No matter how many times people answer, other people will ask whether President Trump is a fascist for at least the next four years. Some won't take no for an answer, since a reactionary blowhard with a large lower-class following presumably can be nothing else. Perhaps in the hope of a definitive answer the editors of Le Monde, a leading French newspaper, asked the American scholar Robert O. Paxton, whose The Anatomy of Fascism is widely respected as an authoritative work on the subject. His essay was published in March and appears, presumably updated, in the May issue of Harper's. Paxton concedes that given Trump's blustery manner, revanchist spirit and obvious egomania, "it is powerfully tempting to call the new president of the United States a fascist." But in the next paragraph he warns that the F word is "justified only if it enlarges or clarifies understanding." In the case of Trump, Paxton clearly doesn't think it justified. He emphasizes that the "regimentation" craved by fascists continues to go against the American conservative grain, as does the "corporatist" economics practiced by Mussolini and Hitler. Trump himself may have an "authoritarian personality," but he has no desire to expand the American empire. Paxton leaves open the possibility that Trump might declare martial law in the event of a major terrorist attack on American soil, but people here have worried about every recent American president possibly declaring martial law. Trump would differ from them, Paxton implies, because he'd act "emotionally and without expert advice." He seems to think that some of Trump's advisers, most notably Steve Bannon, might lean more toward fascism, but the emphasis on Bannon only shows that Paxton's article could use more updating than the deadline for a monthly magazine allows.
Interestingly, while doubting whether Trump is fascist, Paxton's diagnosis doesn't seem designed to put people at ease. If not a fascist, Trump may end up practicing "generic dictatorship" in a worst-case scenario but to Paxton he's more obviously a plain old plutocrat. While I agree that Trump is nothing like a fascist, I did see a hole in Paxton's argument that alarmists might exploit. He sees the plutocratic strain in the Trump movement as essentially libertarian in its hostility to regulations, noting also that the historic fascist regimes practiced progressive taxation. Paxton seems unaware that the more libertarian Republicans, not to mention capital-L Libertarians, are among the President's strongest critics, not just because they, like people to their left, see a fascist potential in his demagogy, but because they specifically oppose protectionist policies that they deem antithetical to the free market. The Trump they hate claimed the spotlight again this week as the President signed an executive order designed to pressure American businesses to hire American workers rather than foreigners using H1B visas. Trump's emphasis on retaining or regaining jobs for American workers isn't fascist by any standard I'm aware of -- it's arguably the most admirable aspect of his presidency, so long as he places a similar priority on educating Americans for the jobs he wants them to have -- but to the extent that Paxton's argument against Trump as a fascist depends on him being a libertarian instead, Trump's protectionism undermines the argument. Clearly Trump himself doesn't see protectionism as incompatible with the rest of the Republican economic agenda, and he may think that protectionism is a price Republicans should willingly pay (as they gladly paid in the grand old days) in return for lower taxes and fewer regulations. He may well be going further on those other fronts than he otherwise might in the hope of getting Republicans to accept protectionist policies, but he does also seem to think, in supply-side fashion, that cutting taxes and regulations will create jobs. Would he be more fascist if he came out for higher taxes or tighter regulations? The idea sounds absurd, but I'd expect more Republicans to entertain it if Trump did go that way. It should not make someone fascist to argue that national interests, understood (as Trump sometimes seems to understand it) as the well-being of average Americans, should sometimes override the moral imperatives of economic libertarianism. But this is still America, where some people who make exactly that argument are called "liberal fascists" or worse, so the best thing to do when Americans debate whether Donald Trump or anyone else is a fascist is simply not pay attention.