By Brigitte L. Nacos
Earlier this month, New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote that “a nativist, sexist, arguably fascist and racist demagogue who twists the truth is the front-runner in the race to become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, over the protestations of the party’s establishment, who rightly view his ascendance as an existential threat to an already tattered brand.”
If (when) Trump becomes the GOP’s presidential nominee or the next U. S. president, this threat does not only further the fragmentation of one of America’s major parties but threaten the American political system as we know it.
So, what is Trump—a populist, a demagogue, a fascist, or all of these?
Although Trump defies neat partisan and ideological categories, his populism and demagoguery are reminiscent of the ultra-right movements of the 1950s and 1960s, of which Richard Hofstadter wrote that for the Cold Warriors of that time their country had been “largely taken away from them and their kind.”
Similar sentiments were expressed and perpetuated by the Tea Party that emerged in early 2009, its sympathizers, and politicians close to the movement. Then the threat was personified by the “illegitimate” President Obama and his fellow liberals. But the Tea Party’s insistence of being a grassroots movement without a central leadership figure at its helm was contrary to typical populist movements that organize around charismatic leaders and personality cults. Now Trump sells himself as the best and the brightest and the strongest and the toughest leader of his “Make America Great Again” movement, the nation, and the world. Trump, the savior.
He is a textbook populist in his constant distinction between “we, the people” and “they, the elite or establishment;” and he is a demagogue in the glorification of “us” and the demonization of “them” with the “communist” Bernie Sanders his latest rhetorical punch ball. As sociologist Patricia Roberts-Miller explains, “Demagogues polarize a complicated (and often frightening) situation by presenting only two options: their policy, and some obviously stupid, impractical, or shameful one. They almost always insist that ‘those who are not with us are against us’ so that the polarized policy situation also becomes a polarized identity situation.
Populist and demagogic appeals are at the core of Trump’s simple, substance-poor messages. But what seems repetitive and simplistic is the secret of Trump’s populist appeal. As Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda genius of Hitler’s Third Reich, recognized and preached,
“In the long run, propaganda will reach the broad masses of the people only if at every stage it is uniform. Nothing confuses the people more than lack of clarity or aimlessness. The goal is not to present the common man with as many varied and contradictory theories as possible. The essence of propaganda is not in variety, but rather the forcefulness and persistence with which one selects ideas from the larger pool and hammers them into the masses using the most varied methods.”
This leaves the question whether Trump is a fascist as well. Explaining in 1944 that a satisfactory definition of fascism remained elusive, George Orwell wrote that “almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.”