Four years later, we can assess how fascist Trump has been in power. I have expanded the scale to include new criteria that were not relevant before he took office: governance, consolidation of power and various policy arenas. Instead of a possible 44 Benitos, as in 2016, the maximum is now 76. Does Trump earn more than 59 percent on his record in the White House?
But are we there yet? No. In a federal, decentralized state with constitutional checks and balances, it's harder to govern as a fascist than to run as one. Trump's political outlook and behavior bear many similarities to those of fascist leaders, but he has not ruled like an authentic fascist. We can thank "the swamp": The courts, the military, the media, voters and his own appointed officials (now mostly fired) have kept him in check.
Hyper-nationalism. Trump's nationalistic rhetoric in office is little changed from his first campaign. He promotes a view of America as unfairly victimized by foreigners and in need of renewal and purification from treasonous enemies within. He has occasionally indulged in saber-rattling toward North Korea and Iran. 2016: 2; 2020: 2
Militarism. Despite the occasional saber-rattling, Trump's foreign policy is far from militaristic: He does not advocate war and conquest as a way to rejuvenate the nation. His intermittent habit of castigating China appears intended for domestic consumption, lately to distract attention from his pandemic response. But Trump has ramped up the militarization of homeland security agencies, using them first against immigrants and then against protesters. 2016: 2; 2020: 3
Glorification of violence and readiness to use it in politics. Trump cheered on as Immigration and Customs Enforcement took at least 1,700 children from their parents and put them behind fences. His use of armed force against protesters earns him a new Benito, although on this crucial component of fascism, he falls well behind Benito Mussolini and especially Adolf Hitler, who unleashed illegal and deadly violence against their citizens on a far greater scale. 2016: 1; 2020: 2
Fetishization of youth. This has never been a feature of Trump's politics. Mussolini and Hitler were in early middle age when they came to power, making it easier for them to try to embody youthful vigor. Mussolini liked to be seen jogging with his entourage at the outset of public appearances. Trump, in his golden years, wisely does not try to play this card. 2016: 0; 2020: 0
Fetishization of masculinity. Trump still tries to swagger and boast of his vigor and continues to mock his opponents as lacking stamina. But he is not urging men to exert authority over women and family anywhere close to the way authentic fascists did. Nor is he trying to confine women to the home and raise the birthrate. 2016: 4; 2020: 3
Leader cult. Trump never tires of posing as the decisive man of action, a genius and savior of the nation. He extols his instincts above mere rationality. He would have the world believe he is strong, hard-working and devoted to the interests of the ordinary citizen. He takes credit for every favorable development and denies responsibility for everything else. He expects his appointees to lavish public praise upon him. 2016: 4; 2020: 4
Lost-golden-age syndrome. Fascism was predicated on notions of victimization and lost national greatness that Il Duce or Der Führer alone could restore. Trump played this tune en route to the White House and has continued in office. Since the pandemic took hold, he has seemed more restrained about restoring greatness, perhaps aware that most people would happily settle for making America normal again. But much of his policy aims at turning back the clock to a time when White Americans were 85 percent of the population, when America was feared and respected abroad, and when coal and oil companies could make money without the hassles of federal regulations. Obsessed with a politics of nostalgia, he even signals sympathy for those whose mourned-for golden age is the Confederacy. 2016: 4; 2020: 4
Self-definition by opposition. Fascists had no difficulty explaining what they were against: socialism, labor unions, democracy, traditional elites, foreigners — particularly those judged racial inferiors. Trump's peeves are central to his politics, just as rousing resentments is central to his popularity. His political essence is opposition — to immigration, the media, the swamp — even if in office he has (so far) persecuted his targets far less brutally than did authentic fascists. 2016: 3; 2020: 4
Mass mobilization and mass party. Mussolini and Hitler built their own parties that enjoyed considerable popularity, and once in power, they enrolled millions of new members. Trump has with remarkable success suborned the Republican Party, making it his own. But he has shrunk it in the process, losing seats in Congress. 2016: 2; 2020: 1
Hierarchical party structure and tendency to purge the disloyal. Fascists in power tried to marginalize the party rank and file that carried them into office and purged anyone suspected of insufficient devotion to the leader. Trump, as president, has done little for the White working class that voted him into power. He has done his best to eliminate from positions of authority anyone but fawning supporters. His purges obviously lack the murderous violence of Hitler's Night of the Long Knives, but they may prove no less effective in quashing dissent in the GOP. 2016: 1; 2020: 3
Theatricality. Fascists in power retained their fondness for rallies, parades, and dramatic claims of the biggest this and greatest that in history. Trump has, too. He hasn't been able to get all the parades and flyovers he's wanted, but he works hard for dramatic moments, even risking coronavirus infections among his supporters to stage events in Tulsa and at Mount Rushmore. 2016: 3; 2020: 3
Those 11 attributes characterized fascist movements on the rise. Fascism in power demonstrated several additional features. They are not unique to fascism, but they are important characteristics of fascist rule.
Chaotic administration. Mussolini and Hitler pretended to run tight ships, but their governance was shambolic and improvisational. They surrounded themselves with sycophants and encouraged squabbling among underlings.
Trump's administration shares this feature. Its consistent policy goals (fewer immigrants, less environmental regulation) are few. Major policy positions (let's work with China) are reversed (China is the root of all evil) in hopes of retaining power. By all accounts except the official one, Trump's White House has been a team of vipers, with officials often working at cross-purposes to try to give shape to the president's pronouncements. Its handling of the coronavirus pandemic is a showpiece of inconsistency, mixed messages and internal conflict that is responsible for the needless deaths of tens of thousands of Americans — despite Trump's effort to appear the resolute leader. Four Benitos.
Information and media policy. Fascists lied constantly, seeking political advantage. They were privately contemptuous of the intelligence of the public. They undermined independent sources of information — and later banned them. Mussolini spent as much time reading newspapers as Trump does watching cable TV, and he liked to telephone editors to tell them what to print. He tried to convince Italians that fascism was the envy of the world. Both Mussolini and Hitler became self-delusional when confronted with real crises, choosing to believe their own hype and the flattery of lickspittles.
Trump has set records for presidential dishonesty and seems to regard information as true only when it helps him politically. He has threatened to revoke broadcast licenses, tried to prevent the publication of books and dubbed the media "the enemy of the people." But unlike Mussolini and Hitler, he has not closed down newspapers, TV channels or media platforms. He has not jailed journalists or arranged their murder. His strategy has been to discredit — not destroy — uncooperative media. Two Benitos.
Consolidation of power. This is central to fascist rule. Inherited constitutional powers were not enough for Mussolini and Hitler: Hitler destroyed the rule of law, suborned the judiciary and leading cultural institutions, banned rival political parties, arranged the imprisonment or murder of thousands of opponents, seized a monopoly over media, and won the grudging allegiance of the military within 19 months of becoming chancellor in 1933. Mussolini, in contrast, led coalition governments for three years and almost fell from power after fascists murdered a leading anti-fascist parliamentarian. It took him nearly four years to secure a dictatorship in which no one dared defy him.
Trump started slowly and met considerable resistance. He still has not tamed the media, the military or the intelligence services, despite lavishing money on the Pentagon and appointing loyalists of dubious qualifications to high posts. Attorney General William Barr has assisted mightily in Trump's attempts to consolidate power. In recent months, the president has redoubled those efforts, and with increasing success. But after 43 months, he has done far, far less than Hitler and a good deal less than Mussolini. Two Benitos — but if he is still in office next year, he'll probably earn a third in a hurry.
Pecuniary and institutional corruption. Mussolini and Hitler tolerated gluttonous corruption among loyalists while restraining their own venality. But they wantonly corrupted institutions as part of their efforts to consolidate power. They required loyalty over competence among lawyers, judges, professors, police captains and, to an extent, military officers.
Trump and his family use the power of the presidency to advance their business interests. He has ousted five inspectors general, including one looking into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's alleged peccadillos. He's converted Barr's Justice Department into a political branch that protects his allies, investigates his opponents and supports voter suppression. He calls into question the legitimacy of elections unless he likes the results, and he seeks to undermine public faith in the electoral process, for example by claiming that voting by mail invites fraud. He has less leeway than Mussolini or Hitler in corrupting many institutions because U.S. society is less centralized than theirs were: Trump doesn't have much say over who is a police captain or a professor. But he's doing his utmost, with consequences that will surely outlive him. Three Benitos.
Economic policy. Fascists had no particular economic doctrine aside from preparing for war. They wanted to build autarkic economies that could withstand blockade and did not rely on foreign trade except for bilateral deals with weaker countries. They built up military industries through debt that they intended to repay by looting conquered lands. They quickly reached deals with big business, heavy industry especially, without which they could not build their arsenals.
Trump, too, likes protectionism and has sacrificed the common interest to serve his business supporters. But, crucially, he has not geared the economy for war. One Benito.
Foreign policy. Fascists in power distrusted international agreements, disdained alliances (except with one another) and sought to revise the international order that, they felt, unfairly held them down. Fundamentally, they intended to use aggressive warfare to achieve their goals. Foreign affairs were important to both Mussolini and Hitler, and they eagerly sought successes they could tout.
Trump doesn't care (or understand) much about foreign policy aside from his eagerness to sign trade deals. He uses foreign affairs mainly for theatrical purposes, hoping for something to trumpet, as with his early efforts to intimidate, then court, North Korea. Like fascists, he hates international agreements and eagerly disrupts the status quo, but he does not seek war. Two Benitos.
Cultural policy. Mussolini and Hitler took pains to install fascism in the broader culture and to ally with religious authorities. Once in power, Mussolini, who had been anticlerical, pushed laws that suited the Catholic Church and was eventually rewarded with a papal pronouncement that he was a "man sent by Providence." Hitler, no more of a believer than Mussolini, won the acquiescence of the Vatican, the cooperation of many Protestant leaders and the support of the largest youth organization in Germany, the evangelical youth clubs. Both installed reliable fascists as rectors of universities, who systematically replaced anti-fascist professors. They appointed lap dogs to academies of sciences. They decided what was acceptable and authentic — and what was decadent and deserving of destruction — in art, architecture, music and literature. They pretended to have cultural expertise: Hitler in art and architecture, and Mussolini in almost everything from Platonic philosophy to Shakespearean drama.
Trump invokes culture, heritage and history frequently, but he has no coherent cultural policy. He wants Confederate monuments to stay on their pedestals. He encourages, usually in dog-whistle fashion, racism as a cultural attitude. Aside from claiming an innate talent for science, though, he makes no claims to expertise in realms of learning or culture, and reveals no interest in them, either. Trump showed no inclination to faith or observance before seeking office. In power, he cultivates evangelical leaders, who mostly agree to ignore his irreligious past and his crudely un-Christian conduct in exchange for anti-Muslim, anti-gay and anti-feminist policies, as well as judicial appointments. Two Benitos.
Racial policy. Hitler believed in the superiority of a (fictional) Aryan race and considered Jews and Slavs inferior. In power, he enacted the anti-Jewish Nuremburg Laws of 1935. Racism motivated the Holocaust. Mussolini at first didn't care about race. But after more than a decade in power, with the war against Ethiopia and his tightening bond with Hitler, he showed increasingly militant racism against Arabs, Africans and Jews.
Trump has not enshrined racism in law. Nor has he enacted wide-ranging discriminatory policies. But he has tried to make immigration policy more racist, stoked White grievance as a political tactic and courted white supremacists. He refers to majority-Black cities as slums and calls some immigrants "animals, not people." Racism is more central to Trump's governance than it was to Mussolini's early years, but much less so than it was to Hitler's. Two Benitos.
So where does Trump's administration stand as he is nominated for a second term? He earned 47 of a possible 76 Benitos, or 62 percent. He remains the greatest threat to American democracy since the Civil War, but his exercise of power only partly resembles that of real fascists. He still faces checks and balances in Washington. He hasn't shut down rival parties or uncompliant media.
He has not directed the armed might of the state against citizens on anything like the scale used by Mussolini, let alone Hitler. He does not have his own obedient "squadristi" eager to beat up foes, even if plenty of his followers advocate (and sometimes indulge in) violence against minorities and Trump's opponents. He has not arranged the murder of prominent political opponents. The cult of violence is integral to fascism but far less central to Trump. He is not ruling like a genuine fascist.
But he has shown pronounced fascistic leanings. In the right circumstances — a crisis he could manage triumphantly, a more sympathetic military — perhaps he would try to extend his rule beyond whatever the voters allow him and convert the United States into a repressive, racist dictatorship. Or perhaps stage phony elections that hand the reins to Ivanka and Jared. At least a few members of Congress would probably support him, just as many parliamentarians voted to give Mussolini and Hitler emergency powers. Those lawmakers did not know at the time just where fascism might lead. We have a clearer idea.