Not Fascism: Trump is a Right-Wing Nativist Populist

About Chip Berlet

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt of the author’s forthcoming analysis of the new wave of right-wing nativism inspired by Donald Trump.

The outlandish populist rhetoric of Republican presidential wildcard Donald Trump has left many journalists at a loss for words—words such as bigotry, xenophobia, racism, sexism and demagoguery. These are the elements of the latest Nativist crusade.

Donald TrumpJournalists and scholars familiar with the rise of contemporary right-wing populist political parties and social movements in Europe recognize that xenophobic, anti-immigrant, and racist rhetoric can lead to acts of violence. The progressive press has done a better job of pointing out the potential for making some of our neighbors targets of White angst.

Adele Stan in the American Prospect (9/9/15) put it boldly:

What Trump is doing, via the media circus of which he has appointed himself ringmaster, is making the articulation of the basest bigotry acceptable in mainstream outlets, amplifying the many oppressive tropes and stereotypes of race and gender that already exist in more than adequate abundance.

Donald Trump Is an Actual Fascist” trumpets the headline in Salon (7/25/15) for Conor Lynch’s article. Undermining Salon’s headline, Lynch tells us the “GOP are obviously not fascists, but they share a family resemblance.” The resemblance, according to Lynch, is explained in the famous quote attributed to Italy’s fascist dictator during World War II, Benito Mussolini:

Fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.

According to Lynch, this “definition may very well fit the GOP ideology: a kind of corporate fascism.” Alas, the quote is a hoax, widely circulated on the internet but debunked years ago. Mussolini never wrote or said anything like that, since the fake statement refutes Mussolini’s views on fascism. Nor is Trump an example of creeping totalitarianism, for which Hitler and Stalin were the analytical icons for Hannah Arendt in her masterwork The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Part of the confusion over Trump’s ideology is definitional: Scholars write entire books trying to map out the contours of right-wing political and social movements, especially the line dividing right-wing populism and neofascism. The pre-eminent scholar in this area, University of Georgia’s Cas Mudde, explained in the Washington Post (8/26/15):

The key features of the populist radical right ideology – nativism, authoritarianism, and populism – are not unrelated to mainstream ideologies and mass attitudes. In fact, they are best seen as a radicalization of mainstream values.

His ideology and rhetoric are much more comparable to the European populist radical right, akin to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, the Danish People’s Party or Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. All of them use the common radical right rhetoric of nativism, authoritarianism and populism.

What fuels this sort of bitter backlash movement now? The late scholar Jean Hardisty who founded Political Research Associates argued in 1995 that a confluence of several historic factors has assisted the success of the right in the United States:

  • a conservative religious revitalization,
  • economic contraction and restructuring,
  • race resentment and bigotry,
  • backlash and social stress, and
  • a well-funded network of right-wing organizations.

Each of these conditions has existed at previous times in US history,” wrote Hardisty. She also noted they overlap and reinforce each other. This backlash is picking up speed. The Republican voter base in the Tea Party long ago shifted its attention away from fiscal restraint toward anti-immigrant xenophobia, banning abortion and pushing gay people back into the closet.

The demonization and scapegoating that accompanies right-wing populism in the United States is breeding a backlash movement that will take creative and bold approaches as we organize to defend democracy and diversity in the public square.

This article and the forthcoming analysis are adapted from the author’s previous piece in FAIR.

Chip Berlet is a former senior analyst at Political Research Associates. He authored Eyes Right! and Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (with Matthew N. Lyons) and is a frequent contributor to Talk2Action and Huffington Post.