Matthew Lyons’s recent piece on the blog Three Way Fight condemns the stream of reports linking current Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to fascism. Joining with Chip Berlet, who published a similar piece in Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), Lyons declares that Trump is a right-wing populist, not a fascist, per se. For those of a different opinion, Lyons reserves blunt reprove, accusing them in the title of “Stale Social Science.” Since he links to my article, “Trump the Fascist,” published in Counterpunch on the same day David Duke commended the Don, I find his article merits response.
Firstly, my article’s title is a broad stroke, which perhaps may have undermined a careful reading of the actual article, itself. In the article, I note that Trump’s campaign has presented “the ugly face of fascism in the US”—a relatively uncontroversial claim given the amount of neo-fascists who make up his base. My conclusion is that Trump is a manifestation of the ideology of Americanism, which I position as developing from the merger of old-school, Klan-style US conservatism with the fascist America Firsters and anti-interventionists during the 1930s.
I agree with Lyons and Berlet, co-authors of the straight-forward and righteous work, Right Wing Populism in America, that the Don is a populist. In my own article, which Lyons cites, I use Cas Mudde’s definition of the “populist radical right party” to tackle a general definition of Trump’s ideology, inclusive of authoritarianism, populism, and nativism. Berlet seems to agree with me, bringing in precisely the same scholarly description (although he does not mention my article).
To define Trump in the current of Americanism, however, I use Roger Griffin’s generic formula of fascism: palingenenetic ultrantionalism. In other words, Trump maintains a kind of ultranationalist platform that rejects in certain ways the present nationalist condition, and seeks a rebirth of a “new man” based on the formulations of historical myths. These myths include the unreconstructed US of the Klan’s dreams and our nightmares, evoked through an anti-democratic propaganda campaign against the 14th Amendment.
Berlet and Lyons position Trump closer to “neo-populism,” the “radical right,” or “authoritarian” populists (respectively). Berlet lists Zhirinovsky in Russia and the Danish People’s Party, and they both list Jean-Marie Le Pen. Other journalists who have made this comparison to Le Pen include Ishaan Tharoor and Cas Mudde with the Washington Post, Paul Vale with the Huffington Post, Jake Flanagin with Quartz, Bernie Quigley with The Hill, and even Anne Deysine with the French mainstay Le Figaro. However, given all the comparisons to Zhirinovsky and Le Pen, it seems awkward that such harsh words would be reserved for those likening “Trumpism” to fascism.
For his part, Zhirinovsky was called the “Russian Hitler” by Bild, and expert Stephen Shefield describes his platform as “a nationalist and imperialist ideology of a composite liberal-fascist character.” Le Pen, himself, was not only a former newspaper vendor for pro-Nazi Action Française during WWII, but an anti-communist street fighter, and in the 1960s even owned a publishing house that hawked Nazi memorabilia, speeches, records, etc. Le Pen’s party, Front National (FN), was originally founded by a core neo-fascist groupuscle called New Order (ON), which attempted to develop in the early 1970s an alternative to both “Social Movement” Strasserism and neo-fascist, Evola-inspired terrorism. The ON decided to create a populist political party, which they called the “National Front,” in order to attract conservatives to their fascist/neo-fascist idea by focusing on the common fight against immigration. Quite literally, Le Pen’s FN was founded by a front group started by fascists, and its numerous international imitations, whether consciously or unconsciously, repeat the same fascist strategy. Scholar David Renton has no problem calling Le Pen’s FN a fascist group.
As Le Pen rose through the ranks of the FN but failed to gain electoral success, members of the ON began an internal struggle to remove him. His apartment was bombed, and then in what some have indicated was a reprisal, his main opponent in the FN, François Duprat, an important fascist, met his own violent death in a car bomb that also paralyzed his wife. With Le Pen securely in the lead, the FN developed successful intersections with the Nouvelle Droit, a crew of neo-fascist intellectuals, which modified their leadership and ideology throughout the 1980s and 90s (although they also have their serious disagreements). Among Le Pen’s most famous aphorisms is his promise to “bring together the fasces of our national forces so that the voice of France is heard once more, strong and free.” As the FN marches through electoral victory after electoral victory, the quaint, cozy notion that Trump is simply one of their types does little to comfort a sense of fascism on the move.
Just as it was not uncommon for leftists to denounce the so-called “Popular Front” policy developed by the Comintern in 1935 as “Stalinist”, due to the fact that it was devised as Stalin’s principle strategy, for a long time, it was not uncommon to denounce the “National Front” as a fascist organization using precisely the same logic. Cas Mudde seems to point to the change in recent years in a quotation cited by Berlet: “The terms neo-Nazism and to a lesser extent neo-fascism are now used exclusively for parties and groups that explicitly state a desire to restore the Third Reich (in the case of neo-fascism the Italian Social Republic) or quote historical National Socialism (fascism) as their ideological influence.” Indeed, the creation of a clear, crisp distinction between “radical right” or authoritarian populist parties like the FN and neo-fascism is somewhat recent. In 1996, for instance, one of the main thinkers in the modern school of “fascist studies,” Roger Eatwell, had no problem discussing Berlusconi’s Forza Italia!, Le Pen’s FN, the British NF, and Germany’s Republicans in relation to post-war fascism. In 2002, J Sakai could write about “new populist neo-fascists in the wealthy imperialist metropolis, such as Jorg Haider in Austria or the rapidly growing British National Party (BNP).”
Jorg Haider’s FPÖ, the BNP, and Greece’s Golden Dawn—all called “radical right populist parties” by Cas Mudde—have been implicated in recent “conservative revolution” conferences with known fascist organizations like Roberto Fiore’s Forza Nuova, the Romanian New Right, the Polish Falange, and a number of other insidious vectors. This isn’t just because they have similar aims, but because they are populist parties established by fascists with a fascist strategy.
The founder of the FPÖ, Anton Reinthaller was an official in the Nazi Party of Austria before Anschluss, and then made a come-back, serving in the Reichstag. The BNP was created by John Tyndall, who had previously co-founded the National Socialist Movement in England. The Golden Dawn was formed out of a confluence of military coupsters and fascists, has a kind of a swastika on their flag, sings a version of the Nazi Horst Wessel anthem, and has been known to shout “Heil Hitler” in Greek parliament. Yet the analytical field is confused by their formation of populist fronts, as well as the switch in rhetoric toward “conservative/national revolutionaries.” We should not be fooled, however. Much if not most of the European populist radical right is firmly rooted in fascist strategy, and it isn’t going anywhere.
In his article, Lyons speaks out against the content of the shift in analysis where fascism has come to be delimited so strictly, stating that it obstructs an understanding of changing forms and discourses of fascism. He’s right. The disfunction in today’s approach comes from a period of transformation during the 1970s and the so-called “Historians’ Debate” (Historikerstreit) of 1987, during which some prominent scholars of fascism began to promote revisionist theories on the Holocaust while significantly changing and delimiting the way fascism was perceived. While the idea of revisionism would be strictly rejected by the entire field of “fascism studies,” the Historikerstreit had an important conservatist affect, forcing the discourse more generally away from its prior threshold on the left.
Some showed this movement more than others. The great historian Stanley Payne, for instance, while a brilliant scholar, would end up denying that Nazi Germany was actually fascist. If we are to claim that Hitler’s Germany was merely an issuance of populist radical right or authoritarian right as thematically and historically distinct from fascism, we are avoiding historical reality and preparing to make historic mistakes. The strategy of the National Front was developed in Spain by the fascist José Antonio shortly before the Civil War, and it should come as no surprise that Payne also cannot describe the Spanish national front that came to power through Franco as fascist.
This raises a question. If a fascist group creates a populist part explicitly to distance itself from accusations of fascism—as with the FN, National Front, and so on—should it be treated as a totally distinct phenomenon from fascism? Should it be treated as totally fascist? Or, is it more important to note the ways in which the two intersect on a generic level?
Mudde’s models of the “populist radical right” and “neo-fascist” should be amended to allow for a general understanding of how the former in many cases emerged from the latter in a deliberate attempt to disassociate from the negative connotations of fascism. While the comparisons to the radical right groups like the FN should raise alarm bells immediately, Trump’s candidacy should also be analyzed in real terms of the fascist/neo-fascist trends of US history. In the next chapter, I will review some of Trump’s key networks, and how they intertwine with the history of US Americanism and fascism.
Originally posted: November 13, 2015 at It's Going Down