Just How Dangerous Was Donald Trump?Historians in the News
tags: fascism, Donald Trump, Political theory
Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, there’s been an argument on the left over the sort of threat he poses.
The American left’s most famous figures — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, Noam Chomsky — saw Trump as an authoritarian who could, if re-elected, destroy American democracy for good. But another strain of left opinion viewed Trump’s fascistic gestures as almost purely performative, and believed his clumsiness in marshaling state power made him less dangerous than, say, George W. Bush.
A leading proponent of this position is the political theorist Corey Robin, author of an essential book about right-wing thought, “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin.” In an interview with the left-wing publication Jewish Currents, he argued, “Compared to the Republican presidencies of Nixon, Reagan and George W. Bush, Trump’s was significantly less transformational, and its legacy is far less assured.”
The day when the Electoral College meets to ratify Joe Biden’s victory seems an appropriate one to revisit this debate. Trump tried, in his sloppy, chaotic way, to overturn the election, and much of his party, including the majority of Republicans in the House, and many state attorneys general, lined up behind him. Yet he failed, and it’s unlikely that he will follow calls from supporters, like his former national security Adviser Michael Flynn, to declare martial law.
So what matters more, the president’s desire to overthrow American democracy, or his inability to follow through? Just how fascist was Trump?
Part of the answer depends on whether you’re evaluating Trump’s ideology or his ability to carry it out. It seems obvious enough that the spirit of Trumpism is fascistic, at least according to classic definitions of the term. In “The Nature of Fascism,” Roger Griffin described fascism’s “mobilizing vision” as “the national community rising phoenix-like after a period of encroaching decadence which all but destroyed it.” Translate this into the American vernacular and it sounds a lot like MAGA.
Fascism is obsessed with fears of victimization, humiliation and a decline, and a concomitant cult of strength. Fascists, wrote Robert O. Paxton in “The Anatomy of Fascism,” see “the need for authority by natural chiefs (always male), culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny.” They believe in “the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason.” This aptly describes Trump’s movement.
Yet Trump was only intermittently able to translate his movement into a government. The national security state was more often his antagonist than his tool. There were Justice Department investigations of the president’s political enemies, but they mostly came to nothing. The military was deployed against protesters, but only once.
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