Fascism is both a historical and political term. Historically, it describes regimes from the first half of the 20th century in Europe that were authoritarian and had a high propensity for violence. Politically, it has been deployed ever since as a battle cry used to lump opponents into the same camp as Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in an effort to discredit and silence them. Many perfectly democratic politicians have been blasted as fascists by the left without the slightest justification.
That is not what is happening here. Trump's unscrupulous behavior during the election campaign, his racism and his threat to jail Hillary Clinton (though apparently withdrawn this week) go well beyond what is acceptable in a democracy. No comparisons can be made to George W. Bush or to Ronald Reagan -- Trump is in a category of his own. Unless, of course, what we are seeing is fascism.
What Is Fascism?
If it is fascism, then it would be a disaster on a global scale. See above. But if it isn't fascism, it would be a defamation of Trump's voters to call it that, akin to accusing them of helping to bring a fascist to power and potentially driving them away from democracy forever. That's why we must exercise great care when using the term. What is fascism and how does it relate to Trump? Or to the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party, the Freedom Party of Austria, France's Front National or Viktor Orbán in Hungary?
In February, fascism expert Robert Paxton told the online magazine Slate that Trump "even looks like Mussolini in the way he sticks his lower jaw out." There are also parallels when it comes to his treatment of women: Mussolini was accused of being addicted to sex (a charge, it must be said, that was never levelled at Hitler). At the political level, though, comparison is difficult because there are so many different ideas about what truly constitutes fascism.
Action française, which formed at the end of the 19th century, is considered Europe's first fascist organization. Mussolini's Italy became the first fascist country, followed by Hitler's National Socialist Germany. Hungary, Croatia, Spain and Portugal also developed regimes during the 1930s and 1940s that had fascist elements. But the differences between Nazi Germany and Francisco Franco's Spain were so great that it's difficult to mention them in the same breath. Franco was a dictator, but didn't seek control of his subjects' thoughts and private lives. He wasn't an imperialist and he didn't seek to eradicate Judaism.
The Features of 'Ur-Fascism'
In the mid-1990s, when fear broke out over the possibility of a new fascism in Russia, novelist and scholar Umberto Eco defined elements of an "Ur-Fascism." The main question he posed at the time was this: Is there a way of defining fascism to make it recognizable during any period of time? Eco had experienced Mussolini's Italy as a boy and wrote about how he won an essay contest in 1942 on the subject "Should we die for the glory of Mussolini and the immortal destiny of Italy?" His answer? Yes, of course we should die. "I was a bright boy," he wrote in the 1995 article, which appeared in the New York Review of Books.
Should we die for Trump's glory and the immortal destiny of the United States? If this question is ever asked of American students, then they will, without a doubt, be living under fascism. In order to prevent his own experiences from happening again, Eco developed an early warning system including 14 different features that define Ur-Fascism -- a fascism test, as it were. It can be applied to Trump in terms of what is known about him politically, knowledge that comes primarily from the campaign.
"The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition," Eco begins. It has to do with the "primeval truth," the pseudo-religious "syncretistic" elements of a fascist movement. That's not a pronounced characteristic with Trump. He hails from the worlds of real estate development and reality TV, and thus far there haven't been any significant signs of religious or philosophical underpinnings to his movement. So that criterion, at least, does not apply.
Feature No. 2 is the "rejection of modernism," of capitalism, but also of Enlightenment and the Age of Reason -- the "Spirit of 1789," Eco wrote, in reference to the French Revolution. Trump is himself a capitalist, but politically he has shown a strong tendency towards the irrational and intemperate. No determination is yet possible on this point.
'Distrust of the Intellectual World'
Clearly applicable is feature three, which includes a "distrust of the intellectual world." In Trump's world, most intellectuals are considered to be part of the hated "Establishment."
Feature four for Eco is an entirely closed worldview that considers any disagreement to be "treason". That kind of worldview to which all must submit is not currently detectable in Trump.
In point five, he writes that Ur-Fascism "seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition." Here, it sounds as though Eco could have been writing directly about Trump, AfD or Marine Le Pen.
Point six states: "Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That was why one of the most typical features of historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups." It would be impossible to more aptly describe Trump's appeal to his voters.
Nationalism is the seventh point in Eco's list -- in other words, Trump in his purest form.
Point eight: "The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies." As a boy, Eco wrote, he was taught that the English ate five meals a day, "more frequently than the poor but sober Italians." He was also taught that Jews were disagreeably rich. Although Trump is said to be a billionaire, many of his supporters are driven by rage against an establishment they see as having enriched itself.
In identifying Ur-Fascism, point nine holds that "there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle." In other words, permanent warfare. That definitely has not been a part of Trump's message.
As for point 10, Eco says that Ur-Fascism reflects what he calls a "mass elitism." Those who are members of the movement, the party or the nation look down on everyone else. Surely some of Trump's white supporters disdain African Americans, but the feeling of indignity is still greater than the idea of superiority.
"The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die," Eco writes in point 11. Furthermore, everyone would be raised in this spirit. That doesn't apply.
Criterion number 12: The Ur-Fascist "transfers his will to power to sexual matters." That is true of Trump.
Point 13: "Whenever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism." That is at the core of right-wing populism. They like to claim that those in power in Washington, Berlin or Paris are out of touch with what "the people" want.