“An analogy is haunting the United States,” writes American political scientist Sheri Berman, “the analogy of fascism.”
Before last year’s election — and even in the months since President Trump took office — many observers wrung their hands over how to understand the politics that fueled his rise. Sure, there are obvious distinctions to be made; nobody invoking the “analogy” seriously believes the hideous slaughters of another era are imminent.
But Trump is a figure who campaigned on a startlingly reactionary platform, seemingly in sync with the xenophobic rhetoric and extremist politics of Europe’s far right. The shadow of an earlier moment of demagoguery seems to unavoidably loom over the national conversation.
“This is how fascism comes to America,” declared Robert Kagan, a Washington neoconservative stalwart, warning in The Post’s op-ed pages last May of “this singular threat to our democracy.” In recent weeks, Timothy Snyder, the acclaimed Yale historian of the Holocaust and mid-20th-century Europe, has raised parallels between the present and the rise of tyrants in the 1930s.
Trump’s attacks on the mainstream media and insistence on perpetuating falsehoods are eroding democracy, Snyder argues: “Post-truth is pre-fascism.” He also is alarmed by Trump’s apparent hostility to immigrants and Muslims.
“Picking out a group of your neighbors and citizens and associating them with a worldwide threat, that’s the 1930s,” said Snyder on a popular news satire show over the weekend. “And what we have to remember about the 1930s: We think of Hitler and Stalin as supervillains, but they’re not. They could only come to power with some form of consent.”
But there’s an oft-overlooked plank of 1930s fascism that’s missing from Trump’s worldview: an anti-capitalist populism that, no matter Trump’s campaign rhetoric, is not at all reflected in the White House’s proposed policies.
Berman, who teaches at Barnard College in New York City, wrote an essay this week in Aeon magazine about the origins of fascist dictatorships in Italy and Germany. Key to fascism’s rise was its promise of vast collective projects that would redeem nations devastated by war and economic ruin.
“Fascism did not become powerful simply by appealing to citizens’ darkest instincts,” wrote Berman. “Fascism also, crucially, spoke to the social and psychological needs of citizens to be protected from the ravages of capitalism at a time when other political actors were offering little help.”
In a world racked by the Great Depression, fascists promised the promotion of social welfare, state intervention into the economy and better fortunes for the downtrodden. (The New Deal in the United States was a response to similar conditions, but without the extreme political outcomes.)
“There can be no question that violence and racism were essential traits of fascism,” wrote Berman. “But for most Italians, Germans and other European fascists, the appeal was based not on racism, much less ethnic cleansing, but on the fascists’ ability to respond effectively to crises of capitalism when other political actors were not.”
The Trump campaign’s platform of economic populism did harness a similar argument: The existing status quo left behind millions of “forgotten” Americans, sold out the nation’s interests for collusion with “globalist” elites and was weak in the face of foreign enemies. But everything we’ve seen since the inauguration — the White House’s systematic attempts to dismantle the “administrative state,” its initial moves to gut the safety net for the poor, Trump’s lavish spending of taxpayer funds at his own properties — suggests a more self-interested agenda.
For this reason, Italian historian Enzo Traverso argues in a new essay for the World Policy Journal that it’s not useful to look at Trump “through the old category of fascism.”
“The fact is there is no fascist organization behind Trump. He does not lead a mass movement; he is a TV star,” wrote Traverso, a humanities professor at Cornell University. “He does not organize and mobilize the masses; he attracts an audience in an atomized society of consumers.”
Traverso goes on: “Fascist ideas are also less widespread in America today than they were 70 or 100 years ago, during McCarthyism or the Red Scare. The Bolshevik threat no longer exists, and the specter of terrorism isn’t sufficiently frightening for Americans to readily give up their freedoms in exchange for promises of security.” Instead, we’re straying into the political unknown.
“Trump’s rise is not a sudden return to barbarism, nor is it a meteor crashing down onto a peaceful country,” wrote Traverso. “It is not a resurgence of fascism, but something new and not yet realized.” Traverso, a leftist academic, suggests we call Trump’s politics “post-fascism,” “a capitalism without a human face.”
What that means going forward is anybody’s guess, but it’s likely to involve ceaseless political struggle. Part of the appeal of historical analogies is the sense of moral and factual certainty they can give us — the sense that we know how this story goes. With Trump, we have no idea.