In an op-ed a couple of weeks ago in the Washington Post, a guy named Robert Kagan (of Brookings and the Council on Foreign Relations) opined on the subject of Donald Trump that "This is how fascism comes to America." The op-ed inspired considerable commentary, including this piece by Peter Baker in the New York Times -- supposedly a news article rather than an opinion column -- titled "Rise of Donald Trump Tracks Growing Debate Over Global Fascism."
Calling someone a "fascist" -- and thereby analogizing that person to Hitler and Mussolini and invoking the memory of their crimes -- is of course the easiest and cheapest and most overused way for a political commentator to try to demonize and de-legitimize a politician he does not like. But that does not necessarily mean that every commentator who applies the "fascist" label to a candidate is wrong. And lord knows that I have plenty of my own differences with Trump (e.g., here and here). But the question for today is, is there something about Trump that is particularly or uniquely "fascist"; and, if so, is there really good reason to believe that Trump is likely to take America down a road toward "fascism" any more so than, say, an Obama, or a Clinton, or a Sanders?
One of the problems with trying to tag someone as a "fascist" is that fascism never was known for any kind of coherent policy program. As perhaps the most important example, Hitler demonized and vilified Stalin and the Soviet Union, while at the same time adopting the label of "socialist" for his own movement and engaging in massive industry nationalizations and government control of the economy. Yes, it didn't make any sense; but at the same time there's little doubt that Hitler himself thought that his policies were highly intelligent and coherent -- even brilliant.
Kagan thinks that the very meaninglessness of trying to attach the "fascist" label to any particular set of policies is what gives him the license to declare Trump a fascist. It's not that any particular policy of Trump is the same as one of Hitler or Mussolini; it's that all three men are known for policy prescriptions that are incoherent and contradictory! :
[T]he entire Trump phenomenon has nothing to do with policy or ideology. It has nothing to do with the Republican Party, either, except in its historic role as incubator of this singular threat to our democracy. Trump has transcended the party that produced him. His growing army of supporters no longer cares about the party. . . . [W]hat Trump offers his followers are not economic remedies — his proposals change daily. . . . His [policy utterances are] incoherent and contradictory. . . .
So is every politician whose policy utterances are "incoherent and contradictory" and "change daily" a "fascist"? (Trump may be a somewhat extreme case, but can anyone name a single politician not guilty of those charges to at least some degree?) Apparently recognizing that mere "incoherence" would be an overbroad definition, Kagan then adds a couple of other things that he asserts are defining characteristics of the "fascist" category -- the first being a "play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger"; and the other one that "[it's] about the strongman, the leader (Il Duce, Der Führer), in whom could be entrusted the fate of the nation." Surely with that definition we have isolated Trump as the perfect and only reincarnation of Hitler and Mussolini.
But wait -- Is there anything about this definition that does not also perfectly fit Barack Obama? A "play on feelings of resentment, disdain . . . fear, hatred and anger"? What about Obama's railings against the "millionaires and billionaires," and the "top 1%," and "income inequality" being the "defining challenge of our time"? The messianic cult of "the strongman, the leader"? Who can forget Obama's acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic convention?:
I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment [i.e., my nomination] when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal. . . .
And "incoherent" policy prescriptions? Dare I mention proposing Obamacare as a way to decrease the cost of healthcare; proposing Dodd-Frank as a way to decrease (or eliminate) risk in the financial sector; taking over the energy sector of the economy and closing down the coal industry for no possible effect on world climate (let alone on the "rise of the oceans")? I could go on about this for a long time. Obviously, Obama deeply believes in government as the solution to all human problems. In my view that is the very definition of incoherence.
Yes, we have had eight years of everything Kagan describes, in spades. I tried a few Google searches to see if I could find the place where Kagan had labeled Obama as a "fascist," but somehow I can't find it.
Well, what about Hillary and Bernie? Can they avoid Kagan's "fascist" label? Let's try each of Kagan's tests:
- A "play on feelings of resentment, disdain . . . fear, hatred and anger." Isn't this the defining characteristic of both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns? Yes, they name different number one enemies. For Bernie, the focus is economic resentment by the middle classes against "Wall Street," "the top 1%" and "the millionaires and billionaires." Hillary's focus is more on stoking racial resentments among African Americans and gender resentments among women. It's a distinction without a difference. Both easily meet Kagan's test.
- "Incoherent" policy prescriptions. Hey, Bernie openly avows that he is a socialist! And Hillary? She sees government as the solution to every human problem -- isn't that the same thing? Indeed, asked by Chris Matthews back in January what is the difference between a Democrat and a Socialist, Hillary was famously stumped and could not give an answer. As just one of hundreds of examples of Hillary policies that make no sense, if a minimum wage at all is a good idea, why is Hillary's $12 better than Bernie's $15? Why not $1000? Help us out here Hillary! Anyway, clearly both meet Kagan's test.
- "[it's] about the strongman, the leader." I'll admit that neither Clinton nor Sanders has the charisma of an Obama, or a Hitler, or a Mussolini, or for that matter, even of a Trump. (I for one don't find Trump particularly charismatic, but that's a discussion for another time.) On the other hand, if you are buying into the idea that government is the solution to all human problems, let alone into the idea of socialism -- which is what Hillary and Bernie are asking -- then aren't you inherently buying into the idea of this leader as the most important influence in your life? In other words, Hillary and Bernie may not be very good at selling themselves as the potential "duce" or "fuhrer", but that role is still what they are asking you to accept. I say that they both meet Kagan's test.
For myself, I don't find the "fascist" category particularly helpful in thinking about whom to vote for. Let's face it -- all the candidates are imperfect. I don't even hope for an election in which that won't be true. All the candidates are running precisely because they want to be able to exercise big power for what they see as the good; and I see the concentration of too much power in one place as the biggest problem and the antithesis of the good. But it's possible for a candidate to envision spheres of life that are better left to the private sector, or even the states, rather than to an all-knowing, perfect federal government. If either Bernie or Hillary has ever harbored such a thought, I've never seen or heard about it. Both of them see the federal government as an unalloyed force for fairness, justice, goodness, and the solution to every human problem (with enough taxing, spending, and regulations). Trump? Yes, he has an overblown sense of his own ability to fix everything by doing the right "deals." But at the same time, he has expressed at least some reservations about the all-perfectness of the federal government. See for example his energy policy speech here. Excerpt:
We will get the bureaucracy out of the way of innovation, so we can pursue all forms of energy. This includes renewable energies and the technologies of the future. It includes nuclear, wind and solar energy – but not to the exclusion of other energy. The government should not pick winners and losers. Instead, it should remove obstacles to exploration. Any market has ups and downs, but lifting these draconian barriers will ensure that we are no longer at the mercy of global markets.
It may not be much, but it is a difference -- and, in the direction away from fascism, fairly defined.
UPDATE, June 3: Apparently there was some serious violence outside a Trump rally last night in San Jose, California (by the way, it's the 10th largest U.S. city by population, in case you didn't know). Ann Althouse has a roundup of links here, and it's all over Drudge here. As far as appears from any of the articles I can find, including "mainstream" sites linked at Drudge (e.g., ABC News, NBC News), all of the violence came from the anti-Trump side, identified largely as Mexicans (many carrying Mexican flags) and Sanders supporters. I'm not standing up for all of Trump's rhetoric, but as far as I know in this country, rhetoric of any sort is completely fair game, no matter how obnoxious, insulting, demeaning, disgusting, or whatever. Violence is another story. So who are the brownshirts here? Meanwhile, according to every source I can find, the San Jose police stood by and did nothing to stop the violence. Buzzfeed has this quote from San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo (a Clinton supporter): “At some point Donald Trump needs to take responsibility for the irresponsible behavior of his campaign." Really? This guy supposedly went to Harvard Law School!
The New York Times reports on the events in a tiny article in a corner on page A13, title "Clash Erupts At an Event For Trump." I love that "clash erupts" bit -- hey, it wasn't any actual people that did this, it was just that a clash "erupted"! Anyway, you can't accuse them of not reporting on the event, but it is rather effectively buried. In the article, the perpetrators of the violence are identified only as "protesters." Three instance of violence are specified, each of them committed by a "protester" against one or more Trump supporters.