Teachable Instant: Trump and Fascism

Students discuss the definition of fascism and consider charges from the left and right that GOP candidate Donald Trump's stances are fascist.   

Ask students to read the quotes below aloud.

"Whether or not we want to call Trump a fascist outright, then, it seems fair to say that he’s closer to the "proto-fascist" zone on the political spectrum than either the average American conservative or his recent predecessors in right-wing populism." [Note: the prefix "proto" means an early form of.]
--Ross Douthat (New York Times, Dec. 3, 2015)

"The word ‘fascist’ has been abused by the left over the years. But a look at Trump's rhetoric shows scary parallels."
--Conor Lynch (Salon, July 25, 2015)

"Trump is a fascist. And that's not a term I use loosely or often. But he's earned it."
--Max Boot (Historian, and advisor to Sen. Marco Rubio)

"Donald Trump’s fascist ideas have an audience."
--Jamil Smith (New Republic, Dec. 4, 2015)

"[Trump’s] Muslim registry idea is fascism, plain and simple."
--Brett Stephens, Wall Street Journal (Nov. 20, 2015)

Since World War II, the ideology he represents has usually lived in dark corners, and we don’t even have a name for it anymore. The right name, the correct name, the historically accurate name, is fascism. I don’t use that word as an insult only. It is accurate.
--Jeffrey Tucker (Newsweek, July 17, 2015)


Defining Fascism

Ask students what they know about the term "fascism."  How would they define the term?

Explain that there are many definitions of fascism. According to the Oxford Dictionary:

"The term Fascism was first used of the totalitarian right-wing nationalist regime of Mussolini in Italy (1922-43), and the regimes of the Nazis in Germany and Franco in Spain were also fascist. Fascism tends to include a belief in the supremacy of one national or ethnic group, a contempt for democracy, an insistence on  obedience to a powerful leader, and a strong demagogic approach."  

Note: demogoguery means trying to gain political support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.

Fascism is also associated with qualities including a far-right economic stance, support for corporatism, support for traditionalist values, a survival-of-the-fittest mentality, and intolerance of criticism.

The word "fascist" is a charged term, and has been used carelessly in the past to attack conservative politicians, so caution about using the term is warranted.  Given the word’s many meanings, there is ample room for a politician, especially one whose speaking style is loosely scripted and contradictory, to have some qualities ascribed to fascists.

Max Ehrenfreund argued in the Washington Post that commentators should stop calling Trump a fascist:

Some of Trump's rhetoric does invoke the tyrannical speeches of fascist leaders of the past. Asked about his plans to track American Muslims,Trump ominously told Yahoo News last month, "Certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country." But the key aspects of fascism are at odds with Trump's persona and his message. For all his bluster, a President Trump wouldn't pursue the authoritarian, collectivist agenda that characterized Germany's Nazi Party and Italy's Benito Mussolini, at least not according to what he's said so far about his political views. Calling Trump a fascist risks misleading voters about his agenda, which is not that much different from that of his rivals for the GOP presidential nod.

Nevertheless, the fact that both conservatives and progressives have asked the question, "Is Trump a fascist?" invites discussion about both the meaning of "fascist" and Trump’s stances.

Ask students to read the paragraphs below, or use the piece as background for discussion.


Trump and Fascism

Below is a brief exploration of whether  Donald Trump’s words and actions adhere to some of the most common, accepted elements of fascism.

Fascists have always resorted to anti-democratic methods before and after attaining power. Donald Trump has not expressed any dissatisfaction with the democratic process, nor utilized any extra-judicial means (e.g. violence) to gain power.

Fear and loathing of outsiders.
On December 7, Trump called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." The New York Times called the statement "an unprecedented proposal by a leading American presidential candidate, and an idea more typically associated with hate groups." Trump’s strong anti-immigration stance, which propelled him to the top of the Republican field, has largely rested on the supposed danger that undocumented immigrants pose. In repeated reference to a murder committed by an immigrant, Trump blamed "an animal, an animal that shouldn’t have been in this country."  The "we" and "they" construction has been a constant theme of Donald Trump's. The "they" tend to be Hispanic immigrants or Muslims. Trump taps into the fear some white Americans have of their country being overrun by "outsiders"—people who look different, sound different and seem to act different than themselves. "They" are responsible for crime, violence, and terrorism.  Trump’s call for a "registry" of Muslim Americans was labeled fascist by commentators on both the left and right.

Use of violence to suppress opposition.
At a Trump rally in Birmingham, Alabama,  in November, a black protester was attacked by Trump supporters. The next day Trump said "Maybe he should have been roughed up." But Trump has neither urged his supporters to use violence against dissenters, nor built an organization of thugs in any way similar to the Nazis and Fascists of the 20th century.

Intense nationalism.
One of Trump's repeated themes is to restore America to its former greatness. He maintains that because of weak leadership, other countries are taking advantage of us. China is "raping this country" and "laughing at us." Iran has "suckered us." "Our leaders are stupid, our politicians are stupid, and the Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning, and they send the bad ones over because they don't want to pay for them, they don't want to take care of them."

"We’re going to make our military so big, so strong and so great, so powerful that we’re never going to have to use it. We’re going to have a president who is respected by Putin, respected by Iran."  Trump speaks often of increasing our military power, but tends to boast of his negotiating prowess, rather than proposing new wars.

Trump appeals to our emotions with little effort to make arguments with facts, position papers or intellectual reasoning. One day after a black protester was punched and kicked at a Trump rally, he tweeted a chart which showed "whites killed by blacks--81%."  (According to Politifact, the real number is 15%.)  In an analysis of one week of Donald Trump's speeches, the New York Times found ample evidence of demagoguery in his ominous scenarios, repeated use of "we" and "they," personal attack and denial of fact-based evidence.


1. Does the Donald Trump phenomenon indicate an anti-democratic threat to the country?

2. Is the speculation about Trump as a fascist overblown?

3.  Is it illucidating to ask the question "Is Trump fascist"?  Or does asking the question amount to name-calling and finger-pointing that does not advance understanding and discussion?

4. In the past, fascists have often come to power during hard times when an anxious populous was looking for a strong leader who could "get things done." In what ways does this describe the situation in the U.S. today? In what ways does it not describe our current state?

If there is time, ask students what questions they have about the meaning of fascism, Trump’s stances on the issues, or anything else we discussed in today’s lesson.  Make a list of these questions and assign students to research them for future discussion.




Watch clips of a Donald Trump speech (for example, selections from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apaToLjdRp4)

  1. What political positions does Trump take?
  2. What is the emotional content of his speech?
  3. What is his speaking style?
  4. From watching Trump speak, can you explain his wide appeal?
  5. From what you know of fascism or fascists, can you identify any elements in his speech which tend toward fascism?