There are often good reasons to call a spade a spade. But what if the spade looks a bit like a Nazi? Does that actually make it a Nazi, or is it in fact just a rather authoritarian shovel? Beware too tricks of the light – it may simply be the Third Rake.
As Donald Trump enters the third week of his presidency, debate rages about which labels can most suitably be attached to the robust style of politics he has unleashed on the United States. To say he is a populist seems a pretty safe bet, while Trump’s explicit focus on putting “America first” means that protectionism is a term the President would presumably endorse himself.
But to those who regard the man in the White House as the devil incarnate, these descriptions barely scratch the surface. Worse they normalise an administration which is anything but normal. To critics, the imperative to call Trump out on his divisive policies requires more extreme comparisons.
Godwin’s law is the adage that if an online discussion carries on for sufficient time (regardless of its original subject) eventually a comparison will be made to Hitler. When it comes to Donald Trump, there is usually no need to wait long or even to hang around internet chat rooms. After his executive order banning entry to the US from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Madrid’s mayor Manuela Carmena alluded to Trump’s democratic victory before noting that “in the 20th century, we experienced one of the greatest violations of human rights by a government that also initially enjoyed popular support”.
Others have been happy to be even more direct in their language. In December 2015, former New Jersey Governor, Christine Todd Whitman – a Republican – suggested that Trump was employing “the kind of rhetoric that allowed Hitler to move forward”.
And it’s not just the President himself who has been the subject of such comparisons. Controversial, Trump-supporting speakers have been met with protests in recent days as they attempted to address students at several locations. In New York Gavin McInnes, a conservative provocateur, abandoned a campus talk as activists yelled at police for protecting “Nazis” and “neo-Nazis”.
“Nazi” is arguably the least helpful term for any sensible critique of Trump, more or less equivalent to turning the volume up to 11 and shouting “your mum” until everyone else goes home. The term is, after all, a bastardised shortening of the German Nationalsozialist and ought to be used only in connection with individuals or political movements which have the same aims as Hitler’s National Socialists. To bandy around the comparison less precisely underplays the horrors of the Third Reich and oversimplifies the complex scenario which we are currently seeing unfold not only in the US but other longstanding democracies of the West too. It is better to understand political movements in their own contexts, not by judging them against what happened 80 years ago. That’s not to say we shouldn’t look for signs of history repeating itself – but for opposition to carry weight it must be based on a cogent understanding of what is happening in the here and now.
If “Nazi” is a step too far, what about considering Trumpism as a form of fascism? Here at least there is the advantage that fascism can be seen as a broader philosophy under which various political parties and movements have existed during the last century. And it certainly seems plausible to suggest that Trump’s style of government has much in common with other instances of fascistic rule. He undoubtedly stands for nationalism: indeed, he appears to be becoming even more nationalistic than many anticipated. He seems keen also to promote his own masculinity and the masculine strength of others – and the cult of his own leadership is already very much in evidence. Appeals to America’s long lost golden age combined with rhetoric about restoring that strength are also comparable to past fascist regimes.
The problem, if indeed it is a problem, is that “fascist” has become such a catch-all insult that, like hurling the “Nazi” jibe, it is too easily dismissed as being over the top. The comparison may be all too likely, but it sounds like playground stuff.
It is tempting, perhaps, to argue that this doesn’t matter. If bluster, insults and playing fast and loose with the truth are good enough for the President of the USA, then they should be good enough for the rest of us. But is that really what the world has come to – a race to the bottom with the former star of the Apprentice?
The truth is, it probably doesn’t much matter what we call Trump. We should judge him not by any particular labels but by what he says and what he does. Whether he’s a fascist is kind of beside the point: our key concern ought to be that his policies and his attitude seem so morally wrong.
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