I have recently read a number of articles on the Internet that associate persons supporting Donald Trump for President with an “authoritarian personality.” (One need only enter “Trump authoritarian” into Google Search to come up with a list.) There are those—and I would count myself among them—who disagree with the concept of “authoritarian personality” and the presuppositions on which it is based (see a good explanation here). However, the “authoritarian personality” theory as an explanation of Mr. Trump’s popularity builds on the real observation that his movement, if you can call it that, bears a strong resemblance to the Nazi and Fascist movements of the 1920s and 1930s. I note this similarity not to smear Mr. Trump with a pejorative label—a grave danger in a political culture where labels are often taken to supersede substance—but to point out a political situation that both politicians and ordinary citizens should take into account. [I believe there may be some of the same characteristics in many of the supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, but since I would be expected (by those who know my political principles) to oppose him anyway, developing such an argument might be considered self-serving. Those who support Sen. Sanders may discount my association of their candidate with my discussion; indeed, I prefer that they do so.]
Moreover, I am not saying that Mr. Trump is a Nazi or a Fascist. Naziism is a political philosophy strictly peculiar to Germany, and while features of it may be applied to the American situation by a few extreme racists, National Socialism in its full form is both alien and outmoded. As for Fascism, in its strict sense it was limited to Italy, and in its broader sense encompassed a number of diverse movements—so many, in fact, that the term is of little historical use. Whether Mr. Trump’s political principles fit any definition of Fascism is not my purpose to decide; the reader may do so for himself, based on other sources, if he likes. I would also like–but do not have the space–to refute those who, using terms too loosely, equate Conservatism and Fascism. Whether or not Mr. Trump is a Fascist, a great many American conservatives have stated that he is no Conservative. I agree with that conclusion, and I am positing in this discussion that Conservatism and Fascism are two different, indeed often contradictory, political philosophies.
Mr. Trump has discovered what Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and similar demagogues have discovered. In a polarized democracy that is experiencing foreign and domestic difficulties, there will be a sizable group of people who feel left out, who feel they have no power to control things that affect their lives, and who feel that the country of which they want to be proud is being belittled at home and abroad. They are impatient with a political process that inevitably involves compromise; they feel ignored, despised, and frustrated by a political class that seems to care nothing for them and to be unable to take any decisive action. They will attach themselves to a leader who tells them whom to blame, promises to clean up the political process to eliminate those weak and compromising politicians, and restore greatness to their country. People see Mr. Trump in terms of what he is against, not in terms of any principles he espouses. His supporters don’t care about principles in the abstract, they’re just mad as hell and won’t take it any longer. Similarly, Mussolini’s Fascists had very few real principles apart from ending the bickering of political parties and making Italy great; Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers’ Party were German nationalists to one audience and German socialists to another, channeling anger against the financial interests (identified with Jews) and the treaty of Versailles. People who voted Nazi, as opposed to party members, cared little for the racial principles of the party. There were even some Jews who supported them in the early days. It was all about frustration with the mainstream parties. [See, inter alia, William Sheridan Allen, The Nazi Seizure of Power (New York: Franklin Watts, rev. ed. 1984)]
In one way or another, all the interwar leaders labeled as Fascist exploited this feeling. Leftists in Latin America like Hugo Chavez exploited it and continue to do so. In the Islamic world, it’s an important part of the appeal of the Islamists. The result is that the democratic process ends up being used to destroy democracy.
I have heard many complaints that somehow the Republican Party is to blame for the presence of Mr. Trump in the presidential contest. My Democrat friends say, “Why can’t the Republicans get rid of Trump? Because they don’t, that means that he is what Republicans really stand for.” On the other hand, Republicans say, “If the party nominates Trump, they’ve lost me.” Alas, the problem with taking this approach is that the Democratic and Republican parties are not membership organizations like, say, the Communist Party. They are just labels under which politicians run for office. Anyone—even Donald Trump—can label himself a Republican and, if he can satisfy the requirements in a given state, run as a Republican. No one is barred from voting in primaries, even in states where voters register with a party. All they have to do is change their registration. My parents, lifelong registered Democrats living in Massachusetts, once changed their registration to Independent so they could vote in a Republican primary (against Barry Goldwater, I think). In Michigan, anyone can vote in any primary as long as they pick just one. In fact, the nominee of one party could be chosen by voters who, in the general election, expect to choose the other party’s candidate. There is no one to control what Republicans do or don’t do, and if a Republican politician does or says something wrong or stupid, it can’t be blamed on all Republicans. That’s the problem with a two-party system, and a two-party system is what we’ve always had in this country, for better or for worse.
Democracy is messy and involves no simple answers to complex problems. The question posed by the appeal of Mr. Trump is, can America still handle democracy? A democracy demands virtuous citizens concerned with the good of all; are there still enough such citizens left in this country?