Jeffrey Herf writes: Is Donald Trump, now with the results of Super Tuesday the Republican presidential nominee-apparent, a fascist? It is stunning even to pose the question in the context of a national-scale American election, but many people are posing it, and they are not entirely wrong to do so. The short answer to the question is “no, but.” But the “but” begs an historically tutored explanation, the conclusion to which should not make us feel too good about the “no” part of the answer.
When an historian asks a question like this, methodological fragilities rush to consciousness. Context is critical, so much so that in some ways it is impossible to state in any simple fashion what the similarities and differences are between Donald Trump and the fascist and Nazi dictators of Europe’s 20th century. But we can sketch out the domains in which a comparison might make sense. Those domains include, most prominently, attitudes toward democracy, political violence, press freedoms, and the role of the state within society and culture.
When Trump asserts that politicians are “all talk and no action” he casts doubt on a great virtue of elected legislatures in democracies—namely, the creation of a public sphere in which people with divergent views can talk with and to one another. Trump does not, as Hitler and Mussolini did, openly denounce the institutions of liberal democracy. Yet like them he accuses those institutions of failing to adequately address political and economic crises. The classic dictators denounced democracy itself, especially the peaceful democratic competition among political parties, as a formula for national weakness. Trump has not done so, but his dictatorial personality suggests that he can do singlehandedly what American political institutions have failed to do for many years running. [Continue reading…]