Josh Marshall looks back to which dictator Donald Trump is emulating.
As long as we’re on to the subject of fascist dictators and Donald Trump being compared to Adolf Hitler in major urban newspapers, I thought I should speak up on behalf of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini as the true proto-Trump.
Mussolini wasn’t just a fascist dictator. He was the fascist dictator. Indeed, he’s the only fascist dictator. As I noted a few days ago, “fascism” – for mainly decent reasons – became a catch-all phrase used to refer to various rightist authoritarian movements and regimes, in some cases explicitly drawing inspiration from each other, of the first half of the 20th century. Later the term evolved into an ever vaguer phrase which highly agitated people on the far left and far right use to yell at people about. But fascism was a specifically Italian political movement. And Mussolini was its creator and leader.
Mussolini never really held a candle to Adolf Hitler in terms of barbarity and killing. Indeed, after consolidating power through a mix of constitutional revisions, extra-legal violence and secret police, Mussolini made some effort to rebrand himself as a respectable world statesman in the late 20s and early 30s, ditching the paramilitary uniforms for suits. (Later, for a mix of reasons including the economic challenges of the Great Depression and the rise of Adolf Hitler, he swerved back in the other direction.) But what really makes the Trump comparison in my mind is the mix of personal manner, cynicism and narcissism.
Mussolini’s speeches have a mix of melodramatic chest-puffing, hands at the waist swagger, hints of humor, hands to the crowd to calm themselves no matter how excited they are. Frankly, they’re almost operatic in nature. The mix of violent rhetoric with folksy hypotheticals and humorous jabs unites the two men quite nicely.
The problem of course is that Trump has trended in an increasingly racist and xenophobic direction as his campaign has gone on. But that was never really Mussolini’s thing. The Nazi fetishization of race was basically foreign to fascist ideology. And Italian fascism was not anti-Semitic … except after 1938. That’s when Mussolini moved into full alliance with Nazi Germany, a movement he had once seen as a protege and then as a rival, and remade much of his movement (which had by then been in power for fifteen years) on the Nazi model, importing its own version of Nazi anti-Semitic laws and various new racialist policies. Mussolini’s regime was explicitly anti-Semitic from 1938 to its fall in 1943, though there’s a fair of amount of historical debate about how actively it pursued those policies. When he nominally ruled a Nazi puppet state in Northern Italy after the collapse of the fascist regime, the Final Solution was given full rein.
In other words, Mussolini’s embrace of racism and anti-Semitism appears to have been cynical and opportunistic. But this works as an analog to Trump since I continue to believe that Trump’s embrace of racism, anti-Mexican immigrant bigotry and Islamophobia is largely opportunistic. My only hesitation in calling it cynical is that I think Trump may be the type who, once he finds something convenient to say, then starts to believe it. Once Trump says something it carries the Trump brand. And to Trump everything with the Trump brand is right and amazing. So possibly his mix of arrogance and narcissism, by an alchemical process, make it genuine rather than cynical. I’m out of my depth in analyzing that particular question. But however that may be, let’s look to Mussolini as our Trump progenitor of choice.
This goes beyond name-calling and “separated at birth?” photo-shopping. It has to do with exploitation, manipulation, and opportunism. People who feel threatened, be it real or imagined, will gravitate to someone who promises to protect them and make it all better. We see that in children who clutch to their imprinted adult figure; as adolescents it’s the herd or the social group, and as nominal adults it’s the like-minded; those who share our same fears. It works well when there is genuinely something to fear, such as economic collapse or imminent physical danger, but it works even better in the abstract; what Franklin Roosevelt saw as “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” It’s a lot easier to get people on your side when you can talk about “radical Islam” as if it was lurking under their bed and you’re the one who will chase it away rather than recognize that it is was our own folly and arrogance that created the climate for it to grow.
Like all dictators, Mr. Trump turns a problem such as the immigration of refugees or the rise of a religious dictatorship out of the rubble of war we created and turns it into a threat. That’s because without a threat he would have nothing to run on. He does not offer solutions for the root cause of the problem and a way forward; he speaks in vague generalities and promises “wonderful” results without saying how he’d get there.
Mr. Trump is not the least bit interested in actually solving the problem. He’s only interested in pointing it out and making us afraid of it. (HT Aaron Sorkin.) That’s how dictators grow and swagger.