‘Trumping’ Democracy: Right-Wing Populism, Fascism, and the Case for Action

About Chip Berlet

This article is part of the Winter 2016 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

The candidacy of Donald Trump has prompted a vigorous public debate over whether or not Trump is flirting with fascism. Some analysts suggest his political dance partner is leading him to the tune of right-wing populism. Other analysts say Trump’s marriage to fascism already has been consummated. Either way, Trump is stomping on the dance floor of democracy in a way that could collapse it into splinters. It’s a “scary moment for those of us who seek to defend civil rights, civil liberties, and democracy itself,” warns political analyst Noam Chomsky.1

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Image via Flickr, Gage Skidmore.

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Image via Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

Back in 2010 Chomsky started lecturing about the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany into the abyss of Hitler’s totalitarian Nazism.2 There are parallels to our current political climate than need to be examined cautiously, even though conditions in the U.S. are not nearly as bad as those faced by the Weimar Republic.

Is it really fair to suggest Trump—neofascist or not—poses a danger to civil society itself, as occurred in Germany at the end of the Weimar Republic? A review of Trump’s rhetoric makes this a legitimate question. Trump keeps gaining ground. As New York Daily News columnist Shaun King wrote in November:

For nearly six straight months, no matter how racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, or anti-Muslim Trump gets, he has maintained his lead in the polls. In fact, from all indications, it appears the more his public talk resembles that of a white supremacist, the more rabid and entrenched his support gets.3

The examples of Trump’s fascist-sounding rhetoric are numerous. In June, Trump tweeted, “I love the Mexican people, but Mexico is not our friend. They’re killing us at the border and they’re killing us on jobs and trade. FIGHT!”4 In July Trump falsely asserted, “The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.”5

Trump’s sexism was displayed at the Republican debate on August 6 when he was asked by Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly about referring to women as “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.” Trump later attacked Kelly on CNN, saying, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.” The London Guardian reported that the “insinuation that Kelly was menstruating crossed a line for organisers of the Red State Gathering, a conservative event featuring GOP presidential hopefuls.” That group cancelled an appearance by Trump.6

Forging ahead, Trump claimed in September that the United States had become the “dumping ground for the rest of the world” for undocumented immigrants and proposed rounding up and deporting some 11 million of them, including their children, who are U.S. citizens.7 In a series of rambling and contradictory statements, Trump called for widespread surveillance of Muslims and refugees in the United States, and seemed to agree to the need for a federal database registering all Muslims, although he later backed off to say he was only considering it as a possibility. He confirmed that he wanted such a database for all Syrian refugees.8

As Trump’s viciousness ballooned, the corporate press shifted from portraying him as a carnival sideshow geek to recognizing that he posed a threat to civil society and even democracy itself.9

The media reported with palpable disgust when, during a press conference, Trump mocked the physical disability of New York Times seasoned political reporter Serge Kovaleski.10 Amid mounting disruptions of his campaign rallies by anti-Trump activists, Trump began to mock them, tried to silence them, and even ask that they be forcibly removed. In one incident Trump appeared to approve of the physical attack on a Black Lives Matter protestor who interrupted a November rally in Birmingham, Alabama.11

Supporters at a Donald Trump rally in Birmingham, AL, kick and punch a Black Lives Matter protester to the ground. Image via screenshot.

Supporters at a Donald Trump rally in Birmingham, AL, kick and punch a Black Lives Matter protester to the ground. Image via screenshot.

The Washington Post reported that Trump yelled, “Get him the hell out of here… Throw him out,” whereupon the protestor “fell to the ground and was surrounded by several white men who appeared to be kicking and punching him,” while CNN filmed video.12 Trump later remarked on Fox News that “Maybe [the protester] should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”13

This was the same rally at which Trump announced to his cheering supporters, “I want surveillance of certain mosques.”14

Trump’s appeal to White Nationalism became increasingly obvious. While Trump can’t control who supports his candidacy, the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos observed with disdain that even “the Daily Stormer, America’s most popular neo-Nazi news site, had endorsed him for President.”15

Writing about Trump’s nasty rhetoric, and the alarming welcome it has found during the Republican pre-primary media blitz, American Prospect journalist Adele Stan put it bluntly:

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.16

A Weimar Moment?

The Weimar period is crucial to understand because it was that precise moment in Germany’s history when a broad united front, crossing traditional political boundaries to defend democracy, could have blocked the mass base of a right-wing populist movement threatening to morph into a fascist juggernaut.17

Professor Paul Bookbinder at the University of Massachusetts in Boston has studied the Weimar Republic as it eroded into fascism in Germany. His collection of essays at the Facing History and Ourselves website, in a section entitled “The Fragility of Democracy,” explores the moments when public interventions might have altered what happened in Europe.18

As Bookbinder told me, “right now our society is facing some of the same tensions as seen in the Weimar Republic. People didn’t take seriously the threat to democracy when they could have; and when they did see the dangers it was too late.”19 He continued:

There are certainly some similarities to the rhetoric of the Weimar Period in Trump’s speeches, but also in that of some other Republican candidates, and Trump especially seems to be playing to an audience of angry White men who have held a privileged status as a group, but now see their status being challenged by people who they see them as undeserving.

Some commentators now are referring to Trump as a fascist demagogue, and Bookbinder thinks “they have a point” since “Trump is a strange combination of a fascist demagogue and a late night talk show host comedian. But we shouldn’t laugh at him because his is dangerous. When I watch Trump, even his facial expressions have the character I associate with the fascist demagogue Adolf Hitler. Trump’s crude humor also plays to some of the prejudices of many in his audiences.”

Mass Media, Demagogues, and Scripted Violence

Perpetrators of ethnoviolence and attacks based on race, religion, or gender “often take their cues from what they hear in the media,” wrote Robert Reich in a column on his website after the deadly attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs in November.20 Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, warned that “the recent inclination of some politicians to use inflammatory rhetoric is contributing to a climate” in which fear of violence is real and growing among targeted groups.

Reich, now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, was shocked when Republican Presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina continued to allege “that Planned Parenthood is selling body parts of fetuses,” even though the claim has been proven baseless. Fiorina isn’t alone, Reich continued. Mike Huckabee calls it “sickening” that “we give these butchers money to harvest human organs,” noted Reich. And after the Colorado shootings, Trump falsely claimed “some of these people from Planned Parenthood [are] talking about it like you’re selling parts to a car.” Much of Reich’s column consists of a horrific list of physical attacks on facilities operated by Islamic groups and Planned Parenthood in recent months.21

While violence is often used by ultra-right groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and various neonazi groups in the U.S., it is less common in conservative social and political movements. But Trump’s use of alarming right-wing populist rhetoric, aimed at mobilizing his predominantly White base, is changing that status quo.

The conservative Right generally tries to avoid this obvious and threatening sort of inflammatory language. In the Washington Spectator, political journalist Rick Perlstein, who has written several books about U.S. conservatism, observed of Trump that, “Previous Republican leaders were sufficiently frightened by the daemonic anger that energized their constituencies that they avoided surrendering to it completely, even for political advantage.”22 The Nazis cultivated the idea of an apocalyptic battle between good and evil. This, coupled with claims of a Jewish financial conspiracy and a sense of national humiliation that demanded redress, helped mobilize the mass base for fascism among the electorate in Weimer Germany. And it also legitimized the violence that followed Hitler’s rhetoric. Street fighting became rampant during the collapse of the Weimar Republic, as “Brownshirts” took to the streets to attack the targets singled out in Hitler’s speeches as a “threat” to Germany.

Similarly, Trump’s use of demagoguery aimed at scapegoated targets is laced with references to conspiracy theories involving President Obama—namely that he was not born in the United States. Tea Party conspiracists claim Obama is a secret Muslim and part of an evil plot. Trump also portrays Muslims in an apocalyptic framework, implying Muslims are a threat to the survival of the United States. Journalist Deborah Caldwell suggests this has touched a chord precisely because “people find his apocalyptic rhetoric enticing and familiar—because America has end-times obsession deeply embedded in its national psyche.” Conspiracism and apocalypticism are among the core components of right-wing populism, along with demonization, scapegoating, and “producerism,” which is the division of the population into “productive” members of society struggling against the “parasites” above and below who are subversive, sinful, or lazy.23

In their study of how media manipulation for political ends can help incite genocide, Mark Frohardt and Jonathan Temin looked at “content intended to instill fear in a population,” or “intended to create a sense among the population that conflict is inevitable.”24 They point out that “media content helps shape an individual’s view of the world and helps form the lens through which all issues are viewed.” According to the authors:

  • In Rwanda prior to the genocide a private radio station tried to instill fear of an imminent attack on Hutus by a Tutsi militia.
  • In the months before [conflicts] in Serbia, state television attempted to create the impression that a World War II–style ethnic cleansing initiative against Serbs was in the works.
  • Throughout the 1990s Georgian media outlets sought to portray ethnic minorities as threats to Georgia’s hard-won independence.

Frohardt and Temin found that demagogues facilitated the likelihood of violence against specific demonized and scapegoated target groups by creating a widespread fear in the general population that serious—perhaps lethal–attacks on them were “imminent;” even though “there was only flimsy evidence provided to support” these false claims. They continued:

When such reporting creates widespread fear, people are more amenable to the notion of taking preemptive action, which is how the actions later taken were characterized. Media were used to make people believe that “we must strike first in order to save ourselves.” By creating fear the foundation for taking violent action through “self-defense” is laid.

Thus demagogic rhetoric can produce “scripted violence,” in which the demagogue can claim there is no direct link between the inciting language and the violence of “random” perpetrators.25

Using the F-word — Why Terminology Matters

There are good reasons why Trump’s statements cause our progressive antennae to wiggle. Trump’s swaggering demeanor recalls that of Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. A number of journalists have suggested that Trump is using rhetoric similar to that used by Adolf Hitler in mobilizing Germans to support fascism. Some just call Trump an outright fascist.26 In doing so, however, some writers have fallen victim to a hoax quote on fascism wrongly attributed to Mussolini: “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.”27

It’s not clear where this fake quote originated, but it confuses Italian corporatist syndicalism with modern business corporations. The spelling is the only major similarity. Mussolini and his adviser, fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile, consistently wrote that under fascist rule corporations (and all other sectors of society) must bend to the iron will of the fascist ruler.28

Despite how loosely or inaccurately the terms are sometimes used, “fascism” and “totalitarianism” have very specific meanings. A totalitarian state is a central goal of fascist movements, including neofascism and neonazism. Totalitarian states enforce total control over every aspect of a person’s life—political, economic, social, and cultural—in order to reshape the individual and unify society. Totalitarianism is like authoritarianism on methamphetamines. Public debate and opposition are not tolerated. Core democratic systems are crushed. Dissidents are rounded up and sometimes executed. Political theorist and author Hannah Arendt argued that Nazism and Stalinism were the prime examples of totalitarian movements that gained state power.29

However frightening Trump’s ascent might be to progressives, the candidate is neither a neofascist nor a totalitarian ideologue, but a right-wing populist bully. And the distinction matters for reasons that go beyond simple taxonomy. Calling Republicans fascist or totalitarian leads progressive organizers into a dead-end of crafting the wrong tactics and strategies for the moment in which we live.

Professor Roger Griffin is a world-class authority on the subject of fascism, and author of several books including The Nature of Fascism.30 Griffin defines fascism as:

… a revolutionary form of nationalism, one that sets out to be a political, social and ethical revolution, welding the “people” into a dynamic national community under new elites infused with heroic values. The core myth that inspires this project is that only a populist, trans-class movement of purifying, cathartic national rebirth (palingenesis) can stem the tide of decadence.

Another expert, Emilio Gentile, author of The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy, says fascism raises politics to the level of a sacred struggle seeking totalitarian control over society. It is “a mass movement with multiclass membership” that

…believes itself invested with a mission of national regeneration, considers itself in a state of war against political adversaries and aims at conquering a monopoly of political power by using terror, [electoral] politics, and deals with leading groups, to create a new regime that destroys [electoral] democracy.31

Despite Trump’s campaign slogan—the promise to “Make America Great Again”—neither of these definitions describe his program, even though he appears to be getting close to neofascist rhetoric. Trump’s obvious early mass appeal is built around right-wing populism. Matthew N. Lyons and I defined the term in our book Right-Wing Populism in America:

Populism is a way of mobilizing “the people” into a social or political movement around some form of anti-elitism. Populist movements can occur on the right, the left, or in the center. They can be egalitarian or authoritarian, inclusive or exclusionary, forward-looking or fixated on a romanticized image of the past. They can either challenge or reinforce systems of oppression, depending on how “the people” are defined.32

Populism is confusing because it is at once an ideology, a strategic organizing frame, and a rhetorical narrative storyline that names friends and enemies. While left-wing populism often organizes people around expanding economic fairness, right-wing populism relies on prejudice and bigotry, demonization and scapegoating of an “Other,” and fears of traitorous, subversive conspiracies.

Trump uses populist rhetoric to appeal to “the people,” even as he campaigns on his status as an elitist member of the one percent. Margaret Canovan, author of Populism, a key academic book on several populist variants, calls this “politicians’ populism.”33 It’s a cynical scam, but one with a history of short-term success in political contests as the means of one set of elites unseating the faction of elites currently running the government. Italian philosopher Umberto Eco called this a “selective…qualitative populism” and warned that there “is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.” Thus we now have Trumpism: the use of right-wing populism to mask the fascistic demonization of targeted groups.

Although they can look similar, right-wing populism is distinct from fascism. As the University of Georgia’s Cas Mudde, an internationally-recognized expert on global right-wing movements, told the Washington Post in an article on Trump, “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.”34

Mudde, author of Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe, sees Trump’s ideology and rhetoric as comparable to several European movements,35 particularly Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France, and the Danish People’s Party. These right-wing populist movements flirt with fascist themes, but are not full-blown neofascist movements, although they share many similarities in terms of exclusionary rhetoric, organic nationalism, and nativist bigotry.36 The trickiest part is that many scholars now see right-wing populism as a building block of neofascist movements. Fascism emerges from right-wing populist mass movements when a faction of the one percent decides it is necessary to promote violence to regain control of a rapidly destabilizing nation facing a crisis. Fascism is the last resort of those in power trying to maintain control.

Fascism emerges from right-wing populist mass movements when a faction of the one percent decides it is necessary to promote violence to regain control of a rapidly destabilizing nation.

Terminological distinctions matter because some of the strategies and tactics we craft while organizing against a right-wing populist movement must be categorically different from organizing to block the rise of a totalitarian fascist state.

To challenge the current wave of vicious anti-democratic attacks in the United States we must study the forces that have unleashed them as well as determine the exact moment in history in which we struggle against them. People’s lives may depend on it.

As fascism builds toward grabbing state power, the situation quickly unravels.37 Sporadic attacks and acts of terrorism against the named scapegoats become more frequent and widespread. People need to focus on organizing around physical self-defense. This is not that moment. Things are bad, but not as bad as when Weimar collapsed into the hands of Hitler and his thugs.

During a period of right-wing populism, as we are experiencing now, the focus of organizing must be to defend the scapegoats targeted by demagogues like Trump. Millions of White people seem to be having panic attacks in the face of the changing racial demographics of our nation. Our task is to build citywide and even neighborhood coalitions to defend economic and social equality. The coalitions must be multi-issue and cross boundaries of race, gender, class, age, ability, and more.

The focus of organizing must be to defend the scapegoats targeted by demagogues like Trump.

Suzanne Pharr, author of In the Time of the Right, talks about “divisions that kill.”38 By keeping us divided, the defenders of the status quo have an easier time exploiting us. She suggests that in the current political climate, organizers must bring the discussion back to the neighborhood level. “We have to get people to talk about what duress they are experiencing and the losses their communities are experiencing. Then we need to talk about what has been stripped away from our community and family support systems.” This is how we can reach out to our neighbors and convince them to “stop blaming poor people and people of color and start looking in the direction of the forces holding us down.”

But be aware that the targeting by our right-wing adversaries is opportunistic and can shift in an instant to reproductive rights, the LGBTQ community, the environment, or “tax and spend” liberals. Back in 1994 the main target of the Right was the gay community, and right-wing strategists were using race as a wedge issue to get Black ministers to denounce the “Homosexual Agenda.”

The current crop of Republican candidates includes several active with the Christian Right and their agenda to curtail reproductive rights, force gay people back into the closet, and make women handmaids to male supremacy. Meanwhile, Carly Fiorina makes wildly inaccurate statements about Planned Parenthood and Jeb Bush is beating the militarist war drums with a frenzied ad campaign. Behind these candidates are millions of dollars of donations from wealthy “Free Market” fanatics pushing “neoliberal” policies to gut government services and cut taxes for the rich.

No matter who becomes the Republican candidate for President in 2016, the damage is already being done, and it is increasingly harming a range of scapegoated targets. This is a new political and social moment. Republicans have used bigoted rhetoric in the past, but anger has grown as buying power and status have shrunk among many Whites. This is producing a more virulent strain of White Nationalist nativism and masculinist rage.

Why Are These People So Angry?

The crowd listening to Trump’s stump speech in Massachusetts this October cheered his attacks on Mexican immigrants. The supporters my partner and I spoke with were fed up with the status quo, suspicious of President Obama, and very much liked Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Great for whom? Cleary not everyone. Trump supporters are angry. They resemble the folks in the film Network, who were told by a raving demagogue to open their windows and shout: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”39 This is the quintessential right-wing populist primal scream. Who is kicking them down the ladder of success? Someone has to be blamed for turning their American Dream into a liberal, “politically correct” nightmare.

When Trump uses the phase “politically correct” he is using a concept re-engineered by the Right in the 1980s as a way to silence activists demanding equality for traditionally oppressed peoples and groups in the United States. This is similar to the propagandistic use of terms such as “radicalization” and “extremism” to demonize dissent on both the Left and the Right.

Image via Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

Image via Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

Trump’s rhetorical propaganda is aimed at appealing to a growing base of angry and frustrated White middle and working class people. In a script broadcast by Trump ad nauseum, he is telling them who to blame for their slipping economic, political, and social status. According to sociologist Rory McVeigh, people who join right-wing movements tend to be convinced they are losing or about to lose status, power, or privilege in one or more of three civic arenas: economic, political, or social.40

We have seen exclusionary, repressive, or right-wing populist movements in the United States before. President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) was cheered as a champion of “the people” even as he kept Black people in chains and forced the Cherokee nation out of their ancestral homeland to make room for White pioneers.41 After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan launched a murderous wave of violence against freed slaves and their supporters in the South. The large populist movements of the late 1890s began as an overwhelmingly progressive force, seeking economic fairness and curtailing the abuses of economic elites, but some supporters later turned their anger against Jews and Blacks. The backlash against the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s frequently used populist-sounding conspiracist rhetoric, suggesting that communists and Jews were stirring up otherwise happy Black people in order to prepare the United States for a takeover by the Soviet Union. The presidential campaigns of George Wallace and Pat Buchanan were built using clear and coded right-wing populist appeals to a White nationalist base.42

In more recent history, the rise of the Tea Party exemplified right-wing populism, as an angry constituency was mobilized back in 2009.43 The Tea Party idea originated with supporters of uber-libertarian Ron Paul, but the franchise was scooped up by conservative billionaires who funded trainings and rallies around the country. Over time Christian Right activists played a leading role in local Tea Party groups, shifting the focus to a toxic blend of nativist anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric coupled with homophobia and antiabortion propaganda.44 Now the Tea Party grassroots is heavily populated by White nationalists.45 This is Trump’s voter base.

Folks who support the Tea Party and other right-wing populist movements are responding to rhetoric that honors them as the bedrock of American society. These are primarily middle class and working class White people with a deep sense of patriotism who bought into the American dream of upward mobility.46 Now they feel betrayed. Trump and his Republican allies appeal to their emotions by naming scapegoats to blame for their sense of being displaced by “outsiders” and abandoned by their government.

Emotions matter in building social movements. The linkage of emotion and politics are at the heart of a forthcoming book by University of California, Berkeley, sociologist and author Arlie Hochschild. In it, Hochschild reports on many conversations with Tea Party members in the South, where the movement is strongest.47 Many she spoke with long doubted that Obama was American; even after the publication of his long-form birth certificate some still suspect that he is Muslim and harbors ill will toward America. Hochschild also observes that this set of beliefs was widely shared among people who otherwise seemed reasonable, friendly, and accepting. How she wondered, could we explain this?

Her premise is that all political belief

is undergirded by emotion. Given the experiences we’ve undergone, we have deep feelings. These shape our “deep story.” And this is an allegorical, collectively shared, “honor-focused,” narrative storyline about what “feels true.” We take fact out of it, judgment out of it. A “deep story” says what happened to us from the point of view of how we feel about it.

The “deep story” of the Tea Party is that the American Dream has leveled off. Ninety percent of Americans between 1980 and 2012 received no rise in salary while dividends from a rising GDP rose dramatically for the top 10 percent.

Since the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, the one percent has enriched itself while pushing most of us into a downward spiral of exported jobs, lower wages, unsafe working conditions, and tax breaks for the wealthy. Government social services such as public health and food stamps have been slashed. Public works projects, from bridges to sewers, have been gutted. Shifting tax dollars to private charter schools has strangled public education, the keystone of democracy. This has been happening in communities of color for decades. Now it is front-page news because research shows it is devastating White working class and even middle class communities.48

Amid a rising gap between the rich and poor, the middle has been pressed out—especially blue-collar men, the bottom of the middle. Their search for other sources of “honor”—what Hochschild feels is an underlying crisis among Tea Party members—has also encountered resistance, and they have met with criticism, insult, and injury, from upper-middle class liberals who look down on them as “rednecks.”

Most Tea Party supporters feel the government is allowing them to be shoved aside, displaced, dispossessed, and disrespected by newcomers, outsiders, and immigrants who they don’t see as proper citizens (no matter their legal status).

Trump is popular among many Tea Party movement activists, although national leaders are remaining coy in terms of an endorsement.49 The Tea Party and Trump conspiracy theories feed off each other, and bolster a sense that there is a plot to disempower White people.

Trump and other Republican candidates capture their hearts and minds by telling them their anger is justified and then point them at scapegoats rather than the institutions that have failed them. A culture permeated by the legacies of White supremacy leads the White middle and working class to blame their real downward mobility on people of color and “non-White” immigrants, and in that way reproduces both structural racism and the class-based power of the one percent.

Much of this rhetoric, like Trump’s, began as a specific attack against Mexicans and Latinos, but it keeps expanding. There is a “Trump Effect increasingly sweeping through the country,” warned immigrant rights activist Pablo Alvarado, Director for the National Day Labor Organizing Network.50 For example, after the Paris attacks a number of Republican governors banned all refugees from entering their states.51 The Puente Human Rights Movement, a grassroots migrant justice organization based in Phoenix quickly responded with a statement declaring, “Scapegoating and xenophobia don’t make us safer.”52 But the attacks aren’t only coming from the Republican Right. Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, for example, is now criticizing immigrant-sheltering sanctuary cities.53

The center of the entire political spectrum in the United States is being shifted to the Right. The political views of today’s “centrist” Democrats resemble the views of many Republicans during the Nixon administration. White voters have been maneuvered into choosing White racial privilege over their own economic security. This explains the question asked in Tom Frank’s 2014 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas?54 In 2015, the same mass base cheers Trump while he is mobilizing resentment. That tactic, which Jean Hardisty explored in her 1999 book of the same name,55 is a longtime part of right-wing politics in the U.S. But now, as demographers predict that the majority of the U.S. will be non-White by the middle of the century, the existing emotional response behind that resentment is getting stronger.

From Analysis to Action

The debate over what we should call Trump’s vicious political movement should not stop us from organizing now to protect the people being demonized and scapegoated as targets of White rage. The current wave of right-wing populism in the United States is breeding a backlash movement that will take creative and bold strategies and tactics as we organize to defend democracy and diversity in the public square.

Debate over what we should call Trump’s vicious political movement should not stop us from organizing now to protect the people being demonized and scapegoated as targets of White rage.

Trump is a political performance artist portraying the psychological Id of the American Dream. He unleashes the fearful and angry feelings of people who live in a society run as a zero sum game requiring the successful to climb up over those labeled as inferior. So as the old “Liberalism” consensus collapses from the center while the Right is on the rise, what do we do?

Our challenge is to expose the ideas and policies of Trump and his Republican cronies while competing for folks in their voting base who are legitimately concerned about their declining economic and social future. At the same time we need to put pressure on backsliding liberals who now have the space to abandon justice for unauthorized immigrants and other targets of Republican venom.

Our challenge is to expose the ideas and policies of Trump and his Republican cronies while competing for folks in their voting base who are legitimately concerned about their declining economic and social future.

Activists need to build broad and diverse local coalitions that tactically address local issues while strategically linking them to national struggles. Building broad, inclusive, and egalitarian coalitions is hard. Bernice Johnson Reagon is a progressive scholar, singer, and activist. She helped found the women of color a Capella vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Reagon advises that, when doing real coalition building, “Most of the time you feel threatened to the core, and if you don’t, you’re not really doing no coalescing.”56

There are times when liberals and progressives can form alliances, but it can be frustrating. PRA’s founder, Jean Hardisty, explained this in her essay My On-Again, Off-Again Romance With Liberalism. At times when the Right is a growing threat and the Left is weak, she argued, “liberal reforms have to be defended. Now we are swimming against a tide that is thick with peril…and like it or not” progressives must “work with liberals, as well as with any other left-leaning sectors” in a “united front against the agenda of the Right.”57 Also keep in mind the right-wing backlash is a coalition that has fissures and cracks that can be wedged apart. We need to analyze and take advantage of the stress cracks in any right-wing coalition while making sure in our coalition work these strains are openly discussed and resolved honestly and equitably.

The late progressive activist Audre Lorde reminded us that there is “no hierarchy of oppressions.” Race, class, and gender issues are all complex and related, and no single form of oppression trumps another. That’s why the concept of intersectionality is so important. All systems of oppression need to be unraveled. Currently the focus is on the hierarchies of power and privilege that maintain the system of oppression on which this nation was founded: White Nationalism. That’s the primary text and subtext of the Trump campaign rhetoric. At the center of our struggle today is the idea of a “White Race”—which in scientific terms is nonsense. But in terms of the struggle we face, “Whiteness” is at the center. There is a White Race in the minds of millions of Americans. Whiteness is a social, cultural, political, and economic fact.

Right now we need to be organizing against right-wing populist scapegoating, especially racist White Nationalism and anti-immigrant xenophobia. White people need to reach across the political divide and engage White neighbors in conversations about how the nasty rhetoric is making it difficult to have serious discussions on how to fix what is broken. We all need to be engaging in struggles in our local communities, schools, workplaces—even on the supermarket checkout line.

White people need to reach across the political divide and engage White neighbors in conversations about how the nasty rhetoric is making it difficult to have serious discussions on how to fix what is broken.

Back in 2010 as the Tea Party Movement was first brewing, Chomsky raised the example of the Weimar period in Germany as a warning. At a meeting held by Z Magazine, Chomsky fielded a set of questions on how the Left should organize against the racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and antigay backlash arising out of the Tea Party.58

“First of all,” he said, “you need to understand it. They say to themselves ‘We work hard, we’re Christians, we’re White…and now They are taking it all away from Us.’”

Chomsky points out that, though often bigoted, these “feelings are genuine…and they have to be dealt with.” Organizing has to be “done in a way which doesn’t frighten people,” that doesn’t “elicit their worst emotions and reactions.” Hochschild’s sociological analyses and Chomsky’s political analysis reinforce each other.

According to Chomsky, we need to pay attention to the feelings of resentment which are “very understandable” from their point of view. You begin by recognizing that their anger “does have legitimate roots. People feel…seriously threatened…people’s way of life is being taken away from them.” It’s not the immigrants who should be blamed, however, but the greed of the financial sector, Chomsky says.

And when organizing, “You don’t want to brazenly flaunt in front of people your attacks on their values.” You need to help them understand that their values should lead them to tolerance instead of hate. Chomsky was asked how activists can build a successful movement. He replied to the whole room, “We all know how…by education, by organizing, by activism.”

Chip Berlet, co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America, has written scores of scholarly and popular articles on human rights, fascism, and right-wing movements. He served as a researcher at Political Research Associates for 30 years, and is creator of Trumpism.usAn expanded set of resources is being updated at Research for Progress.


1 Correspondence with author.

2 Chomsky first raised the issue of Weimar at a lecture at Left Forum in New York City. Another Chomsky lecture mentioning Weimar presented at the Haven Center at the University of Wisconsin is available as a transcript, http://chomsky.info/20100408/

3 Shaun King, “King: Donald Trump shows he’ll do anything to appeal to his racist supporters,” New York Daily News, (updated) November 22, 2015. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/king-trump-hits-new-racist-tweet-article-1.2443413

4 Affan Chowdhry, “Trump leads in polls despite gaffes,” The Globe and Mail, July 15, 2015. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/trump-leads-in-republican-race-despite-gaffes/article25516246/.

5 Washington Post, “Fact Checker” column, July 8, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/07/08/donald-trumps-false-comments-connecting-mexican-immigrants-and-crime/.

6 Edward Helmore and Ben Jacobs, “Donald Trump’s ‘sexist’ attack on TV debate presenter sparks outrage,” August 8, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/aug/09/megyn-kelly-donald-trump-winner-republican-debate.

7 David Leopold, “The shocking reality of Donald Trump’s plan to deport millions, MSNBC, 09/15/15. http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/donald-trump-shocking-reality-deportation-plan

8 Lauren Carroll, “In Context: Donald Trump’s comments on a database of American Muslims, November 24th, 2015, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2015/nov/24/donald-trumps-comments-database-american-muslims/.

9 Jason Stanley “Democracy and the Demagogue, Opinionator – A Gathering of Opinion from Around the Web, The Stone, October 12, 2015, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/10/12/democracy-and-the-demagogue/

10 The Guardian,New York Times slams ‘outrageous’ Donald Trump for mocking reporter’s disability,” November 26, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/nov/26/new-york-times-outrageous-donald-trump-mocking-reporter-disability.

11 Jenna Johnson and Mary Jordan, “Trump on rally protester: ‘Maybe he should have been roughed up’,” November 22, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/11/22/black-activist-punched-at-donald-trump-rally-in-birmingham/.

12 David Mark and Jeremy Diamond, “Trump: ‘I want surveillance of certain mosques’” CNN: Politics, November 21, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/21/politics/trump-muslims-surveillance/index.html  The video of the attack is in a section titled “Scuffle breaks out at rally,”

13 http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/22/politics/donald-trump-black-lives-matter-protester-confrontation/

14 David Mark and Jeremy Diamond, “Trump: ‘I want surveillance of certain mosques’” CNN: Politics, November 21, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/21/politics/trump-muslims-surveillance/index.html  The video of the attack is in a section titled “Scuffle breaks out at rally,”

15 Evan Osnos, “The Fearful and the Frustrated: Donald Trump’s nationalist coalition takes shape—for now, The New Yorker, “The Political Scene,” August 31, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/31/the-fearful-and-the-frustrated.

16 Adele M. Stan. 2015, “A Nation of Sociopaths? What the Trump Phenomenon Says About America,” American Prospect, September 9, 2015. http://prospect.org/article/nation-sociopaths-what-trump-phenomenon-says-about-america.

17 Paul Bookbinder, “Choices and Consequences in Weimar Germany,” Section: The Fragility of Democracy, (Weimar Republic Readings): four essays (Brookline, MA, Facing History and Ourselves, no date), https://www.facinghistory.org/weimar-republic-fragility-democracy/readings/choices-and-consequences.

18 Ibid.

19 Interview with the author, December 9, 2015.

20 Robert Reich, “Why Hate Speech by Presidential Candidates is Despicable,” November 29, 2015 http://robertreich.org/post/134235925280.

21 Ibid.

22 Rick Perlstein, “Donald Trump and the ‘F-Word’: An unsettling symbiosis between man and mob,” Washington Spectator, September 30, 2015. http://washingtonspectator.org/donald-trump-and-the-f-word/

23 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, 6-9. Terms explained in right sidebar here: http://www.rightwingpopulism.us/.

24 Mark Frohardt and Jonathan Temin, Use and Abuse of Media in Vulnerable Societies, Special Report 110, Washington, DC, United States Institute of Peace. October 2003, http://permanent.access.gpo.gov/websites/usip/www.usip.org/pubs/specialreports/sr110.pdf, (accessed 26/9/2012). Although an excellent study, the report is flawed by the failure to include a single footnote. See also Kofi A. Annan, Allan Thompson, and International Development Research Centre of Canada, The Media and the Rwanda Genocide (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2007).

25 Chip Berlet. 2014. “Heroes Know Which Villains to Kill: How Coded Rhetoric Incites Scripted Violence,” in Matthew Feldman and Paul Jackson (eds), Doublespeak: Rhetoric of the Far-Right Since 1945 (Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag, 2014). Excerpts at http://www.researchforprogress.us/topic/concept/scripted-violence/.

26 Chip Berlet, “Trump a Fascist?” Research for Progress. http://www.researchforprogress.us/topic/concept/trump-a-fascist/.

27 Chip Berlet, “Mussolini: The Fake Quote,” Research for Progress. http://www.researchforprogress.us/topic/concept/mussolini-fake-quote/

28 Benito Mussolini (with Giovanni Gentile), “The Doctrine of Fascism,” in Enciclopedia Italiana (1932); Benito Mussolini (with Giovanni Gentile), The Doctrine of Fascism (Firenze: Vallecchi Editore, 1935), this was the official English translation of the article in the Enciclopedia Italiana;  Benito Mussolini (with Giovanni Gentile), Fascism: Doctrine and Institutions (Rome: ‘Ardita’ Publishers, 1935), an expanded version of “The Doctrine of Fascism.” A discussion of the use of the fake quote is at

29 Hannah Arendt,  The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951). See also: Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1963).

30 Roger Griffin, The Nature of Fascism (London: Routledge, 1993).

31 Emilio Gentile, The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy, translated by Keith Botsford (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996); See also regarding Nazi Germany as sacralized politics: David Redles, Hitler’s Millennial Reich: Apocalyptic Belief and the Search for Salvation (New York: New York Univ. Press, 2005); Klaus Vondung, The Apocalypse in Germany ( Columbia and London: Univ. of Missouri Press, 2000). An expanded bibliography is at http://tinyurl.com/toxic-mix.

32 Chip Berlet and Matthew Nemiroff Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (New York: Guilford Press, 2000) http://www.rightwingpopulism.us/.

33 Margaret Canovan, Populism (New York: Harcourt, 1981).

34 Cas Mudde, “The Trump Phenomenon and the European Populist Radical Right,“ Washington Post, The Monkey Cage, August 26, 2015 https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/08/26/the-trump-phenomenon-and-the-european-populist-radical-right/ .

35 Cas Mudde. Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

36 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America.

37 Bookbinder, “Choices and Consequences in Weimar Germany.”

38 Suzanne Pharr, “Divisions that Kill,” in Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, ed. Chip Berlet (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1995) http://www.publiceye.org/eyes/div_kill.html.

39 Network, Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky (Hollywood, CA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1976), Full quote at Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074958/quotes.

40 Rory McVeigh, David Cunningham, and Justin Farrell. “Political Polarization as a Social Movement Outcome: 1960s Klan Activism and Its Enduring Impact on Political Realignment in Southern Counties, 1960 to 2000 (American Sociological Review 79, no. 6 2014): 1144-171; Rory McVeigh, “Ku Klux Klan activism in the 1960s is linked to the South’s swing to the Republican Party, London School of Economics, the LSE US Centre’s daily blog on American Politics and Policy, December 17, 2014, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/usappblog/2014/12/17/ku-klux-klan-activism-in-the-1960s-is-linked-to-the-souths-swing-to-the-republican-party/.

41 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, pp. 40-46; Google Educational Resources, “Jacksonian Era: Populism,” online resource, https://sites.google.com/site/jacksonianera/Home/populism.

42 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America.

43 Chip Berlet, “Reframing Populist Resentments in the Tea Party Movement.” In Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party. Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost, eds. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2014); Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind, The Tea Party Movement in 2015, online report, (Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, 2015). http://www.irehr.org/2015/09/15/the-tea-party-movement-in-2015/.

44 Abby Scher and Chip Berlet, “The Tea Party Moment,” in Nella van Dyke and David S. Meyer, eds., Understanding the Tea Party Movement (Farnham and London: Ashgate, 2014).

45 Burghart and Zeskind, The Tea Party Movement in 2015.

46 Scher and Berlet, “The Tea Party Moment.”

47 The book is tentatively entitled Strangers in Their Own Land: a journey into the heart of the right, (New York: The New Press, 2016)

48 Michelle Chen, “Now White People Are Dying from Our Terrible Economic Policies, Too,” The Nation, November 6, 2015, http://www.thenation.com/article/now-white-people-are-dying-from-our-terrible-economic-policies-too/ Chauncey Devega, “Dear White America: Your working class is literally dying—and this is your idea of an answer?” Salon, Nov 6, 2015 http://www.salon.com/2015/11/06/dear_white_america_your_working_class_is_literally_dying_and_this_is_your_idea_of_an_answer/.

49 S.A. Miller, “Donald Trump enjoys support of tea party movement that refuses to fully embrace him,” The Washington Times, November 22, 2015, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/nov/22/donald-trump-enjoys-support-of-tea-party-movement-/.

50 Pablo Alvarado, “Reaction: L.A. Sheriff Reverses Course on Jail Deportations,” National Day Laborers Organizing Network, September 22, 2015 http://www.ndlon.org/en/pressroom/press-releases/item/1165-reaction-l-a-sheriff-reverses-course-on-jail-deportations

51 Scott Oathout “Gov. Ducey calls for immediate halt of new refugees to Arizona” KVOA Television, Nov 16, 2015 http://www.kvoa.com/story/30529819/gov-ducey-calls-for-immediate-halt-of-new-refugees-to-arizona.

52 “Puente Responds to AZ Gov. Ducey’s Announcement on Refugees,” Puente Movement, http://puenteaz.org/press-releases/puente-responds-to-duceys-announcement-on-refugees/.

53 Courtney Coren, “Dianne Feinstein Under Fire for Sanctuary City Bill,” August 3, 2015http://www.newsmax.com/Newsfront/Dianne-Feinstein-sanctuary-city-bill/2015/08/03/id/665214. Newsmax is a right-wing website cited here to encourage touring the page to review the rhetoric.

54 Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2004), http://www.whatsthematterwithkansas.com/.

55 Jean V. Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999). http://www.jeanhardisty.com/writing/books/.

56 Bernice Johnson Reagon, 1983, “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century” in Barbara Smith, ed., Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, 1983; Rutgers University Press, 2000. See also http://www.bernicejohnsonreagon.com/publications.shtml.

57 Jean Hardisty, “My On-Again, Off-Again Romance With Liberalism,” The Women’s Theological Center (now known as Women Transforming Communities), in the Brown Paper series, March 1996. Republished with permission by Political Research Associates, 2015 http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/03/24/my-on-again-off-again-romance-with-liberalism/.

58 Chomsky’s comments are assembled by the author from a transcript of a videotape of the event. He was speaking at Z Magazine’s Media Institute (for progressive journalists). Video: “What Went Wrong: A Q & A with Noam Chomsky,” a Z Video Production. Chomsky confirmed these are still his views in an e-mail to the author.

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.