The “Is Trump fascist?” question produces a special kind of pedantry, one close to my heart on a number of levels. Questions of fascism exert a powerful attraction on certain kinds of pedant. I see three converging types here, maybe other see more:
Wannabe political handicappers have, until recently, pooh-poohed the idea of Trump winning the nomination. This particular sort of pedantry usually expresses itself as a vaguely Mencken-esque disdain for the herd. Whatever you’re seeing on the news or on your uncle’s facebook isn’t the real deal, the real stuff is the behind-the-scenes stuff I’m somehow privy to, etc. etc. They typically don’t deal with Trump-as-fascist directly, but their attitude — performatively cool-headed and unimpressed, looking for some obscure angle to explain why everyone else is wrong — influences the other two.
Academic fascism-explainers have done fine work in delineating and defining fascism but it’s important to keep context in mind. So many political actors — most notably student rebels in the ’60s and neocons from the ’80s on — have sought to put the “fascist” label to work for them. Academics, a cautious lot generally, have therefore sought to put all kinds of rules and stipulations in place about who is and isn’t a fascist. Of course, it being academia, they squabble endlessly about it. This makes it funny when think-piecers try to seize upon one given “fascist minimum” — Paxton’s, Payne’s, I haven’t seen anyone try Mosse on but I’m sure it’ll happen — to use in their pieces on Trump. In lieu of actually studying European history, they cling on to one of the academics and hope for the best. Generally, these sources are cautious about crying fascism. There’s good reasons for that, but it’s also, at this point, a habit of deflection.
Socialists, meanwhile — especially from that small but enthusiastic minority adhering to one of the legacy sects of the old days — enter into this dynamic even as it was initiated to keep them on the margins. Part of depoliticizing the academic study of fascism was discrediting the various Marx-oid definitions, especially any enshrining of class as a main factor in fascism. Most historians will allow class had something to do with it, but always rush in to add their cultural and political caveats. Especially given the centrality of anti-semitism and the Holocaust in how we understand that period, you can see why, along with a disinclination towards “fascism!”-screaming (temporarily) communist students around the time all this was gelling.
In this case, many of the serious leftists engaging with this question cooperate with their more moderate foils in the academy in deflecting the question. Ironically, it’s in the name of the sort of interpretation the academy has sought to repudiate, namely, the sort of ignition sequence — depression into leftist insurgency into rightist reaction — model of fascism enshrined in the writings of Trotsky. Trotsky, it’s worth noting, died in 1940. Even still, if it doesn’t follow that model, it ain’t fascism, and, the sectarians will have you know, there’s no leftist insurgency (but maybe if you came to our meetings…), so… case closed. Moreover, many sectarians share the same disdain for surface-level electoral politics (god knows it’s easy to disdain) that the wannabe-political-experts do, so it’s easy for them to skip from Trotsky’s formulas to “it’s not going to happen anyway” and go on to questions with which they are more comfortable.
Every other pedant has had their say, so here’s this one’s: This all gets way too tied in on the person of Trump, for whom this might all be a big game or a con. Trump is important because he’s tapped into a rich source of political energy. This is the idea of a national rebirth, a return to a golden age through a strong man leading a violent campaign against external and internal enemy others. Those who dream this dream — and generate this energy — don’t particularly care how this rebirth happens, constitutionally-speaking.
And they’re surprisingly indifferent to the results of your finely-grained study of interwar Europe, or the formulae of your long-dead sect leader.
Watch young bourgeois, and you can see that often enough their relationship with ideas is not unlike the relationship they could (might? do?) have with real estate. The idea is to get a deed to a given notion, or aesthetic, or attitude, while it’s undervalued and reap the benefits of its appreciation, and/or look for opportunities where prime pieces of conceptual real estate are changing hands and see if you’ve got enough bankroll to get in on the action. Unlike real estate markets, you’re supposed to conceal the instrumental aspect of what you’re doing, and of course, conceptual payoffs aren’t as graspable as material ones… but we all know the material isn’t everything.
I wonder how often patterns of relationships with ideas (there’s probably a theory term for that, an obscure and probably ugly word to congeal my ungainly phrase) can map onto patterns of material circumstance. It doesn’t work that way in every instance, but I think it does in some; I’d say often, but that’s just one man’s perspective. The real estate gestalt has surrounded many academics, journalists, think-piecers from the cradle. The percentage of those categories for whom this is the case will grow as higher education returns to being a finishing school for the rich. And these underlying structures of thought are harder to grasp — and to change — than opinions or commitments.
I’d love to regale you with my working class bona fides by way of contrast, but that’s a bridge too far. I come from a family of teachers, service workers (the golf industry, that harsh mistress!), and civil servants. The directives there are clear, though often at cross purposes: do a good job and follow the rules. Often, the rules say to follow the orders of some dingaling who doesn’t know how to run a golf course or what good teaching is, thereby putting one in the position of violating the directive of doing a good job. What “doing a good job” constitutes for a thinker or scholar is a lot less clear than in most jobs. But I think attempting to adhere to some sort of standard of quality under adverse (sometimes existentially absurd) working conditions and indifferent supervision is a tableau with which most of us should be familiar.