Why some conservatives say Trump talk is fascist

Updated 1:02 PM EST, Wed November 25, 2015
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Story highlights

A handful of conservatives have used the term "fascism" to describe Trump's rhetoric

The use of such a loaded word marks one more step in the evolution of the establishment's view of Trump

(CNN) —  

Conservative warnings about Donald Trump have grown increasingly somber. At first he was just an entertainer; then he became a worrisome distraction, and soon, there was fear that he would permanently scar the reputation of the Republican Party.

But it was after Trump started calling for stronger surveillance of Muslim-Americans in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks that a handful of conservatives ventured to call Trump’s rhetoric something much more dangerous: fascism.

Since launching his campaign this summer, the billionaire real estate magnate has regularly deployed inflammatory rhetoric about immigrants – particularly regarding Latinos – and repeatedly raised the alarm about foreigners entering the country. That has escalated following the series of shooting rampages and explosions in Paris this month allegedly perpetrated by ISIS and amid a national debate over accepting Syrian refugees.

Most striking has been Trump’s aim at Muslims in the United States. He’s been widely denounced for claiming that people in New Jersey — a state with “large Arab populations,” he said — cheered after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. That, coupled with his seeming endorsement of a national registry to track Muslims in the country, has sparked a new level of condemnation from conservatives already on edge about Trump’s endurance.

“Trump is a fascist. And that’s not a term I use loosely or often. But he’s earned it,” tweeted Max Boot, a conservative fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who is advising Marco Rubio.

“Forced federal registration of US citizens, based on religious identity, is fascism. Period. Nothing else to call it,” Jeb Bush national security adviser John Noonan wrote on Twitter.

Conservative Iowa radio host Steve Deace, who has endorsed Ted Cruz, also used the “F” word last week: “If Obama proposed the same religion registry as Trump every conservative in the country would call it what it is – creeping fascism.”

Even one GOP presidential hopeful – albeit a little-known candidate barely registering in the polls – has used this language. In an interview with Newsmax TV on Friday, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore said Trump’s immigration policies, including the idea of creating a “deportation force” to remove undocumented immigrants from the country, amounted to “fascist talk.”

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The fresh accusations of fascist behavior are extraordinarily charged – the term is often equated with Nazism. The use of such a loaded word marks one more step in the evolution of the establishment’s view of Trump, from a political clown to something much more malevolent and dangerous.

Donald Trump vs. the Republican establishment

And it also reflects an increasingly visible and acute level of frustration and disbelief about Trump within the GOP, as Republicans view Trump’s candidacy as an explosive mixture of economic populism with strongman personality politics. While it’s unclear whether Trump is motivated by any coherent political philosophy, it’s hard to recall another recent presidential candidate who has campaigned so openly on solving problems by sheer personal will.

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The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Boot and Deace couldn’t be reached for comment, and a Bush spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on behalf of Noonan.

Academics who study fascism say that while Trump seems to have an authoritarian sensibility, his behavior doesn’t meet the dictionary definition of fascism. The term describes an overtly anti-democratic movement that suppresses all opposition as a way to fulfill political goals, and a fascist leader is a dictator that wishes to exercise complete control, even by condoning violence.

Scholars of fascists like Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany (none of Trump’s conservative critics have compared him to either man) say, however, that Trump does display some of the key characteristics of a fascist. His comments about a national registry for Muslim-Americans, together with his propensity to stir up anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiments among his supporters, amount to a perception of hostility toward ethnic and religious minority groups.

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“The most recent comment he said about creating a national registry of all Muslims – that’s very dangerous,” said Steve Ross, a professor of history and scholar of fascism at the University of Southern California.

Ross, who proposes the label “right-wing bully” for Trump, said he can certainly understand why the question has come up. “You’re talking about an American government that would move towards the persecution of citizens and people living within its own country,” he said. “That is why people are saying, ‘Gee, if you follow this through, it’s fascism.’ “

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“Fascism sometimes becomes an attribute to describe someone that is intolerant or totalitarian or even racist,” said Federico Finchelstein, an expert on fascism at the New School who said Trump is better described a populist. “When dealing with an important part of the nation such as Hispanics, I think he definitely fits those categories.”

When a reporter asked Trump last week how a national database of Muslims would be different from the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany, Trump responded: “You tell me.”

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Historians say they see other characteristics of fascism in Trump in addition to his propensity for racial and ethnic stereotyping. Among them: nativist undertones, attempts to control the media; and even condoning violence against his critics.

At a Trump campaign rally in Birmingham, Alabama, a black protester was physically attacked by a handful of Trump fans in the crowd. Video captured by CNN shows the man being shoved to the ground, punched and at one point even kicked. The next day, Trump drew fierce backlash when he said that perhaps “he should have been roughed up.”

The sentiment was then echoed by Trump’s senior counsel Michael Cohen. “Every now and then an agitator deserves it,” Cohen said on CNN’s “New Day” Tuesday morning.

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Ross said the incident illustrates behavior that is only steps removed from fascism.

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“We had the same thing happening in Germany in the 1920s with people being roughed up by the Brownshirts and they deserved it because they were Jews and Marxists and radicals and dissidents and gypsies — that was what Hitler was saying,” Ross said. “I’m not saying Trump is Hitler, but the logic of condoning violence against those who oppose you – you can imagine, a man who would condone it as a candidate – what would he do as an official president?”

Trump’s interactions with the media — in particular, his attempts to shut out reporters critical of his campaign —have also shown authoritarian tendencies.

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The businessman regularly lashes out at reporters who give unfavorable coverage, and his campaign has denied credentials to journalists as retribution. Trump has more than once boycotted appearing on Fox News, in protest of what he has deemed unfair treatment.

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“What they expect from the media is praise. This is another element in this character and in other leaders of this type, which is that they are extremely messianic and narcissistic,” said Finchelstein. “Whatever they see, they see as a personal attack against them.”

History professor Robert Paxton of Columbia University, who has studied the rise and spread of fascism, said he would not call Trump a fascist. But Paxton also said he can understand why some people might be inclined to point out similarities between Trump and fascist leaders.

“He’s good at making astonishing speeches that make people sit up and take notice. So there’s some of that manipulation of public emotions that is visible with Trump,” Paxton said. “Hitler and Mussolini – no one had ever seen public rallies like the meetings they’d have. People were absolutely mesmerized.”