Communication Currents

Does Trump’s Fascist Rhetoric Foreshadow Fascist Action?

Does Trump’s Fascist Rhetoric Foreshadow Fascist Action?

June 18, 2019
Current Commentary, Political Communication

By Craig Smith, Ph.D.

Among media critics, historians, and comics, President Trump has been labeled a fascist. The side-by-side videos of Trump and Mussolini jutting out their jaws and nodding approval at national populist rallies are disconcerting. In fascist rhetoric, appeals to emotion and nationhood replace rational arguments; exaggerated stories replace carefully worked out policies; militarism replaces deliberation; and invaders and/or immigrants become scapegoats. In the 1930s, fascist rhetoric spread to America. It was evident in Father Coughlin’s radio broadcasts, and Charles Lindbergh received a medal from Hitler in Berlin and then returned to the United States to lead America First rallies (the latter surfacing in Trump’s rhetoric in our own time).

However, there is a difference between fascist rhetoric and fascist action. The speeches of President Franklin Roosevelt provide a case in point. In his First Inaugural address in 1933, Roosevelt threatened to “ask for . . . broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” Congress gave FDR the power he sought, and the New Deal was born. At the end of the 1936 campaign, FDR announced a Second New Deal in a rabble-rousing speech not only to his audience in Madison Square Garden, but also to those assembled in the surrounding streets listening to loud speakers. A frightening moment came when FDR said, “I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match.” He was interrupted by cheering and regained control of the audience by shouting “Wait a minute, wait a minute . . . I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.” A demonstration ensued that nearly turned into a riot.

However, FDR was not fascist; with exception of the Japanese internment and his attempt to pack the Supreme Court, his record on protecting civil rights and minorities is well-established. For example, in 1941 he called for freedom of expression and religion and freedom from want and fear “everywhere in the world.” Thus, fascist rhetoric should be differentiated from fascist action.

Whether in tweets or on the stump, Trump’s attacks on the news media mirror those of fascist regimes. Trump’s fascist style is also marked by bragging, branding, bar-talk, and the “big lie.”

When serving as a presidential speechwriter, I was sometimes tempted to dip into the fascist rhetorical arsenal. Fortunately, my president, Gerald Ford, did not allow his writers to engage in those tactics. Trump and his writers have no such compunction. Whether in tweets or on the stump, Trump’s attacks on the news media mirror those of fascist regimes. Trump’s fascist style is also marked by bragging, branding, bar-talk, and the “big lie.” His bragging includes that he knows more about war than his generals and more about foreign policy than his Secretaries of State. The author of The Art of the Deal claims he can out-negotiate anyone. Just tell that to the North Koreans and the Chinese.

His branding can be effective, as when he borrowed Reagan’s “Make America Great Again,” which allowed listeners to fill in their favorite former America: America before abortion rights, America before gay marriage, America before Obama care. In this way, he constituted his populist audience using nostalgia. In 2016, his negative branding shot down “Lyin’ Ted,” “Little Marco,” and “Crooked Hillary.” In the current campaign, “Pocahontas” and “Sleepy Joe” are in play.

His bar-talk occurs when he says things that are normally uttered after a few drinks, in a dimly lit bar, between friends. His most outrageous example was the exchange with Billy Bush accidentally recorded during an interview in the last campaign. However, the same kind of bar-talk surfaces in public appearances, where he has gone so far as to encourage crowds to take out hecklers. On March 2, 2019, in a two-hour rant before the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump said that members of Congress who oppose him “hate our country.”

Following the advice of Joseph Goebbels, Trump believes that if you repeat the big lie often enough, it gets accepted. He lied from the beginning, when he claimed that his inaugural had a larger attendance than Obama’s. After events in Charlottesville, he claimed white racists could be good people. Trump’s mendacity knows no bounds.

While the First Amendment protects the President’s right to express his opinion, it is fair to ask if this fascistic style is a precursor to fascistic action. His critics often point to his court appointments and executive orders. However, maintaining the conservative tilt of the federal courts is well within Trump’s legitimate power, as potential appointments must be approved by the Senate. Undoing the executive orders of President Obama is within Trump’s power as are the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords and Iran Nuclear Agreement, dire though the consequences may be. A stronger case for condemning Trump as a fascist may come as he avoids subpoenas, re-allocates funds to build his border wall, refuses to release tax returns, welcomes political help from foreign governments, and obstructs justice. In those cases, fascist rhetoric foreshadows fascist action just as it did in Italy and Germany generations ago. So, vigilance is in order.

About the author (s)

Craig R. Smith

Craig R. Smith is Emeritus Director, Center for First Amendment Studies, and author of Romanticism, Rhetoric and the Search for the Sublime.

Craig R. Smith