Here’s What We Learned About the Far Right From Donald Trump’s Presidency

Despite his authoritarian tendencies, Donald Trump never came close to dragging us into fascism. But he did drag us further toward a xenophobic, anti–working-class, right-wing-populist abyss. Those forces will continue to destroy American and global politics — if we don’t take them on and defeat them.

Donald Trump at a campaign rally during the 2016 presidential campaign. (Dario Steckley / Flickr)

It looks like Trump is on his way out the door. Fingers crossed. But it doesn’t take an expert to notice that Trumpism is not going anywhere, at least not anytime soon.

Whether we want to call it Trumpism, white nationalism, right-wing populism, neofascism, or all of the above, it’s clear that toxic stew is now mainstream. But we also now know that it is not invincible. Here’s what we’ve learned from four years of Trump in office.


Trump’s Authoritarian Personality Is Electable.

To be sure, the United States never “went fascist.” That is to say, the federal government never became a fascist state, as some feared in 2016.  Trump was far too undisciplined and politically clumsy to fully overturn deep-seated, liberal-democratic norms (though he did plenty of damage).  Nor did he even seem to have a consistent road map in his own head.

But some of us who study fascism have seen plenty of disturbing echoes in Trump’s words and in his temperament. Trump was not a military man like the historic fascist dictators of Europe; unlike Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini, military glory was never central to his identity. And fortunately for all of us, his deep-seated elitism toward the military alienated way too many of the folks commanding the deadliest of guns.

But the grammar of fascism — strength, race, nation, violence, action — drove his rhetoric and carried with it all the necessarily authoritarian impulses, apocalyptic inflections, and historic targets of fascisms, past and present. Economics bores fascists and their followers. If one watches his full speeches at his events, it’s uncanny what this Republican candidate hardly mentions: taxes, liberty, freedom, democracy.

We now know that seventy-two million Americans are ultimately fine with that, at least in the absence of a more compelling alternative.


Trump Never Built a Coherent Neofascist Movement. But Stay Alert.

Trump was never disciplined enough, nor a skilled-enough tactician, to build a unified neofascist movement around his colossal ego. His early career as a confidence man for his father’s real estate empire did not equip him with the skills or the inclination to organize his middle-class base into sustainable, local institutions, however much he was able to get them to the polls. In his abilities and in his public image, Trump was more Berlusconi than Mussolini: a media playboy turned politician whose best talent was playing a rich man on TV. We’ll see if, like Silvio Berlusconi, he’s led away in handcuffs right after his term ends.

As a playboy, his narcissistic, authoritarian personality demanded (and got) adoring crowds at rallies, but he never took the time to organize those crowds into a cohesive network of cadres like we saw with the successful fascist leaders of the past. We have Proud Boys and Boogaloo Boys, Oath Keepers and QAnon, Bikers for Trump and a galaxy of other right-wing armed groups and spooky conspiracy cults. All of them are dangerous, and none of them are a joke.

But at the same time, we have no mass paramilitary of the magnitude of the SA of Weimar Germany (the Brownshirts) nor Mussolini’s Arditi (the Blackshirts) of prewar Italy. The SA not only eclipsed all rival right-wing militias by 1932, but also, as a paramilitary, it had a clearly outlined if not always a stable relationship to the Nazi Party.

History never repeats itself exactly, so we shouldn’t look for an exact repeat of the SA or Franco’s Falange. But we should be very vigilant lest those atomized militias congeal into something unified, and with a clear relationship to the Republican Party.


The Next Month Is Crucial, but Not for the Reasons We Assumed.

Before the election, there were fears of a literal civil war breaking out between the Left and Right in the aftermath of the results. This now looks very unlikely. And it’s hard to imagine that Trump will be able to undermine democratic institutions in the next few months any more than he has already done.

But Trump is currently testing the waters of an authoritarianism so blatant and so vast in scope that it outstrips anything he has done so far in office. He’s pursued the “rigged election” narrative in the courts, and now that it’s not working, he has apparently weighed the option of getting Republican state legislatures in states that voted for Biden to flip the electoral college in his favor.  And what was he planning with his last-minute leadership reshuffle in the Pentagon, anyway? And was the “rigged election” narrative supposed to set the stage for the flipping of electors, with the new Pentagon loyalists on hand to crush any dissent?

Even if there was an authoritarian playbook, nothing seems to be going according to plan. But we should closely watch how much of the Republican leadership and base goes along with such moves. It lets us know how many of those seventy-two million people who voted for Trump are truly and thoroughly authoritarian. It will also show us how much damage Trumpism has done to basic democratic values.


American Authoritarians Don’t Need To Reject Democracy.

There’s a common belief that fascism explicitly rejects democratic principles. If you look at the autobiographies of Mussolini or Hitler, this was certainly the case. They claimed that parliaments were just a bunch of bickering politicians who never got anything done; Italians and Germans needed a strongman to come in, drain the swamp, and do what was needed themselves.

Much of this sounds familiar. But Trump hasn’t taken the final step and rejected elections on philosophical grounds. Rather, he claims they’re “rigged” and tries to reverse the results with lawyers, not militias.

In the United States, liberal democratic values are common sense, so it would be difficult for the majority of Americans to swallow a rejection of elections in principle. Instead, what we’re seeing now with the “rigged elections” claim is something that American neofascists have pushed since the 1930s.

In the late 1930s, Father Charles Coughlin’s pro-fascist newspaper Social Justice defended Franco’s coup d’état in Spain by claiming that extralegal violence on the Right was necessary there because the political left had come to power through fraudulent elections. Such arguments allow Americans to preserve their self-image as upholders of democracy — as they go about destroying it.

This has always been a necessary move in the United States where constitutional liberalism is ingrained into the national ideal, and thus is indispensable to any nationalist. A paradoxical faith in the Constitution has always been something that’s given American fascism its distinctly national hue.


Finding Another Trump Won’t Be Easy — But It’s Not Impossible.

Trump was a unique kind of celebrity, and those are not easily replaced.  And as we saw in 2018, Trumpism didn’t do too well without Trump on the ballot. It’s not every day that a party can find a celebrity “un-politician” who can effectively campaign on hard-right populist and even white nationalist politics. And to find a Trump better than Trump — a charismatic, neofascist leader who also commands shrewd tactical abilities — would be an exceptionally hard task.

But we can’t lull ourselves to sleep by thinking it’s impossible.


There Is a Place for People of Color in Neofascism.

To be sure, there appears to have been an incremental uptick in nonwhite support for Trump. But the presence of people of color in the Trump coalition should remind us there has always been far more to fascist politics than white supremacy. We have plenty of global examples of nonwhite fascisms and crypto-fascisms, including imperial Japan, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its RSS paramilitary in India, Rodrigo Duterte’s regime in the Philippines, and Jair Bolsonaro’s election in the officially multiracial state of Brazil.

Take away white supremacy, and we find that fascist and neofascist movements still have plenty to offer their (mostly male) followers: militarism, the thrill of violence, anti-communism, authoritarian patriarchy, religious bigotry, xenophobia directed at national minorities, and more.

There’s more than enough racism in Trumpist politics to justify the term “white nationalism” for now, but we may need to rethink our labels in a demographically changing United States.


The Rich Are Okay With White Nationalism.

The activist backbone of fascist movements has always come from the middle class, not the working class or the rich. It confounded a lot of commentators that in 2016, many Trump voters were “whites without college degrees” who, at the same time, had incomes above the national average. The Trumpian base, much like the base of fascist movements across the twentieth century, is strongest in what is sometimes called “the old middle class.” Occupationally, it is less often white-collar professionals or office workers (“the new middle class”) and more often small business owners, independent contractors, and skilled workers.

Hitler and Mussolini arose from this middle class. Trump didn’t. But there have been fascist movements with aristocrats and other elites at the helm, as with Francisco Franco in Spain, Oswald Mosley in Great Britain, and, more recently, Martin Sellner of Austria, the de facto leader of the identitarian movement in Europe.

More to the point, fascist movements never go anywhere without elite complicity and enablement.  And according to a New York Times exit poll, those making over $100,000 a year were the income bracket most likely to support Trump. We don’t know yet why that is the case, though we know they certainly benefited most from his tax cuts. We also know that racism and misogyny is not a deal-killer for them, just as they weren’t a problem for fascism’s elite enablers in the past.


Antifascism Is Most Effective as a Big-Tent Coalition.

Sadly, the Democratic Party offers the most likely vehicle for opposing fascism at the level of federal electoral politics, as even the Communist Party USA realized in the second half of the 1930s. (Though this doesn’t foreclose other vehicles at the state and local levels.)

With that in mind, the Left cannot ignore people who don’t identify as leftists or progressives but are willing to fight the Right. But the Democratic Party also can’t afford to ignore AOC — and the latter is what establishment Democrats are naturally inclined to do. Without supporting the demands of millions who showed up to save democracy, yet again, there is nothing really standing in the way of Trump 2.0.

Shaping the contours of a Popular Front is our most urgent political task. It’s one that will take many of us to get right, and it’s difficult to offer a blueprint in advance. In 1936, an attendee at the American League Against War and Fascism’s national convention said, “Whether or not America goes fascist depends on who gets organized first.” This is as true now as it was in 1936.

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Christopher Vials is an associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut–Storrs, where he is director of American studies. He is the author of Haunted by Hitler: Liberals, the Left, and the Fight Against Fascism in the United States and co-editor of The US Anti-Fascism Reader.

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