Trying to place President Trump in a political category that offers insight into what he’ll mean for our democracy — is Trump a fascist, totalitarian, authoritarian or sort-of populist? — has led both to spirited debate about political taxonomy and to the ransacking of European history for precedents and analogies. Lately, commenters have turned to Europe’s early 20th-century fascist interlude, including the rise of Nazi Germany, for signs. While conservative columnist Robert Kagan stated in The Washington Post that Trump’s presidency would “bring fascism to America,” David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, suggested Trump’s electoral victory was “surely the way fascism can begin.” And in the New Republic, Jamil Smith claimed that, “yes, Donald Trump is a fascist,” adding that as Trump lingered on the American political scene, “the probability of him sounding like a Nazi increases.”
The stress on the history of fascism to understand Trumpism is indeed useful, especially given that American neo-Nazis do in fact support him. But it is also misleading. Although it presents echoes of fascism, Trumpismo has not destroyed democracy. And whatever his desires might actually be, the American caudillo does not rule a totalitarian dictatorship, even an incipient one. Though Trump’s style shares many features with interwar fascist leaders, his practice is far more similar to the Latin American founders of modern populism, specifically that of General Juan Perón of Argentina.
In postwar Latin America, former fascists like Perón decided that if dictatorship could no longer be successful or globally accepted, democracy could still be undermined, stripped of its liberal features and repackaged as authoritarian populist democracy. In the populist formulation, electoral results lead to the full delegation of power to a single figure who incarnates the people. While more institutional forms of democracy conceive electoral results as specific moments of choice where politicians are elected to represent the citizens’ will, populism envisions the people as one, and their will as summed up in the figure of the leader. Populists hold elections as show trials against diversity, turning complex society into the old fascist notion of one people, one nation and one leader. But they historically have done this without establishing dictatorships or high levels of political repression and violence.
In his successful electoral campaign for the presidency in 1945 and early 1946, Perón accused the United States of supporting the oligarchy and the traditional political class against him and the people. For Perón, politics was a war between the real Argentine people (whom he incarnated) and the “enemies of the people,” foreign and domestic. Peronist posters around Buenos Aires posed the dilemma “Braden or Perón,” pitching Spruille Braden, the U.S. ambassador to Argentina, against Perón. This was a way of presenting classic arguments of fascism — that powerful outsiders must be stopped from oppressing the authentic, common people of a country — but now shaped in electoral terms.
Perón also positioned himself as a law-and-order leader who could knit together a divided public balanced on a fragile peace. In doing so, he valorized the police and the armed forces against imagined enemies of the people both inside and outside Argentina, who compromised not only the country’s safety, but its identity. Referring to himself in a 1945 speech, Perón said, “let Colonel Perón be the link of union that would make indestructible the brotherhood between the people, the army and the police. Let this union be eternal and infinite so this people will grow in that spiritual unity of the true and authentic forces of nationality and order.”
Trump, too, has mixed us-versus-them alarmism, jingoistic statements and the idea of law and order with the fiction that he is the “messenger” of the people. In his inauguration speech on “American carnage,” he said the American people had defeated a minority of politicians: “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government, while the people have borne the cost.” Trump has also claimed that the country is beset by crime, stating falsely on the campaign trail that the “murder rate” is the highest it’s been in almost half a century, and that the police “are the most mistreated people” in America.
Meanwhile, Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan suggests that the American character is in decline, and his repeated observation that ours is a divided nation that he intends to unify underscores the sense of alienation and danger that fuels his populist message. By representing himself as the embodiment of the American spirit and its everyday people (despite the fact that he lost the popular vote), Trump has invented himself a popular mandate to turn the country upside down.
The lesson here is that countries’ political systems can be corrupted without being replaced with a fascist one. In Perón’s case, this meant vastly altering the character of Argentina’s democracy without eliminating it. In contrast with fascism, Perón’s Argentina remained an authoritarian populist democracy that expanded social and economic rights and never violently repressed critics. Under Perón, Argentina experienced a strong redistribution of income, with wages rising and jobs increasing. Thus Perón did not have to install himself as a dictator; instead, he relied on the votes of the Peronist masses to keep him in power. In turn, he delivered for them, including paid vacations, more rights to farm and urban workers, fully funded state retirement, basically no unemployment and a substantial increase in state support for public health care and public education. Because of these gains, Perón never needed to crack down on his regime’s critics. His popularity and these material gains created a consensus that neutralized critics without needing to resort to violence. While Perón famously said that there was a moment when political adversaries became “enemies of the nation” and thus “snakes that one can kill in any way,” these sort of statements were not coupled with high levels of dictatorial repression.
Trump has also promised Americans that they are going to be richer and enjoy more social and economic rights, though his current budget proposals in fact portends further increase in income inequality, reflecting a record representation of billionaires in his Cabinet. Nonetheless, Trump is emphatic that he won’t let down the voters who elected him, saying that Republicans’ proposed health-care changes “will take care of our people” or they won’t receive his signature. And, like Perón, Trump seems to be counting on these promises to keep him in office. Though he has denounced the media as the “enemy of the American people” and threatened the candidate of the opposition, telling her that “you’d be in jail” if he became the president, Trump hasn’t made legal moves against the media or Clinton so far. A “Peronist” populist at heart, so far Trump seems much more interested in staying in office thanks to the affection of his base than through intimidating the opposition.
And it just may work, which is the problem. Trump’s rise lends credibility to a new global trend in authoritarian populism — one that is more nationalist and xenophobic than classical Latin American populism from the postwar era. We already see signs of this authoritarian wave in countries such as Turkey, India, Poland and Hungary, and possibly in France and Germany. In the mid-20th century, Perón and his wife and political partner, Eva “Evita” Perón, played a similar role in bolstering international recognition of populism. Perón demonstrated for the first time in history that a populist could reach power and create a regime. Populist regimes in Brazil, under Getulio Vargas, or Venezuela, under Rómulo Betancourt, also earned temporary recognition internationally. But Argentina and Brazil were not the most powerful countries in the world; America is. Even if Trumpism remains an authoritarian response within democracy — one that doesn’t dissolve the institution altogether, as it has been the historical case in Latin America — an intolerant xenophobe holding the greatest megaphone on earth threatens the integrity of other representative democracies and may yet usher in more Trumps.