Though history can sometimes help us better understand the present, it can also prevent us from looking at reality head-on. A few years ago, I wrote about the Vichy regime. Due to the deadlines that dictate the life of a columnist, I hastily and with little explanation called Marshal Pétain’s government fascist. I paid the price when a historian friend quickly informed me that my prose was dangerously lacking in nuance.
In France, there is a real debate amongst historians about the fascist nature of Pétain and the Vichy regime. Though the influence is evident and its totalitarian, far-right, ultranationalist and anti-Semitic aspects are widely acknowledged, many serious historians, like Serge Bernstein and Michel Winock (Fascisme français? La controverse, CNRS Éditions) make a strong argument against the existence of a widespread fascist movement in France.
As you may have guessed, when I heard people call Donald Trump a “fascist,” I fell off my chair. From a European perspective, this grotesque statement is not only indicative of great ignorance, but it is also a glaring political error about the history of the 20th century and current world issues. Several French and European newspapers (L’Obs, Le Temps) also quickly reacted to statements found often in North American media, in Quebec and elsewhere.
In France, high school students learn that fascism is characterized by a charismatic leader who holds all the reins of power and communes directly with the people; a totalitarian ideology that uses corporatism to undercut both capitalism and socialism; and a single ultranationalist, revolutionary party that distinguishes itself with its organized military.
Who the devil could think of Donald Trump as a charismatic leader who controls the levers of power when his own party does not respect him? Who would believe that this multi-billionaire would want to abolish capitalism and American democracy? Where are the Trumpist militias waving banners in the streets of Washington and Los Angeles?
Those sorts of statements would not be worth paying attention to if they did not trivialize fascism and the horrors of the 20th century. As the great Italian writer Curzio Malaparte, a one-time disciple of Mussolini, wrote, “A totalitarian regime is a regime where everything that is not forbidden is mandatory.” A bit like today’s radical Islam, fascism, being an all-encompassing ideology, sought to control all aspects of life from the economy to private lives, including arts and literature; just like its Siamese twin, communism, which you need to understand the other.
We can safely say that, for a 1930s fascist, Donald Trump would seem more like a corrupt capitalist with a gigantic ego who barely has a guiding principle. With all due respect to those who thought they could explain everything by unearthing a century-old ideology, Donald Trump has much more to do with a certain kind of media populism than the march of Blackshirt boots.
His role model is neither Mussolini nor Hitler. It is demagogue Silvio Berlusconi, who arrived on the Italian political scene in the 1980s, not long after the privatization of public television networks, which gave birth to a new media aristocracy. Unlike France and Great Britain, Italy and the United States both have a television industry where the notion of public service has practically disappeared. This could explain the Trump phenomenon.
Like Il Cavaliere, Trump brandishes his personal success as the sole measure of his worth. He encourages the same kind of unfettered misogyny and xenophobia. Like Berlusconi, he is counting on a discredited political and media class to go after voters who have not cast a ballot for a long time. What does he offer but a strange hodge-podge that is more like a reality show than politics?
Fascism crushed the individual under its ideological steamroller, but Trump represents individualism gone mad, where the spectacle is the main attraction, where social climbers are heroes, and where public jokers take over the screen while claiming their inalienable “right” to be vulgar. A symbol of “anthropological regression,” as writer Philippe Muray so aptly put it.
At a time when government ministers goof around on “Tout le monde en parle,” why wouldn’t presidential candidates also don red clown noses? Why not use all the provocations and thus ridicule politics itself? Donald Trump is not the spokesperson for an ideology; he represents a world that has seen it all when it comes to ideas. But that does not mean our future is as bleak as the past.