The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump may be showing us the future of right-wing politics

Donald Trump speaks to South Carolina voters on the eve of the state’s primary on February 19, 2016 in North Charleston, South Carolina. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Pundits and politicians have been shocked by the Trump phenomenon, startled that so many Americans could be so enthusiastic about his anti-democratic style proposals.

But Trump is not that original. His actual proposals are in keeping with longstanding trends in U.S. history and society, with the rejection and nativism that have erupted after each immigration wave. His style is reminiscent of populist and fascist leaders who’ve succeeded both in Europe and Latin America during periods of economic stress, including such recent champions as Hugo Chávez and Silvio Berlusconi, authoritarians who elevated themselves and their supporters rather than building party structures or democratic institutions.

Some observers believe – or, perhaps, hope — that Trump’s followers misunderstand or don’t believe in what he represents. They’re wrong. We will explain.

The Trump movement cannot be dismissed as one of frustrated moderates

Some observers, including President Obama, suggest that his voters are misguided. Here in the Monkey Cage, Doug Ahler and David Broockman argued that Trump is a textbook example of an ideological moderate. Still others portray Trump followers as working-class outcasts of the changing economy that see his candidacy as a way to channel their frustrations. And many U.S. pundits—such as George Packer in The New Yorker—explain all this by saying that voters on left and right are “angry” with Washington, and that both Trump and Sanders represent a new wave of populism.

But Trump and Sanders must not be conflated. Sanders wants to politicize inequality. Trump, rather, is advocating for anti-politics, by which we mean that Trump’s language, and his followers’ celebration of his speeches, primarily express a rejection of politics in a democratic key. Trump’s stance represents the antithesis of Sanders’s call for political change. Trump’s narrative insists that he is above the fray of politics. This is, of course, an ideological and political claim. Returning America to national and international anti-democratic traditions it is just a different kind of politics.

And Trump’s followers explicitly agree with what he says. In December, seven out of 10 republicans believed that Trump “tells it like it is.” As Sarah Palin suggested when she endorsed Trump in Iowa, Trump stands against politics as usual as represented by “establishment candidates” who are “wearing political correctness like a suicide vest. And enough is enough.” While the establishment hears random insults, his followers hear a list of the enemies of a homogeneous America.

Many studies have revealed the link between resentment toward blacks and immigrants, on the one hand, and support for Trump on the other. In other, words, his supporters like Trump not despite his anti-democratic qualities, but precisely because of them. His campaign rallies often include incidents of physical violence against perceived outsiders. At a rally in Las Vegas, according to NBC News, one man shouted “Sieg heil.”

Trump is a post-fascist populist

We believe racism and charismatic leadership bring Trump close to the fascist equation but he might be better described as post-fascist, which is to say populist.

From our research, let’s take a definition of populist post-fascism. This is a political style which has an extremely sacralizing understanding of politics. The leader understands politics as a theology in which he or she is the only who knows what is best for the nation. Populists consider people as formed by those who follow a unique vertical leadership; political antagonists are conceived as enemies who are potential or actual  traitors to the nation.

Populists want leaders to be charismatic embodiments of the voice and desires of the nation as a whole. They argue for a strong executive and the discursive, and often practical, dismissal of the legislative and judicial branches of government. Toward that end, they engage in radical nationalism and emphasize popular culture, as opposed to other forms of culture that do not represent “national thought.” Finally, populism is an authoritarian form of electoral democracy that nonetheless rejects dictatorial forms of government.

Modern populism arose from the defeat of fascism, as a novel post-fascist attempt to bring back the fascist experience to the democratic path, creating in turn an authoritarian form of democracy that would stress strong leaders and caudillos such as General Juan Perón in Argentina and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

In populism, political democracy is strained but never eradicated, as it had been with fascism. Modern post-fascism pushes democracy to its limits but, generally, without breaking it. Trump’s vision of America is the latest example of this attempt to redefine democratic theory and practice.

Unlike Hitler and Mussolini, Trump does not have a real party. He wants to be the Republican candidate, but party officials and ideologues reject him. In contrast, fascist leaders were often founding members of movements and then emerged as their leaders.

As we mentioned earlier, Trump’s leadership is more akin to that of Hugo Chávez and Silvio Berlusconi. While Chávez – who started his own government reality show — invoked a vague ideological platform to gain power, in practice he centralized decision-making, attacked freedom of speech and dismantled the division of powers, always by invoking an external threat.Berlusconi denigrated institutions; used his billionaire status to prove he was a political outsider; and channeled the new European populism’s anti-migrant sentiment to hold power.

Trump uses anti-immigrant sentiment more often than Berlusconi and other leaders like Chávez’ successor Nicolas Maduro, bringing his rhetoric closer to that of other post-fascist politicians like Marine Le Pen in France.

The Republican leadership rejects Trump. Indeed, many conservatives call him a fascist. But Trump embodies many of the party’s views on immigration, Islam, climate change, women’s roles, minority voting, and so on. Trump and his followers differ not in kind but in the clarity and radical way in with which they express some of the extreme consequences of the tea party agenda.

If we consider a longer historical process in which the Republican Party in particular has been traveling steadily farther toward populism, Trump and his followers might very well be showing us the future of U.S. right-wing politics.

Federico Finchelstein is professor of history and department chair at The New School in New York and author, among other books, of The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War. Fascism, Populism, and Dictatorship in Twentieth-Century Argentina and Transatlantic Fascism: Ideology, Violence and the Sacred in Argentina and Italy, 1919-1945 .

 Pablo Piccato is professor of history at Columbia University and author of The Tyranny of Opinion: Honor in the Construction of the Mexican Public Sphere and City of Suspects: Crime in Mexico City, 1900-1931.