How fascist is Donald Trump? Unlikely rise sparks wide debate

Trump-Hitler comparisons may be overblown, but they underline a global issue of rising populism

Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump: his allies dismiss the criticism as politically motivated and historically suspect. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The comparison was inflammatory, to say the least. William F Weld, a former governor of Massachusetts, equated Donald Trump's immigration plan with Kristallnacht, the night of horror in 1938 when rampaging Nazis smashed Jewish homes and businesses in Germany and killed scores of Jews.

But if it was a provocative analogy, it was not a lonely one. Trump's campaign has engendered impassioned debate about the nature of his appeal and warnings from critics on both the left and the right about the potential rise of fascism in the United States. More strident opponents have likened Trump to Hitler and Mussolini.

To supporters, such comparisons are smear tactics used to tar conservatives and scare voters. For a bipartisan establishment whose foundation has been shaken by Trump’s ascendance, these backers say, it is easier to delegitimise his support than to acknowledge widespread popular anger at the failure of both parties to confront the nation’s challenges.

The discussion comes as questions surface around the globe about a revival of fascism, generally defined as a governmental system that asserts complete power and emphasises aggressive nationalism and often racism.


In places such as Russia and Turkey, leaders like Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan employ strongman tactics. In Austria, a nationalist candidate came within three- tenths of a percentage point of becoming the first far-right head of state elected in Europe since the first World War.

In Hungary, an authoritarian government has clamped down on the news media and erected razor wire fences to keep out migrants. There are worries that Poland could follow suit.

Shrinking pie

“The crash of 2008 showed how globalisation creates losers as well as winners,” said Mark Leonard, the director of the

European Council

on Foreign Relations. “In many countries, middle-class wages are stagnant and politics has become a battle over a shrinking pie.

“Populists have replaced contests between left and right with a struggle between cosmopolitan elites and angry nativists.”

Said Robert Paxton, a professor emeritus at Columbia University and a scholar of fascism: "On a world level, the situation that affects many countries is economic stagnation and the arrival of immigrants. That's a one-two punch that democratic governments are having enormous trouble in meeting," .

Americans are used to the idea that other countries may be vulnerable to such movements. Neither major party has ever nominated anyone quite like Donald Trump.

"This could be one of those moments that's quite dangerous, and we'll look back and wonder why we treated it as ho-hum at a time when we could have stopped it," said Robert Kagan, a Brookings Institution scholar known for hawkish internationalism.

Kagan sounded the alarm this month with a Washington Post op-ed article, "This Is How Fascism Comes to America", which gained wide attention. "I've gotten a lot of positive feedback from conservative Republicans," he said. "There are a lot of people who agree with this."

Praising Putin

Trump has provided plenty of ammunition for critics. He was slow to denounce white supremacist

David Duke

and talked approvingly of beating up protesters. He has praised Putin. He would not condemn supporters who launched anti-Semitic blasts at journalists.

At one point, Trump retweeted a Mussolini quote: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.”

Asked by Chuck Todd on the NBC program Meet the Press about the retweet, Trump brushed off the quote's origin.

“I know who said it,” he said. “But what difference does it make whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else?”

“Do you want to be associated with a fascist?” Todd asked.

“No,” he answered, “I want to be associated with interesting quotes. And certainly, hey, it got your attention, didn’t it?”

Trump's allies dismiss the criticism as politically motivated or historically suspect. The former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich, who has said he would consider being Trump's running mate, said was "deeply offended" by what he called "utterly ignorant" comparisons.

“Trump does not have a political structure in the sense that the Fascists did,” said Gingrich, a former college professor who earned a doctorate in modern European history. “He doesn’t have the sort of ideology that they did. He has nobody who resembles the brownshirts. This is all just garbage.”

Beyond Hitler and Mussolini, fascism can be hard to define. Since the second World War, only fringe figures have overtly identified themselves that way. In modern political discourse, the word is used as an epithet.

Paxton said he sees similarities and differences in Trump. His message about an America in decline and his us-against- them pronouncements about immigrants and outsiders echo Europe in the 1930s.

On the other hand, he said, Trump has hardly created uniformed, violent youth groups. Moreover, fascists believe in strong state control, not get- government-off-your-back individualism and deregulation.

Others caution against comparisons.

“I read Kagan’s piece, of course,” said Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “All the phenomena he describes are raising concerns, but I would still not call Trump or his campaign fascist. “

Harsh order

Perthes said real fascism requires two more elements – an outright rejection of democracy, and a harsher definition of order. Jobbik, the ultra-right party in Hungary, would fall into this category, he said, but Trump and Norbert Hofer, the far-right candidate who narrowly lost the Austrian presidential vote, would not.

The debate about terminology may ignore the seriousness of the conditions that gave rise to Donald Trump, who has tapped into a deep discontent in a country where many feel left behind.

“It seems to me in developed and semi-developed countries there is emerging a new kind of politics, for which maybe the best taxonomic category would be right-wing populist nationalism,” said Stanley Payne, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

– (New York Times New Service)