A recent Newsweek piece asked “Is Donald Trump a Fascist?” Another column at The Week (where I’m a contributing editor) is titled: “How Nietzsche explains the rise of Donald Trump.” These are just two examples of the many “think” pieces examining the dangerous roots behind Trump’s style and ideology (to the degree he has an ideology). To put it mildly, the criticism transcends concerns about populism that might have been found in William Jennings Bryan, or even Ross Perot.
But I’m less alarmed by Trump than I am by the fact that he has tapped into something.Trump’s gonna Trump—that’s just how it is. But the scary part is that a pretty good slice of the public is falling for what could (if one finds the term “fascist” to be overwrought) fairly be described as demagoguery.
Of course, the fascist label has been bandied about as a catch-all slur against “people we don’t like.” But it actually means something fairly specific. And Newsweek made the case for why it’s not an inappropriate designation for Trumpism:
In the 19th century, this penchant for industrial protectionism and mercantilism became guild socialism, which mutated later into fascism and then into Nazism. You can read Mises to find out more on how this works.
… This is how strongmen take over countries. They say some true things, boldly, and conjure up visions of national greatness under their leadership. They’ve got the flags, the music, the hype, the hysteria, the resources, and they work to extract that thing in many people that seeks heroes and momentous struggles in which they can prove their greatness.
Over at The Week, Damon Linker sees a parallel to Nietzsche.
Nietzsche understood himself to be reviving what he called the morality of the strong against the morality of the weak — the outlook that has prevailed in the West ever since Jesus Christ inspired a “slave revolt in morality.” Before then, the strong preyed on the weak at will, and both parties took for granted that this was the natural order of things. But Christ taught a different lesson, one rooted in the resentment of history’s victims: the cruelty of the strong is a sin, God loves the powerless most of all, the winners deserve to lose, and the meek deserve to win. And they will.
Linker doesn’t go there, but it’s worth noting that fascists like Hitler and Mussolini, channeling Nietzsche, believed in a sort of “übermensch.”
This worldview is at odds with a Christian philosophy that involves caring for “even the least among us” and believes in compassion and human dignity for everyone — even immigrants, “losers,” the weak, and … the unborn. Trump’s own words betray this sort of Nietzschean weltanschauung. Consider his explanation for becoming pro-life. These are his words:
And I am pro-life. And if you look at the question, I was in business. They asked me a question as to pro-life or choice. And I said if you let it run, that I hate the concept of abortion. I hate the concept of abortion. And then since then, I’ve very much evolved.
And what happened is friends of mine years ago were going to have a child, and it was going to be aborted. And it wasn’t aborted. And that child today is a total superstar, a great, great child. And I saw that. And I saw other instances.
The obvious question that everyone has been asking: What if that child wasn’t a superstar?
The suggestion, I think, is that some people are winners and some people are losers. This leads to a form of Social Darwinism. Weak people shouldn’t be allowed to drag down the “winners.” I don’t have to tell you where, taken to the extremes, these ideas can ultimately take us.
But again, my concern isn’t that Trump exists, for such men have always existed, but rather, that a good chunk of the public (and even more concerning, the conservative movement — which ought to reflect a more Christian worldview) are falling for this. I’m not worried that Trump is Hitler, or even Mussolini. But I am worried that we have arrived at a time when a sizable chunk of the American public is so simultaneously frustrated and naive as to fall for populist demagoguery. And I worry where that could take us some day.
And, of course, many conservatives are falling for Trumpism hook, line, and sinker — despite the fact that he offers no specifics or details. You just have to trust that — because he is brilliant and successful (and because the current establishment politicians are stupid and corrupt) — he will magically solve all our problems. Even his slogan, “Make America Great Again” evokes a sort of nostalgia that has been used by strongmen throughout the ages to hearken back to some magical time when all was right with the world — before the people in power sold us out and betrayed us.
Again, though, it is interesting how glittering generalities and nationalistic sloganeering can completely replace the need for details or specifics or even coherent policy positions. I’m currently reading the galley copy of historian David Pietrusza’s fascinating forthcoming book, 1932: The Rise of Hitler and FDR–Two Tales of Politics, Betrayal, and Unlikely Destiny. And I couldn’t help but find this excerpt written by American journalist William Chapman White about Hitler in 1932 to be eerily familiar:
His critics charge him with having no concrete programme … That criticism is unimportant. Moses never offered his followers a detailed relief map of the Promised Land. It was enough to assure them that there was such a land. ‘And Hitler has no economic programme,’ the critics say. That, for his followers, also means little. No one who believes in heaven worries whether heaven maintains the gold standard or not.
Once again, to be clear, I am not comparing Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler — who rightfully occupies a unique and ignominious place in our history. But I don’t think suggestions that he has fascist tendencies or that he is espousing a dangerous Nietzschean worldview are absurd. And I am worried about an American public who is not skeptical, but rather, hungry, for this American übermensch. I am worried about what the next Trump who comes along might do. And this might sound paranoid. But nobody said preserving freedom would be easy. No, it requires diligence. It also requires a public that is both knowledgeable and virtuous.