Donald Trump, while scary, is no 'fascist'

Megan McArdle
Megan McArdle

Slate's chief political correspondent, Jamelle Bouie, wrote a column last month headlined "Donald Trump is a Fascist." New York Times columnist Ross Douthat asked last week, "Is Donald Trump a Fascist?" Let's keep digging.

Douthat highlights the uncomfortable similarities between Trump's style and the hallmarks of fascism laid out by Umberto Eco: "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.' "

To that I'd add a kind of opportunistic – his supporters would probably say "pragmatic" – approach to economic policy (rather than ideological).

Trump's economic policy isn't really a policy; it consists of claiming magical abilities to reclaim the jobs that foreigners have stolen from us, and a ritual genuflection toward lower taxes.

All politics contains some element of this, of course: Just listen to the Democratic debaters on stage claiming that bankers nearly singlehandedly destroyed the American economy, and that ambitious programs can be financed largely by raising taxes on a tiny group of ultrawealthy people. But this is combined with some vision of what the economy should look like, resting on moral and empirical premises about fairness, justice, opportunity and equality.

Trump's argument is pretty much entirely "strangers stole your stuff, and I'm going to make them give it back, or at least keep them from stealing any more."

Should we hunker down for America's version of Mussolini/Hitler-style fascism, a la "It Can't Happen Here"? Not quite. Douthat wrote a second column, pointing out the ways in which Trump is different from typical fascist leaders. Classical fascism is obsessed with tradition and secret knowledge, which feels backward in our modernist, diverse country.

The more important distinction, to my mind, is that Trump doesn't have an organization so much as a mood.

Actual fascists, let us remember, were born out of a brutal world war that resulted in territorial losses and left a lot of demobilized soldiers running around with dim economic prospects. Whatever your opinions on the war on terror, it is not the same scale as World War I, and it has certainly not left the U.S. in the kind of parlous condition in which Hitler and Mussolini were able to grow smaller radical groups into national mass movements.

Trump himself doesn't have that kind of dedication to his cause; just try to imagine him leading a coup, landing in jail, angrily penning "The Art of the Struggle."

Implausible. Trump has far too much to lose, and too little to gain, to embrace truly revolutionary fervor. Nor is he operating in a weak state with a short and spotty democratic history.

The U.S. government has ticked along for going on 250 years, through multiple crises and an armed insurrection. Americans are pretty emotionally attached to its institutions, for all the complaints about them, and precisely because we are ethnically diverse, we tend to rest our national identity heavily upon our political institutions: not the expansionist "Drang nach Osten," but the Constitution the huddled masses yearning to breathe free life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

We have failed many times to live up to our ideals, but we have never stopped professing them.

All this matters. The main problem with fascists, after all, is not that they have creepy cartelist economic notions and uncharitable immigration policies, but that they had a tendency to go on killing sprees against neighbors, internal minorities and their political enemies.

I don't like Trump's economic pseudo-policies or anti-immigrant sentiment. But they are so far from Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy as to be differences in kind as well as degree. And America has neither the weak institutions nor the revolutionary organizations necessary for a Trump Reich to fester.

I rank the odds of a Trump presidency somewhere below the odds of my winning the lottery. But even if such an unlikely event were to occur, the dark night of fascism would not descend, because American institutions are built to withstand a terrible president. Congress would retain control of the power of the purse, and Trump wouldn't get much done without it. Courts would not allow him to wantonly step on civil liberties, and if he ordered the military to invade Mexico without congressional authorization, or the FBI to arrest his political enemies, they would refuse those orders.

It's good cocktail-party fun to establish the extent to which Donald Trump's pseudo-ideology may, or may not, resemble the fascist movements of the 20th century. But this is just a superficial likeness, lacking the ingredients for fascist terror.

Trump won't "make America great again." But he also won't destroy the country. Though of course, he may yet destroy the Republican chances to win the White House in 2016.

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist writing on economics, business and public policy.