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21 December 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 2:07pm

Is Donald Trump a fascist? It doesn’t matter

What matters more than any seminar room debate about what Le Pen, Trump and Orban should be called is this: they're litmus tests that the West is failing.

By Megan Hanna

With the “spectre” of right-wing populism haunting Europe, an outpouring of vitriolic hate speech from GOP candidates in the US, and Trump’s sinister comment, “Things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country”, the question that is constantly being tossed back and forth over the internet was almost Inevitable: are we slipping under the shadow of fascism again?

In one camp, writers from Salonthe Week and Slate, argue that Trump possess all the traits to spearhead a fascist movement; a personality cult, considerable support, zealous nationalism, a desire to ethnically purge the country and to save it from its current decline – all in order to ‘Make America Great Again’. 

On the other hand, as the Washington PostVox and Foreign Policy postulate, it is anachronistic and potentially dangerous to fall back on this inflammatory word. Such arguments often point to the fact that, for Trump at least, there is no evident attack on the fundamental structure of democracy, and he lacks a paramilitary group and credible leftist challenge to pressure traditional conservatives to his side.

From political clown to a fledgling Mussolini, it has been quite the journey to ascendancy for Trump, who The Times introduced in 1976 as a “publicity shy” genius who was affectionately described as, “That Donald, he could sell sand to the Arabs”. According to recent national Republican polls, Trump has been the biggest gainer since mid-November, going from 26 per cent to 34 per cent and leading with a significant majority; Ted Cruz being the second favourite at 18 per cent.

But it’s not just Trump who is under scrutiny; some commentators are anxiously biting their nails at the march of right-wing nationalism across the pond, potentially ringing the death knell of liberal democracy in Europe.

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The Sweden Democrats, previously shunned by mainstream politics for their neo-Nazi roots and far-right immigration stance, have surged in popularity. Viktor Orbán, Hungarian Prime Minister and champion of ‘illiberal democracy’, has been building razor-topped fences to keep the invading “army” of non-Christian refugees out. October saw a record result for the far-right Freedom Party, when they nearly won regional elections in a typically left-wing Vienna. The same month, fears of an Orbán-esque state of Christian nationalism gripped Poland when the conservative Law and Justice party replaced a centrist government.

And of course there is Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) in France, which impressively lost a court case ruling it was actually acceptable to call them fascist.

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When the FN scored a monumental 27-30 per cent of the national vote securing 6 out of 13 regions in the first round of France’s regional elections a few weeks ago, “rising star” of the party Marion Maréchal-Le Pen said, “the old system died tonight”.

Whilst the second round showed a turnaround result – the FN won their largest ever 6.8 million votes but failed to win a region – socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls said: “There is no place for relief or triumphalism… The danger posed by the far right has not gone away, far from it.”  

But does Le Pen, who compared seeing Muslims praying in the street to being under Nazi occupation, resemble a Nazi leader herself? Does the triumph of Trump’s will – and let’s try not to be distracted by his ex-wife’s claim he kept a book of Hitler’s speeches on his bedside table – make him a fascist? Or are we crying wolf in a protracted case of Godwin’s Law, and should instead recognise that such leaders have a penchant for building walls in a mission to create discriminatory ethnocracies, not genocidal dictatorships?

But these debates are missing the point; by getting caught up in the –isms and –ists we’re tying ourselves in historical knots and distracting from the real concern – that Trump and Le Penn are the litmus tests that America and Europe are failing. While ‘right-wing populist’ isn’t as catchy as the F word, the concept is just as dangerous; to paraphrase Shakespeare a turd by any other name still stinks. Namely, it doesn’t matter what we decide to call the Trumps and Le Pens of this world, it doesn’t change who they are or the effect their popularity is having.

Speech creates an environment when deeds are not only made possible but permissible; we’re already seeing ‘The Trump Effect’ in US politics with Ben Carson calling Syrian refugees “rabid dogs”, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz proclaiming they only want Christian refugees to be allowed into America, and the US Congress attempting to bury the influx of Syrian and Iraqi refugees in red tape.

Such ripple effects are spilling out into wider society as well. In comments for Vox Matthew Feldman, a fascist expert at Teeside University in the UK, spoke about a recent event in which a Muslim engineer was harassed at a civic meeting in Fredericksburg, Virginia. “I’m really not sure those views in Fredericksburg would be aired were it not for Trump’s ‘mainstreaming’ of these prejudices,” Feldman said.

Whether it’s PC or not, one silver lining of the renaissance of the term “fascism” is that “never again” has never been questioned so much. From the cosy hearth of hindsight, we used to shake our incredulous heads at the inability of our ancestors to resist the overtures of fanatic leaders. But the arrogant assumption that posterity is immune to the same mistakes is perhaps our greatest hubris, and one that is beginning to be scrutinized.

This impulse should be applauded, alongside anything else that causes us to pause for introspection.

The fact that alongside an increase of right-wing support there has been a recorded spike in people searching for the term ‘fascism’ in the dictionary, according to Merriam Webster’s analytics, hopefully demonstrates that for every supporter the GOP and FN gains someone else begins scratching their head. (If only some of Trump’s supporters – 41 per cent of who would favour the bombing of Agrabah, the fictional country in Aladdin – would do the same).

Thus, it doesn’t matter if the use of the term ‘fascism’ is technically faulted or anachronistic; at least its use prescribes caution.

Megan Hanna is a British freelance journalist, currently based in Palestine. You can follow her on Twitter at @Megan_Hanna_.