Months ago, when the news broke that Donald Trump would be running for president, comedians celebrated their great fortune, and pundits scoffed. Today, no one is laughing. Donald Trump has amassed an insurmountable lead in the Republican Party primary election and the only strategy for stopping him seems to be a divided convention.
Pundits, initially reluctant to take Trump seriously1, have in the last few weeks begun to come to grips with the phenomenon. Before Super Tuesday, speculation might have been premature. After all, who knows if the poll data would actually translate into electoral success. As of this writing in mid-March 2016, we are still well before the general election when Trump will have to tack painfully back towards the political center. In the meantime, there are two interesting questions that we might broach.
Who are Trump’s Supporters?
Political analysts are having another “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” moment. We—and I include myself—are trying to look inside the heads of voters. Political insiders must be similarly baffled by Trump’s apparent immunity to gaffes and controversy.
One of Trump’s great successes is in attracting people who are otherwise alienated from the political process. The diehard Trump fans I encountered were mostly newcomers. – Ryan Lizza
Drawing a parallel between the economic populism of Bernie Sanders and Trump, Michael Hirsh writes, “[t]he only wonder, perhaps, is that it took Trump and Sanders this long to get here.” Equating Bernie Sanders with Trump seems wrong. Though they both represent the more partisan wings of their party, Sanders’ economic populism is a serious, and arguably moderate, policy platform; Meanwhile, Trump’s platform appears to consist only of anti-immigration pandering, conspiracy-mongering, and clownish theatricality.5 And if Trump is channelling economic discontent, why are they coalescing around a candidate whose name is synonymous with ostentatious displays of wealth?
Today’s voters are so mad they can’t see—or think—straight. They want simple solutions and simplistic slogans. – Kathleen Parker
Amanda Taub at Vox.com has recently written that Trump supporters are authoritarians who express “a desire for order and a fear of outsiders.” The research recalls similarly themed post-War studies by Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, and Eric Hoffer. However, such explanations seem pitched at the wrong level. Even if people are submissive and atomized, it doesn’t explain why Trump specifically benefits now. Nor does it address the rise of rightwing parties in Europe, which are unconnected to Trump and American attitudes. How did he become the “floating signifier,” to borrow Ernesto Laclau’s term, that coalesced into a reactionary populist movement? A full answer to this question would need a cultural history of the Right since Barry Goldwater.
In Donald Trump’s case, his language, his tone, his demeanor has brought so many people into the Republican Party that don’t consider themselves Republican but they’re voting for him because they believe that he appreciates their anger. – Frank Luntz
Is Trump a Fascist?
When I see Fascism, I recognize it immediately. Donald Trump is a Fascist.” – Vladimir Tismaneanu
The political question du jour is whether the best analogy for Donald Trump is Silvia Berlusconi or Benito Mussolini. As Trump’s support grows, the reaction from the Left and conservatives has evolved from bemusement to concern to a full recreation of the Spanish civil war. Is this concern justified? We should be judging Trump by his words and actions certainly, but are these the actions of a proto-fascist demagogue, a clownish populist, or both?
In my mind, this argument is too often accompanied by an ignorance of the ideological and social roots of Fascism. However, there remain troubling parallels.
Muslims and immigrants are threats to American prosperity. Trump’s rhetoric targets vulnerable minority groups and suggests an easy target for displaced white anger. To what extent are his supporters interpreting this coded language as a new Dolchstoßlegende? To my knowledge, Trump has avoided the binary language of disease and health that was endemic to the Nazi depictions of Jews.2 However, Jamelle Bouie’s recent article is an important reminder of how race may be driving the electorate.
Trump’s rhetoric contrasts weakness and strength. Weakness is political correctness; Strength intimidates enemies and friends (like Chris Christie).
Strength implies the threat of violence. This is true in everyday personal interactions, which explains Trump’s exhortation to and defense of his cadre. But it extends to geopolitics, where Trump will cow China and Mexico with his virile masculinity. In all aspects of life, strength acts in its own interests; weakness is mealy-mouthed pluralism and respect for difference.
The political system, and the fourth estate that protects it, are corrupt. Trump’s outside-the-beltway status is a virtue insofar he has been able to tap into, and nurture, the sense that the political system is a tool of political elites. Distrust of the Federal government was an important part of the Tea Party movement, and it did not disappear. In this, Trump is simply capitalizing on 35 years of anti-government ideology on the Right.
Violence against a corrupt system is a virtue. If there is a link between Trump and other, troubling developments in American culture, it is the affinity between Trump’s increasingly violent followers and, say, the Bundy-led occupation of Oregon public land, it is the dangerous equivalence between patriotism and violence. Widespread violence still seems like a remote possibility. More likely is a continued assault on the legitimacy and efficacy of the government. The United States is unique in the relative stability and faith in its political institutions. Trump’s success suggests that faith is weakening.
So the Trump candidacy has revealed both an ugly emotional undercurrent of hate-filled, incipiently violent rage and a serious but rationally explicable class cleavage between those whose livelihoods remain largely unaffected by globalization and those whose whole way of life is threatened by the disappearance of the industries that formerly sustained it. But it has also revealed something else, something less familiar than these two lines of analysis—the one economic, the other sociocultural—suggest. The third dimension of the Trump phenomenon is political: It is anti-democratic. – Art Goldhammer
Is Trump a fascist then? This isn’t Weimar Germany. America is not in the midst of an unprecedented loss of faith in itself, despite Trump’s rhetoric. There is no ideological enemy around which to coalesce.3 America lacks the bizarre cult of youth, violence, and the military that was ideologically exploited by European fascist movements. Fascism was a form of reactionary modernism, not conservatism.4 It sought to radically transform, social institutions not to preserve them.
Treating Trump as a reincarnation of Hitler or Mussolini minimizes both what is unique about inter-war fascism and what is unique about this particular moment in American history. However, that’s not to say that this moment isn’t troubling nor that the situation won’t change over time.
Trump may soon depart the campaign trail in search of whatever life forms he must next consume to satisfy his titanic narcissism, he will leave behind a cadre of Americans—a solid core of whom are white, male, and not particularly well-educated—who harbor the notion that the world was once a better place for them and that those days are permanently over. - David Rothkopf
François Furet, The Passing of an Illusion : The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century (University of Chicago Press, 1999). ↩
See Trump’s interview with the Washington Post editorial board. ↩