A number of prominent commentators, including the historians Timothy Snyder and Sarah Churchwell, the former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright and the Berkeley public policy professor Robert Reich have been arguing for some time that Donald Trump is a fascist. The writer Rebecca Solnit has even called Trump’s supporters “Nazis”.
Look at his contempt for democracy, they say; his attacks on the press and the judiciary, his rabble-rousing, his intolerance of all who oppose him, his authoritarianism, his self-identification with foreign dictators and strongmen, his nationalism and “America first” foreign policy. Look at the way he spurns international organisations, treaties and agreements, his racism and encouragement of white supremacist groups, his incitement to violence on the streets of the US.
Certainly, these carry strong echoes of fascism. Hitler and Mussolini attacked the free press, poured scorn on the judiciary, urged their followers to attack and kill their opponents, and put a murderous racism at the heart of their ideology. They tore up treaties, abandoned international organisations, undermined and ultimately destroyed parliamentary democracy, and promoted a cult of their own personality that seduced millions of citizens into accepting them as great redeemers.
The temptation to draw parallels between Trump and the fascist leaders of the 20th century is understandable. How better to express the fear, loathing and contempt that Trump arouses in liberals than by comparing him to the ultimate political evil? But few who have described Trump as a fascist can be called real experts in the field, not even Snyder. The majority of genuine specialists, including the historians Roger Griffin, Matthew Feldman, Stanley Payne and Ruth Ben-Ghiat, agree that whatever else he is, Trump is not a fascist.
Fascism and Nazism were the creation of the First World War, which militarised society and – in the minds of their leaders and supporters – discredited liberal democracy by associating it with armed defeat. In Germany, the defeat was catastrophic, entailing large territorial losses, the emasculation of the country as a great power, and the payment of huge financial reparations to the Allies. Italy was on the winning side in 1918, but the expected gains from banding together with Britain, France and the US failed to materialise, and the country left the war with what historians have called “the mentality of a defeated nation”.
What drove fascism and Nazism was the desire to refight the First World War, but this time to win it. Preparing for war, arming for war, educating for war and fighting a war defined fascist theory and praxis. Hitler’s aim of conquering territory was put into effect immediately in 1933, as he rearmed Germany and set it on a path to invade neighbouring countries. By mid-1940, Nazi Germany had conquered Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia and most of western Europe. The Third Reich lived for war, breathed war and promoted war without limits. Similarly, Mussolini’s central aim was to create a new “Roman empire”, beginning with the conquest of Ethiopia in 1935-36 and continuing with less successful attempts to subjugate countries around the Mediterranean, disastrously in the cases of Yugoslavia, Greece and North Africa.
For all of Trump’s hostility towards countries he perceives as enemies of the US, notably Iran, there is no indication that he sought a war with any foreign power, still less that he has been consumed by a desire for foreign conquest and the creation of an American empire. He is an isolationist, busy withdrawing US troops from foreign adventures, from Syria to Afghanistan. “America first” is not about launching foreign wars but disengaging from them.
Trump’s encouragement of violence against his opponents at home has been unsystematic. He has told his supporters to rough up reporters and suggested during the 2016 election campaign that his followers might like to make use of the Second Amendment of the US constitution (the right to bear arms) against Hillary Clinton. He has also described white supremacists as “good people”. But this bears no comparison to the hundreds of thousands of armed and uniformed stormtroopers and Squadristi that the Nazi and fascist leaders deployed on to the streets daily in the 1920s and early 1930s to intimidate, beat up, arrest, imprison and often kill political opponents.
Hitler and Mussolini sought to transform their countries into perma-war states: a combination of education and propaganda on the one hand, and street-level violence and intimidation on the other, aimed to forge a new kind of citizen, one that was aggressive, regimented, arrogant, decisive, organised and obedient to the dictates of the state. GM Trevelyan poured scorn on Mussolini’s efforts to turn Italians into second-rate Germans, as the historian put it; but even in Germany this endeavour failed, except with a minority of Hitler’s most ardent followers.
The society Hitler wanted was portrayed in the final minutes of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), with endless serried ranks of uniformed SS troops marching across the screen like well-oiled automata. The reality was different, as the majority of Germans retreated from this dehumanising prospect into their own private lives.
Trump by contrast has encouraged a warped vision of personal freedom: a society in which people aren’t subject to government regulation or supervision, where anarchy and confusion reign, self-restraint is abandoned, violence is unchecked, and self-aggrandising corruption permeates politics.
Trump only has regard for those he considers to be “winners”, and cannot bear the idea of defeat. Refusing a visit to a war cemetery in Paris in September 2020, he remarked that soldiers who died for their country on the field of battle were “losers” and “suckers”.
This mentality contrasts strongly with the central role of self-sacrifice in fascist ideology. Hitler regarded himself as a gambler: “I always go for broke,” he told Hermann Goering in 1939. There could be nothing but either total victory or total defeat. Suicide in the event of failure was always an option in his mind. Hitler and his propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels constructed a cult around Nazi “martyrs” such as Horst Wessel, the 22-year-old stormtrooper killed by communists three years before the Nazi seizure of power. They also honoured the men shot dead by police in the beer-hall putsch of 1923, parading the “blood flag” brandished by the would-by putschists at ceremonial commemorations every year.
Self-sacrifice for the nation was so central to Nazi ideology that when it became clear at the end of the Second World War that Nazism had been defeated, a wave of suicides swept the entire Nazi establishment, beginning with Hitler, Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler and Goering, and cascading down the ranks.
Beyond differences in ideology and temperament are the contrasts in state organisation. In Germany and Italy during the 1930s and 1940s, businesses became helpmeets of the “corporate state”. Unions and labour organisations were crushed, while firms and captains of industry generated vast profits, only so long as what they produced served the party and the army.
Both Hitler and Mussolini ensured a near-total “coordination” of social institutions and voluntary associations, as everything from football clubs to male voice choirs was absorbed into the structures of the fascist state. This social policy was maintained by huge bureaucratic regimes, providing jobs for thousands of their followers hungry for income and status after years of hardship and privation.
During Trump’s disastrous four years in the White House government posts have been left unfilled, senior officials have been routinely fired and the commander-in-chief has spent much of his time playing golf. The kind of hyperactive dynamism that characterised fascist regimes was entirely absent. Congress has prevailed over Trump’s attempts to sideline or undermine it, and judges, including his own Supreme Court appointees, have adhered to and interpreted the law in ways that have sometimes thwarted Trump’s ambitions, notably rejecting his legal challenges to the presidential election. Election officials, among them long-term Republicans, have resisted his attempts to intimidate them, while the mainstream media has refused to broadcast his falsehoods, lies and misleading claims unchecked.
The damage Trump has done to American democracy is considerable, but the past four years of mayhem have demonstrated the resilience of American institutions, the law and the constitution. American democracy is damaged, but it survives.
Democratic culture in the European countries where fascism prevailed after 1918 had shallow roots. The German judiciary was overwhelmingly hostile to the Weimar Republic, and the idea of an unbiased, non-partisan press was too new to establish itself as an accepted feature of political life. The legitimacy of the German political system in the 1920s and early 1930s was weak, and the corrupt Italian polity was widely discredited.
A substantial portion of the American population – and, indeed, a majority of members of the Republican Party – refuses to accept the election of president-elect Joe Biden. But that does not mean they want the constitution to be overthrown, merely that they don’t think it’s been employed fairly.
The shocking scenes at the Capitol on 6 January, and the spectacle of Trump lauding those who attacked police and trashed Democratic Party congressional offices as patriots, underlined the real threat he and his followers pose to democratic norms and the rule of law. Armed insurrections are threatened by ultra-right groups across the country for Biden’s inauguration.
But 6 January was not an attempted coup. Nor is one likely to occur on 20 January. For all of Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, the attack on Congress was not a pre-planned attempt to seize the reins of government. Trump is too chaotic and undisciplined to prepare and execute any kind of organised assault on democracy.
The storming of the Capitol has been compared to Hitler’s infamous beer-hall putsch on 9 November 1923. On that occasion, Hitler gathered his armed and uniformed supporters in a beer-hall in Munich, from where they marched towards the city centre. Germany was in crisis: inflation was out of control and the French had occupied the Ruhr earlier that year.
Hitler thought the conditions were favourable for a coup d’état and he proclaimed the formation of a “national dictatorship” headed by himself. But the coup went wrong, the putschists were met by a hail of police bullets, and Hitler was arrested and imprisoned for five years of “fortress confinement” (he only served nine months). The original intention was to seize the government in Munich and, as Mussolini had done in Rome in 1922, march on the capital. But the putsch was confused and chaotic and doomed to failure before it had begun.
Hitler drew two lessons from the debacle. First, seizing power by force in an open and direct confrontation with the government was not going to work; the ballot box not the bullet was the way to power. The second lesson was just as important: the beer-hall putsch was unsuccessful not least because Hitler had failed to secure the support of the political elite, the army, business, the civil service and the police.
He would not make the same mistake again. Between 1932 and 1933, he used his electoral success, which had elevated the Nazis to become the largest party in Germany, as a basis for negotiating with these groups to secure their backing for a coalition government that he would head. A vital factor was the redundancy of the legislature: disrupted by warring factions of uniformed Nazis and Communists, the Reichstag only met on a handful of occasions in 1932, and government legislated by decree. Exploiting this situation and unleashing his violent Brownshirts on to the streets, Hitler transformed the chancellorship into a dictatorship within a matter of months.
Is the storming of the Capitol on 6 January, like the beer-hall putsch, a beginning rather than an end? It seems clear that Trumpism as a political force in American life isn’t going away soon. Many of Trump’s supporters will continue to dispute the legitimacy of Biden’s election and to regard Donald Trump as the real president of the US. But there are signs that the events of 6 January have shocked many Republicans into abandoning Trump and his most fanatical supporters. The GOP may split; Trump may become the leader of a hard-right third party run from Mar-a-Lago. Time will tell.
[See also: American civil war]
But time is against Trump. Hitler and his followers were young men in 1923. They could afford to wait. Trump is in his seventies and can’t. A successor may emerge, but it seems unlikely that he would match Trump’s crowd appeal. Questions are being asked about the failure of the police to prevent the storming of the Capitol, but there is little evidence that the forces of order – the administrative and legal arms of the state, as well as the military – will prevent a peaceful transfer of power on 20 January. The situation in the US today is more like Munich in 1923 than Berlin ten years later.
To state these obvious facts is not to encourage complacency. It means that rather than fighting the demons of the past – fascism, Nazism, the militarised politics of Europe’s interwar years – it is necessary to fight the new demons of the present: disinformation, conspiracy theories and the blurring of fact and falsehood.
Banning dangerous and irresponsible figureheads like Trump from social media is a start – they incite violence and purvey misinformation to a degree that makes Goebbels look like George Washington (the first American president, who was said never to tell a lie). Trump’s incessant and false claims that the election was rigged have convinced many Americans that their votes no longer count for anything. This lack of democratic faith, not a violent seizure of power, is the real threat to the American republic.
Whether the US and its citizens succeed in preserving democracy and its institutions depends to a large extent on whether they succeed in identifying what the real threats are and developing appropriate means to defeat them. Imagining that they are experiencing a rerun of the fascist seizure of power isn’t going to help them very much in this task. You can’t win the political battles of the present if you’re always stuck in the past.
Richard J Evans’s new book, “The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination”, is published by Allen Lane
This article appears in the 13 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, American civil war