One of the most perceptive analyses of Trump and his followers was written more than two decades ago. I’m talking, of course, of Umberto Eco’s oft-discussed essay on what he calls Ur Fascism or Eternal Fascism, his attempt to set forth the central features that define Fascism. I reread it today for the umpteenth time, and was struck again by its eerie prescience.
Though it contains precisely zero references to Trump — who at the time was just a real estate mogul with a penchant for boasts and bankruptcy — Eco’s 14-point checklist describing what makes a fascist a fascist applies to Trump and Trumpism in so many ways it’s scary.
Let’s go through the list, shall we? The bold parts are Eco’s categories; the rest is my commentary.
The cult of tradition: Trump frequently harks back to what he sees as a former golden age for America. His slogan, after all, is Make America Great Again.
The rejection of modernism: Trump has famously said that he thinks “a lot of modern art is a con.” In the final days of his campaign a number of his most fervent followers convinced themselves that Hillary was a literal devil worshiper because her campaign chair John Podesta was once invited to a so-called “Spirit Cooking” dinner held by performance artist Marina Abramovic. Many of Trump’s fans seem to actually believe that her artistic performances are in fact Satanic rituals.
The cult of action for action’s sake: Trump is a whirligig of pointless action who repeatedly declared that Hillary was unfit for president because sometimes she took a day or two off from campaign events, and was even known to go to sleep from time to time.
Disagreement is treason: Trump has repeatedly called the press “corrupt” for not accepting his version of reality. During his rallies he regularly led what Orwell might have called “two-minute hates” against journalists covering his campaign. Trump’s fans ultimately began chanting “lügenpresse” at journalists; the term, German for “lying press,” was originally made popular by, yes, literal Nazis in literal Hitler’s Germany.
Fear of difference: Do I even need to cite examples here? Trump’s campaign, which began with a bizarre attack on Mexican immigrants, was largely based around Trump’s weaponization of this primal fear.
The appeal to a frustrated middle class: Again, do I even need to bother with examples? Trump’s whole campaign centered around his attempts to convince white middle-class Americans that they had more to fear from poor people of color than from wealthy tax-avoiders and serial-bankruptcy-declarers like him.
The obsession with a plot, possibly an international one: Trump, like many of his followers, is both a proud nationalist and a conspiracy theorist. He kicked off his political career alleging that Obama wasn’t born in America; last week he declared that the anti-Trump protests that have sprung up all over the country in the wake of his electoral college victory are the work of “professional protestors, incited by the media.” Trump’s fans on the alt-right blame everything on a cabal of Jewish globalists, a charge Trump himself echoed in the final ad for his campaign.
The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies: You might have thought that Trump, in many ways the poster boy for ostentatious wealth, would have had a hard time pretending that Hillary and her supporters were the privileged ones. But Trump was somehow able to convince his fans he was a sort of “billionaire Robin Hood,” as Trump admirer Piers Morgan put it, while portraying Hillary as “a career politician who has repeatedly fleeced her positions of power to make millions of dollars for herself and her husband, and who carried with her a permanent smug sense of entitlement to be America’s first female president.”
Life is permanent warfare: Trump is someone who will go to war against a former beauty queen on Twitter at 3 AM. He’s always fighting someone. His advisors and surrogates also live in a constant state of war — from ideological scrapper Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart boss who Trump just picked as chief White House chief strategist, to spokeswoman Katrina Pierson, known to wear a literal necklace of bullets during her media appearances. Meanwhile, Trump’s alt-right fans — particularly those who learned virtually everything they know about politics from 4chan and Gamergate — are happy to serve tirelessly in Trump’s unofficial meme army.
Popular elitism: Given Trump’s penchant for superlatives, is it any shock to find his fans declaring themselves “the best supporters?”
Everybody is educated to become a hero: Declaring that “I alone can fix it,” Trump famously presented himself as the one true savior of American society. This makes voting for him, or wearing a Make America Great Again hat, itself a kind of heroism.
Machismo: The constant sexual boasting (including his casual admissions of sexual assault); the relentless misogyny; the schoolyard threats of violence — does anyone doubt that Trump wants the world to see him as the ultimate “alpha male?”
And then there’s that whole Wrestlemania thing.
Against “rotten” parliamentary governments: Trump clearly has very little comprehension of how government works, seeming to think that the president has or should have almost unlimited power. We’ll just have to see what happens the first time a legislative body stands in the way of his political desires.
Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak: Trump’s fans have invented a whole weird lingo of their own, calling themselves “nimble navigators” and/or “cenntipedes” and flooding the web with Pepe memes. Trump hasn’t adopted any of this lingo for himself, but he does speak his own, distinctively Trumpian, version of American English — big league! Trump’s speeches are collections of slogans and platitudes; he regularly reduces his opponents to single insulting adjectives — “lyin’ Ted,” “little Marco,” “crooked Hillary.” Trumpspeak, like Newspeak, is an impoverished language filled with thought-stopping cliches.
So there we have it.
Trump basically ticks every one of Eco’s fourteen points. And of course many of his supporters are Hitler-worshipping, Jew-hating, Holocaust-advocating white supremacists. All Trump seems to be missing, Fascism-wise, is an armband.
H/T — Thanks to Skiriki, who pointed out some of Trump’s similarities to Eco’s Eternal Fascist in the comments here yesterday.
EDIT: Added more on Trumpspeak.