Pundits and candidates alike are now accusing Donald Trump of being a fascist or neo-Nazi. Some are even comparing him to Adolf Hitler. This is a serious problem – not for Trump, mind you, but for our collective intelligence as Americans. When we imply that the sinister Trump phenomenon represents something new on the American scene, we gloss over the ugliest parts of our political history, and in the process make it more likely that those mistakes will be repeated.
There are three qualities to Trump’s presidential campaign that invoke parallels to Nazism. The first is his intense cult of personality, which, for Trump supporters, is particularly driven by his reputation as a successful businessman who can “fix things,” and by his willingness to brazenly defy the taboos of political correctness. In addition, there is his blatant racist demagoguery, from his spurious and offensive claims that undocumented Mexican immigrants are largely criminals and rapists to his recent proposal that Muslims carry ID cards identifying their religion. Finally, there are the undertones of violence, both inspired by his rhetoric (e.g. the two Bostonians who savagely assaulted a homeless man while invoking Trump’s name) and directly advocated by Trump himself (e.g. his open agreement with supporters who beat up a #BlackLivesMatter protester).
While these characteristics range from the merely unsettling to the downright reprehensible, none of them are novelties to American political life. Indeed, the campaign that saw the first Democratic president, Andrew Jackson, elected, contained all of these qualities – the former general was revered as a bona fide American hero by his supporters, widely admired for his role in committing genocide against indigenous peoples, and proud of his violent past with dueling, a practice that was enthusiastically emulated by his followers.
And it doesn’t end with Jackson: Cults of personality have elected presidents from William Henry Harrison and Theodore Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama; overt racism has been not only preached but practiced from the White House, from the eight men who owned slaves while serving as president to progressives like Woodrow Wilson, whose promotion of segregation and open sympathy with the KKK recently inspired student protests at Princeton University; and when it comes to violence, nothing beats the supporters of the Southern Democrats’ presidential nominee in the election of 1860, Vice President John C. Breckinridge, who made good on their threats to start a Civil War in the event that Republican Abraham Lincoln was victorious.
In short, by comparing Trump’s presidential campaign to distinctly foreign, extreme right-wing ideologies, we overlook the homegrown antecedents from which he has drawn. Consequently, we deny ourselves one of the chief tools necessary for effectively combating him – namely, historical perspective.
Take the apocalyptic rhetoric that Trump uses to discuss issues like undocumented immigration and the Syrian refugee crisis. Because Trump has presented himself as an opponent of so-called “total political correctness,” his offensive comments about Hispanics and Muslims (to say nothing of women, African-Americans, and other marginalized groups) have been characterized as a bold willingness to slay sacred cows. Yet during the 19th century, similarly erroneous concerns about the criminality and inherent “otherness” of immigrants have been directed against groups ranging from Germans (e.g. Benjamin Franklin notoriously referred to them as “stupid” and “swarthy”) to Irish Catholics (e.g. when former president Millard Fillmore waged the second most successful third-party presidential campaign of all time on a platform devoted to keeping “un-American” Catholics out of the country). Likewise, when Trump argues that Muslims carry ID cards and Syrian refugees be monitored in a federal database, he is following in the footsteps of presidents like Franklin Roosevelt, who established internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II after first considering similar proposals.
This brings us to the twofold advantages of confronting the Trump movement with a well-informed historical perspective. First, it demystifies the rhetoric itself, allowing Americans to recognize that Trump isn’t some sort of trailblazer but rather a cheap imitator of political traditions so shameful that we’ve shuffled them away from our collective memory. More importantly, it helps bring the menace posed by Trump’s campaign into sharper relief.
When Trump supporters and swing voters are told that the Republican candidate is a fascist or latter-day Hitler, it’s easy for them to dismiss those concerns as partisan hyperbole, if for no other reason that they can’t really conceive of them – after all, America has never elected an outright Nazi to the presidency, so that particular threat seems more hypothetical than actual. Not so when talking about patterns of institutional discrimination that, though often overlooked by the media, were demonstrably all-too-real chapters of American history.
Trump’s political power – as well as the power of the right-wing reactionaries who will follow in his footsteps – comes from his ability to create a cult of personality for himself while effectively capitalizing off of America’s latent racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice. Just because these things don’t make him a neo-Nazi doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be devastating for America.
That’s why we must resist the urge to characterize Trump’s racial demagoguery, cult of personality, and authoritarian policy proposals as fascist or in any other way Hitleresque. By doing this, we deny and potentially empower the brutality, oppression, and violence that has marked so much of America’s political history. Trump is certainly pandering to our nation’s worst instincts, but the sentiments into which he has tapped have been with this country for a long, long time.