It’s not that Trump himself is a fascist, but he’s a sign that we are more vulnerable to it than we ever imagined
he rise of Donald Trump as a presidential contender has been accompanied with dire warnings of a coming fascist tide. In both his style and substance—belligerence toward opponents, policy proposals aimed at specific religious and ethnic groups, constant appeals to making the nation great again—Trump makes it easy for pundits to draw analogies to historical fascists.
A Trump presidency would undoubtedly mean difficulty for certain minorities, Muslims and Mexicans being obvious examples, but few observers honestly believe that it would bring about a fascist nightmare, with a complete loss of civil liberties, for most of the general public. Experts point out that the conditions for the rise of real fascism—most notably a devastating economic collapse and political upheaval—are absent in America today, making warnings of a lurch to fascism somewhat exaggerated.
That said, Trump is a new phenomenon in American politics, one that arguably creeps closer to the fringes of fascism than anything preceding it. What should concern Americans is not the possibility that Trump is an American Hitler or Mussolini, but that he is a continuation of a rightward trajectory that the country has been following for decades. His election would be strong evidence that America is vulnerable to demagogic and fascistic tendencies, and that given the right conditions—a catastrophic economic breakdown, for example, perhaps combined with a military humiliation at the hands of China or Russia—a real fascist turn would be conceivable.
This raises the question of what keeps American society on this precarious trajectory, making it susceptible to fascist appeals. There have been numerous causal factors at work in setting this dangerous course, but for those who wish to defuse a potential fascist time bomb there is one element that stands out as most significant: America’s embrace and glorification of militarism.
The United States is by far the most powerful military force the world has ever seen, with land, air and sea forces extending around the globe. At about $600 billion, the nation’s military budget is almost 40 percent of the entire globe’s military spending, an outrageous amount that, even more stunningly, is rarely questioned by the public, the media, or any politician on either side of the aisle. This militarism permeates the culture in countless ways and ultimately leaves the nation at risk of a slide toward fascism, should the right conditions arise.
Fascism needs militarism, not just for its brute force (though that’s part of it) but for its emphasis on sacrificing individualism for the sake of the state. It’s hard to imagine the Nazi rise in Germany, for example, without that country’s deep-rooted martial tradition, particularly Prussian militarism, as a foundational element. Even in Italy, which had no similar tradition of militarism, Mussolini’s power was secured by force and accompanied by militaristic policies and actions that were uncharacteristic of Italy historically.
By its nature, militarism encourages other tendencies that create a fertile environment for fascism. Militarism and nationalism invigorate one another, for example, so it’s no surprise that American culture incessantly affirms notions of patriotism and national greatness. These themes are reflected throughout the culture, in advertising, sporting events, and virtually any public function, where patriotic references and the associated military pageantry are rarely missing. Such actions are usually assumed to be benign—what could be wrong with love of country, right?—but they invariably solidify the importance of militarism as a cultural value.
Even more insidious is the way that nationalism is instilled into young psyches via the daily school ritual of pledging allegiance. The fact that Americans take the pledge exercise for granted is only proof of the effectiveness of the psychological conditioning underlying it, for no other developed country expects daily pledges of national loyalty from its youth. Again, Americans tend to see it as a harmless expression of values—liberty and justice for all—when in reality such persistent patriotic exercises are encouraging an obedient, nationalistic population.
Magnifying the problem is the fact that America defines patriotism by using theistic elements, creating a sense that the nation is doing God’s work. Thus, children pledge that we are “one nation under God,” and the national motto is now “In God We Trust.” These divine patriotic references, both adopted in the early years of the Cold War, would please anyone seeking to create conditions ripe for fascism. The best defense against fascism is an intelligent, educated, and critically thinking populace that is engaged in participatory democracy. This is not what we get when we have a hyper-patriotic nation that believes God is on its side.
In considering how American militarism pushes the nation in a dangerously fascistic direction, we need not debate whether the country’s militarism serves benevolent or malevolent ends. It is the militarism itself, regardless of the country’s historical righteousness or current good intentions, that provides a foundation for the eventual support of fascism. From there, all that is needed are the right conditions—severe economic strife, ethnic groups to vilify, perceived enemies to fear, and political chaos—and a perfect fascist storm could arise. The final entrance of a demagogic character, whether Trump or someone else, is an incidental detail.
As such, we shouldn’t be swayed when the Pentagon goes to great lengths to portray our military as synonymous with all that is good. It’s rare for a television news cycle to pass, for example, without a story of a returning soldier surprising his or her child by showing up unexpectedly at school or at a sports event. The television cameras are rolling as the parent, usually in military fatigues, embraces the surprised child in a joyous reunion, a carefully choreographed moment brought to us by Defense Department publicity experts who realized long ago the propaganda value of such heartwarming moments.
As this suggests, the corporate media, like the corporate sector in general, are complicit in the sale of militarism to the American people. Some corporations glorify the military because they directly benefit from the country’s outlandish military spending, whereas others do so simply because expressions of patriotism are good for business. Giving veterans and military personnel special discounts, or perhaps letting them board airliners first, are gestures that cost little but portray companies as good corporate citizens. However, as I pointed out in my book Fighting Back the Right, corporations have no national loyalty and consistently put their own interests above any nation’s, as their executives readily admit, but they will always play the patriotism card when it is to their advantage.
With military might perceived as innately American and thus exalted within the culture, we are quick to see war as a solution rather than a problem, as was the case in 2003 when the nation rushed to a senseless and indefensible war in Iraq, and as we see now with Barack Obama becoming the first president ever to be at war for two complete terms in office. Militarism has made the United States a nation of permanent war.
We have gone in this direction because there are many powerful interests that desire it. That enormous military budget is a corporate trough, funneling billions of dollars to the institutions that really own and control the country. These military contractors—Lockheed, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, and countless others—don’t necessarily want fascism, but they want militarism and they do all they can to ensure that it continues. Even the Pentagon’s enormous budget isn’t enough for them, as they also profit greatly from America’s massive foreign military aid, much of which is appropriated outside of the Defense Department budget, that makes countries around the world their customers.
With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, one might have thought that the United States would embark on an agenda that emphasized butter over guns, but that’s not what happened. Instead, we expanded NATO up to the Russian doorstep and did little to tone down our culture of militarism. If there was any hope that we might eventually demilitarize somewhat, the events of September 11 left no doubt that fighting enemies would be a defining characteristic of American society for many years to come.
Knowing all this, the accurate view of Trump is not that he is fascism incarnate, but that he is the latest step on a troubling rightward path that America has been following for decades. That path has been cut with values—nationalism, acceptance of authority, anti-intellectualism, chauvinism, conformity—that are encouraged by a culture that glorifies militarism. If you’re worried about a fascist turn in America—and you should be—look beyond Trump to the expansive and unquestioned militarism that nurtures fascistic tendencies.
Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University.