When Donald Trump made his odious statements about banning Muslims from the United States my first thought was to wonder who would be first to turn them into a fundraising commercial, Hillary Clinton or ISIS. I didn’t have to pause to be surprised by Trump’s latest exercise in demagoguery because it was predictable. The media’s reaction showed why, as they rewarded Trump with endless hours of coverage of the professional celebrity’s latest bigotry, hours that weren’t going to his rivals Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, or even “Trump-lite” Ted Cruz.
Name-calling and outrage are important parts of the political horse-race coverage, so “is Donald Trump a fascist?” actually became something you saw on cable news screens for a few days. Like many I’ve tried to ignore the Trump show as much as possible (not very possible!) but this shift demanded my interest. I’ve watched in horror in recent years as Vladimir Putin has turned Russia in a genuinely fascist direction, well beyond the established petro-kleptocracy and posturing. And as a long-time enthusiast of George Orwell’s works, I do not take the word “fascist” casually, and nor should anyone else. (I recently revisited my favorite Orwell book, Homage to Catalonia, after picking it as one of the books that most influenced me for a National Review collection. It’s still an essential book.)
In 140 characters on Twitter, my quick response when someone put the question to me was that if Trump isn’t a fascist, he’s doing a very good job of sounding like one. I also shared, as I often do, the concise definition of fascism from Robert Paxton’s excellent 2004 book on the subject, The Anatomy of Fascism, since many people take fascism to mean “Nazi” or simply, “evil.”
“Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
Since I have more space here, I’ll add a few relevant examples of what Paxton calls the “mobilizing passions” of fascism:
- • The belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;
- • Dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;
- • The need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;
- • The superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason.
These passages should all feel very vaguely familiar if you’ve been listening to Donald Trump in recent months—or terribly accurate if you’ve been exposed to the Russian media in the past few years. Trump has proudly referred to himself as a “stablemate” of Putin’s and said that they would be “pals”. I do not doubt this at all. If a million other things don’t already disqualify Trump for becoming president, this surely should.
Nor do I no doubt Trump envies the attention Putin receives and the real power he wields. And there is the real and vital difference. Trump is doing a vaudeville fascist act when it suits him, much like the clowns in Russia’s parliament who propose ever more hateful and horrible laws. But the clowns in Russia have influence beyond TV appearances and their draconian proposals—usually against minorities, the media, political enemies, foreign enemies—are more and more frequently enacted by the man who has real power, Putin.
Meanwhile, Ted Cruz got a lot of attention for talking about wanting to carpet bomb ISIS and “making sand glow in the dark.” This tough talk game, trying to out-macho his rivals with genocidal threats, would be merely vile if a so-called potential ally, Putin, had not actually carpet bombed tens of thousands in Chechnya (and is showing a similar disregard for civilian life in Syria) and did not refer so frequently to his very real nuclear arsenal.
This is the part I find frustrating. Putin has spent years actually DOING things that the Western media worry American politicians are even thinking about, and yet Putin still has an endless supply of apologists at every level in the West. Putin has destroyed democracy and civil society in Russia, invaded two neighboring countries, annexed two million Ukrainians in Crimea, and launched a coordinated assault against the institutions that make up much of the modern world order. His global propaganda network constantly smears American and European leaders and society.
And yet even today Putin is still treated as a potential partner in Syria, courted by John Kerry (headed to Moscow again next week) and politicians in Germany and France despite blatantly and repeatedly lying to them and openly acting against their nations’ stated interests of containing ISIS and ending the slaughter in Syria. Even during my book tour over this past month I’ve been told by so-called experts and pundits that, for example, Russia is a “poorly functioning democracy”. You can read this week on CNN.com that the Russian middle class is “happy” with Putin. How would you know after 15 years of his decimating all opposition and turning the media into a propaganda machine? If you’re actually popular you can have a free media and free elections. Putin knows very well he cannot permit either.
I was taunted and criticized for a decade for pointing out the trends of Putin’s Russia toward dictatorship. Now only the most pitiful Putin bootlickers deny what he has done. Only when he invaded neighboring Ukraine on the darkly familiar pretexts of racial unity and national pride, right on the heels of Olympic glory in Sochi, did my comparisons to Germany in the 1930s become too obvious to roll eyes at. Soon they were being echoed widely (even by Hillary Clinton) and now the “H-word” is again in the mainstream thanks to Trump’s call for religious discrimination on a global scale.
Donald Trump gets more attention and condemnation for sounding like Hitler than Vladimir Putin gets for acting like Hitler. But there is a reason for this paradoxical behavior. Trump has no power, Putin does. If Western leaders and media admit what Putin has done, admit what he is capable of, and admit what he is, they would have to act. And so they deny and pretend. And they continue to say that the various catastrophes we face are too complicated to resolve until they can say they are impossible to resolve.
I’m in Berlin now, headed to Amsterdam and then London for events to promote a few of Winter is Coming’s international editions. I was briefly heckled here at my lecture by what I can only suppose were low-rent Putin fans who didn’t even seem to know who I was. Their line was a Kremlin favorite, calling anyone who suggests standing up to an aggressive invader a “warmonger.” It’s slightly ironic, since part of my book is about how history teaches us that being ready stand up in small conflicts is the best way to avoid big ones. Deterrence saves lives while appeasement costs lives—eventually. I wrote about this dynamic and the cult of the “peacemongers” at length in the Daily Beast in July.