Robert Paxton is a pre-eminent scholar of fascism, having written numerous books on far-right movements in Europe. When I interviewed him back in February, he analyzed Donald Trump’s campaign by recalling previous right-wing insurgents and weighed in on the question of whether the fascist label was an apt one for Trump. (Short answer: yes and no.)
I spoke by phone with Paxton again recently. I wanted to hear how the campaign had (or had not) altered his view of Trump and what historical echoes he might have heard in Trump’s threat to ignore the results of the election. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed whether Trump’s bigotry is ideological or pragmatic, why people still misunderstand fascism, and the permanent mark Trump may leave on American politics.
Isaac Chotiner: Do you think the rhetoric we have heard from Trump in this election will have long-lasting effects on our politics?
Robert Paxton: I think that Trump’s appeals to racism and xenophobia and a sense of victimhood and a sense of national decline are going to leave permanent traces in a whole bunch of people who are going to be deeply disaffected, and it’s going to be very difficult to govern. It depends of course upon who controls Congress, but in any event, it’s going to be considered normal to make a lot of these empty remarks that used to be self-censored.
What other examples, from history or in other countries today, are there of candidates losing but changing the debate and the dialogue in a country permanently?
In the case of the people who haven’t won, you think of the French National Front and their xenophobia and anti-immigrant language. It’s shifted the whole political spectrum to the right. The main center and right parties are obliged to try to appeal to some of that public, so it shifts everything in that direction.
What historical parallels do you see to Trump’s rhetoric about a rigged election, and the chance that he might not concede if he loses?
I think about the election of the Popular Front in France in 1936, which produced the first Jewish and the first socialist prime minister, Léon Blum, of France. It simply wasn’t accepted by a lot of people. When France was defeated [by Nazi Germany] in 1940, the prime minister and the Popular Front became symbols of what needed to be changed, what needed to be rooted out of French life: the left, the Jews, the foreigners.
I’ve actually been drawing parallels between Blum and Obama. His election was not accepted by a great many people, and that made it very difficult for him to govern. In Blum’s case, it was a parliamentary system and not a presidential system. He only lasted for a year. He had to depend on a parliamentary majority to stay in office. He was a lasting symbol of someone to hate for the French right, a major symbol of what the Vichy government was supposed to get rid of.
How worried are you about this kind of rhetoric here?
I think that American democracy is fairly deeply rooted, and Americans tend to dislike a sore loser. But I think it means a rough patch, even if not apocalypse or the coming of regime change.
Has your opinion of Trump changed over the course of this year? I certainly feel that his nationalism and authoritarianism and bigotry are more genuine than I once did. Do you agree, and if so, does that change how we should think of him as an ideological figure?
It’s a little risky to guess about whether somebody is or is not sincere. I’m quite sure he has a number of feelings about things which have to do mostly, I think, with getting his own way. I think he surely feels very strongly about the things that favor his enterprises. When he talks about wanting to have lower taxes on the wealthy, that’s something he believes in very strongly, and it’s of course a matter of self-interest. His eagerness to get rid of regulations about health and the environment and workers’ conditions and so forth are just what the manager of a big hotel chain would want to do. If he has convictions, I think they’re mainly related to his self-interest.
Right, I guess I just assumed, if you go back to the race-based lawsuits against him in the 1970s, for example, that probably some of this stuff is sincere.
I don’t think Trump is a racist in the way that Southern rednecks are racist and can’t stand physical proximity of blacks or gays. I’m sure that in his nightclubbing life in New York he was delighted to rub shoulders with prominent black athletes and so forth. In his apartment rental business, he was going with the predominant feeling in the country. I think that was pure self-interest.
Do you think this means that he has more or less commonalities with fascist figures of the past?
I think there are some commonalities there. The most interesting case is Mussolini and anti-Semitism. When he was starting out organizing his movement, the original fascist movement to bring grandeur back to Italy and so forth, he had a lot of Jewish backers. A lot of Jewish middle-class people thought that sounded good and backed him. His mistress was a Jewish woman named Margherita Sarfatti. She wrote his biography. He got along quite well with Jews. There were some people in the Fascist Party who were anti-Semites, but they weren’t necessarily the most prominent.
Then, in 1938, fascist Italy passed all this anti-Jewish legislation, which for most historians for a very long time was simply seen as a strategic maneuver associated with joining the Axis. But people do find some precedents for it in Italian life. In the Ethiopia campaign in ’34, ’35, there was a lot of racist legislation. That got racism into Italian life in a big way. So there was an indigenous root to it, even if it had its self-interested side.
I think a lot of people now think of fascism as this hardcore ideology with this pure mania and fervor. Is that the correct view?
No, I think fascism was about power and getting power and exerting power. I think there were strong prejudices and feelings in it, feelings of alienation, feelings of desire for national revenge, anger at the people who you thought had stabbed your country in the back. In Germany, it mainly was Jews. In Italy, it was socialists. There were these very strong, visceral feelings. The electoral programs of Hitler and Mussolini, from their very first days of their movement, make very strange reading later on because they sound very anti-capitalist and left-wing and so forth. All that got shoved aside because their strategy for power was to make themselves indispensable to the conservatives: the mass support that conservatives needed to send off the communist parties. It seems to me that going at fascism as ideology has its pitfalls, because its main ideological expression in these party platforms got ignored and they were pragmatists who got themselves into power. Of course, there were racial prejudices that people expressed, but that wasn’t the only thing going on.
So then, nine months later, where do you stand on fascist being a useful term for Trump?
I think I hold my ground on that. I think that he is playing in a disastrous way with a lot of rhetoric and a lot of prejudices that definitely belong to fascist rhetoric and fascist violence. What I object to is taking that to be the whole explanation of what’s going on, because what’s really going on is I think he’s a businessman who thinks he would do better if he didn’t have to worry about regulation, about taxes, and so forth. I think he’s speaking for his own self-interests, which coincides with that of a lot of other folks.