Michael R. Marrus is the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor Emeritus of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto. His latest book, Lessons of the Holocaust, will appear in a few weeks.
Something snapped in American commentary on Donald Trump in the past week or so. Until now, mainstream media discussions of the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination have not spared the billionaire real-estate mogul, pouncing on every vulgar expression of his mendacious, bullying, race-bating, bellicose, ignorant, narcissistic demagogy.
Commentators with a historical bent have deployed analogies from the American past: the Know Nothing movement that swept Congress in the lead-up to the Civil War; Huey Long; George Wallace; Joe McCarthy; Ross Perot. But the F-word, fascism, has been sparingly used until now.
One of the first occasions, by Jeffrey Tucker in last July's Newsweek, came under the headline "Is Donald Trump a Fascist?" Mr. Tucker was nevertheless cautious. The core of candidate's message, he said, was business. Together with nativist jingoism, to be sure. Says whatever comes into his mind, of course. Recklessly anti-establishment, no doubt. Somewhat racist, okay. But Mr. Tucker was optimistic: "The political exotica he represents will not last. It's a moment in time."
Fast-forward to the past couple of weeks. Mainstream Republicans were sounding the alarm.
Referring to Mr. Trump's plan to register all Muslims in the United States, right-wing Iowa talk-show host Steve Deace, a conservative Christian supporter of Ted Cruz, referred to "creeping fascism." John Noonan, adviser to presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, lambasted Mr. Trump's plans for Muslims: "Forced federal registration of U.S. citizens, based on religious identity, is fascism. Period. Nothing else to call it." Right-wing historian Max Boot, contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and senior adviser, successively, to John McCain, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio, did not mince words: "Trump is a fascist. And that's not a term I use loosely or often. But he's earned it."
Ducking the issue in The Atlantic on Nov. 25, David Frum asked, "And how about the suggestion that Trump is a fascist dictator in the making? Good luck with that. … "Over the past week," he nevertheless continued, "Donald Trump has wandered into territory where democratic politicians do not go."
What has occasioned this shift? There seems little doubt that Mr. Trump, enjoying himself hugely and far from moderating his talk, has become increasingly bold. In response to the shootings in Paris, he issued new threats. "We're going to have to do things that we never did before," he said in typically vague but forceful, menacing tones. "And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country."
Mr. Trump seems to have discerned that his tough-guy posture does well in the face of challenges. "I would bomb the shit out of them," he declared recently about Islamic State oil fields. A few days ago, he called for a renewal of waterboarding. And even if this torture technique does not work, as he said, terror suspects "deserve it anyway."
Violence and the strongman seem omnipresent. About a beaten black heckler at a recent Trump rally, the candidate responded to a question about the man being "roughed up" by the crowd. "Roughed up?" he wondered. "I don't know … maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing. …
"The man that was – I don't know, you say 'roughed up' – he was so obnoxious and so loud. He was screaming. I had 10,000 people in the room yesterday – 10,000 people. And this guy started screaming by himself," Mr. Trump told the interviewer.
Echoing his boss, Michael Cohen, a senior Trump counsel, told CNN that "every now and then, an agitator deserves it."
In appearance, particularly for those who have some familiarity with Mussolini, Mr. Trump seems to be almost playing the part. An online New York magazine piece asking, "Is Donald Trump a Fascist?" ran a short video of one of Mussolini's speeches that is reminiscent of Mr. Trump's style. True, Mr. Trump wears a suit and not a military uniform, but note Il Duce's pouting expression, the wave of his arms and his obvious rapport with his audience.
As Mr. Trump's rhetoric has become more heated, commentators have been scrambling to the textbooks to note the characteristics of interwar fascism, seeking whether his histrionics match the scholars' portraits of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and other famous exemplars.
What they have not found in the texts, however, is unanimity or a uniform fascist model. Rather, the 1930s and 1940s suggest a grab bag of demagogic populist authoritarians, with fascists feeding parasitically on their own national cultures – whether German, French, Italian, Spanish, Romanian, Hungarian or whatever. No two fascist movements were exactly alike.
Fascists generally shared a common core: hyper-nationalism, militarism, xenophobia, a cult of leadership, the projection of energy, a powerful sense of having been victimized by outsiders and a sense of urgency as they championed programs for national reinvigoration.
So, is he or isn't he? Historians are a prudent lot, particularly when it comes to the future – not their specialty. I am not surprised, therefore, that – unlike the political commentators or others who follow the seemingly unmoored American politics day by day – the scholars are reluctant to pronounce. As with me, their headlines on this subject close with a question mark. History will tell. But when she does, I can predict, her answer will depend much more on Mr. Trump's following – still a minority among registered Republicans – than with the candidate himself.