For all my editorializing against Jonah Goldberg’s bestseller Liberal Fascism, the attempt at identifying fascism with big-government Democrats looks better to me now than it once did. To his credit, Jonah quotes real fascists and real Nazis. And he makes some sort of argument in defining the nature of fascism, in a work of several hundred pages.
Now we get journalists who just throw the “f” word at the president-elect, entirely at random. One particularly egregious example of this is Michael Kinsley’s latest column in the Washington Post, which begins and concludes by telling us that “Donald Trump is actually a fascist.” Kinsley claims to be defining the “f” word in “a clinical sense” and insists that “it’s ridiculous to compare any living person to Hitler or Mussolini.” Fascism for Kinsley must be understood as a “philosophy” or set of “principles,” and it can be summed up as believing that “a toxic combination of strong government and strong corporations should run the world.” Apparently Trump embodies these “bad principles,” and Kinsley dreads the thought that these principles may come to dominate the US for the next eight years.
“Actually,” to use Kinsley’s trope, this klutzy, negative evaluation of Trump does not offer a consistent or “clinical” definition of fascism; rather it spews malice at a victorious presidential candidate who is associated with non-leftist views that Kinsley abhors. But even before Kinsley pummels Trump, he goes after Putin. We’re told that the Russian leader is “bellicose” and like Trump, a “fascist.” Once Kinsley gets this out, he turns his attention back to the Donald. He rages against the president-elect for getting the Carrier plant to stay in the US. This is described as a “prime example” of fascism, which is “a combination of arm-twisting and bribery.” Politicians (perhaps only Republican ones) who dissuade large companies from leaving the US are not simply keeping American workers in their jobs. They are supposedly revisiting the fate of interwar Italy as that country slipped into Mussolini’s hands. If Trump becomes a popular president, we may be headed toward an even grimmer future, on the order of a Nazi dictatorship. This destiny may have been prefigured in Trump’s achievement in keeping Carrier from moving to Mexico.
For obvious reasons Kinsley didn’t seem to mind the “strong-armed” tactics displayed by the Obama administration, to which I’m sure he’d never apply the “f” word. From his partisan perspective, there was nothing “fascist” about the Obama administration using the IRS to punish Republican and conservative Christian foundations. Moreover, there wasn’t even a soupcon of fascist behavior when Obama tried to impose his will without congressional approval by means of executive orders. None of these acts sent up the same red flags for Kinsley as Trump’s calling Carrier’s COE. That’s where we should be looking for something as ominous as Hitler’s Enabling Act of March 1933. Although Kinsley states that we won’t likely be getting a ruler quite like Mussolini or Hitler, he also claims that the principles of the future Trump administration may be the same.
The topic of Trump as a fascist hit me more directly in the face two days ago. Then I was invited and then disinvited by the Diane Rehm program on NPR to respond to Yale historian Tim Snyder, who contends that Trump is inflicting fascism or perhaps Nazism on the US. Although I assumed from reading his work on twentieth century Europe and his commentaries in the New York Review of Books that Snyder is somewhere on the left (the fact that he holds an endowed chair at Yale contributed to this impression), I never suspected that he was as much of an anti-Trump leftist as seems to be the case. When NPR called, I was asked about my own political bent and whether I saw any connection between Trump and fascism. I replied that if I was being asked to speak as a scholar, then my own politics shouldn’t matter. But for the record, I am an old-fashioned, small-government type of guy, who doesn’t see any possibility of returning to his desired political model. I’d be fine with any of those political leaders whom Irving Kristol once identified with an American conservatism that he rejected, namely Robert Taft, Calvin Coolidge and the Ike of my youth. Faced by the most recent presidential choice, however, I vastly preferred Trump to Hillary.
When asked why Trump was not a fascist, I launched into an erudite discourse, which may not have pleased my interlocutor. I could have said even more, for example, that other research scholars like Stanley Payne and Michael Ledeen would have spoken exactly as I did about fascism and Trump. But that too would not have swayed the listener. During our conversation I was told that my answers should be short and snappy. Furthermore, my job was to represent the other side in this give-and-take (which may have been a hint that I should try to sound more like a political partisan or a member of the basket of deplorables).
Given my nuanced answers, I was hardly surprised that about five minutes later, I received a predictable call from Diane’s assistant. She indicated that I’d been replaced. They had “decided to go with someone who is already in the studio.” This suggested that NPR was not up to a serious discussion about fascism, any more than is the Washington Post. Their real object is to throw names at Trump that might damage his reputation and his chances of doing well as president. And least of all are they interested in hearing a counterview that lasts more than five seconds, especially one by a historian who knows something about fascism and who might disagree with them.