The American roots of Donald Trump’s fascism

Donald Trump has exposed the seminal myth of American democracy – that it enjoys an inherent immunity from fascism.

Trump militia Lucas Jackson/Reuters
American fascism has finally taken up residence in the Oval office, writes Mitrovica [Lucas Jackson/Reuters]

All along, the truth was there – plain and neon-bright – for those willing to see and accept.

The truth, of course, is that Donald Trump doesn’t simply “flirt” with fascism at the margins, but embraces it not only rhetorically, but as the governing ethos of his perverse regime.

A coterie of writers and historians has long understood that Trump is indeed a fascist, while the centrist-hugging commentariat vacillated and quibbled about whether he is or isn’t.

Not burdened by such equivocating sensibilities, other, more astute observers, instantly recognised a profoundly hazardous man who, on the incessant, winding road to the White House – wittingly or unwittingly – channelled the spirit, words and deeds of his avowedly fascist American political and cultural ancestors, including the prewar evangelical anti-Semitic huckster, Father Charles Coughlin; the rabid 1950s Communist-hunting Congressman, Joseph McCarthy; and the slick, 1960s segregationist Alabama governor, George Wallace.

Like Trump, each of these fanatics – separated only by a few generations – attracted a legion of equally fanatical followers who converted popular support into great power and influence, which not only emboldened them, but also fuelled resistance to their odious racial edicts and modus vivendi.

Cloaked in Roman Catholic vestments and scripture, Coughlin’s blatant racism and anti-Semitism had the patina of profundity and eloquence that Trump’s spontaneous, sputtering expressions of white, Christian nationalism lack.

Still, beyond history, what binds these intolerant charlatans is the conviction that young, torch-wielding anti-Semites – wearing brown or polo shirts – are patriots who warrant approbation, not condemnation.

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Like McCarthy, Trump claims crudely that America is infected by a lengthy list of concocted enemies who allegedly pose an existential threat to its exceptionalism and patrimonial purity.

Trump's brand of fascism pilfered from the not-so-distant past and was refashioned for broadcast on modern, establishment media that treated the brash, ubiquitous, let's make-a-deal reality star as an entertaining, harmless diversion.


Trump’s malignant ledger extends from Mexican “rapists”, terror-prone Muslim fifth columnists to “sick” journalists that he alone is determined to root out and vanquish to restore America’s faltering “greatness”.

This same messianic impulse to defend besieged white America from the insidious “others” inside or outside its geographic and ancestral borders, prompted Governor Wallace to declare: “in the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth … I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever” and personally block an entrance to the University of Alabama in a futile, but symbolically charged bid to bar black students from attending.

(Buoyed by his popularity, Wallace also ran for president several times, before denouncing segregation on the eve of his death.)

It’s unlikely that Trump will ever experience a similar transformative epiphany since he, and the foaming acolytes who populate his hysterically reactionary administration, have, in effect, not only appropriated and resurrected Wallace’s bigoted epitaph, but consider it a political imperative to assuage their feverishly xenophobic “base”.  

Every instructive measure of this sordid American history was, as I said, apparent long before Trump assumed the presidency. Trump’s brand of fascism pilfered from the not-so-distant past and was refashioned for broadcast on modern, establishment media that treated the brash, ubiquitous, reality star as an entertaining, harmless diversion.

The nadir of this revolting coddling of America’s latest and most egregious incarnation of fascism was, I suppose, late-night talk-show host Jimmy Fallon’s memorable appeasement of a celebrity fascist, which culminated in his tussling of Trump’s orange mane on national TV just weeks prior to the presidential election. 

Fallon was not alone. Far too many others were prepared to play along – figuratively and literally – with the menace from Manhattan. Still more learned types dismissed the use of the blunt, sharp word fascism in the context of Trump’s ascendancy as a facile simplification, as well as an irresponsible, hyperbolic “label” that did a disservice to the victims of “real” fascism.

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The hesitancy and semantic evasions quickly evaporated after a young, courageous woman didn’t debate competing interpretations of who or what constitutes a fascist, but chose instead to confront the army of fascists who descended on Charlottesville, Virginia earlier this month to raise their arms in Neo-Nazi salutes and pledge “blood and soil” allegiance to their philosophical leader, Donald Trump.

Heather Heyer was murdered by one of the loathsome locust of fascists who were, as we know, defended as very fine people” by a president who re-confirmed his well-established white supremacist credentials in the immediate aftermath of her horrific death and has, since then, reiterated repeatedly in appalling, unambiguous language that he would gladly walk among them, tiki-torch and hateful vitriol readily at hand.

Remember too, the exculpatory line proffered by journalists and politicians who insisted that Trump’s initial appeal and subsequent electoral success had more to do with rampant “economic anxiety”, rather than his rampant racism.

That canard was exposed emphatically by a recent poll (pdf) that found that nine percent of respondents – the equivalent of 22 million Americans – believe that holding Neo-Nazi or white supremacist views is “acceptable”. A slightly higher number acknowledged supporting rancid racists – euphemistically dubbed the “alt-right”.

So, if accurate, the poll suggests that, taken together, more than 50 million Americans have sympathy for Neo-Nazis and their ideological spawn. 

The prevailing wisdom is that Trump has not only defamed American democracy, but bit by abominable bit, eroded the legitimacy of American democracy – perhaps beyond repair. 

This cockeyed reasoning fails to acknowledge that Trump is not a historical outlier. His fascistic nature – which has been on routine and undeniable display – is not a new or surprising phenomenon, nor is the nationwide succour it attracts.

Today, American fascism has finally taken up residence in the Oval Office. Arguably, this sinister reality is a natural, inevitable consequence of America’s foul, decidedly less mythical, and deeply entrenched past.

To be sure, as before, millions of enlightened Americans are repulsed by what they’ve seen, heard and experienced and are resisting in small and large ways – despite the often violent, sometimes deadly retribution exacted by Trump’s thuggish torch bearers, incited by their thuggish commander-in-chief.

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And yet millions of Americans remain faithful to, and exalt in, Trump’s ugly modus operandi, as he deliberately and systematically goes about desecrating previously sacrosanct institutional and societal norms.

By pardoning fellow “birther” conspiracy theorist and disgraced former Arizona sheriff, Joe Arpaio – who was convicted in July of contempt of court for defying a judge’s order to stop racially profiling Latinos – Trump has, true to his autocratic nature, rendered the rule of law hostage to his mercurial and arbitrary whims, while signaling to other racist, judicial-snubbing police, that he approves of their repugnant ways and means. 

In so doing, Trump has exposed the seminal myth of American democracy – that it enjoys an inherent and rebar-sturdy immunity from fascism and the strongmen who personify it. Wrong. Fascism can and is happening in America, just as it has always been alive in America.  

Andrew Mitrovica is an award-winning investigative reporter and journalism instructor.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.