Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
In 1995, Umberto Eco, the late Italian intellectual giant and novelist most famous for The Name of the Rose, wrote a guide describing the primary features of fascism. As a child, Eco was a loyalist of Mussolini, an experience that made him quick to detect the markers of fascism later in life, when he became a revered public intellectual and political voice. Eco noted that fascism looks different in each incarnation, morphing with time and leadership, as “it would be difficult for [it] to reappear in the same form in different historical circumstances.” It is a movement without “quintessence.” Instead, it’s a sort of “fuzzy totalitarianism, a collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions,” he wrote.
Eco’s famous 14-point list outlines what the author dubbed “Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism”—and it fits hand in glove the political persona created by Donald Trump. Hours after 60 million Americans voted to give the presidency to a dangerously incompetent narcissist whose campaign was based on nativist fear-mongering and racist appeals, British historian Simon Schama lamented that Trump’s newly sealed win would “hearten fascists all over the world.” Sure enough, congratulations poured in from far-right admirers around the world, who recognized Trump as one of their ilk.
Throughout the campaign, comparisons of Trump to fascist leaders have been treated as unserious and even irresponsible. Now, as we watch him assemble a cabinet of frightening far-right nationalists, white supremacists, militarists, and free-marketeers, Eco’s list emerges as a must-read.
1. The cult of tradition.
Remind me when America was great, again? Was it during the eras of native people genocide, slavery, black lynchings as white entertainment, Japanese-American internment, or Jim Crow?
Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is an expression of longing for an America in which black folks knew their place and gay people didn’t dare leave the closet; when the country’s residents and immigrants were whiter and almost uniformly Christian; when identity politics (which we have had since this country’s founding) centered on white male identity. The slogan is often coupled with Trump’s promise to “take back our country,” implying it has been stolen by the blacks, the browns and the gays. The Republican Party has been playing to white America’s nostalgia for unvarnished racism and sock hops for decades (Ronald Reagan also promised to “make America great again”), but Trump took the subtle racism of the phrase and married it to naked bigotry and xenophobia, which are also long-standing American traditions.
2. Rejection of modernism.
Eco points out that this is not a rejection of modern technology, as much as modern ideas and thinking. “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity,” Eco writes. “In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”
Trump denies the scientific truth of climate change, once tweeting it was “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” More recently he labeled it “bunk” and possibly a conspiracy dreamed up by scientists, and has vowed to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords. He’s pro-fracking and anti-environmental regulations that protect the ozone layer but make his hair spray less effective. Trump has also pushed the discredited link between vaccination and autism, and appointed advisers who favor cuts to both NASA and the National Institutes of Health, which funds critical biomedical research.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence is a fervent denier of science and a religious zealot. He has taken a wait-and-see attitude on evolution and advocated for teaching intelligent design and creationism in schools. In a 2000 op-ed he wrote that “smoking doesn’t kill,” and penned a 2009 op-ed against embryonic stem cell use. Pence has written that global warming is a “myth,” that the earth is cooling and that there is “growing skepticism” among scientists about climate change—all the literal opposite of the truth. He also opted to pray instead of immediately changing a law that would have stunted the spread of HIV, resulting in the worst HIV outbreak in Indiana history.
Other modern concepts eschewed by Trump include multiculturalism, religious diversity, reproductive justice, civil rights for all, and other American ideals—in name, if not in deed—his followers have dismissively labeled “political correctness.”
3. The cult of action for action’s sake.
Eco writes that “action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.” This attitude goes hand in hand with “distrust of the intellectual world.” He continues, “The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.”
Anti-intellectualism and pride in idiocy—and disdain for complexity—are trademarks of today’s Republican ideology. In this light, educated elites are the enemies of salt of the earth, hard-working (white) Americans. Their hatred of Obama was paired with disdain for what they view as his “effete snob[bery]” and proclivity for lattes and arugula.
Ironically, in their quest to overthrow the coastal elite establishment, Trump voters elected a billionaire, coastal elite, establishmentarian, Ivy League graduate (as he constantly reminds us). Trump, perhaps recognizing that many in his base hate the visible professional class while worshipping the out-of-sight rich, simultaneously boasted about his wealth and pedigree while boosting his own anti-intellectualism. He patronizingly gushed about loving “the poorly educated.” He told the Washington Post he has “never” read much because he makes decisions based on “very little knowledge…because I have a lot of common sense.”
Since winning the election, Trump has waived the daily intelligence briefings that far better prepared and knowledgeable predecessors made time for, despite his being the first president with no experience in government or the military. He hasn’t bothered to contact the State Department before getting on calls with foreign leaders which threaten to overturn decades of political protocol. He has steadfastly refused to the learn the basics of domestic or foreign policy—or the Constitution—seemingly believing he can just go with the flow.
4. Opposition to analytical criticism; disagreement is treason.
Trump attempts to quell the slightest criticism or dissent with vitriol and calls for violence. On the campaign trail, Trump encouraged his base’s mob mentality, promising to “pay for the legal fees” if they would “knock the crap” out of protesters. He gushed about “the old days” when protesters would be “carried out on a stretcher.”
When the media finally began taking a critical tone after giving him billions in criticism-free press, Trump declared his real opponent was the “crooked press.” He pettily stripped reporters of press credentials when they wrote something he didn’t like, referred to individual reporters “as ‘scum,’ ‘slime,’ ‘dishonest’ and ‘disgusting,’” and claimed he would “open up” libel laws so he could sue over unfavorable—though not erroneous—coverage. In the latter stages of the campaign, Trump supporters took to berating the media with shouts of “lügenpresse,” a German phrase popular with Nazis that translates as “lying press.” Some Trump supporters also sported T-shirts suggesting journalists should be lynched.
Since the election, instead of boning up on policy, the thin-skinned president-elect has tweeted outrage at satirical comedy shows, Broadway actors and various media outlets, stating he would leave them alone if they were only nicer to him. Trump has also used social media to complain about protesters who oppose his presidency. That includes a tweet suggesting flag burning, a First Amendment right and fair game for expression of dissent, should carry a penalty of jail time or loss of citizenship.
5. Exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference.
“The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders,” Eco notes. “Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.”
Before he officially threw his hat into the ring, Trump courted bigots and racists furious about Obama’s wins by pushing the birther lie and attempting to delegitimize the first black president. The only coherent policy proposals Trump made during his run were those that appealed to white racial resentments, promising to end Muslim immigration, build a wall along the southern border to keep Mexicans out and retweeting white nationalists’ made-up statistics about black criminality. The cornerstone of Trump’s campaign was fear and bigotry, making him the preferred candidate of the KKK, David Duke and the white nationalist “alt-right.” Trump supporters have repeatedly denied that racism and xenophobia motivated their votes, but more than 900 hate crimes documented since the election suggest some correlation. So does the frequency with which Trump’s name appears in racist graffiti and is shouted by perpetrators of hate crimes.
6. Appeal to a frustrated middle class.
Eco writes that fascism reaches out to “a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”
Economic anxiety played a far smaller role in the election than the media has suggested; in fact, middle and upper-class white voters put Trump over the top. That said, Trump made overt appeals to whites who believe the American Dream is not so much slipping from their grasp as being snatched away by undeserving immigrants and other perceived outsiders. Trump made impossible promises to return manufacturing jobs and restore class and social mobility to a group of people nervous about falling down rungs on the ladder.
Trump, who immediately began hiring entrenched members of the Wall Street and Washington establishments he ran against and whose policies will largely benefit the very wealthy, took a page out of a Democrat’s book with this approach: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket,” President Lyndon B. Johnson famously stated. “Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
7. Obsession with a plot, possibly an international one.
“To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity,” Eco writes, “their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one.”
Trump obviously appealed to racial and religious nationalist sentiments among a majority of white Americans by scapegoating Mexican and Muslim immigrants on issues of crime, job losses and terrorism. He pushed the idea that he would “put America first,” suggesting that Hillary Clinton would favor other nations over the U.S.
“Under a Trump administration, no American citizen will ever again feel that their needs come second to the citizens of foreign countries,” Trump said, during one speech in April. “My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security first.”
Trump also propagated conspiracies by right-wing figures such as Alex Jones and Michael Savage which hold that globalism, aka the New World Order, threatens American interests. Former Trump spokesperson Hope Hicks defined the idea as, “An economic and political ideology which puts allegiance to international institutions ahead of the nation-state; seeks the unrestricted movement of goods, labor and people across borders; and rejects the principle that the citizens of a country are entitled to preference for jobs and other economic considerations as a virtue of their citizenship.”
The New York Times writes that the “term encapsulates a conspiratorial worldview based on racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.”
8. Followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies.
Trump conjured up a vision of America in a downward spiral, a nation fallen from its lofty position in the world to one deserving of shame and ridicule. He spent much of the campaign telling Americans they weren’t just losing, but had become the butt of an embarrassing worldwide joke.
In fact, since 1987, Trump has claimed more than 100 times that various entities are laughing at the U.S. The Washington Post tallied Trump’s quotes, and found that the parties he claims are mocking us include China (35 times), Mexico (five times), terrorists (three times), Russia (five times) and the entire rest of the world (28 times).
“We don’t win anymore, whether it’s ISIS or whether it’s China with our trade agreements,” Trump announced in an early campaign speech. “No matter what it is, we don’t seem to have it.”
“We have an enemy in the Middle East that’s chopping off heads and drowning people in massive steel cages, OK?” Trump said in an interview in March. “We have an enemy that doesn’t play by the laws. You could say laws, and they’re laughing. They’re laughing at us right now.”
9. Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare.
For Trump, this holds true in both his personal and political lives. “If you look at wars over the years—and I study wars—my life is war,” Trump told Bill O’Reilly in an interview last year. It’s an odd view for someone who was given five draft deferments during the Vietnam War, but it jibes with Eco’s point.
Fellow billionaire Richard Branson recounts a story in which Trump said he would “spend the rest of his life destroying the lives” of people he felt had betrayed him. In The Art of the Deal, Trump bragged, “I love getting even.” A perpetual victim, Trump spends time he could dedicate to learning the ropes of his new job on social media, sniping at perceived enemies. He is vicious and vengeful, a man you can famously “bait with a tweet,” who views himself as perpetually under attack, engaged in battle with advancing forces. Hair-trigger tempers are not great assets for heads of state.
Trump has made expansion of the U.S military a primary aim, putting the country in a perpetually defensive stance. In the past, he has reportedly demanded to know why the U.S. shouldn’t use its nuclear weapons. In the weeks since the election, he has filled his cabinet with war hawks. On the campaign trail, Trump said his generals would have 30 days following his election to put together “a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.” The Center for Strategic and International Studies predicts that military spending under Trump may increase by $900 billion over the next decade.
“I’m gonna build a military that’s gonna be much stronger than it is right now,” Trump told CNN. “It’s gonna be so strong, nobody’s gonna mess with us.”
10. Popular elitism.
Eco writes that under Ur-Fascism, “Every citizen belongs to the best people of the world, the members of the party are the best among the citizens…Since the group is hierarchically organized (according to a military model), every subordinate leader despises his own underlings, and each of them despises his inferiors. This reinforces the sense of mass elitism.”
Trump repeatedly hails himself as the best. He has the best words, the best ideas, the best campaign, the best gold-plated penthouse, the best of all the best of the best things. Trump and his nationalist followers believe that America is the greatest country that has ever existed. That somehow makes Americans the best people on Earth, by dint of birth. In keeping with a long-standing right-wing lie about patriotism and love of country, conservatives are the best Americans, and Trump supporters are the best of all.
Eco writes that “aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak.” Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio has written that Trump’s father instilled in his son that “most people are weaklings,” and thus don’t deserve respect. Trump, who has earned a reputation as a lifelong bully in both his public and private lives, has consistently bemoaned America’s weakness, resulting from the reign of weak cultural elites.
11. Everybody is educated to become a hero.
Trump’s base believes itself to be the last of a dying (white) breed of American heroes, enduring multiculturalism and political correctness to speak truth to the powerful elites and invading hordes of outsiders who have marginalized and oppressed them, or taken what’s rightfully theirs.
Eco writes that “this cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death…the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.”
Though Trump has downplayed his war designs, he talks a big game about taking out ISIS, and is backed by advisers who have been vocal in denigrating Islam. If Trump does ever enter any kind of armed conflict, Eco’s prediction may prove true. Only time will tell.
12. Transfer of will to power to sexual matters.
“This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality),” Eco writes.
We are well acquainted with Trump’s machismo, which like all machismo, is inseparable from his loudly broadcast misogyny. This is a man who defended the size of his penis in the middle of a nationally televised political debate. For 30 years, including the 18 months of his campaign, Trump has consistently reduced women to their looks or what he deems the desirability of their bodies, including when talking about his own daughter, whom he constantly reminds us he would be dating if not for incest laws. Trump has been particularly vicious to women in the media, tweeting insults their way, suggesting they’re having their periods when they ask questions he doesn’t like, and verbally attacking them at rallies and inviting his supporters to follow suit. There’s also that notorious leaked 2005 recording of Trump discussing grabbing women by the genitalia, which was followed by a stream of women accusing him of sexual assault.
13. Selective populism.
“Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will,” Eco writes, “the Leader pretends to be their interpreter…There is in our future a TV or internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.”
Eco’s two-decade-old prediction is uncanny. Trump, a fixture on social media and reality television, has mastered a kind of TV and internet populism that makes his voice one with the angry masses of his base. At the Republican National Convention, after a rant about the terrible, dystopian shape of the country, he designated himself the nation’s sole savior.
“I am your voice,” Trump said. “No one knows the system better than me. Which is why I alone can fix it.”
Trump has also declared he knows more than anyone else about a range of things, from tax laws to renewables to Facebook to Cory Booker (who he said he knows more about than Booker himself). He grants himself the supreme knowledge to make important statements and decisions on topics he has never studied.
Eco adds, “Because of its qualitative populism Ur-Fascism must be against ‘rotten’ parliamentary governments….Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism.”
Is there any more vivid example of Eco’s example than Trump’s repeated contention that the election was rigged? Trump painted himself as the savior of a people who could no longer rely on rich, powerful politicians. Save for him, of course.
14. The use of Newspeak.
“All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning,” Eco writes. “But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.”
From the beginning, Trump’s supporters praised him as a “straight shooter” who “tells it like it is.” He sprinkled his rally speeches with swear words and rambled instead of sticking to a script or following a teleprompter. Within months, his Republican opponents were trying to follow his lead, but without the same wholesale disregard for gentility or convention. Trump picked up followers who equated his unpreparedness and empty rhetoric with authenticity.
“There is a defiance in the language which is part of his schtick,” Allan Louden, a Wake Forest University professor of political communication told the Toronto Star. “Less formal language signals one is an ‘outsider’ from the ones cussed out, an attribute golden in this election cycle.”
Trump also kept his sentences short and his words to as few syllables as possible. He repeated words he wanted to drive home, and punctuated his speech with phrases meant to have maximum effect. In lots of cases, a single quote contained multiple contradictory statements. The takeaway from a Trump speech was whatever the listener wanted to hear, which turned out to be a winning strategy.
Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.