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Why you should stop calling Donald Trump a fascist

(Rachel Orr/The Washington Post)
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"Fascist" is often used as a cheap, meaningless insult in U.S. politics. But recently, it's become a serious charge that elected officials, political operatives and pundits on both sides of the aisle have lobbed at GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump.

After Trump suggested he'd back a federal registry for Muslims residents, Wall Street Journal conservative columnist Bret Stephens called the idea "fascism, plain and simple." Recounting Trump’s passive responses to violence committed by his supporters, CNN commentator Sally Kohn said on Wednesday, “There’s a word for this: fascism.”

Max Boot, a scholar of foreign affairs who is advising Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), was more direct:

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.

These are just a few of the major differences between Trump and the fascists of history:

1. Trump’s message is individualist

One common characteristic of fascist regimes was their insistence on collective rather than individual identity. Fascist leaders believed the life of the nation as a whole took precedence over the lives of the people who made it up, imposing a brutal uniformity on the lives of their citizens.

"The Italian nation is an organism, having aims, life and means of action superior to those of the single or grouped individuals who compose it," stated Mussolini's Labor Charter in 1927.

That vision of a unified state conflicted with the complicated reality of European countries, which diverse religious, racial and ethnic communities called home. Fascist leaders tried to eliminate these differences. Members of disfavored groups lost their legal identities, rights and citizenship — if not their lives. Even favored groups were subjected to oppressive discipline.

[Read more: Donald Trump is polling better than ever. Here's why.]

Under Mussolini, for instance, every Italian schoolchild was required to join a youth organization where they imbibed fascist propaganda and militaristic training. Teachers swore an oath to the fascist regime. The party took over sports, such as bocce, which were transformed from a form of casual recreation into a means for the Italian nation to improve and excel.

Like Trump, these leaders gained followers by giving long, angry speeches that blamed the country's problems on foreigners. They addressed their rhetoric to a frustrated middle class, describing them as victims of internal and external enemies.

In this way, some of the conditions that allow fascist ideology to take hold exist in the United States, said Robert Paxton, a leading American scholar of fascism. Americans' belief that hard work brings material rewards has prevented radical movements and politicians from taking power, he said. For the past 15 years, however, income for the typical household has declined, leading some Americans to lose confidence in the existing political system.

"A sense of victimhood is absolutely essential" to the rise of fascism, Paxton said, "and I think that's very strong in America today."

Trump, though, is not a fascist, according to Paxton. The candidate's message lacks the collectivist element that was common to many fascist regimes. Individual ambition is a crucial part of the story he tells voters about himself as a successful, self-interested businessman.

2. Trump doesn’t oppose democracy

Trump also does not oppose constitutional government and representative democracy, another crucial trait of historical fascists. The militaristic societies they formed couldn’t tolerate dissent and debate. Differences of opinion contradict the fascist idea of a collective identity.

The Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt, for instance, contended that parliaments couldn't truly represent the will of a united people, only various opposed factions. Instead, Schmitt wrote, a dictator would speak on the people's behalf with one voice.

[Read more: It's not just Donald Trump: Half of Republicans his views on immigrants and refugees]

Fascist leaders threw out existing national constitutions, replacing representative government with dictatorships that brutally suppressed dissent. They used paramilitary organizations to intimidate their political opponents.

Trump recently defended the behavior of supporters who assaulted a protester at one of his rallies, saying “Maybe he should have been roughed up.” But that’s still a far cry from the mass suppression of dissent typical of fascist movements and regimes. Trump isn’t supporting a systematic campaign of intimidation. And he hasn't called for suspending the U.S. Constitution or pledged to arrogate legislative power to himself if he wins the presidency.

3. Trump doesn't support a fascist welfare state

The platforms of fascist parties were fiercely anti-capitalist. In 1920, the Nazi Party's Twenty-Five Points, for instance called for the confiscation of income from capital gains, the nationalization of industries and "an expansion on a large scale of old age welfare."

Once in power, fascists typically collaborated with the economic elite to achieve their military aims, and they banned unions independent of the party. But their written principles certainly would have affronted Trump’s capitalist ideals.

Trump is somewhat more liberal on economic issues than some of his competitors for the GOP nod. He opposes reductions in Social Security, for example. In general, though, Trump boasts about being a wealthy businessman, and his tax proposals are typical of the Republican Party — he'd substantially reduce taxes for the rich.

4. Trump’s positions are similar to other GOP candidates

Trump's rhetoric is extreme and colorful, but on taxes and other issues, his platform is similar in substance to those of his GOP rivals and in accord with the opinions of rank-and-file Republicans. Calling Trump a fascist suggests there's something special about him that distinguishes him from the rest of the party.

For example, many of the GOP candidates criticized Trump for proposing a registry for Muslims, but fellow candidate Ben Carson's proposal went even further: a database that would not discriminate against Muslims explicitly but would instead include every single person in the country.

Likewise, when Trump suggested that law enforcement should close certain mosques to prevent Islamist terrorism, Rubio suggested that Trump's proposal wasn't broad enough. "It's not about closing down mosques. It's about closing down any place, whether it's a cafe, a diner, an Internet site, any place where radicals are being inspired," he told Megyn Kelly of Fox News.

On other issues, such as abortion, climate change, and monetary policy, Trump's opinions are also in line with his party. While his presentation may be unusual for a U.S. presidential candidate, his policies are not. Trump is a Republican, not a fascist.

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