Opinion and Politics

Is Trump’s Rule Fascist?

In Trump’s first nine days since assuming the presidency, he has adopted many positions that recall a ‘fascist style of rule’, to quote the historian Alexander J. de Grand:

Autocracy: he uses a weakness in American democracy, the provision allowing Presidents to rule by decree,  to undermine it. This executive power has so far been his primary form of rule, and decrees are issued with little consultation or carefulness of implementation. America needs to consider that her democratic structures are not perfected; her citizens need to be distrustful of existing structures––including Presidential veto, command of the armed forces, and right to adjourn Congress and appoint justices––that confer great power to the executive.

Economic Isolationism: his nationalist, isolationist trade agenda (I think of Mussolini’s road to autarky) is unilaterally ripping up agreements with neighbours. TPP, TTIP and NATO might have been neo-liberal creations many will not miss, but with them goes a spirit of openness and dialogue that binds countries together. The future will likely include the spectre of trade war and its accompanying diplomatic instability.

Limiting the Press: when it comes to criticism, Trump is remarkably thin-skinned, and at times petty (regarding inauguration numbers). He wishes to stifle the press; his press secretaries admonish them and urge silence. His administration promotes blatant falsehoods as ‘alternative facts’.

Attack on Privacy: the new administration has little respect for freedom of opinion. He has floated the idea of openly violating the private sphere of individuals by asking for social media, web history, and mobile contacts of those entering the United States, to ensure that visitors are in sync with ‘American values’.

Repressing Women: he wishes restrict further the reproductive choices of women. Women and sexual minorities are seen through a traditionalist, patriarchal lens. The vision of reproductive rights and sexual difference is dominated by fundamental Christian theological stances. This repression recalls the egomania and servitude of fascist family policy.

Nationalism: Trump has a viciously nationalist approach to his neighbours (Mexico with his order for a wall and proposal of taxing imports to pay for it). His slogan of putting ‘America first’ is the rhetorical cousin of the Nazi slogan ‘Deutschland über Alles’ (Germany above all others). He challenges established international legal orders, moving the world towards a balance of brute force. He nonetheless forms alliances with other right-wing regimes abroad, who also have similarly populist, anti-foreigner, agendas.

Scapegoating: like the Nazis, he blames often powerless marginalised groups (refugees, undocumented workers, religious minorities…) for the country’s ills. There is no statistical corollary between those targeted and national and economic security.

Racism: the Trump presidential degree banning those from seven Muslim-majority countries entry to the United States is clearly racist and Islamophobic. The ban has its genealogy in Trump’s election promise to ban Muslims entry from the United States. That there are exceptions for entry of Christians from these countries brings into relief the decree’s racist character. His travel ban on Muslims was announced insensitively on the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

This list can be expanded.

It is then understandable that protestors in front of JFK airport––wishing to free those with valid US visas trapped in customs because the Presidential decree was issues when travellers were still in the air––yesterday have been chanting ‘down with fascism’. Or that a Canadian opposition leader said ‘Trump is fascist‘.

But the fastidious historian cannot help but point out the differences. Earlier this week, I lectured to a group of study-abroad students from an American University about German history. We looked at the 1920s: how economic crisis propelled a populist right-wing movement, the Nazis, into power. This party was elected democratically, but used democracy to destroy it. And this party embarked on an autocratic, nationalist, belligerent, racist, scapegoating agenda.

‘It all sounds way too familiar’, a 20-year old students from New York told me, and I had to add: ‘Familiar, but not the same’.

America is not (yet) a totalitarian one party fascist state. It still has a multi-party liberal democracy, a functioning judiciary, freedom of protest, press freedom. The mass protests we see in America today are made possible by the enduring freedoms of American democracy. Also, Trump’s actions will never be exactly like the Nazis. It would be impossible for them to be so: we live in a different age with different personalities.

But there is a risk if we focus on Trump as ‘not exactly the same as the Nazis’. We run into the problem of not being able to learn from the past if our demand is that Trump exactly meet the high-bar of authoritarianism set by Mussolini, Hitler or Franco. We begin to excuse inexcusable acts because they are unfamiliar. What use is our historical training and education if it is not an active discipline, for the present? We should not be apologetic for historical comparisons, even to extreme regimes provided we put matters in context. One might argue that those of us working in Germany have even more pressing reasons to make comparisons. We need to look for the ways that Trump’s positions, although not a repeat of the past, recall it. History does not repeat, but it does rhyme. We need to be good listeners.

We need to listen carefully because these are early days. Uncertainty is the hallmark of this administration. It is not yet clear how thoroughly autocratic Trump will become. There was the hope that he would rule in a less inflammatory manner than he ran his election campaign. But his first nine days in office tell a different story. We have yet to see how he will admonish and purge opponents within his party structure. And we have yet to face an emergency, such as a terror attack that could be instrumentalised, and used as his ‘Reichstag fire’, to legitimise demagoguery and further threaten American democracy.

One of the most heartwarming aspects of the past ten days has been the ‘upside of the downside’ to quote Gloria Steinem. Trump’s election has provoked a mass mobilised protest and a renewed political consciousness among Americans who understand politics doesn’t end at the ballot box. Here too is a fundamental difference between the Nazi seizure of power and what is now occurring in America: rebellion.

BERLIN 30 January 2017

by Dr. Joseph Pearson


Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.