Donald Trump did not invent fascism, not did he introduce it to the United States. In fact, you could say that the United States has been fascist for a while now, but we’ve only just begun to notice.
Studies by political scientists and economists recently started, in mainstream academic language, considering the US an oligarchy. Things like Citizens United were blamed for the increasing inability of ordinary voters to impact upon policy outcomes. One in four black men will end up behind bars in their lifetime. The United States currently incarcerates more black people than were enslaved. The US has the highest prison population in the history of humanity. The United States is a sick and racist country.
These things were true before the emergence of Donald Trump, the political actor. The violence and prejudice visited on black and brown bodies existed before he first took to the stump. Instead what Trump has done is just add the symbolic shorthand of fascism, making the implicit explicit.
Fascism, concerned with the superiority of the presumptive-dictator, should not be engaged with on its terms. To accept the fascist leader as a particularly exceptional strongman is to concede a premise to the right. Hitler was not an exceptional man, nor an exceptional leader. His role could have been played by any of a number of men. Material conditions and a discourse framed on authority begets fascism, not any triumph of individual personality.
Trump taps into a worship that existed in the United States before his candidacy. After 9/11, the militaristic tributes that became mandatory in the US are hardly different from the one handed Sieg Heil ‘pledges’ that Trump asks his supporters to do, optically at least. I remember being at Seaworld as a teenager and being pushed by a man behind me for not standing to applaud US troops home from deployment who entered the arena. That was in 2005.
A section of the US public already had a fetishistic (and fascistic) approach to authority. See the #BlueLivesMatter protests and the general reverence US cops were held in after a number of murders of innocent black men. All these things predated Trump.
The response to the Edward Snowden leaks is also telling. Even liberals defended the massive state overreach he uncovered. Snowden is under constant calls to return to the US to be incarcerated. The punitive fantasies of even liberal America with regard to Edward Snowden show the level of prison mentality that exists in the US. Not only is the constant surveillance of all citizens necessary and good, but harsh state punishment should be visited on those who question it. National security has permeated all aspects of US society.
The problem was that these disparate fascisms were kept apart, by time, by a media that can barely deal with one issue at a time, by a lack of a broader opposition. There was (and maybe still is) no broad alternative to the creeping fascism that is the United States, as currently constituted.
But Trump isn’t the creator of these things. He’s merely taken the clothing of these things; the language of talk radio, the fascist pageantry and the vulgar displays of wealth.
He’s the Michael Bay of fascism. He makes his point by beating you around the head with it. Trump doesn’t have a dogwhistle, he has a bullhorn. He’s taken all the disparate threads that the Republican party had been working on, the mistrust of foreigners, the hatred, the violence and wound them into a fuse.
The impenetrable Primer of fascism that had been the United States before, with twisting timelines and jargon, has been replaced with violence and lens flare. Trump is being called a fascist because he doesn’t have the good manners to keep his obvious evil hidden.
But what the Republican establishment are learning is that their art house fascism just isn’t the box-office draw of the Trump hoopla. Their carefully constructed system of inequality and privilege, which delivers power into the hands of the few through so many invisible gears and levers, will never be as attractive as Trump’s giant fighting robots crashing through them.
Trump didn’t invent US fascism. He’s just the first person to use the obvious cinematic shorthand for it. If you saw the Trump candidacy as a satire of fascism in a movie you’d think; “Wow, that’s heavy-handed.”
He’s fascism for the generation that shares ‘make you think’ memes. They love self-referentiality. And giant fighting robots.