repay the Democrats in kind by tarring the next Democratic candidate as a Stalinist. “How dare you! Clinton is not a communist!” Well, neither is Trump a fascist.
Davis Brown is a Salisbury-based professor of political science and research fellow at the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion.