By Robert Reich
The Washington Post calls Trump’s vision for a second term “authoritarian.” That vision includes mandatory stop-and-frisk. Deploying the military to fight street crime, break up gangs and deport immigrants. Purging the federal workforce and charging leakers.
“In 2016, I declared I am your voice,” Trump said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference and repeated at his first 2024 campaign rally in Waco, Texas. “Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”
How do we describe what Trump wants for America? “Authoritarianism” isn’t adequate. It is “fascism.” Fascism stands for a coherent set of ideas different from — and more dangerous than — authoritarianism. To fight those ideas, it’s necessary to be aware of what they are and how they fit together.
Borrowing from cultural theorist Umberto Eco, historians Emilio Gentile and Ian Kershaw, political scientist Roger Griffin, and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, I offer five elements that distinguish fascism from authoritarianism.
1. The rejection of democracy, the rule of law, and equal rights under the law in favor of a strongman who interprets the popular will.
“The election was stolen.” (Trump, 2020).
“I am your justice. … I am your retribution.” (2023).
Authoritarians believe society needs strong leaders to maintain stability. They vest in a dictator the power to maintain social order through the use of force (armies, police, militia) and bureaucracy.
By contrast, fascists view strong leaders as the means of discovering what society needs. They regard the leader as the embodiment of society, the voice of the people.
2. The galvanizing of popular rage against cultural elites.
“Your enemies” are “media elites,” … “the elites who led us from one financial and foreign policy disaster to another.” (Trump, 2015, 2016).
Authoritarians do not stir people up against establishment elites. They use or co-opt those elites in order to gain and maintain power.
By contrast, fascists galvanize public rage at presumed (or imaginary) cultural elites and use mass rage to gain and maintain power. They stir up grievances against those elites for supposedly displacing average people and seek revenge. In so doing, they create mass parties. They often encourage violence.
3. Nationalism based on a dominant “superior” race and historic bloodlines.
“Tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border … The United States has become a dumping ground for Mexico and, in fact, for many other parts of the world.” (Trump, 2015)
“I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” (2019)
“Getting critical race theory out of our schools is not just a matter of values, it’s also a matter of national survival … If we allow the Marxists and Communists and Socialists to teach our children to hate America, there will be no one left to defend our flag or to protect our great country or its freedom.” (Trump, 2022)
Authoritarians see nationalism as a means of asserting the power of the state. They glorify the state. They want it to dominate other nations. They seek to protect or expand its geographic boundaries. They worry about foreign enemies encroaching on its territory.
By contrast, fascists see a nation as embodying what they consider a “superior” group — based on race, religion, and historic bloodlines. Nationalism is a means of asserting that superiority. They worry about disloyalty and sabotage from groups within the nation that don’t share the same race or bloodlines. These “others” are scapegoated, excluded or expelled, sometimes even killed.
Fascists believe schools and universities must teach values that extol the dominant race, religion, and bloodline. Schools should not teach inconvenient truths (such as America’s history of genocide and racism).
4. Extolling brute strength and heroic warriors.
“You’ll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength and you have to be strong. (January 6, 2021).
“I am your warrior.” (2023).
The goal of authoritarianism is to gain and maintain state power. For authoritarians, “strength” comes in the form of large armies and munitions.
By contrast, the ostensible goal of fascism is to strengthen society. Fascism’s method of accomplishing this is to reward those who win economically and physically and to denigrate or exterminate those who lose. Fascism depends on organized bullying — a form of social Darwinism.
For the fascist, war and violence are means of strengthening society by culling the weak and extolling heroic warriors.
5. Disdain of women and fear of non-standard forms of gender identity and sexual orientation.
“When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.” (Trump, 2005)
“You have to treat ‘em like shit.” (Trump, 1992)
I will “promote positive education about the nuclear family, the roles of mothers and fathers and celebrating, rather than erasing, the things that make men and women different.” (Trump, 2023)
Authoritarianism imposes hierarchies; authoritarianism seeks order.
By contrast, fascism is organized around the particular hierarchy of male dominance. The fascist heroic warrior is male. Women are relegated to subservient roles.
In fascism, anything that challenges the traditional heroic male roles of protector, provider, and controller of the family is considered a threat to the social order. Fascism seeks to eliminate homosexuals, transgender, and queer people because they are thought to challenge or weaken the heroic male warrior.
These five elements of fascism reinforce each other.
Rejection of democracy in favor of a strongman depends on galvanizing popular rage.
Popular rage draws on a nationalism based on a supposed superior race or ethnicity.
That superior race or ethnicity is justified by a social Darwinist idea of strength and violence, as exemplified by heroic warriors.
Strength, violence, and the heroic warrior are centered on male power.
These five elements also find exact expression in Donald Trump and the White Christian National movement he is encouraging. It is also the direction most of the Republican Party is now heading.
These are not the elements of authoritarianism. They are the essential elements of fascism.
America’s mainstream media is by now comfortable talking and writing about Trump’s authoritarianism. In describing what he is seeking to impose on ]America, the media should be using the term “fascism.”