Skip to main content

Why Trump merits the “f” word

Robert Reich, professor of public policy | March 10, 2016

I’ve been reluctant to use the  “f” word to describe Donald Trump because it’s especially harsh, and it’s too often used carelessly.

But Trump has finally reached a point where parallels between his presidential campaign and the fascists of the first half of the 20th century – lurid figures such as Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Oswald Mosley, and Francisco Franco – are too evident to overlook.

It’s not just that Trump recently quoted Mussolini (he now calls that tweet inadvertent) or that he’s begun inviting followers at his rallies to raise their right hands in a manner chillingly similar to the Nazi “Heil” salute (he dismisses such comparison as “ridiculous.”)

The parallels go deeper.

As did the early 20th-century fascists, Trump is focusing his campaign on the angers of white working people who have been losing economic ground for years, and who are easy prey for demagogues seeking to build their own power by scapegoating others.

Trump’s electoral gains have been largest in counties with lower than average incomes, and among those who report their personal finances have worsened. As the Washington Post’s Jeff Guo has pointed out, Trump performs best in places where middle-aged whites are dying the fastest.

The economic stresses almost a century ago that culminated in the Great Depression were far worse than most of Trump’s followers have experienced, but they’ve suffered something that in some respects is more painful – failed expectations.

Many grew up during the 1950s and 1960s, during a postwar prosperity that lifted all boats. That prosperity gave their parents a better life. Trump’s followers naturally expected that they and their children would also experience economic gains. They have not.

Add fears and uncertainties about terrorists who may be living among us, or may want to sneak through our borders, and this vulnerability and powerlessness is magnified.

Trump’s incendiary verbal attacks on Mexican immigrants and Muslims – even his reluctance to distance himself from David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan – follow the older fascist script.

That older generation of fascists didn’t bother with policy prescriptions or logical argument, either. They presented themselves as strongmen whose personal power would remedy all ills.

They created around themselves cults of personality in which they took on the trappings of strength, confidence, and invulnerability – all of which served as substitutes for rational argument or thought.

Trump’s entire campaign similarly revolves around his assumed strength and confidence. He tells his followers not to worry; he’ll take care of them. “If you get laid off …, I still want your vote,” he told workers in Michigan last week. “I’ll get you a new job; don’t worry about it.”

The old fascists intimidated and threatened opponents. Trump is not above a similar strategy. To take one example, he recently tweeted that Chicago’s Ricketts family, now spending money to defeat him, “better be careful, they have a lot to hide.”

The old fascists incited violence. Trump has not done so explicitly but Trump supporters have attacked Muslims, the homeless, and African-Americans – and Trump has all but excused their behavior.

Weeks after Trump began his campaign by falsely alleging that Mexican immigrants are “bringing crime. They’re rapists,” two brothers in Boston beat with a metal poll and urinated on a 58-year-old homeless Mexican national. They subsequently told the police “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.”

Instead of condemning that brutality, Trump excused it by saying “people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again.”

After a handful of white supporters punched and attempted to choke a Black Lives Matter protester at one of his campaign rallies, Trump said “maybe he should have been roughed up.”

There are further parallels. Fascists glorified national power and greatness, fanning xenophobia and war. Trump’s entire foreign policy consists of asserting American power against other nations. Mexico “will” finance a wall. China “will” stop manipulating its currency.

In pursuit of their nationalistic aims, the fascists disregarded international law. Trump is the same. He recently proposed using torture against terrorists, and punishing their families, both in clear violation of international law.

Finally, the fascists created their mass followings directly, without political parties or other intermediaries standing between them and their legions of supporters.

Trump’s tweets and rallies similarly circumvent all filters. The Republican Party is irrelevant to his campaign, and he considers the media an enemy. (Reporters covering his rallies are kept behind a steel barrier.)

Viewing Donald Trump in light of the fascists of the first half of the 20th century – who used economic stresses to scapegoat others, created cults of personality, intimidated opponents, incited violence, glorified their nations and disregarded international law, and connected directly with the masses – helps explain what Trump is doing and how he is succeeding.

It also suggests why Donald Trump presents such a profound danger to the future of America and the world.

Crossposted from Robert Reich’s blog.

Comments to “Why Trump merits the “f” word

  1. I tend to think one of two ways about Donald Trump:

    1) He’s a closet Democrat out to destroy the Republican Party and is doing a damn fine job of it.
    2) He’s either the Antichrist or the first of the 4 Horsemen

    God, HaShem, Allah, Buddha helps us all

  2. Your article is very clear and warns those trifling with Trump candidacy of what danger he can become if elected. Trump more than deserves the expletive for the simplistic nature of his understanding of issues like Abortion, Trade Deficit, Macroeconomics, Nuclear Armament etc and his total disregard for the feelings of others and inability to appreciate the value in those he disagrees with.

    He is too self-absorbed and overly confident of his platitudes he passes for genius. He has credit for nationalism but it is one that recognizes no international law and the rights of other nations to things their own, justice.

    To my mind a Trump PRESIDENCY will result in crisis at every turn engendered by his ignorant, heartless and silly demagoguery. The Republicans have a terrible hand with him and his naive and equally simplistic competition Cruz and a shy J. Kasich, knowledgeable, experienced but a strategic Waterloo.

  3. Excellent. I want to film one of His outdoor rallies and make a film called “Trump of the Will.”

  4. Prof. Reich, it’s March 16 and yesterday Trump plus Berkeley Blog posts by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Claude Fischer proved again that we are in the Fall phase of our Decline and Fall. And no one seems to have any solutions we can implement today.

  5. Prof. Reich, thank you for one of the most important history lessons we must heed today, to unite and eliminate this “profound danger to the future of America and the world” before it gets out of control.

    Berkeley is supposed to teach students to solve problems, but this is an impossible dream as long as academics fail to produce and implement solutions themselves.

    You are the best role model scholar in America at a time when professors must lead us to solve problems that our politicians are creating as the greatest threats to our newest and future generations today.

    Please unite your colleagues in a common effort to eliminate this danger today with the same dedication as those who produced the Declaration of Independence.

Comments are closed.