Karl Marx once noted that all great historical events repeat themselves, only the first time as tragedy, the second as farce—and seldom can the maxim be so poignantly applied as to the fascism this time.
Whereas the first fascism of the early 20th-century channeled the energies of vigorous German and Italian youths, Trumpist fascism vents the resentments of marginalized geriatrics.
Whereas the first fascism projected an image of ordered discipline marching into the future, Trumpist fascism is backward-looking and incontinent.
Whereas the first fascism was aesthetic and united the nation through rituals and symbols, Trumpist fascism is slovenly, discordant, and buffoonish. Trump is to Hitler as Groucho was to Karl.
Early 20th-century fascism channeled the restless energies of newly formed nations, which had just lost big in the First World War. It sought to break the gridlock of unstable and corrupt democracies through the iron-hand of an authoritarian strongman. And it sought through force to fend off the communist menace.
In this sense, it was a product of its time.
But wherever rightwing populists seek to strengthen the nation through racist exclusion and militarist expansion; wherever leaders and followers fuse themselves in an unconscious effort to bolster their flailing sense of self-importance; wherever an assault on democratic institutions comes coupled with a cult of personality and the denigration of women; we see the hand of fascism at work.
Fascism made its debut in Italy toward the close of the First World War under the steely-eyed leadership of Benito Mussolini. Italy was a young nation, but a half-century old. Its institutions were weak, its democratic parliament riven with conflict. Its national identity was unformed, its youth spent in the shadow of great empires.
Italian fascists drew from a class of educated and elite nationalists and looked to the future. They were known for their flamboyant but always sharp sense of style. They wanted to take their seat among the great nations of Europe and bring order to their underdeveloped nation.
They also did a lot of cocaine and beat up their political opponents—and they came to power in a coup, sanctioned by church and crown. Yet a powerful myth of greatness, set forth from the tongue of a magnetic leader, has a way of blocking out the harsh light of reality.
German fascists were also young and forward-looking, fusing an unruly use of extra-legal violence with the façade of traditional patriarchy. They frightened elites but comforted the insecure middle-classes to whom they provided the illusion of order. And much as in the case of Italy, conservative elites welcomed Nazi vigor into their movement to restore the monarchy.
Fascists were everywhere a mess of contradictions. Hitler lied constantly. Looking back, we tend to imagine his actions as sprung from programmatic discipline. The historian Richard G. Evans emphasizes, in his Coming of the Third Reich, that Hitler had no program except to make Germany great again.
Never underestimate the power of reification, an ugly word connoting the important notion of mistaking abstract ideas for concrete realities. Perhaps all authoritarian leaders rely on the reification of their insecure followers but none so much as the fascist. The symbiosis between leader and follower would not be possible without the willingness to collude in their delusions of grandeur.
If Trump appears more the flaccid, old clown than the vigorous, fascist youth, perhaps it is because he is applying old answers to new challenges. Racist nationalism may find a following in a teeming global village, but its program is impotent. And the fascist program is impotent because it has languished too long in the realm of fantasy.
Rightwing populists apply fantastical solutions to non-existent problems, for if they faced up to reality they would realize it is they themselves who have chosen to be marginalized. And they have chosen to be marginalized by blaming their problems on everybody but themselves.
Magnanimous progressives like to imagine that the problems of Trump’s followers are economic. However, Trump’s base seems little concerned that he has largely jettisoned the populist economic agenda of his campaign days in favor of a plutocratic cabinet of billionaires.
Much as in the case of Hitler and Mussolini, Trump disarmed social democrats and progressives with pseudo-socialistic rhetoric, and his core followers tolerated it because they were never really interested in economics, which for most remains as incomprehensible as the alchemy of primitive magicians. What mattered for Trump’s core supporters was much the same as what mattered for the core supporters of Hitler and Mussolini, which was to feel themselves to be great again—nation be damned.
While the fascist solution worked as poorly then as now, at least its first instantiation appeared powerful. Whereas Trumpist fascism wears its absurdities on its sleeve, the first fascists were able to maintain the illusion of strength. Whereas Trumpist fascism makes use of the same outlandish propaganda, it does so in the Information Age.
And therein lies the rub: rightwing populism may be every bit as fascist this time around as last, but its bad faith is so obvious as to lend to it an air of the comic. And the comedy that lies embedded in the membranes of this tragedy is so readily apparent as to make of its experience as much a source of entertainment as horror.
Trump’s supporters could never lend to him the same allegiance as the original fascists did their leaders if only because they will be pressed to see through his ruses at every turn. Hence, their allegiance will most likely remain lazy and provisional. And his biggest supporters will tend to avoid open confrontation with their political opponents whenever possible, lest they be laughed off the face of the earth.
In the end, Trump will fall like so many tyrants before him—and he will almost certainly fall faster. The only question that remains is how much damage he will do in the meantime.
Author: Theo Horesh
Editor: Travis May