Accompanying Donald Trump’s rise to power has been a surge in terms like “fascism” and “nazism” on social media by his critics. After one of the most polarizing and controversial presidential elections in recent memory, many people who had hoped for a respite from political bickering with the inauguration of Trump have been left disappointed. The Observer asked three Case Western Reserve University historians specializing in 20th century European history for answers to questions concerning Trump.
Is Donald Trump a fascist?
“In my view, Donald Trump’s ideology is too incoherent to justify calling him a fascist,” said Kenneth Ledford, associate professor and chair of the Department of History at CWRU, and historian of modern Germany. “His instincts seem to be brutally authoritarian, in the worst traditions of United States business management. He is an insecure, narcissistic, neurotic bully, [and] he will do great damage to the United States. But he is not a fascist.”
More particularly, according to Ledford, he is definitely not a Nazi.
“Trump’s ascendancy … has no parallel whatsoever to the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the early 1930s,” explained Ledford. “Election campaigns from 1930 to 1933 in Germany were accompanied by massive street-violence conducted by armed paramilitaries .… While there was the sulfurous whiff of violence at many Trump rallies and incitement on his part, there was nothing near the level of public violence that beset Germany at the hands of the Nazis.”
This is an assessment with which Jay Geller, Samuel Rosenthal professor of Judaic Studies at CWRU and expert on German Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries, readily agrees.
“Donald Trump is not a fascist, and ‘Trumpism’ is not a variant of fascism,” said Geller. “Trump’s illiberal and authoritarian tendencies threaten the long-term health of American democracy, but they do not make him a fascist.”
Such a view is also shared by John Broich, associate professor of history and specialist in the history of the British Empire. Broich has interviewed multiple historians specialized in European and Japanese history of fascism.
“[Most] judged that Trump is not a fascist,” said Broich.
Is accusation of fascism against Trump appropriate?
Both Geller and Ledford think fascism has specific, discernible characteristics that are readily apparent to people trained to recognize the phenomenon.
As Geller puts it, fascism is “a highly centralized, hierarchical, ideology-based mass movement devoted to extreme ethno-nationalism and supported by a single political party.”
The ideology of the Trump administration is simply not clear enough to justify calling it fascist.
“It is hard to classify ‘Trumpism,’” wrote Geller. “He does not have a clearly articulated, discrete ideology that consistently guides him. To me, these factors indicate a crass opportunism and a desire for power for its own sake.”
Just because Ledford and Geller do not see Trump himself as a fascist, that, in their opinion, does not let his supporters and colleagues off the hook, so to speak. They are concerned about many of the people with whom Trump is most closely associated.
“[Trump] has surrounded himself with fascists, particularly [White House Chief Strategist] Steve Bannon, who is clearly a fascist and would be quite at home in the National Socialist Party of the 1920s and 1930s,” said Ledford.
Geller does not see the election of a leader who is not himself a fascist, but is elected by many people who espouse fascistic tendencies, as a phenomenon limited to the United States.
“The term ‘far-right’ is still accurate and useful as a label,” said Geller. “The media and the broad political center need to be unequivocal in describing some people and groups as ‘far-right’ and denouncing them for it.”
“There are many key leaders [in the West] who exhibit authoritarian tendencies and who act in a way that is antithetical to liberal democracy,” Geller continued. “Unfortunately, the democratic traditions of [many Western countries] are weaker than the American democratic tradition. Liberal democracy may not survive much longer in certain parts of Europe.”
All three historians agree on one characterization of him: authoritarian.
“Trump is disinterested in the procedures and institutional restraints of tripartite government and seems to wish to govern (at least occasionally) in an authoritarian manner,” said Geller. “All Americans committed to democracy—whether they are Republicans or Democrats, on the political Right or the political Left—should view this development with tremendous concern.”
Broich is also worried that Trump’s autocratic style of ruling could prove dangerous in the long term.
“Just because many [historians] wouldn’t apply the label [of fascism to Trump], it hardly [matters] because ‘Trumpism’ [seems] to hold a kernel of horrible possibilities as its logical conclusion,” said Broich.
How do you view Trump’s utilization of executive orders?
“Executive Orders are legitimate exercises of executive power under the U.S. Constitution, and resolute use of them is [by itself] no evidence of authoritarianism,” said Ledford. “President Obama used [many] Executive Orders [himself] because he faced implacable and total opposition from Republicans in control of the U.S. Senate .… But Trump’s party controls both houses of Congress, yet he has issued far reaching Executive Orders without even consulting the leaders of his own party, when he could have sought and obtained legislative backing for his actions. That, to me, evinces an authoritarian preference for executive over legislative action.”
Particularly appalling, in Ledford’s opinion, is the fact that the order appeared to target refugees based upon religion.
“[Trump’s] Executive Order of Jan. 27 facially violates international law, the U.S. Constitution, as well as the best traditions of the United States. It was, and remains, a moral outrage,” said Ledford.
For Geller’s part, Trump’s diktat is personal, given his own background in Judaism.
“The idea of singling out a group based on its religion and of denying refugees a place in this country evokes very negative memories for the Jewish community,” said Geller. “While no two events or eras in history are ever exactly the same, the similarities between these two situations are notable, and it is appalling that the United States refuses entry to civilian refugees from certain war-torn regions simply because of their religion.”