Is Trump A Demagogue? Yes. Is He A Fascist? No. The defining ideological objective of fascism is the wholesale substitution of the rights of the “national community” for the rights of the individual. Or, as Mussolini put it: “Everything within the state; nothing against the state; nothing outside the state.” Anybody who knows anything about Americans – especially conservative Americans – also knows that Mussolini’s dictum runs counter to everything they believe in.
A FLURRY OF SOCIAL MEDIA interest has greeted a recent op-ed column by Irish Times journalist, Fintan O’Toole, on the subject of fascism. The article, entitled “Trial runs for fascism are in full flow”, was published on 26 June, but has been “liked” and “shared” innumerable times since then. Its most grateful recipients appear to be those young, self-styled “progressives” who find it next-to-impossible to distinguish the rhetorical provocations of media-savvy conservative activists from the all-too-real fists and boots of genuine fascists.
This confusion is not in any way dispelled by O’Toole’s think-piece, which seems to imply the existence of some vast Fascist International masterminding the steady advance of fascist regimes across the Western World with diabolical precision.
The most oft-quoted passage of his article is certainly chilling:
“Fascism doesn’t arise suddenly in an existing democracy. It is not easy to get people to give up their ideas of freedom and civility. You have to do trial runs that, if they are done well, serve two purposes. They get people used to something they may initially recoil from; and they allow you to refine and calibrate. This is what is happening now and we would be fools not to see it.”
Compelling prose – not least because it contains a grain of truth. Testing the public’s stomach for brutality and injustice is, indeed, part-and-parcel of the fascist story. What O’Toole fails to appreciate, however, is that such testing occurs only after fascism has come to power – not before.
There are numerous examples of both the Italian and German fascist regimes of the 1920s and 30s tempering their policies in the face of public outrage; or, alternatively, intensifying their repression in the face of public indifference. But, these examples all took place in the period subsequent to Benito Mussolini’s and Adolf Hitler’s seizure of power.
O’Toole’s article reverses the historical sequencing of fascist repression. Why?
The answer would appear to lie in his completely understandable rage at the images of young children being separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border by officers of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency of the US Department of Homeland Security. Though heart-wrenching, these images and the actions they recorded, cannot be represented as evidence that the American electorate is being “groomed” by some shadowy fascist cabal.
Because, for that to be true, President Barack Obama would have to be a member-in-good-standing of this evil fascist brotherhood. It was, after all, under President Obama that ICE began to acquire its now thoroughly fearsome reputation for detaining and deporting undocumented Central American migrants. President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy may have intensified ICE’s hard-line stance, but it did not invent it.
O’Toole’s intense dislike of President Donald Trump lies at the heart of his slipshod history. So keen is he to paint the Trump Administration as an incipient fascist regime that he is wilfully blind to the mountainous pile of evidence confirming it as anything but.
Trump’s Republican Party, for example, does not seek the support of the American people for a programme which calls openly and without equivocation for the abrogation of the US Constitution and the elimination of American democracy. If it did, then O’Toole’s suggestion that the USA is being groomed for a fascist takeover would be more persuasive. Fortunately, it doesn’t.
The defining ideological objective of fascism is the wholesale substitution of the rights of the “national community” for the rights of the individual. Or, as Mussolini put it: “Everything within the state; nothing against the state; nothing outside the state.” Anybody who knows anything about Americans – especially conservative Americans – also knows that Mussolini’s dictum runs counter to everything they believe in.
America under Trump is no more teetering on the brink of fascism than it was when 30,000 robed Ku-Klux-Klansmen marched up Pennsylvania Avenue during the presidency of Calvin Coolidge. Racism, nativism, antisemitism and populist demagoguery have been an integral feature of American electoral politics since the early decades of the nineteenth century. Within the memory of people still alive today, American Blacks have been dragged from their jail cells and lynched in front of admiring crowds. The struggle between the better and the evil angels of the American soul is as old as America itself – and yet, the republic still stands.
Fintan O’Toole needs to read his history books more carefully.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 27 July 2018.