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[Revision]

American Duce

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Is Donald Trump a fascist or a plutocrat?

It is powerfully tempting to call the new president of the United States a fascist. Donald Trump’s bullying tone, his scowl, and his jutting jaw recall Benito Mussolini’s absurd theatrics. His dramatic arrivals by plane (a public relations tactic pioneered by Adolf Hitler) and his excited dialogues with crowds chanting simple slogans (“U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” “Lock her up!”) recall Nazi rallies of the early 1930s. In his stump speeches, Trump is fond of deploring national decline, which he blames on foreigners and despised minorities; disdaining legal norms; condoning violence against dissenters; and rejecting anything that smacks of internationalism, whether it be trade, institutions, or existing treaties. All of these were fascist staples.

Yet we should hesitate before applying this most toxic of political labels to Trump. Such a term is justified only if it enlarges or clarifies understanding. And the original fascist movements, let’s remember, were responding to emergencies rather different from those of today. They thrived among peoples that had been defeated or otherwise humiliated in World War I. The first fascists promised to overcome national weakness and decline by strengthening the state, subordinating the interests of individuals to those of the community at large, and purging the population of internal enemies and dissidents. Indeed, the fascists claimed to be the only force capable of blocking Bolshevik revolution and recovering those territories that had been surrendered during the war.

In a fatal misstep, moderate and conservative leaders in Italy and Germany decided to co-opt fascism rather than repress it. Was it not, in comparison with socialism, the lesser of two evils? They thought they could appropriate the energy and discipline of the fascist masses while retaining power for themselves. And surely they, with their superior political skill, social polish, and experience, could control these uncouth newcomers.

As we know, things worked out differently. What is less obvious is that once they were in power, the first fascists acted in a way quite contrary to what we have seen from Trump and his Republican allies in Congress. Mussolini and Hitler had no desire to leave economic, social, or environmental matters to unchecked market forces, nor did they think that the population could be unified without forceful state action. Mussolini’s symbol, the fasces, was an eloquent choice: an axe bound within a bundle of rods, representing both the force of the state and the unity of the nation.

Fascist regimes worked by regimentation, with uniforms for party militants (black shirts in Italy, brown shirts in Germany). They organized corporatist economies that stimulated production for war and enrolled workers in an early form of the welfare state (excluding, of course, Jews, Roma, and other national enemies). They even wanted to regulate workers’ leisure time, through the Italian Dopolavoro and the Nazi Kraft durch Freude organizations. The idea was to fight socialism with national socialism. The official name of Hitler’s party was, after all, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.

German and Italian businessmen were initially resistant to the collectivist and regimenting impulses of fascism. Yet they, too, believed that nothing else stood between them and the tide of communism, and ultimately acquiesced. They were richly rewarded by the destruction of independent labor unions, the prohibition of strikes, and lucrative contracts for public works and rearmament.

Here is where Trump and the Republicans part ways with their putative predecessors. Our current president and his advisers would never consider establishing a corporatist economy. They want as much liberty in the marketplace as suits their own agenda. They want to subordinate community interests to individual interests — at least those of wealthy individuals.

It is perhaps useful to envision the Trump regime as composed of three strands. The Republican majority in both houses of Congress is the first. Since Trump, as a successful and not overly scrupulous real estate entrepreneur, accepts their libertarian, pro-business agenda, this strand is the one most likely to be gratified. Deregulation is already under way. Trump has gleefully annulled Barack Obama’s regulation prohibiting coal-mine operators from dumping their waste into streams. And while he initially hesitated to deprive 20 million Americans of Obama’s health insurance, G.O.P. legislators are moving forward with proposals that may accomplish that very thing, even if the president has refused to put his name on them.

One can expect under Trump a radical weakening, or even the disappearance, of the federal agencies that have hitherto monitored the water, the air, and the survival of endangered species in the United States. One can expect the wealthy to benefit disproportionately from a revised tax code. (To think that only a few years ago, the flat tax, with its single rate for all, was considered a radical idea!) Fascist regimes, by contrast, had high progressive taxation.

The second strand of the Trump regime is those Americans who were repelled by the cultural experiments of the 1960s. The inhabitants of deep America who are offended by feminism, abortion, gay rights, and racial integration are often the same as those left behind by Obama’s technology-driven economic revival. Trump’s electoral campaign appealed successfully to the bitterness of this unskilled white working class, which feels itself both economically and culturally besieged.

Here, arguably, there is some overlap between Trump and the fascists. The Nazis, too, denounced the social and cultural experiments of Weimar. The surge in racism under Obama also recalls the gathering of French antirepublican forces in 1936. Much of this opposition was aimed at the Popular Front of Léon Blum, the first socialist and first Jew to become prime minister. In a sense, Obama was an American Léon Blum, elected in euphoria and then hamstrung by adamant domestic opposition.

Yet the reactionary Americans who put Trump in office will not be as richly rewarded as the business community. Having fulfilled their task in the 2016 election, they can now be ignored. They will be gratified by some new limitations on abortion and L.G.B.T. rights, but they will not receive more jobs through stimulus projects, since these would require higher taxes on the wealthy.

The third strand is Trump himself, holding the whole system together at the top. Donald Trump is an opportunist concerned exclusively with his own celebrity and wealth. He acts on any momentary impulse that seems to favor those ends. He is an authoritarian personality devoid of any commitment to the rule of law, political tradition, or even ideology. He has given his officials an implicit green light to act arbitrarily, as the eminent French historian Henry Rousso learned when he was detained at the Houston airport in February and almost deported.

In his relations with the rest of the world, Trump’s avowed motto is “America First” — a phrase hardly heard in the United States since the isolationist 1930s. His foreign policy priorities are an enigma. They may possibly include the appeasement of mysterious Russian creditors. But unlike the fascists, Trump seeks no territorial gains, focusing instead on excluding immigrants and the symbolic sealing of the Mexican border. He had no immediate reaction to the North Korean missile test. In a serious international crisis, however, he is likely to respond emotionally and without expert advice. In the event of a terrorist act within the United States, he could well impose martial law and stop the functioning of democratic institutions in this country.

Trump’s inner circle is much more reactionary than one would expect given his relatively narrow electoral victory. In appointing his Cabinet and staff, he showed more interest in personal loyalty than in competence. Closest to him seem to be his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner. More surprising, in light of Trump’s earlier life as a Manhattan playboy, are people with ties to the extreme right: Steve Bannon, now Trump’s chief strategist, and his deputy, Stephen Miller. Bannon and Miller both support Trump’s limitless exercise of executive power. They are admirers of Marine Le Pen and other European nativists. They consider press criticism treasonous.

These are all alarming facts. No less alarming is that Trump will be able to fill enough vacancies on the federal bench to diminish judicial constraints — at a moment when the courts seem like the only branch of government capable of resisting his initiatives. Are we therefore looking at a fascist? Not really. Unchecked executive power indicates generic dictatorship rather than fascism in particular. And affixing the label to Trump actually confuses matters, obscuring his economic and social libertarianism. We might as well call the Trump regime by the appropriate name: plutocracy.

is a professor emeritus of social sciences at Columbia University and the author of many books, including The Anatomy of Fascism. A version of this essay appeared in Le Monde in March.

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May 2017