A lot of people, myself included, have called Donald Trump a fascist and/or have said the U.S. will become a fascist society under Trump. But what does that mean?
The word is most closely associated with Benito Mussolini’s dictatorial reign in Italy from 1922 until he was ousted, briefly reinstalled by the Nazis, and then captured and killed in
1943 1945 (thanks, Fred). Mussolini frequently is said to have defined fascism simply as “the marriage of corporation and state,” but the truth is a little more complicated. In 1932, Mussolini wrote this definition of fascism:
Fascism, the more it considers and observes the future and the development of humanity quite apart from political considerations of the moment, believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace. It thus repudiates the doctrine of Pacifism — born of a renunciation of the struggle and an act of cowardice in the face of sacrifice. War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have courage to meet it. All other trials are substitutes, which never really put men into the position where they have to make the great decision — the alternative of life or death….
…The Fascist accepts life and loves it, knowing nothing of and despising suicide: he rather conceives of life as duty and struggle and conquest, but above all for others — those who are at hand and those who are far distant, contemporaries, and those who will come after…
…Fascism [is] the complete opposite of…Marxian Socialism, the materialist conception of history of human civilization can be explained simply through the conflict of interests among the various social groups and by the change and development in the means and instruments of production…. Fascism, now and always, believes in holiness and in heroism; that is to say, in actions influenced by no economic motive, direct or indirect. And if the economic conception of history be denied, according to which theory men are no more than puppets, carried to and fro by the waves of chance, while the real directing forces are quite out of their control, it follows that the existence of an unchangeable and unchanging class-war is also denied – the natural progeny of the economic conception of history. And above all Fascism denies that class-war can be the preponderant force in the transformation of society….
After Socialism, Fascism combats the whole complex system of democratic ideology, and repudiates it, whether in its theoretical premises or in its practical application. Fascism denies that the majority, by the simple fact that it is a majority, can direct human society; it denies that numbers alone can govern by means of a periodical consultation, and it affirms the immutable, beneficial, and fruitful inequality of mankind, which can never be permanently leveled through the mere operation of a mechanical process such as universal suffrage….
…Fascism denies, in democracy, the absur[d] conventional untruth of political equality dressed out in the garb of collective irresponsibility, and the myth of “happiness” and indefinite progress….
…iven that the nineteenth century was the century of Socialism, of Liberalism, and of Democracy, it does not necessarily follow that the twentieth century must also be a century of Socialism, Liberalism and Democracy: political doctrines pass, but humanity remains, and it may rather be expected that this will be a century of authority…a century of Fascism. For if the nineteenth century was a century of individualism it may be expected that this will be the century of collectivism and hence the century of the State….
The foundation of Fascism is the conception of the State, its character, its duty, and its aim. Fascism conceives of the State as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State. The conception of the Liberal State is not that of a directing force, guiding the play and development, both material and spiritual, of a collective body, but merely a force limited to the function of recording results: on the other hand, the Fascist State is itself conscious and has itself a will and a personality — thus it may be called the “ethic” State….
…The Fascist State organizes the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone….
…For Fascism, the growth of empire, that is to say the expansion of the nation, is an essential manifestation of vitality, and its opposite a sign of decadence. Peoples which are rising, or rising again after a period of decadence, are always imperialist; and renunciation is a sign of decay and of death. Fascism is the doctrine best adapted to represent the tendencies and the aspirations of a people, like the people of Italy, who are rising again after many centuries of abasement and foreign servitude. But empire demands discipline, the coordination of all forces and a deeply felt sense of duty and sacrifice: this fact explains many aspects of the practical working of the regime, the character of many forces in the State, and the necessarily severe measures which must be taken against those who would oppose this spontaneous and inevitable movement of Italy in the twentieth century, and would oppose it by recalling the outworn ideology of the nineteenth century – repudiated wheresoever there has been the courage to undertake great experiments of social and political transformation; for never before has the nation stood more in need of authority, of direction and order. If every age has its own characteristic doctrine, there are a thousand signs which point to Fascism as the characteristic doctrine of our time. For if a doctrine must be a living thing, this is proved by the fact that Fascism has created a living faith; and that this faith is very powerful in the minds of men is demonstrated by those who have suffered and died for it.
That’s a fairly lengthy passage, so let’s hit some of its high points; to wit, Mussolini says that he believes:
- Fascism considers perpetual peace not just impossible but also pointless; moreover, war “ennobles” its participants.
- Fascism doesn’t believe in economic motives (such as, but not limited to, those of Marxism).
- Fascism repudiates democracy and universal sufferage and believes that humans are inherently unequal.
- The 19th century was the century of democracy; the 20th will be that of the State.
- People are to be conceived of and understood only in terms of their relationship to the State.
- That (fascist) State decides how much liberty individuals are to have and which freedoms are “useful,” granting those few and withholding the rest.
- States must grow, imperially, or they are dying, particularly if, like Italy at the time, they are recovering from “abasement and foreign servitude.” This movement in Italy, which he calls both spontaneous and inevitable, can, nonetheless, only be brought about in his view by punishing opponents severely.
So let’s just take these at face value. Does the U.S. think perpetual peace pointless? Not pointless, I think — just damn hard to get to but still worth trying for.
Does the U.S. think war “ennobles” its participants? Less so now than in other points in our past; we have mixed feelings about that now that we didn’t have after, say, World War II. That’s to be expected. During that war, our moral aims and purposes seemed pretty clear. But in every conflict in which we’ve engaged since, moral clarity has been various shades of hard to come by; indeed, many respected scholars believe our invasion of Iraq in 2003 was both illegal and immoral.
Does the U.S. believe in economic motives? It would be difficult to argue otherwise. Economists study both people and institutions as rational actors in pursuit of rational economic interests, although in recent years some are acknowledging that the field might have overstated the rationality of the decision-making processes of both people and institutions. Public policy certainly has been debated and implemented with economic motives in mind.
Does the U.S. repudiate democracy and universal sufferage and believe human beings unequal? On paper, it has embraced those things from the beginning; in real life, of course, progress toward that position has been a process. The official policy of the state now is that it supports democracy and near-universal sufferage, and human equality under the law is enshrined in the Constitution. However, nontrivial numbers of Americans have always repudiated democracy, universal sufferage and the equality of human beings, with women, racial and ethnic minorities, some religions, and LGBTQ people, among others, being singled out for lesser status and less advantageous treatment. Such disparate treatment has been reduced greatly in the past half-century or so, although it still remains. What is alarming about the ascension to power of Trump and his cronies is that they appear intent on making that lesser status and less advantageous treatment state policy and rolling back some of the gains of the past half-century.
The U.S. does not conceive of and understand people only in terms of their relationship to the state; indeed, for least some of its citizens, the U.S. has done a pretty fair job through its history of having let people alone. That’s in significant part because of a law-review article, “The Right to Privacy,” published in 1890 by the Harvard Law classmates and law partners Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis. (Brandeis would go on to serve on the Supreme Court.) That article literally defined privacy primarily as “the right to be let alone.” The meaning of privacy has evolved over the years along with, among other things, technology. Indeed, government today has such enormous surveillance powers at its fingertips that claiming a right of privacy in practical terms is much harder than ever. Still, though the government probably has the capability of surveilling everyone at once, it is not clear that it has the will to do so in any meaningful way: Machines can gather all the data in the world, but at some point, at least for now, human beings still have to decide what it means and what, if anything, to do about it. The danger is that a group in power can choose to use these vast capabilities to oppress and harm its political opponents, and that is a legitimate fear with Trump and at least some of his backers.
Does the State pick and choose which freedoms we Americans will have? Again, on paper, no; although the Constitution spells out certain rights we Americans have, it also says that we have other, “unenumerated” rights. The State has circumscribed some of those rights, even the most fundamental. We have freedom of speech but cannot shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre; we may keep and bear arms, but not everywhere or all the time. Still, the State’s control over our rights is not, at least for now, anywhere near broad enough as to suggest that we live in a fascist regime.
Must a state grow to be vital? The U.S. has not accepted a new state into the union in more than half a century, and the likeliest possible candidates for admission, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, seem nowhere near it. And yet the U.S. does not see itself as in a declining state for lack of growth. (Some Americans see it that way for other reasons.) That might be because it has in no meaningful way been “abased” or “under foreign control” since the British burned Washington in 1813. And yet Trump, with his campaign rhetoric has argued exactly the opposite: that the U.S. is getting screwed by other countries on trade deals and that he alone can fix it. His backers frequently buy into this argument, although he and they seem to insist that his relationship with Russian dictator Vladimire Putin will somehow help this problem, not make it worse.
So, as Mussolini defines fascism, is the U.S. a fascist country? Hardly. It has some fascist tendencies, some of which appear likely to become more pronounced as Trump and his backers take power, but it is not, or not yet, a fascist country.
But one must ask: Is Mussolini a reliable narrator of his own philosophy and practice? The question answers itself. And so it is useful to consider other perspectives, which I’ll do in the next post.