I would not call him a fascist in terms of historic fascism, because the most fundamental thing about classical fascism is that you have a dictator with a one-party state, with all other parties suppressed, and the chosen party growing to be a bureaucracy that rivals the state. I don’t see that happening. Trump doesn’t have the patience or the discipline – I think he’s going to be calling it in to some extent if he wins, so that won’t happen. And also the GOP is in tatters. However, I would call him an authoritarian – which includes a lot of the traits of fascism, aside from the one-party state.
The fact that he calls it a movement meant that he was sitting precariously within the traditional party structure, which is how historical fascists have started. And the things he’s done as the leader of that movement resemble classical fascism – his relationship with his followers is very different to the relationship a traditional establishment politician would have. It’s based on submission, charisma, and this idea of him being the voice and the saviour of the nation.
"If we rate Franco and Mussolini as ten on a scale of classic fascist demagogues, Trump might get seven."
He’s quite comparable to Berlusconi and Putin, who have this kind of high/low appeal. On the one hand, they have to stand above, be transcendent – that’s where the charisma and the idea of the saviour comes in. But then they also have to be the everyman. They use very earthy language – they’re insulting, they’re funny, they make outrageous pronouncements, and people love to come and hear them, because they don’t know quite what to expect.
It’s no accident that Trump has come from entertainment as well as business. He knows exactly what he’s doing. All that showmanship is practiced – he knows how to work a crowd, he knows how to sell a product, which is himself. But there is a degree of intuition. One of the most revealing things Trump has ever said, and he said it a long time ago, is that he likes to “stay shallow”. What he meant by that is that he likes to proceed on intuition, rather than overthink things. So he’s really a genius at reading a crowd – as was Mussolini, as was Berlusconi. But they need the crowd, and they have a symbiosis with the crowd which fires them up, and leads them to be more themselves.
"All of a sudden things that people said only in private, they were saying publicly"
Trump supporters at a rally in Nashua, New Hampshire, January 2016 (Photo: Marc Nozell)
If you look at what Trump has been consistent on, there are a couple of things – the America-first nativism, with this narrative of national victimhood, that we’re being taken advantage of. The other is – of course – racism. He saw a gap in the political market – these people who were not being listened to, not being represented, and he really does have these beliefs. He is a racist, he is an arrogant, domineering person, and he doesn’t like women. The third component is violence – he has been testing the public’s tolerance for violence, and what one might call extra-legality.
"One of the most revealing things Trump has ever said is that he likes to 'stay shallow'. He proceeds on intuition, rather than overthinking things."
The GOP is massively implicated in this. They have been supporting an anti-government ideology, and access to arms, including the accumulation of private arsenals. That genie is out of the bottle, and it’s going to be very difficult to put it back. Trump has also been able to bring about the same shift in public discourse that I saw as a student living in Italy when Berlusconi came to power – all of a sudden things that people said only in private, they were saying publicly. Trump has liberated this.
If we rate Franco and Mussolini as ten on a scale of classic fascist demagogues, Trump might get seven. He has a lot of the characteristics, but the basic political structure of fascism would be hard to obtain here, and I don’t know if he’d even want it.