This was originally published on 16 December 2015 for Pubs and Publications |
Earlier this year I wrote about how the nationalist label affected the SNP and their image – as a concept, nationalism comes with a fair bit of historical baggage and it’s interesting to watch the SNP try to deal with it (and others make use of it). Yet the baggage associated with nationalism is nothing compared to that associated with its distant cousin: fascism. It’s a label that gets applied in modern politics on an irregular basis and often without a great deal of logic, such as when applied to Obama for having the gall to involve the government in healthcare. Somewhat more justifiably, it has begun to be used to describe Donald Trump’s candidacy for the presidency of the United States. As his policy positions have grown more outlandish and openly racist, the use of the fascist label has grown more and more common.
The use of fascism as a category in modern politics is problematic. For one thing, it is unlikely to be self-applied, being an unfashionable term even on the far right thanks to its historical associations. This makes it a tempting label to use on someone you disagree with, as the clear implication is that the individual in question has left the spectrum of acceptable political views, and the usual niceties of democratic politics no longer apply. One need not feel bad about restricting the participation of fascists in the political process; indeed, it is practically one’s civic duty. As such, when a political figure is as overtly objectionable as Trump, it is tempting to reach for such a convenient rhetorical weapon, without too much thought as to how accurate it might be.
Part of the issue is the very ambiguity of the term fascism. As an ideology rooted firmly in nationalism and its use for political ends, its nature varied considerably across different national contexts, even during its heyday in the 1930s. Such variation is immediately apparent when comparing the archetypical fascist systems, those of Hitler and Mussolini, where one can already see substantial differences in both regimes’ ideological basis and practical record of governance. Developing a satisfactory definition that manages to identify the phenomenon while allowing for substantial variation between cases is exceedingly difficult, and grappling with this question of what makes a fascist is at the heart of several historical disciplines, and there remains no overall consensus. The question of whether Franco’s Spain was truly ‘fascist’, for instance, hangs over my own studies of the Spanish Civil War and remains a hotly contested debate.
In popular usage, however, the polar opposite is the case. As opposed to endless debates around multiple definitions, there is no real common understanding of the term. Fascism is simply equated with the far right. Anyone on the right who leaves the boundaries of acceptable politics is, therefore, a fascist. Beyond the obvious point that everyone’s conception of ‘acceptable’ varies, the bigger problem is that such definitions rob fascism of the very historical connotations that give the label its power. Hitler was not simply someone who veered too far to the right. The scale of the crimes of fascist regimes is not simply a reflection of how right-wing they were, but of the enabling power of the particular and perverse logic of their ideologies.
So, with this in mind, should we call Trump a fascist? He is a populist, racist demagogue; it’s not hard to see some uncomfortable parallels. Yet I don’t think this is what qualifies someone as being a fascist. For me, Trump lacks the underlying revolutionary nature that imbued fascism: the desire to remake people and the way they think into something new and modern and different. His appeal is reactionary – harkening back to a supposedly recent time when America was ‘great’ and other races knew their place – not revolutionary. To me at least, Trump lacks the imagination to be a fascist.
There are other, more practical reasons to avoid the label. The first is that Trump is genuinely popular, at least amongst certain segments of the population. That is not to say that it renders his views acceptable, but by labelling his supporters fascist – a label they would almost certainly disagree with vehemently – you give them an easy way to ignore criticism. No ones perceives themselves as fascists (or, ‘baddies’, as it were), so it fails to invite self reflection and can be easily dismissed as the sort of elite propaganda Trump rails against. Equally, his persistent popularity precludes the use of the fascist label to delegitimise Trump – there are simply too many Trump supporters to exclude them from the political process. As such, the fight needs to be to win back hearts and minds, not to successfully apply exclusionary labels. The other, even more sobering possibility is, what if it gave Trump and his supporters ideas? What if a large segment of the American population embraced the term and decided that fascism and its tools, off-limits in any democratic political system since 1945, were worth revisiting?