clock menu more-arrow no yes

Is Trump a fascist? 8 experts weigh in.

Call him a kleptocrat, an oligarch, a xenophobe, a racist, even an authoritarian. But he doesn’t quite fit the definition of a fascist.

Trump holds a rally in West Virginia in 2018.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Is Donald Trump a fascist?

That question emerged in various forms pretty early in his 2016 presidential campaign, which began with a speech railing against Mexican immigrants, and gained steam after he called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” in December 2015, as a response to the San Bernardino terrorist attack.

At that point, the Muslim ban proposal, I contacted five fascism experts and asked them if Trump qualified. They all said no. Every one of them stated that to be a fascist, one must support the revolutionary, usually violent overthrow of the entire government/Constitution, and reject democracy entirely. In 2015, none were comfortable saying Trump went that far. He was too individualist for the inherently collectivist philosophy of fascism, and not sufficiently committed to the belief that violence is good for its own sake, as a vital cleansing force.

Roger Griffin, the author of The Nature of Fascism and a professor of history at Oxford Brookes University, summed it up well: “You can be a total xenophobic racist male chauvinist bastard and still not be a fascist.”

Five years have now passed, and the fascism questions have only grown more frequent. Trump has had time to implement quite anti-immigrant and anti-Black policies, and refused to denounce his most extreme and violent supporters, from the neo-Nazis and white nationalists in Charlottesville to the Proud Boys group. And every week, I receive dozens of emails from readers wondering if I stand by my conclusion in 2015, that Trump is simply a bigot with an authoritarian streak, not a fascist.

So I reached out to the experts I talked to back then. Four of the five replied, and I also got in touch with a few more scholars who have researched fascism to get a broader view.

The responses were, again, unanimous, albeit tinged with much greater concern about Trump’s authoritarian and violent tendencies. No one thinks Trump is a fascist leader, full stop. Jason Stanley, a Yale philosopher and author of How Fascism Works, came closest to that conclusion, saying that “you could call legitimately call Trumpism a fascist social and political movement” and that Trump is “using fascist political tactics,” but that Trump isn’t necessarily leading a fascist government.

But most experts did not even go that far, and some expressed concern that describing Trump as a fascist undermines the term and leads to a misanalysis of our current political situation. “If Trump was a fascist and we were in a situation akin to Germany in 1932 or Italy in 1921, certain kinds of actions would be justified,” Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College, says. “But we are not and they are not.”

To be clear, “not fascist” is a very, very low bar for Trump to clear. The concerns that lead people to ask the question “Is Trump a fascist?” are real. Trump really is trying to discredit the coming presidential election. He really has hired officials with ties to white nationalist groups. He really did promise to ban all Muslims from the US (and implemented new rules toward that goal), said that a Mexican American judge is unfit to preside over cases involving him, called Mexican immigrants “rapists,” empathized with neo-Nazis after Charlottesville, and falsely claimed Muslim Americans celebrated the 9/11 attacks — among many, many transgressions.

But things could always get worse. There really are leaders who suspend elections, dissolve legislatures, throw large numbers of citizens into camps without trial or appeal, who turn their nations into one-party states oriented around a cult of national rebirth. The fascist leaders of the past, the University of Texas’s Jason Brownlee notes, “not only pursued right-wing policies, they also built-up mass-mobilizing parties and paramilitary organizations with the goal of sweeping aside alternative movements and establishing single-party dictatorship.”

That hasn’t happened here — but it could. It came terrifyingly close to happening in Greece, where the explicitly neo-Nazi Golden Dawn became the third-largest political party in the mid-2010s. And if and when it does happen in America, we need to have the right terms and tools to confront it.

Robert Paxton, Mellon professor emeritus of social sciences, Columbia University

I stand by what I have already written about Trump and fascism, but there is one change: I am struck now with Trump’s growing willingness to employ physical violence.

Before, Trump was already willing to tolerate some roughing-up of hecklers at rallies, and his encouragement of the “lock her up!” refrain was clearly transgressive (in America we are supposed to wait for the decision of a jury of citizens before locking someone up). But now, after Charlottesville, we have the Proud Boys and the aggression against the governor of Michigan. So Trump gets closer to having his own SA [the Nazi paramilitary group], a sobering thought as the election approaches.

But there is still no state management of the economy here (as there was to a degree in Nazi Germany and fascist Italy). Trump is content to aid business by reducing government protections of the environment and of workers … and his economic policy is mainly just to let businessmen do what they want, So I still think terms like “oligarchy” and “plutocracy” work for Trump, with the added thought that he is close to crossing the line with his toleration of violence.

Matthew Feldman, director, Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right

Although my position has not changed on Trump — less fascist than kleptocrat, more egoist than radical-right ideologue — that does little to mitigate the danger.

Four months ago, I warned that Trump was descending into naked authoritarianism. Low-information commentators seek to reassure rather than dig deeply, telling readers to look on the bright side. That the US is an exceptional country.

It is not.

Democratic regression and political polarization are not unique to the US. Having more guns than people is. So are militias, usually formed of lower- and middle-class white Americans harboring anti-government sentiments. The threat posed by these anti-government extremists — though not necessarily terrorists — was thrown into relief when at least 13 members of Michigan’s Wolverine Militia were arrested for planning to kidnap, “judge,” and potentially execute for treason the state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer.

The term “fascist” regarding Trump continues to mislead rather than inform. But that cannot inure us to what Alexander Reid Ross has called the “fascist creep.”

Stanley Payne, Jaume Vicens Vives and Hilldale professor emeritus of history, the University of Wisconsin Madison

This inquiry made a little sense four years ago, when Trump was still an unknown quantity, but now he has a record. Well — that’s pretty thin gruel. Nothing much to work with here. The Democrats won the first election under Trump [the 2018 midterms], and I’m not aware of anything negative happening. Straining at gnats doesn’t really get us anywhere. Mostly these are just silly public remarks. Hitler’s place in history is not based on his remarks, nor for any temporary detention cages. Please do not trivialize. That indicates absence of an argument.

Roger Griffin, emeritus professor in modern history, Oxford Brookes University

His relationship to democracy, I would really insist, is the key to answering whether he’s a fascist or not. Even in four years of incoherent and inconsistent tweets, he’s never actually done a Putin and tried to make himself a permanent president, let alone suggest any coherent plan for overthrowing the constitutional system. And I don’t even think that’s in his mind. He is an exploiter, he’s a freeloader. He’s a wheeler and dealer. And that is not the same as an ideologue.

So he’s absolutely not a fascist. He does not pose a challenge to constitutional democracy. He certainly poses a great challenge to liberalism and liberal democracy. And I think real favor will be served by journalists who, instead of seeing liberal democracy as a single entity, see it as a binomial. Democracy can exist without liberalism.

If I was doing this as a bottom line in some debate, I’d say that Trump is not a fascist, but what he is quite consistently is an illiberal democrat. He is a democrat to the extent that he’s used democratic processes to be where he is, which he doesn’t radically challenge. He obviously plays fast and loose, like any wheeler dealer, with things like the Supreme Court, who he gets in, etc. He doesn’t care about the rules, but the core system he doesn’t want to change, because he’s somebody who’s profited by that system.

Basically, I think it matters whether we call Trump fascist or not fascist, not academically or intellectually, but because it’s a red herring — it actually diverts attention from where we should be doing the critique. If all our intellectual energies are, like Don Quixote, jousting with windmills and fascism, instead of actually jousting with the real enemies of democracy, and using our energies to avert the climate crisis, which is going to engulf us all, if we’re not careful, then we’re wasting our time.

By not calling him fascist, and concentrating on the way he perverts democracy, we see Trump in a different context. We don’t see him as Hitler or Mussolini. We see him in a different rogues’ gallery. And the rogues’ gallery is made up of a whole load of dictators throughout history, including Putin and Erdogan and Orbán and Assad today, who have abused constitutionalism and democracy to rationalize their abuse of power and their crimes against humanity.

Sheri Berman, professor of political science, Barnard College, Columbia University

On Trump and fascism, unlike what has become an almost majority view, I do not like applying that term to Trump or to what is going on in this country.

Partially this is for historical and intellectual reasons — just like we shouldn’t call every horrible example of ethnic violence or even ethnic cleansing “genocide” (or say that it is another Holocaust), so I think we should be careful with comparing Trump to Hitler. Genocide means something: It is an attempt to wipe out an entire people, using the full force of the modern state. Similarly, national socialism or, more broadly, fascism was a totalitarian ideology and political regime that wanted to do away not only with liberalism and democracy but to revolutionize society, economy, and politics. That’s not the same as any old dictatorship, even a nasty one, and that is not where we are today.

That said, just as ethnically based violence or ethnic cleansing shares some characteristics with genocide/the Holocaust, so too does Trump bear similarities to other strongmen, a category in which fascists like Hitler and Mussolini belong, as do Orbán, Erdogan, Putin, and their ilk. That Trump maintains his support by engaging in explicitly divisive appeals designed to pit groups against each other — particularly but not exclusively ethnic groups — also, of course, bears some similarity to what fascists did.

And, of course, Trump is undermining various norms and institutions of democracy. But this doesn’t make him a fascist, which means much more than these things. Indeed, I almost think calling Trump “fascist” gives him too much “credit” — he isn’t strategic enough, ideological enough, or ambitious enough. And as bad as things are today, we are still not in 1930s Germany.

But alongside these historical and intellectual reasons, I also don’t like applying the term fascist to Trump for practical reasons. If Trump was a fascist and we were in a situation akin to Germany in 1932 or Italy in 1921, certain kinds of actions would be justified. But we are not, and they are not. And that remains important to stress, even though that does not mean downplaying the real threat Trump and the version of the Republican Party that is backing him represents to our country.

I think Trump often engages in what the political science literature refers to as “ethnic outbidding.” Even more fitting, in my view, is the term “negative integration” — a strategy of unifying a coalition by whipping up fear/hatred of purported enemies. Bismarck was the classic practitioner of the negative integration strategy.

As for Trump overall, I would still prefer referring to him as an illiberal populist or right-wing populist. He has a lot in common with the right-wing populists roaming around Europe today.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, professor of Italian and history, New York University

Trump certainly uses fascist tactics, from holding rallies to refresh the leader-follower bond to creating a “tribe” (MAGA hats, rituals like chanting “lock them up,” etc.) to unleashing a volume of propaganda without precedent by an American president. Yet the political cultures that form him and his close supporters are not fascist, but reflect a broader authoritarian history. Paul Manafort and Roger Stone worked for [Congolese dictator] Mobutu Sese Seko and [Philippine President] Ferdinand Marcos before Trump, and Manafort also worked for Putin. They worked on Marcos’s 1986 election that was widely denounced as fraudulent.

Trump’s role models include leaders like Erdogan and Putin who are not exactly fascists, but something more: authoritarians, or strongman rulers who also use virility as a tool of domination.

I also favor authoritarian over fascist as a description for Trump because the former captures how autocratic power works today. In the 21st century, fascist takeovers have been replaced by rulers who come to power through elections and then, over time, extinguish freedom.

Jason Brownlee, professor of government, the University of Texas at Austin

Of course Trump’s detractors are free to use whatever terms and epithets they like.

I would not say the traditional idea of fascism fits Donald Trump in 2020 any more than it did before he took office. When historians and political scientists do a full accounting of his actions and statements as president, I do not think fascism will figure prominently in their analyses. The prototypical fascist leaders — Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, [Austrian Chancellor] Engelbert Dollfuss — not only pursued right-wing policies, they also built-up mass-mobilizing parties and paramilitary organizations with the goal of sweeping aside alternative movements and establishing single-party dictatorship. I would tend to describe Trump’s brand of politics differently, and I would place him in different company.

Trump is a celebrity-turned-right-wing politician. He acts as a consummate demagogue, fabulist, and ultranationalist, and he appears to have a strong inclination for nepotism and kleptocracy. His efforts to use the presidency to finance his lifestyle and enrich his family resemble the schemes of former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. In addition to profiting from his time in office, Trump, like Marcos, has challenged constraints on executive authority without investing resources into a sustainable political organization.

In other respects, Trump’s style of politics recalls portions of the career of former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević. Like Milošević, Trump has promoted a very hierarchical, ethnically based ultranationalist vision that endorses violence against out-groups but without building up a single party the way interwar fascists did.

Jason Stanley, Jacob Urowsky professor of philosophy, Yale University

When I think about fascism, I think about it as applied to different things. There’s a fascist regime. We do not have a fascist regime. Then there’s the question of, “Is Trumpism a fascist social and political movement?” I think you could call legitimately call Trumpism a fascist social and political movement — which is not to say that Trump is a fascist. Trumpism involves a cult of the leader, and Trump embodies that. I certainly think he’s using fascist political tactics. I think there’s no question about that. He is calling for national restoration in the face of humiliations brought on by immigrants, liberals, liberal minorities, and leftists. He’s certainly playing the fascist playbook.

My definition is of fascist politics, not of a fascist regime. I think most of the other [fascism scholars] are just talking about something else. They’re talking about regimes. Toni Morrison in 1995 said the United States has long favored fascist solutions to national problems. Toni Morrison is talking about “fascist solutions.” She’s not talking about fascist regimes. She’s saying the United States has long favored fascist solutions in a democratic state, which I completely agree with: targeting minorities, mass incarceration, colonialism, seizing indigenous land. All these things are things that impacted Hitler. My work is based in the United States — it’s based in the movements that affected European fascism: the KKK, Jim Crow, the anti-miscegenation law, slavery, Indigenous genocide, the 1924 Immigration Act and similar US immigration laws that Hitler lauds in Mein Kampf.

If you’re only worried about fascist regimes, you’re never going to catch fascist social and political movements. The goal is to catch fascist social and political movements, and fascist ideology, before it becomes a regime.