Michael Marrus is the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor Emeritus of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto. His latest book is Lessons of the Holocaust.
Alarmed about a year and a half ago with the approaching U.S. presidential election, columnists took up the question, "Is Donald Trump a fascist?" Writing in these pages, I suggested this might be so. At the same time, sober voices thought the association was exaggerated.
Mr. Trump had no political shock troops marching in the streets; there were no thugs wearing uniform-coloured shirts (my colleague Clifford Orwin assumed, if the latter existed, they would be mauve); candidate Trump promoted no cult of militarization and war; there was no celebration of youth with an ideal of sacrifice and death; and no incubator of desperate economic depression and seething ethnic quarrels. In any event, the Republican nominee was both too clever and insufficiently ruthless. "Mr. Trump is too smart to be a fascist," Mr. Orwin wrote. "He didn't make all that money without a grasp of the basic conditions of doing business, and in the conditions of current American politics, fascism is thankfully a nonstarter." Calm down, many admonished their liberal readers.
Where are we now, six months into the Trump presidency and with nearly four years to go? "Fascism," I perceive, has slipped into the popular discourse of an angrily divided country, sometimes tentatively, and sometimes from despairing commentators seeking ways of expressing their exasperation.
Fascism is not an everyday designation, but nor is it a term for which one needs a comprehensive, precise matching of the 1930s. George Mosse, the great historian of the phenomenon, famously referred to fascism as a "scavenger ideology" – less a coherent body of thought and policy than a mood articulated by talented demagogues who patched together, from the popular culture, strident calls to action in the service of ill-defined myths of a nation's greatness.
Unquestionably, many core ingredients of interwar fascism are an integral part of what Mr. Trump himself calls his "brand," like stains and tears in the costume of an almost forgotten party of which we are now rightfully ashamed. Brands, of course, need customers. Let us never forget, fascism in its heyday had legions of fellow travellers – like the several millions of Americans who have rallied, to one degree or another, behind "America First," the slogan of American supporters of Nazism in the 1930s.
To varying degrees, these followers are learning to live with the White House occupant's expressions of contempt for a free press, cruel stigmatizations from officially designated presidential "tweets," and permissive winks to violence by the head of state. "How low are we going to go?" more than one prognosticator asks. To date, there is no end in sight. Many mornings set a new, lower bar. Certainly, the leader's "pivot" that many worldly wise commentators have predicted, has failed to appear. The best the minority of Republican critics seem to offer is that what we are seeing is "inappropriate," "disappointing," and of course something for which "both sides" should be held responsible. But there is no sign that such unhappy supporters are ready to jump ship.
Attempts to free Mr. Trump from the charge of fascism often assume that it was an easily graspable phenomenon, a neatly recognizable part of the shattered landscape of interwar Europe exemplified by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini – two very different characters, to be sure, as historians would be the first to insist. To me, there are few comparisons across more than 80 years that would demonstrate complete identity. No political movement nowadays is going to be a dead ringer for a revolutionary upheaval nearly a century ago.
Nevertheless, "this is how fascism comes to America," Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institute has insisted, "not with jackboots and salutes … but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac 'tapping into' popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party – out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear – falling into line behind him."
Fascism is now part of the American world: in its core assault on liberal democracy as Americans – and others – have come to understand it; in its cult of leadership – to whom the so-called responsible Vice-President Mike Pence recently expressed his fealty with an embarrassing North Korean political inflection; in its demonstrably phony claim to do away with elites by surrounding the leader with generals and billionaires; in its self-exoneration from any and all contradictions; and its contempt for precedent, conventions, international comity and civility. Familiar enough, to those with an ear for such things and who have allowed a moment to listen – don't you think?