Can it happen here?
That’s the question circulating now that Donald Trump, the nativist, rabble-rousing xenophobe, and billionaire, is threatening to capture the Republican nomination for president of the United States—and it’s a question that isn’t being asked only on the left. It’s been raised by a New York Times editorial, which claimed that Trump has brought the GOP “to the brink of fascism,” and by Republicans, ranging from neoconservative pundit Max Boot to Virginia’s centrist former Governor Jim Gilmore. Conservative Times columnist Ross Douthat was reasonably typical in a piece headlined “Is Donald Trump a Fascist?” While he allowed that the Donald may not be Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini, he added, “It seems fair to say that he’s closer to the ‘proto-fascist’ zone on the political spectrum than either the average American conservative or his recent predecessors in right-wing populism.”
For figures ranging from comic Louis C.K. to right-wing commentator Glenn Beck, making direct Hitler-Trump comparisons has become the fashion of the moment. I must admit, however, that “proto-fascist” sounds about right to me. Certainly, the rise of Trump has caused many voters to take notice—the question being whether the real estate mogul (who further stirred the pot recently by retweeting a quote from Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini) could cobble together enough of a coalition of nationalists, Angry White Men, “poorly educated” working-class backers, the disaffected religious right, Islamophobes, immigrant-bashers, and others to wield the figurative pitchforks in a march to victory in November.
If indeed Trump is a mere “proto-fascist,” then what ingredients, if any, are still needed for the emergence of an authentic 21st-century American fascist movement? To think about that question, I recently read Richard J. Evans’s book The Coming of the Third Reich. It spans 1871 to 1933, describing in exquisitely painful detail the gestation and growth of the Nazi Party. If you decide to read the book, try doing what I did: In two columns in your head, draw up a list of similarities and differences between the United States today and Weimar Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s.