The core problem with the discussion of Trump and fascism in today’s New York Times is that it defines fascism solely in terms of what scares liberals. If the goal of fascists were to be scary, then you might judge how fascist a movement is by how much it scares you. But that’s not why people support fascism.
What’s necessary is to see fascism from the inside. Why might people support an authoritarian, chauvinist ruler who attacks minorities and foreigners?
Suppose you have a bedrock belief that people get what they deserve. The poor are poor because they are inferior, and the rich are rich because they are smart and work hard. Lots of people feel this way, not as an analytical proposition to be assessed against the evidence but as a preconscious commitment. This view can work at multiple scales: it enables those who have it to accept the reality of individual, group and national inequality without the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.
But suppose the pattern of winners and losers becomes such that the “natural justice” assumption implies that it is you and your people who are the inadequate ones. The community (class, racial, religious) you identify with is struggling while other communities seem to get ahead. Your country is defeated in war or seems to be declining relative to other countries in wealth and power. How can you reconcile the facts of the world around you with your core beliefs about just desserts?
Fascism’s political appeal is that it solves this conflict. It tells you that foreign or alien groups—less virtuous than yours but ambitious and sneaky—have undermined you. They’ve taken your jobs, tied you up in pointless rules that benefit them by preventing your people from getting what they deserve under the false banner of equality, eroded your values and traditions. Your group has allowed this to happen because it was disunited, even weakened from within by traitors. The solution is to root out these treacherous elements, throw off the artificial laws and constraints (like political correctness) that prevent true merit from getting its rewards, and get rid of the foreigners and parasites. The fundamental political question, from the perspective of fascism, is not how to adjudicate disagreements but how to eliminate the dissent and defeatism that stands in the way of your people’s unity and rightful place in the world.
How such a movement foments repression, violence and war depends on the context—the barriers fascists need to overcome to implement their program. For instance, if there really were a move to expel millions of undocumented residents of the US, this would entail an alarming level of surveillance and force, much greater than anything we’ve seen in this country in decades. This is not because Trump and his followers want a reign of terror in itself, but because that’s what it would take. Do I know whether the expulsion theme is a real prospect or just rhetoric? Do I want to find out?
The proper way to determine the fascist threat from a right wing nationalist movement in the US or elsewhere is to ask (1) do they seek to impose the unity and rule of “the people” (their national or ethnic group) through suppression of minorities, dissent and foreigners? and if so (2) what repressive or violent actions will they need to take to carry out such a program?