When and how should we talk about fascism?
When Donald Trump started talking about closing American mosques and perhaps even having Muslims register with the government, when he called for a “deportation force” to search out and expel the 11 million Hispanic immigrants estimated to be in the country illegally, and then when he justified his supporters in “roughing up” a protester at his rally, a number of his fellow Republicans began to use the word fascist.
Once you start viewing Trump through that lens, a number of his previous statements — many of which were seen at the time as so outrageous they would doom his campaign — take on a different significance, particularly his xenophobic comments about immigrants and the way his speeches rely more on assertions of his own greatness than on any identifiable policies or political philosophy. (It also wasn’t the first time he had justified the violence of his followers.)
Pundits have reacted to labeling Trump a fascist in three different ways:
- It’s over the top, because Trump isn’t talking about death camps or starting a world war. Whether you agree with him or not, he’s not Hitler. And besides, nobody can define fascist anyway.
- It’s justified, or at least partially justified, because Trump has stepped outside the previous bounds of acceptable conservative rhetoric.
- It’s hypocrisy, because Trump is just saying openly what other candidates hint and imply. The rhetoric of popular conservative figures like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity has been laying the groundwork for this for a decade or more.
None of those reactions is entirely wrong, as we’ll see. But that conclusion just raises a larger question: Would we have a basis for calling any contemporary figure a fascist? Or has the word just become an insult with no identifiable content? What is fascism, anyway?
If you try to answer that question by looking at expert opinion, you’ll find a muddle. Just about any good article on fascism starts by explaining why it’s so hard to define. Here’s how David Neiwert puts it:
In contrast [to communism], hardly anyone can explain what it is that makes fascism, mainly because all we really know about it is the regimes that arose under its banner. There are no extant texts, only a litany of dictatorships and atrocities. When we think of fascism, we think of Hitler and perhaps Mussolini, without even understanding what forces they rode to power.
Communism has a very concise description: public ownership of the means of production under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Liberal democracy is a government elected by the majority but constitutionally restrained from violating minority rights. For fascism, well, we’ve got the example of Hitler. But what was it about Hitler that made him Hitler?  Given that we don’t want another Hitler regime, or anything remotely like it, what should we be looking for and trying to avoid?
In his influential essay “Ur-Fascism“, Umberto Eco warns:
It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple.
You can’t identify fascism by blindly correlating policies. Hitler built the autobahn and Eisenhower built the interstate highway system, but Eisenhower was not a Hitler. Reagan and Hitler both increased military spending, but Reagan was not a Hitler. Fascism also is not a political philosophy. (Eco: “Mussolini did not have any philosophy: he had only rhetoric.”) It’s not an economic theory, and it’s not tied to a particular religion.
In his book In God’s Country (about the American Patriot movement of the 1990s), Neiwert adopts this definition (which he attributes to “historians and sociologists”):
a political movement based in populist ultranationalism and focused on an a core mythic ideal of phoenix-like societal rebirth, attained through a return to “traditional values.”
But Eco, who grew up under Mussolini, avoided all definitions, writing that “fascism had no quintessence”. Instead he tried to find deeper, pre-rational roots: “Fascism was philosophically out of joint, but emotionally it was firmly fastened to some archetypal foundations.” and “behind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives.”
He reduced these “unfathomable drives” to 14 traits of what he called Ur-Fascism, upon which any specific form of fascism would be based. These 14, he said, “cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism.” The traits include a cult of tradition, anti-intellectualism , equating disagreement with treason, fear of difference, permanent warfare, and contempt for the weak. But the one that I want to focus on is #6:
Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the 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. [italics in the original]
This points to what I see as the real difficulty of defining fascism as a political movement: It’s not fundamentally about politics at all. Fascism is primarily a phenomenon of social psychology. I would summarize it as a dysfunctional attempt of people who feel humiliated and powerless to restore their pride by:
- styling themselves as the only true and faithful heirs of their nation’s glorious (and possibly mythical) past,
- identifying with a charismatic leader whose success will become their success,
- helping that leader achieve power by whatever means necessary, including violence,
- under his leadership, purifying the nation by restoring its traditional and characteristic virtues (again, through violence if necessary),
- reawakening and reclaiming the nation’s past glory (by war, if necessary),
- all of which leads to the main point: humiliating the internal and external enemies they blame for their own humiliation. 
Now, I think, we’re in a position to talk about Donald Trump and his relationship to the conservative movement. Trump may or may not harbor fascist ambitions himself, but his campaign targets a segment of the population that is psychologically ready for fascism: working-class white Christian males, who have seen their privileged place in American society erode as blacks, women, gays, non-English-speakers, and non-Christians get closer to equality. What’s more, the good-paying no-college-necessary jobs that allowed their fathers to achieve the American dream have vanished, leaving them incapable of carrying forward their patriarchal legacy.
In his scapegoating of immigrants at home and foreign enemies abroad, and his vague promises to “make America great again” by applying his own greatness to a government that for decades has been run by “losers”, Trump is playing the role of a charismatic fascist leader.
But the audience he is appealing to didn’t pop out of nowhere. Its sense of grievance has been carefully nurtured and cultivated by decades of conservative propaganda, which has diligently pointed its resentment downward at scapegoat groups like blacks, Muslims, and Hispanic immigrants, rather than upward at the wealthy bosses who profited by shipping jobs overseas.
In their defense, the propagandists probably didn’t intend to create a fascist movement. Instead, from one election to the next, it was easy to split the natural constituency of the Left by appealing to a sense of victimization among the white working class, using xenophobia, racism, and hot-button religious issues to turn them against the non-white working class, against women and gays, and against the liberal politicians who looked out for the interests of the emerging minorities.  As Neiwert concluded in 2004 after an analysis of Rush Limbaugh’s rhetoric:
What this exercise reveals is not so much that Limbaugh is a fascist, but rather, that he is making a career out of transmitting the themes and memes upon which fascism feeds to a mainstream conservative audience.
The result is the confusion that Trump has sown inside the Republican establishment. Fascistic themes of wounded pride and affronted identity were supposed to keep working-class white Christian men voting against their economic interests.  But nobody was supposed to take things this seriously.
Now that Trump is doing so, establishment Republicans are starting to yell “fascist!” But that won’t work at this late date, because by now “the themes and memes upon which fascism feeds” have been woven too deeply into standard conservative rhetoric. The audience that Trump has found and speaks to are the same people whose support Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio hoped to gain with winks and nods.
You can, if you want, regard that last sentence as a conclusion marking the end of the article. Or you can keep reading as we make a deeper pass through the psychology of fascism and its relationship to mainstream American conservatism.
To grasp fascism and its shape-shifting nature, you need to understand a series of concepts that can manifest differently in different times and places. What follows are some “themes and memes” of fascism, and where you can hear them in conservative rhetoric today.
Volkheit. A fascist believes that his nation has an essence, which does not evolve with the times, but is a fixed and eternal ideal. In German, an ethnic group is ein Volk, and their Volkheit (i.e. folkhood) is whatever makes them what they are.
The United States is a nation of immigrants that hasn’t seen itself as English for a long time, so its volkheit wouldn’t be strictly ethnic. For a time it was defined by the constructed ethnicity “White”, but even that characterization has become obsolete. Consequently, the “essence” that makes an American an American is hard to define.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a volkheit. The yearning towards a volkheit can be seen in way that various Americans feel threatened by non-English-speaking citizens, by the equality of non-whites, by multiculturalism, by non-Christian religions, and by any transnational authority like the United Nations or the WTO. Race plays a role in defining the American volk, but other factors weigh in the scale as well.
Whenever someone uses the phrase real Americans to mean something more than the people who live in or are citizens of the United States, they’re talking about our volkheit, particularly if they cite “real Americans” as the upholders of our “traditional values”.
One place you can see this playing out is in the otherwise inexplicable attempts to make President Obama an “other”: the baseless controversy over his birth certificate, the attempt to portray him as a Muslim, the unique sense of outrage when he does things many previous presidents did without anyone noticing or caring. It’s easy to read this as simple racism, but the real point being argued is that Obama doesn’t belong to the American volk. 
Herrenvolk. Fascism depends on a belief in the special status of our particular volk. There is a natural hierarchy of peoples, and we are meant to be at the top of it.
Herrenvolk is usually translated as “master race”, but that’s not exactly right. Herr has an aspect of master or lord — the German word for dominance is Herrschaft — but also of a respected head-of-household. (Herr Schmidt is just Mr. Schmidt.) So the herrenvolk doesn’t necessarily hold everyone else on a leash, but in a well-ordered world all the other volk recognize its natural superiority.
The contemporary American form of herrenvolk is American Exceptionalism. When de Toqueville described Americans as “exceptional” in the 1800s, he meant only that a uniquely favorable set of circumstances — like the lack of a competing power on our continent, and the absence of an established class structure and its corresponding centuries-long grudges — had given us a unique opportunity to leave behind Europe’s baggage and make a new start on civilization. That’s why our revolution could succeed, but the revolution in de Toqueville’s France got sidetracked into the Reign of Terror.
But since then, American Exceptionalism has developed into something more than just circumstantial: We are morally exceptional, so things that would be wrong for anybody else are OK for us. Consequently, we can torture people; we can start unprovoked wars; Iran shouldn’t feel threatened by our nuclear arsenal, but we’d be justified in attacking to prevent them acquiring nukes; and so on, because we’re the herrenvolk.
Grievance. Fantasies of belonging to the herrenvolk are like fantasies of secret royalty: If a child is happy with her life and home, she doesn’t need to dream about her real parents coming to claim her. This is why fascism is a product of hard times. When a nation is doing well — its ruling class feels secure, its middle class is confident in its upward mobility, and its lower classes are more docile than desperate — fascism has no place to take root.
But once you start claiming herrenvolk status, you’re left with a conundrum: Why is my life so hard? We’re better than everyone else, so why aren’t we more successful? This is the issue Trump is raising when he complains that “America doesn’t win any more.”
Fascism’s answer is that we have been robbed of our rightful place in the world. Again, fascism’s local variability comes into play. Every fascism has to claim that its volk has been robbed. But who robbed us and how can change in every country.
Indeed, one of the lessons I’ve gleaned from carefully observing the behavior of the American right over the years is that the best indicator of its agenda can be found in the very things of which it accuses the left.
There is no better example of this than Bill O’Reilly’s characterization of the Left as running a “grievance industry“. O’Reilly’s show is little more than a stream of grievances, of wrongs committed against whites, against Christians, against conservatives, against men, and against Real Americans of all types.
Purity. The strength of a volk is in its purity. Conversely, fascism ties a nation’s problems to its failure to guard its purity.
In Nazism, Jews were the impurity corrupting the German volk. In contemporary America, this impurity worry focuses on non-white, non-Christian, or non-English-speaking immigrants, as well as on American blacks who seem not to be assimilating into the white-dominated society.
Purity is a primal, pre-rational concern, which is why the irritation is not soothed by analyses of the economic benefits from immigration, or the overall good behavior of undocumented Hispanics and refugees, or even the rise in deportations during the Obama administration. Meanwhile, every individual crime by an immigrant sets it off again. The belief that foreigners are corrupting the purity of America is foundational; since this impurity is the cause of all our problems, the simple fact that we still have problems is evidence of its corrosive effect.
Another aspect of impurity is moral. The idealized Real America of the white suburbs and small towns of the 1950s had no place for homosexuals or the transgendered. So their presence — and even acceptance! — in contemporary America is evidence of our impurity. Again, evidence is beside the point. Forget that the gay couple living next door trims the lawn perfectly, or that their daughter is valedictorian. If we have problems — and who can say that we don’t? — the impurities we tolerate all around us must be the cause.
Our glorious past. Fascism looks back to a time before impurity set in, when the volk lived securely in its volkheit. For Mussolini, this was the Roman Empire and il Duce was the new Augustus. American conservatives similarly idealize four golden eras: Philosophically, the Golden Age was the founding era, and the Founders are portrayed as divinely inspired prophets. Economically, the Golden Age was the Gilded Age, when capitalists worked their magic unhindered by regulations. Militarily, it was World War II, when our entire society was mobilized behind the war effort. Culturally, the Golden Age happened in the Ozzie-and-Harriet suburbs and small towns of the 1950s.
The importance of this mythology is why any accurate assessment of American history is so threatening to conservatives that they find it necessary to promote their own pseudo-historians. In his announcement speech, for example, Ben Carson attributed the rise of America to the “can-do attitude” of the “early settlers”. His point comes completely undone if you understand the role of land stolen from the Native Americans and developed by slave labor. Similarly, conservatives can only see World War II as a battle of Freedom against Barbarism; the suggestion that dropping nuclear bombs on civilians is barbaric cannot be entertained.
Any reading of history in which America is a nation like other nations, exemplifying both good and evil, is beyond the pale.
Betrayal. Any myth of a glorious past is vulnerable to the criticism Jack Burden makes in All the King’s Men:
If it was such a God-damned fine, beautiful time, why did it turn into this time which is not so damned fine and beautiful if there wasn’t something in that time which wasn’t fine and beautiful? Answer me that one.
Impurity of the volk is only a partial answer, and the machinations of our enemies can’t be a complete answer either, because they shouldn’t be able to stand against the herrenvolk. No, we are suffering now because we have been betrayed by our leaders and by the culturally influential classes.
For Hitler, this was the famous Dolschstosslegende, the myth that German armies did not lose World War I in the field, but were “stabbed in the back” by traitors in high places at home.
You can hear the current dolschstosslegende in Ted Cruz saying that President Obama “does not wish to defend this country”. Or Michele Bachmann’s description of Obama’s immigration policy:
We have this invasion because a political decision was made by our president to intentionally flaunt the laws of the land and put at risk the American people, our culture, our way of life, our economic standing, and also he’s willing to allow a pandemic of disease to come into our country.
The conservative version of recent American history is full of betrayals: FDR betrayed the cause of freedom at Yalta, JFK surrendered American sovereignty to the UN, the Democratic Congress gave away the victory Nixon had won in Vietnam, and Obama not only gave away Bush’s victory in Iraq, but negotiated a “surrender” to Iran.
What the Republican establishment never expected was that they too would be included among the betrayers. But when John Boehner announced his retirement, no one cheered louder than the Republican base. And who imagined that Eric Cantor would be tarred as a traitor to conservatism? Ben Carson says, “I’ll tell you a secret. The political class comes from both parties and it comes from all over the place.” And Ted Cruz writes:
In 2010, we were told that Republicans would stand and fight if only we had a Republican House. In 2014, we were told that Republicans would stand and fight just as soon as we won a majority in the Senate and retired Harry Reid. In both instances, the American people obliged. Now we’re told that we must wait until 2017 when we have a Republican president.
Trump is just echoing them when he says, “I am more disappointed in the Republicans than the Democrats.”
Cruelty. Psychologically, the key to fascism is the (usually unstated) belief that you can work out your own humiliation by humiliating others. Did you fight bravely in the Great War, only to see your country shamed at Versailles, and your family lose everything in the subsequent inflation and depression? Go beat up a union organizer, or throw rocks through the windows of a Jewish shopkeeper; you’ll feel better.
And maybe you do, for a while, but in the morning you return to the same life you had yesterday. So like any addiction, the temptation is to try more next time. Maybe if you’d killed the organizer or set fire to the shop, the feeling would have lasted.
A similar pattern explains the way Republican presidential candidates seem to glory in their cruelty and heartlessness. Trump mimicked and ridiculed a reporter’s disability (echoing Rush Limbaugh’s mocking of Michael J. Fox), Chris Christie didn’t just call for leaving Syrian refugees to their fate, he specifically said he would refuse entry to “orphans under the age of five”. Several candidates have called for the return of torture, even though it accomplishes little beyond making suspected terrorists suffer. The persistent weakness in the protect-traditional-marriage argument was that its proponents could not identify anybody who would benefit; the point was entirely to make gay and lesbian lives harder. Republican deportation policies will break up families, and no one benefits from sending DREAMers back to a country they don’t remember. But none of that seems to matter.
What does matter is that when a candidate says something that is harsh or offensive, his poll numbers go up.  The Republican base is angry and is looking for a candidate who will inflict pain on its enemies. That pain is not a regrettable side-effect of a policy that accomplishes something else; inflicting pain is the accomplishment.
What’s the matter with Kansas today? For decades, the Republican establishment has used fascist themes as a tactic: While their policies destroyed unions, empowered employers, shifted the tax burden from the rich to the middle class, allowed higher education to become unattainably expensive for families not already wealthy, and made it easier to ship blue-collar jobs overseas, they could appeal to working-class whites on a symbolic level, offering them pride rather than paychecks or opportunities.
Now those chickens are coming home to roost: Republicans have set the stage for America to have an actual fascist movement, one that will see them as part of the corruption that needs to be purged. Like the businessmen who funded Hitler as a way to distract workers from communism, they thought they could control this, but they can’t.
Donald Trump is taking advantage of this situation, but he is not the problem. Ted Cruz will happily fill his role if something goes wrong, and if the fascist movement can’t win the Republican nomination or the presidency in 2016, there’s always 2020 or 2024. Who knows who might step forward to claim its leadership?
In the long run, I can only see one way out of this trend: Democrats need to offer a program that will genuinely do something for the working class, in the same way that the New Deal headed off American fascism in the 1930s. Americans who feel frustrated and humiliated by the culture and economy of the 21st century need to know that they can get help fixing their lives; there’s no need to seek relief by making others suffer too.
 Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism is almost comical in its willingness to latch onto Hitler’s superficial traits (like his vegetarianism and support for universal health care) while never zeroing in on his movement’s toxic essence. The Onion could not write a line more ridiculous than this:
The quintessential Liberal Fascist isn’t an SS storm trooper; it is a female grade school teacher with an education degree from Brown or Swarthmore.
 The anti-intellectual nature of fascism is one reason it remains undefined. A real fascist is in the streets, not sitting in a library making up theories.
 The dysfunctionality of this program is why fascist regimes tend toward short-but-spectacular lives, particularly if the Leader is a true believer, and is not just using the movement to gain power. Humiliating others doesn’t really soothe your own humiliation, so the regime must constantly up the ante to maintain its supporters’ enthusiasm. Ultimately, no conquest and no level of enemy humiliation is enough. The world must fall, and the enemies must be exterminated.
 This is the theme of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? from 2004.
 For example, the struggling whites in Kentucky who just voted to eliminate their own health insurance.
 As you might expect, Trump voters believe these stories about Obama at a higher rate than supporters of other candidates.
 Josh Marshall has an interesting take on this: He believes that it isn’t Trump’s cruelty that appeals to the Republican base so much as his refusal to apologize for it.