As Donald J. Trump’s road to the presidency seems ever more golden, an increasing number of pundits, politicians, and personalities – Robert Reich, George Clooney, and Trevor Noah, to name the most prominent – have commented on the fascist overtones of his campaign. As evidence, commentators list Trump’s aversion towards Mexicans, his jingoistic and sexist comments, his irreconcilable differences with Muslims, the mistreatment of protesters at Trump rallies, Trump’s pompous political discourse, and his promise to restore America to its glorious past.

Should these psychopathic dispositions be enough to label Trump a modern day “fascist,” “neo-fascist,” or “proto-fascist”? The answer by academicians of both Left and Right persuasions seems to be increasingly “no.” Robert Paxton – Professor Emeritus at Columbia – is hesitant to label Trump a fascist and A. James Gregor – Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley – continues to reject the label for other would-be neofascists.

Ignoring the advice from the fathers of fascist studies, commentators continue to identify any body of thought that is somehow antidemocratic, racist, anticommunist, or antifeminist as “fascist.” Indeed, it seems that – because fascism is considered so reprehensible – analysts do not feel obliged to treat the subject with any real intellectual fairness. Some explicitly discount recommendations by the fathers of fascist studies and force the shoe to fit. The unfortunate consequence is that we have no idea what to expect from the thought of neofascism.

Instead, “fascism” is increasingly and incorrectly identified in the political rhetoric of Republicans, soccer thugs, skinheads, Rammstein fanatics, antisocialists, anti-egalitarians, and all those who refuse to conform to the strictures of political correctness. For some, researching “fascism” has been reduced to reading a NY Times article and identifying some compilation of features in our world. The results are intellectually embarrassing.

For those who wish to continue labeling Trump a fascist, some recommendations are in order: the search for fascism (or neofascism or proto-fascism – all problematic terms) can only succeed if we consider Mussolini’s Italy in serious fashion and understand it as paradigmatic of Fascism (capitalized to refer to the original Fascism of Mussolini). Academics have long proposed this. Doing so demonstrates that so-called “fascist” regimes or individuals are a harrowing departure.

Even the most minimal recollection of Fascism proves this: the doctrine of the original Fascism proposed that Italy, an industrially backward nation – imposed upon by advanced industrial nations for decades – was compelled to develop its economy and industrial base in order to survive and prevail in the modern world. From that goal, there was the advocacy of all those infamous institutions that now reside in the shadows of history. There was the rationale for a charismatic leader, a unitary party, and an infallible ideology – all intended to inspire an ethic of labor and sacrifice among a people that would have to undertake the daunting task of modernization. Mussolini’s Fascism did not pretend to be embarking on a world revolution (unlike the international Marxist revolution) that would satisfy all humanity’s needs and wants. Mussolini understood his task to be the creation of an economic, particularly industrial, base for the provision of a military inventory that would restore Italy’s prestige in a world that had all but dismissed the nation’s very existence.

Does this sound like today’s America?

Apart from the pompous speech, grandiose promises, imposing persona, and racism, can we identify any shared goals or ideology between Fascism and Trump? A serious consideration returns a “no” verdict. Trump might be a radical right-wing extremist, intent on defaming the immigrant working classes that propel America but the diagnosis should not be that he is a fascist.

Instead, Trump should be labeled a clinically disturbed individual, member of that minority of mad eccentrics who will always tread the Earth. Trump is more a case study in Zizek’s psychoanalysis than a serious subject in social science.

Some Differences Between Benito and Donald

The fact is that Trump and Mussolini lived vastly different lives. Born to poverty, Mussolini served as the political and intellectual leader of the Italian Socialist Party until The Great War led him to separate from the party and join the Allies. After serving, Mussolini (in 1919) organized the Fascist movement in order to protect the interests of the veterans, assure Italy its spoils of victory, and assure Italy a seat among the Great Powers.

On the other hand, Trump continues to be inundated by luxury in an era of surreal production. His goal to make America great again continues to be completely devoid of any coherent ideology. Protecting America and promising work for Americans lies in an invented history of a hypothetical American decline.

In fact, there doesn’t seem to be an American decline at all – particularly when compared to the great social upheavals of the Great War that provided the conditions for the revolutions that characterized the 20th century. The Great War created the uncertainty necessary for fundamental social change: large masses were drawn off from their traditional residences, detaching them from their values and customary behaviors. This was the context in which the Bolsheviks in 1917, the Fascists in 1922, and the National Socialist in 1933 came to power.

Our America is not the Europe of 100 years past. This makes Trump’s wide support base so much more puzzling. Perhaps Trump’s fans are undergoing some transcendental moral crisis or some collective psychological disability. Indeed, this may be the return of Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd and the “mass-man.” James Traub places it closer to John Adams’s strong guard against “the mob”: Trump is the genuine impresario of “the mob” – an instrument of the crowd who feels its resentment, its impatience, its distrust, and returns them all in slogans, epithets, and unintelligent taunts.

Given the discomfiture and embarrassment of trying to fit a label to a foreign body, it’s instructive that we try to understand – however minimally – what the original Fascism of Mussolini was and how the movement was justified to the Italian people. Only then should Trump be compared to Fascism. 

The Doctrine of Fascism

Scholars of fascism suggest that Mussolini’s Fascism be understood to exemplify a modernizing, mass-mobilizing, reactive nationalist, and anti-democratic movement that manifested itself in a late-emerging, underdeveloped state forced to contend with developed democracies that controlled the politics of the globe. At the turn of the century, Italy was a young country and – with the disappointments that followed the Great War – Fascism rose to domestic prominence, inspired and vindicated with an ideology that addressed issues central to Italy’s concerns: economic development, industrialization, and modernization.

The principal Fascist intellectual – Gionanni Gentile – provided both the rationale and ideology for Fascism. As a neo-Hegelian, Gentile advocated a unique kind of state system that required selflessness and sacrifice. In Origins and Doctrine of Fascism, it is clear that Gentile advocated a life that is sacrificial – committed to a mission that is demanding and arduous. In fact, one of his objections to traditional Marxism was its emphasis on class interests (as it caused fragmentation of the community), to the exclusion of overarching collective and national concerns.

Gentile (the ghostwriter of Mussolini’s The Doctrine of Fascism) argued that individuals are only fulfilled in the company of others, and the more intense the relationship the more fulfilling. He objected to traditional democracy because it was designed to satisfy individual, rather than collective interests. Because its program was demanding, Fascism emphasized the state as the executive control agency of the nation. Gentile believed that the community (as the nation) and the collective will (as the state) preceded the individual.

And so the differences between Mussolini and Trump are stark. While they may share messages, Trump’s understanding of American society seems to have been fabricated. For example, Robert Paxton, notes that both Mussolini and Trump want to make their respective countries great again. Indeed, for Mussolini, a preoccupation with the stagnation of Italy at the hands of industrialized northern countries served as impetus for revolution. Trump’s suggestion of a national decline, however, is unfounded.

It seems, then, that Trump’s label as fascist stems mostly from his persona. His pompousness, boisterousness, and pretentiousness call to mind 20th century dictators. Jamelle Bouie sees Trump as an eloquent leader, aggressively masculine, intolerant of criticism, chary of foreigners, and ultra nationalistic. Peter Bergen readily admits that Trump does not completely satisfy the “checklist” to be a fascist but goes on to label him a proto-fascist – for which the meaning is unclear. Working from Paxton’s “checklist” of what it means to be a fascist, Bergen finds that Trump shares four commonalities with fascism: “A sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of traditional solutions,” the “superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason,” the belief that one group is the victim, and the “need for authority by natural leaders (always male) culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s destiny.”

Many – I presume – would admit that Trump fits these descriptions. The key – and this is where most commentators are led astray – is that many other movements and regimes (on the Left and Right) also fit these characteristics. One only has to think of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung, and Castro, to name the most prominent. None of this is particularly helpful and causes considerable intellectual confusion.

And this is precisely the problem. Commentators are prepared to label Trump some type of fascist even if only a few characteristics fit. Occurrences like this help explain why “fascism” continues to be one of the most misunderstood concepts is social science.

Instead of carefully investigating whether a Trump case fits Mussolini’s Fascism (one regime among many under the typology of developmental regimes), the label “fascist” is meant to confuse rather than inform, to debase rather than appraise, to invent rather than explain. Christopher Hitchens’s judgment that Giovanni Gentile laid down a tangled barrage of pseudo-historical justification for the cult of supreme national leadership does more harm than good in identifying modern fascism. Regardless of its merit, accuracy, and complete irrationality, Fascism is nonetheless the measure under which to judge so-called fascist movements.

So while Trump shares the individual characteristics displayed by the eloquent leaders of the 20th century, the similarities end there. Writings of the time reveal Fascism to have been a coherently ideological movement with a consistent (however irrational) doctrine. Trump has yet to propose any coherent ideology or political plan that he might undertake as president. His only semi-complete message is that he seeks total control of society and economy and demands no limits on state power. This isn’t much of ideology.

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