Leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been called many names, and “fascist” is an increasingly popular way to describe him. In our political vocabulary, the F-word remains the ultimate condemnation. Even after the atrocities of Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot, there are communist parties throughout the world, but there are no self-declared fascist parties and no attempts to formulate fascism with a human face.
The Donald is very bad news in very many ways, but he’s no fascist. Fascists believed in redeeming nations through large-scale violence; for them, war as such created meaning in people’s lives. Fascism promised its followers that they would be ennobled by hardship and would gain immortality through the national collective; Trump glorifies individualism and, like former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, suggests that anyone who makes an effort can have a life of comfort just like his.
Trump should be described as a far-right populist. In the United States, the word “populism” is mostly associated with left-wing movements advocating for Main Street against Wall Street. Both the self-described socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders and Trump are routinely called populists, so it appears they must have something in common. But this is misleading.
A real populist is not just a critic of powerful elites. He or she is a politician who claims to be the one and only legitimate representative of the true people. In the populist imagination, the people are always fully unified and morally infallible; there is no such thing as a legitimate opposition, nor are there minorities who might legitimately disagree with the savior of the people. Populists always pose a danger to democracy because they deny the pluralism inherent in modern democratic societies.
While the West supposedly has a shared liberal-democratic vocabulary, “populism,” like “liberalism,” has different meanings in different countries. In the U.S. — as well as Latin America — populism is primarily seen as a leftist phenomenon, whereas in Europe “populism” is today applied almost exclusively to the far right. In North America “populism” first became widespread with the rise of the People’s Party in the late 19th century. The People’s Party defended agrarian interests against finance capital. No adjective was initially available to name the leaders of the People’s Party; eventually someone came up with “populist.”
The meaning of “populist” then shifted from defenders of certain interests — those of farmers and later the downtrodden in general — to politicians responsive to the feelings of supposedly forgotten parts of the population. Today we constantly hear about the fears and resentments of the middle class, which sees salvation in figures such as Trump or Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front.
But it is peculiar to identify an ideology purely on the basis of its supporters and how they feel. One would never say that socialism is simply the stuff discontented workers vote for. Yet in the case of populism, analysts often prefer to indulge in psychological profiling rather than to listen to what populists say and to explain what’s wrong with it. Populist voters are thus confirmed in their impression that liberal elites never take them seriously.
Populists are politicians who claim that only they represent the true people and that all those who criticize them — or just fail to vote for them — are not properly part of the people. Populists always polarize; it’s us, the real and righteous people, against them, the people’s enemies, who can be found inside and outside the country’s borders. Trump, with his xenophobic attacks on Muslims and Mexicans at home and abroad, fits this pattern perfectly.
When in opposition, populists criticize the elite and always tell a story of why they aren’t in power, which, given that they and only they represent the people, would seem impossible in a democracy. This accounts for the populist obsession with conspiracy theories. Think of Trump’s ominous comment about President Barack Obama that “there is something going on with him that we don’t know about” or Trump’s past false insinuations that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S.
Populists such as Le Pen and Beppe Grillo, the leader of the Italian Five Star Movement, endlessly lament the conspiracy of establishment parties, the traditional media or even sinister international elites in order to explain why what should be inevitable, the proper expression of the will of the people, has not happened. This is reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s infamous notion of the “silent majority,” a term frequently embraced by Trump supporters: If only the majority were allowed to speak, our leader would already be in the White House.
Not every populist is a fascist, but every fascist is a populist. Fascists have historically promised their nations that they could redeem themselves through violence. But populists do not have to flirt with war and find life’s meaning in mortal combat, even if they are bound to demonize their opponents — as when Trump, with his ostentatious bullying and cruelty, encourages his followers to rough up his critics.
On the other hand, fascism and populism both make dubious claims to be consistent with democracy. Leading theorists of fascism, such as Italy’s Giovanni Gentile under Benito Mussolini, insisted that fascism was the realization of true democracy: It would enable the complete union of the leader and the people, whose will Il Duce would faithfully execute. Even the Nazis, who derided Western liberal democracy as nothing more than plutocracy, tried to make the case for a special race-based Germanic democracy.
None of this is to say that fascists were democrats. But one of the reasons they weren’t tells us why populists in general aren’t really democrats either. Fascists and populists assume that they — and only they — represent the authentic people, that the rights of an opposition and of minorities do not have to be respected and that democratic institutions that fail to deliver power for populists must be rotten.
Populists, then, are not just anti-elitist; they are anti-pluralist. And there’s no such thing as democracy without pluralism. Hence, rather than throw around the F-word or conjure up fantasies of America going the way of the Weimar Republic, it is enough to say that Trump is simply not a democrat.