Donald Trump is on a roll, breaking new ground in uses for state power.
Closing the internet? Sure. “We have to see Bill Gates and a lot of different people… We have to talk to them about, maybe in certain areas, closing that Internet up in some ways.”
Registering Muslims? Lots of people thought he misspoke. But he later clarified: “There should be a lot of systems, beyond databases. We should have a lot of systems.”
Why not just bar all Muslims at the border? Indeed, and to the massive cheers of his supporters, Trump has called for the “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
Internment camps? Trump cites the FDR precedent: Italians, Germans, and Japanese “couldn’t go five miles from their homes. They weren’t allowed to use radios, flashlights. I mean, you know, take a look at what FDR did many years ago and he’s one of the most highly respected presidents.”
Rounding up millions of people? He’ll create a “deportation force” to hunt down and remove 11 million illegal immigrants.
Killing wives and children? That too. “When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families.”
This litany of ideas has finally prompted mainstream recognition of the incredibly obvious: If Donald Trump has an ideology, it is best described as fascism.
Even Republican commentators, worried that he might be unstoppable, are saying it now. Military historian and Marco Rubio adviser Max Boot tweeted that “Trump is a fascist. And that’s not a term I use loosely or often. But he’s earned it.” Bush adviser John Noonan said the same.
The mainstream press is more overt. CNN’s Chris Cuomo asked Trump point blank if he is a fascist. The Atlantic writes: “It’s hard to remember a time when a supposedly mainstream candidate had no interest in differentiating ideas he’s endorsed from those of the Nazis.”
There is a feeling of shock in the air, but anyone paying attention should have seen this last summer. Why did it take so long for the consciousness to dawn?
The word fascism has been used too often in political discourse, and almost always imprecisely. It’s a bit like the boy who cried wolf. You warn about wolves so much that no one takes you seriously when a real one actually shows up.
Lefties since the late 1930s have tended to call non-leftists fascists — which has led to a discrediting of the word itself. As time went on, the word became nothing but a vacuous political insult. It’s what people say about someone with whom they disagree. It doesn’t mean much more than that.
Then in the 1990s came Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 100 percent.” This law provided a convenient way to dismiss all talk of fascism as Internet babblings deployed in the midst of flame wars.
Godwin’s Law made worse the perception that followed the end of World War II: that fascism was a temporary weird thing that afflicted a few countries but had been vanquished from the earth thanks to the Allied war victory. It would no longer be a real problem but rather a swear word with no real substance.
Fascism Is Real
Without the term fascism as an authentic descriptor, we have a problem. We have no accurate way to identify what is in fact the most politically successful movement of the 20th century. It is a movement that still exists today, because the conditions that gave rise to it are unchanged.
The whole burden of one of the most famous pro-freedom books of the century — Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom — was to warn that fascism was a more immediate and pressing danger to the developed world than Russian-style socialism. And this is for a reason: Hayek said that “brown” fascism did not represent a polar opposite of “red” socialism. In the interwar period, it was common to see both intellectuals and politicians move fluidly from one to the other.
“The rise of Fascism and Nazism was not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period,” wrote Hayek, “but a necessary outcome of those tendencies.”
In Hayek’s reading, the dynamic works like this. The socialists build the state machinery, but their plans fail. A crisis arrives. The population seeks answers. Politicians claiming to be anti-socialist step up with new authoritarian plans that purport to reverse the problem. Their populist appeal taps into the lowest political instincts (nativism, racism, religious bigotry, and so on) and promises a new order of things under better, more efficient rule.
Last July, I heard Trump speak, and his talk displayed all the features of fascist rhetoric. He began with trade protectionism and held up autarky as an ideal. He moved to immigration, leading the crowd to believe that all their economic and security troubles were due to dangerous foreign elements among us. Then came the racial dog whistles: Trump demanded of a Hispanic questioner whether he was a plant sent by the government of Mexico.
There was more. He railed against the establishment that is incompetent and lacking in energy. He bragged about his lack of interest-group ties — which is another way of saying that only he can become the purest sort of dictator, with no quid pro quos to tie him down.