Opinion

Donald Trump's alarming skid toward outright fascism

This is real. And it's terrifying.

I made the case just a couple months back that Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump is a sort of fledgling Mussolini, nurturing an incipient fascist movement. As the first primaries approach, and Trump's lead in the polls is actually widening, his development toward outright fascism is progressing faster than I feared.

As of August, Trump had most of the ingredients for a fascist movement: the victim complex, the fervent nationalism, the obsession with national purity and cleansing purges, and the cult of personality. He was missing the organized violence, a left-wing challenge strong enough to push traditional conservative elites into his camp, support for wars of aggression, and a full-bore attack on democracy itself. He's made much progress on all but the last one.

It's clear now that the Paris attacks enormously energized the Trumpist movement. He's now speculating openly about invading Syria. Trump's proposals have gone from overt prejudice to things literally taken out of late Weimar history — closure of mosques and a national Muslim database. The rank-and-file have both fed off and stoked this behavior. When a lone protester started chanting "black lives matter" at a Trump rally, Trumpists jumped him (he was luckily not badly injured). Trump later said, "Maybe he should have been roughed up." Hours later he lied about witnessing Muslim crowds celebrating 9/11, and retweeted nonsense racist garbage from a literal neo-Nazi.

Conditions are clearly fertile to start organizing a Trumpist paramilitary wing, a key fascist institution. A pack of heavily armed white nationalist militants recently popped up at a mosque in Irving, Texas, announcing their intention to intimidate local Muslims. Trump's personal security squad is already made up of goons, assaulting people and threatening reporters. With an incomprehensible number of guns floating around the country, all Trump needs is a Röhm to get the organizing started — except probably with Carhartts and camouflage instead of imitation military uniforms. (After that, watch for the next step: starting fights at Bernie Sanders rallies.)

The attacks also increased Trump's effective elite support. Many mainstream reporters have been working hard to normalize Trumpist ideas by attacking their colleagues for "unfair" treatment of Trump (like seeing what sort of Nazi ideas he'll disagree with). CNN's editorial practices are basically overt anti-Muslim bigotry. Other reporters, like Chris Cillizza, shrug and argue that refugee-baiting is simply smart politics. As Carl Diggler explained, "it would be a death sentence for any candidate to abandon these voters by coming out against the pogroms and race war they fervently want."

However, conservative elites are still pretty suspicious of Trump. Barring a recession (gulp), he probably would not do well in a general election, and so most conservative elites seem to be hoping that Marco Rubio will eventually consolidate the anti-Trump Republican vote to challenge Hillary Clinton. But should Trump win, and I see absolutely no reason at this point to think he is not the tentative favorite, things could change quickly. Should Clinton win the nomination, her milquetoast, status quo platform will be quickly internalized on the right as a devious plot to destroy (white) America. I would thus wager that most of the elite conservative power structure would back Trump versus Clinton if they each secure the nomination.

That brings us to Trump himself. As the pseudonymous blogger Billmon observes, Trump has instinctively discovered the Joe McCarthy sweet spot for maximum attention and momentum. It is pitifully easy to roll the mainstream media with a constant stream of insane, racist bile. Outlets are either too cowardly to call a spade a spade, or are simply wrong-footed by Gish Gallop tactics. Left-leaning media, meanwhile, has no purchase in the fever swamps. And conservative media, clearly taken aback at Trump's massive success with conservative base voters, are largely reduced to either studiously ignoring him, validating parts of his arguments, or howling about "illiberal" college students as a distraction.

Trump was writing pro-Obama blog posts in 2009. He is pretty clearly in this for the self-aggrandizement and ego trip, not because he's wants to achieve anything in particular. That's likely why he has not yet attacked the fundamental idea of a democratic electoral system (the last major missing fascist ingredient) — it simply hasn't occurred to him yet.

Yet the seeds he is sowing are poisonous indeed. Violent white nationalism has not been so effectively mainstreamed since the 1920s. If Trump wins the nomination and the economy turns down next year, I'd give him a decent chance of victory. Even if he is only a sort of "fascist idiot savant" without much true organizing ability or program, he clearly has a good instinct for the basic psychological impulses underlying previous fascist success. It's time to start taking this seriously.

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