Donald Trump’s overwhelming victory in Tuesday night’s New Hampshire primary makes him, according to both betting markets and many analysts, the favorite to win the Republican nomination. Trump has been written off as an entertainer and circus clown, but he has been tagged with another, much more serious label: fascist. Trump’s campaign has stirred bigoted feelings in the electorate and played to voters’ worst fears and prejudices. And so far, it’s working. Two-thirds of New Hampshire Republicans, according to exit polls, favored Trump’s ban on Muslim immigration.
To discuss Trump’s rise and its historical echoes, I called Robert Paxton, a leading authority on the history of fascism. A regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and an expert on Vichy France, Paxton has written numerous books on European history. We discussed the ways in which Trump is and is not a fascist, whether Trump believes what he says, and why now, of all times, so many Americans seem to be embracing him. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
Isaac Chotiner: As a historian of fascism, what do you make of Trump’s rise?
Robert Paxton: Well, it’s astonishing and depressing because he’s totally foreign to any of the skills that are wanted in a president of the United States. What we call him is another matter. There are certainly some echoes of fascism, but there are also very profound differences.
Start with the echoes.
First of all, let me preface it by saying that I’m very, very reluctant to use the word fascism loosely, because it’s almost the most powerful epithet you can use. I guess child molester might be a little more powerful but not much.
Nazi maybe, but that’s just a version of fascism.
It’s the same thing. It’s enormously tempting. Anyway, the echoes you can deal with on two levels. First of all, there are the kinds of themes Trump uses. The use of ethnic stereotypes and exploitation of fear of foreigners is directly out of a fascist’s recipe book. “Making the country great again” sounds exactly like the fascist movements. Concern about national decline, that was one of the most prominent emotional states evoked in fascist discourse, and Trump is using that full-blast, quite illegitimately, because the country isn’t in serious decline, but he’s able to persuade them that it is. That is a fascist stroke. An aggressive foreign policy to arrest the supposed decline. That’s another one. Then, there’s a second level, which is a level of style and technique. He even looks like Mussolini in the way he sticks his lower jaw out, and also the bluster, the skill at sensing the mood of the crowd, the skillful use of media.
I read an absolutely astonishing account of Trump arriving for a political speech, somewhere out West I think, and his audience was gathered in an airplane hangar, and he landed his plane at the field and taxied up to the hangar and got out. That is exactly what they did in 1932 for Hitler’s first election victory. No one had ever seen a candidate arrive by plane before; it was absolutely dazzling, the impression given, the decisiveness of power, of authority, of modernity. I suppose it was accidental, but wow, that is an almost letter-perfect replay of a Hitler election tactic. And the capacity of Trump to enlist working-class voters against the left is exactly what Hitler and Mussolini were able to do. There are definitely echoes.
Do you think that Trump is consciously using fascist tropes, or do you think that he’s just sort of stumbled into this?
I doubt it’s conscious. I don’t think he’s a bookish man. I’m sure he’s never read a book about Hitler or Mussolini.
He’ll read your books after this interview.
When people like you and me watch Trump, I think we tend to assume he is a bullshitter who doesn’t have deeply held positions and is acting to a degree.
I think a lot of people would say, Well, Hitler and Mussolini, they believed what they were doing. Fascists generally believe what they’re doing. In fascism, do you think that there was more bullshit and politicking than people assume?
Totally. One of the reasons I wrote my book was that I was so tired of people interpreting fascism as the application of a program. When you read Hitler’s program, his 21 points, when the party was founded in 1920, and when you read Mussolini’s first program in 1919, it had very little to do with what they eventually did. Mussolini, particularly, came from the left, and his first program included things like the vote for women, the abolition of a monarchy. It was more his style than the details of the program. The details of the program were constantly changing. They say whatever seems to suit the mood of the moment. Mein Kampf is taken as a model that [Hitler] carried out—well, in Mein Kampf, he wants to make peace with the British. They are full of inconsistencies, they were very opportunistic, totally opportunistic, and there was a high degree of change in their programs.
Tell me the ways in which you think Trump is not fascist.
I think there are some powerful differences. To start with, in the area of programs, the fascists offer themselves as a remedy for aggressive individualism, which they believed was the source of the defeat of Germany in World War I, and the decline of Italy, the failure of Italy. World War I, the perceived national decline, they blamed on individualism and their solution was to subject the individual to the interests of the community. Trump, and the Republicans generally, and indeed a great swath of American society have celebrated individualism to the absolute total extreme. Trump’s idea and the Republican plan is to lift the burden of regulation from businesses.
That’s fascinating. Anything else?
The other differences are the circumstances in which we live. Germany had been defeated catastrophically in war. Following which was the depression, which was almost as bad in Germany as it was here. Italy was on the brink of civil war in 1919. There were massive occupations of land by frustrated peasants. The actual problems those countries addressed have no parallel to today. We have serious problems, but there’s no objective conditions that come anywhere near the seriousness of what those countries were facing. There was a groundswell of reaction against the existing constitutions and existing regimes. That’s trumped up here; accidental pun, sorry.
Do you think there’s something about this moment in America that makes the country vulnerable to someone like Trump? Because as you noted, it’s hard to say that America is really in a horrible place.
No, this country has the strongest economy in the world and is still the strongest military power in the world without any close rival. The trends are not downward unless you were offended by the presence of a black man in the White House.
There are only millions of Americans that fit into that category.
I’m afraid so. The argument is very clear. Like the argument of Hitler and Mussolini that the existing government is weak, and therefore, we must have a government that is appropriate to the grandeur of America. The portrayal of Obama as weak, which is astonishing considering the degree to which Obama has used military power.
Nevertheless, a lot of people are left behind in the recovery. Poorly educated white males are left behind, and the country is not better for them, and there are enough of those people to make a huge difference. I don’t think there are enough of those people to elect a president, but they can make a powerful movement.
Again, I’m obviously not comparing Trump to Hitler as a person, but watching the “moderate” Republicans tear each other apart over the last few weeks and then split the vote five ways in New Hampshire last night, I thought of the 1932 election in Germany, with everyone kind of thinking, depending on their interests, that there were bigger threats than Hitler and not focusing on him until it was too late.
Yes, absolutely. It was a conscious choice in both countries to consider the socialists and the communists a much greater threat than the Nazis and fascists, and there was a conscious decision by the conservatives who were still holding the machinery of power to bring the fascists and the Nazis into the system in order to better fight the left. That particular dynamic is of course completely absent now. There was a conscious choice in Germany at the end of 1932 to use Hitler’s mass following to smash social democracy in Germany. The same strategic [choice] was made in Italy. I don’t see any of that dynamic. The old guard is against Trump. They’re not trying to use him, although, they may shift, they may decide that if Trump continues to be successful that he could be useful.