"Part Mussolini, part Berlusconi, part Putin": Historian on Trump's planned "legal revolution"

Donald Trump Scott Olson/Getty Images
Donald Trump Scott Olson/Getty Images
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Donald Trump is an American fascist. The evidence is obvious and overwhelming in support of this conclusion. Donald Trump is publicly threatening and planning to do such things as end the rule of law, nullify the Constitution by, for example, ending the First Amendment, imprison his “enemies," impose martial law and create a concentration camp system for "illegal immigrants."

Trump is also channeling Hitler and the Nazis through appeals to blood and soil nationalism, antisemitism, and eliminationist threats to deal with “the vermin.” He wants to replace the public and private education system with a system of right-wing white supremacist political indoctrination under the guise of patriotic education, make White Christianity the de facto state religion, take away the civil and human rights of Black and brown people and other nonwhites, gays and lesbians, women, and other targeted groups including Muslims, and replace career civil servants and others who believe in the Constitution with his own political loyalists and cultists.

With the 2024 election less than one year away, have the American people run out of time to stop Donald Trump and the American fascist movement or has a type of terminal path dependency set in for American democracy?

Christopher R. Browning is the Frank Porter Graham Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of such notable books as “Ordinary Men: Reserve Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland” and “The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939–March 1942." Browning’s essay “A New Kind of Fascism” was recently published by The Atlantic.

In this conversation, Browning warns that Donald Trump represents an almost unique type of fascism, and existential danger, to American democracy and society. He discusses why many experts, including himself, were reluctant for so long to describe Trump and the MAGA movement as “fascist” and why that label is now clearly appropriate, if not overdue. At the end of this conversation, Browning shares his hope that Trump’s fascist movement is a cult of personality that, like Hitlerism and Stalinism, may not survive being defeated in the 2024 election or Trump's imprisonment.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

How are you feeling given the democracy crisis, Trump’s embrace of Hitlerism, the Israel-Hamas war, Ukraine, and so many other troubles? As a historian, what has this moment and journey been like?

The intellectual dimension of the journey has been a reaffirmation of the importance of studying history. I do not know how anyone could make sense of what has transpired at home, in Ukraine, and in Israel-Gaza without knowing the historical contexts. There is a reason why Putin on the one hand and people like DeSantis on the other are engaged in "history wars" aimed at substituting feel-good propaganda and self-affirming fairy tales for real historical understanding.

Emotionally, the journey has been a roller-coaster ride. At times, the cumulative evidence of successfully defending democracy seems positive. The Trump indictments, the trend in local elections going strongly democratic, the chaotic spectacle of Republicans' inability to behave remotely like responsible adults in the House of Representatives, the midterm elections, and especially the defeats of election deniers in the battleground states, are reassuring.

But then come the trial delays that make it likely that only the Jan. 6 trial has any chance of reaching a verdict before Election Day, along with the wild-card possibilities of numerous third-party candidates. It seems that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. would split the conspiracy vote and hurt Trump, and West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Green Party candidate Jill Stein could well deprive Biden of needed victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin. Anything that deprives Biden of a clear victory in the Electoral College will set up replays of Florida in 2000, with either the Supreme Court or the House of Representatives, with one vote per state delegation, deciding the outcome in Trump's favor.

When I think of all the ways Trump could win despite falling well short of a majority of the popular vote, I am frightened. Concerning the consistently low polling for Biden vs. Democrats outperforming in local elections, I hope that it turns out to be true that polls are for venting, elections are for real voting.

And this, of course, does not even touch on the calamity that will befall Ukraine if U.S. aid stops there, and the intractability of the Middle East, where Biden is trying to thread the needle diplomatically in a situation where simultaneously Israel was the victim of a savage terrorist attack but the Netanyahu government stands firmly in the way of a two-state solution as the only long term way out (to say nothing of its outrageous policies on the West Bank for decades that are a poison pill for Israelis and a source of utter desperation for Palestinians). I have more hopes of a partially satisfactory outcome in Ukraine than steering through the ongoing calamity in the Middle East.

We spoke several years ago about Trump and the MAGA movement and American fascism. At the time you were reluctant to use the word “fascist." You have since changed your mind. Was it a single moment of realization? A series of events? 

I was willing to attribute a "fascist style" to Trump, but reluctant to equate Trumpism with Hitler's Nazi or Mussolini's ascist regimes, since in their historical substance they stood for totalitarian dictatorship at home, war and conquest abroad, and genocide/mass killing of racially-targeted groups (Libyans, Ethiopians, Slovenes at the hands of Mussolini, and of course Jews, Roma, the physically- and mentally handicapped, and many others at the hands of the Nazis). It seemed a trivialization to me to equate the political vulgarity of Trumpism with the monumental crimes of Hitler and Mussolini.

Now, however, it is clear that a second Trump term will be quite different from the first. The plans for a vast purge and transformation of the civil service, the end of the political neutrality of key institutions like the DOJ and the military, and the gutting of some institutions (like EPA, FDA, CDC) will transform the American government into a dictatorship. Trump has learned that a "legal revolution" creating dictatorship from within is much more effective than a riotous attack from the outside. Still, a second Trump term would be a very untypical form of fascism—what I have dubbed "isolationist fascism" for its obsequiousness to other authoritarian regimes and lack of interest in waging its own wars of aggression (except perhaps incursions into Mexico).

I was one of the first people with a public platform to consistently describe Trump and the MAGA movement and their allied forces as being “fascists." To say that there was considerable pushback would be to put it mildly. Now, more than seven years since, it all seems rather anticlimactic even as the danger is escalating and ever more real.

For much of Trump's first term, there were "guardrails" that limited the damage, and he himself was more focused on attention, adulation and adoration than achieving particular program goals. The last weeks of his first term revealed the kind of people (total sycophants and loyalists) and the kind of measures (noted above) that will be front and center. So, ironically, blocking a second Trump term in 2020 has made him potentially a much more dangerous man if he gets a second term in 2024. It seems the danger is more real now because it actually is more real now.

Why were the mainstream news media and political class so afraid to correctly describe Trump and the Republican fascists and today’s “conservative” movement as being fascists? They are still reluctant to consistently do so even though the evidence is obvious and growing.

I think there was a combination of factors that shaped the assessments of media and the political class. First was the unprecedented nature of Trumpism in U.S. political history (though not elsewhere). There was a smug confidence that the US system and political culture were more resilient than other failed democracies, as more than two centuries of American history seemed to attest. Germans had been fooled and succumbed to wishful thinking, i.e., before 1933 "the soup was never as hot when you eat it as when you cook it", and in the initial violence of 1933, "you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs." But too many Americans were confident that none of the earlier lessons of democratic fragility applied to us. The system would absorb and "tame" Trump.

Second, for the media especially, there was the normative demand to present an appearance of neutrality, balance, etc. For years they would not call Trump's falsehoods "lies," rather they would report conflicting versions of events. Not even "birtherism" would place Trump in a different category undeserving of legitimacy and credibility. It took the "big lie" of election denial in 2020 for most newscasters to finally say, when stating Trump's claims, that they were false or without evidence. Trump got a nearly four-year pass on a firehose of lies because the media valued its own self-image seeming neutrality above truthful reporting that appeared to "take sides."

Looking back to 2016, it is painful to see how the press piled on Hilary's emails and The Clinton Foundation, while giving Trump a pass on the totally fraudulently Trump Foundation and hanky-panky with the Russians.

When you look at Donald Trump what do you see? What is he an example of?

Trump is his own type: A massively insecure, revenge-driven narcissist in personality; an isolationist fascist as a political category. Part Mussolini, part Berlusconi, part Putin.

When Trump says, "Make America Great Again," he is advocating a return to a time when white, heterosexual, Protestant men dominated; women stayed in the kitchen, gays stayed in the closet, and people of color remained within the confines of legal segregation in the south and de facto segregation elsewhere. They opened the door to welcome in Catholics and Netanyahu-style Jews who demonstrate how to keep Arabs down.

Does Donald Trump have an ideology?

Trump is not an ideologue in the sense of someone who methodically works out the "logic" of his fundamental idea, i.e., like Hitler did in seeing history as “race struggle”. He does have a feral instinct for how cruelty, violence, bullying, etc., provide vicarious attraction to others. The success of his "cult of personality" seems to rest on filling others' emotional needs based on resentment, grievance, sense of victimization, etc., rather than the power of ideas. But Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, et al., provide the ideology for which his cult of personality will provide the popular support. He can do without them, but they are nothing without him. Hence his unchallenged control over the party.

When you watched the events of Jan. 6 as they took place what were you thinking? Now given Trump and the GOP’s escalating threats against democracy, what does Jan. 6 mean now?

At the time I underestimated how close we came to disaster on Jan. 6. I thought it was an instigated riot, but did not realize the background planning for alternate electors, etc. If Pence had gotten in the Secret Service car, and they had taken him to some “safe house” so that he could not have presided over the counting of the electoral votes, the constitutional process would have been derailed.  As I later realized, it was not just a riot, but a planned coup that narrowly failed.

Trump is now openly channeling Hitler and the Nazis. Why does this matter? What is so dangerous about it? I am worried that the average American lacks the historical knowledge and context to understand this latest escalation and its horrible implications.

Most of the media I read and listen to (Atlantic, MSNBC, etc.) do note that Trump is now disseminating Nazi slogans openly and shamelessly. But the general public is so accustomed to Trump's "bad boy act" that this seems to have little resonance as a warning. When we've lived for 7 years now finding out there is "no bottom" and "no line that cannot be crossed," and Trump is constantly intensifying the shock value of his behavior to keep attention focused on himself, it is easy to dismiss this as "business as usual." It is the warning that no longer warns.

Where are we currently in America, in terms of the story of how democratic societies succumb to fascism and illiberalism?

I think the previous assumption was that countries without long democratic traditions were most vulnerable (like Russia in the 1990s and Germany in the 1920s), while countries with two centuries of democratic tradition (like the U.S. and U.K.) could withstand crises like the Great Depression with democracy intact. This view rested in part on the important insight that democracies depend not just on constitutional design but on consensus over norms, the prevalence of good faith, and widespread acceptance that issues that divide a country are less important than the democratic/constitutional ground rules and values that unite it. Long-standing democratic traditions are not a sure defense when one of two major political parties becomes anti-democratic, so that every election is a referendum on democracy itself, and democrats have only to lose once to lose forever. The 2010 elections, computer-driven gerrymandering and redistricting, and voter suppression delivered a number of states to permanent one-party rule, in which those in power choose their voters and cannot be held accountable or voted out of power.

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What we are witnessing today is that democratic norms can be eroded, good faith subverted, and divisions purposely aggravated for the anti-democratic ends of attaining and keeping power without majority support — of making minority, oligarchic, cult rule permanent. So far this has happened most pervasively in precisely that part of the country (Jim Crow South) where multiracial democracy is only a few decades old, not two centuries old. So the importance of long-standing democratic traditions is not disproven.

If Trump returns to power what will that mean? What will day-to-day life be like for the “average” American?

For average Americans, the gutting of the EPA, FDA, CDC, etc., will mean exposure to pollution, collapse of public health defense against epidemics, and the return to adulterated, unsafe and unhealthy products that generate profits for a few at the expense of many (Flint, Michigan's drinking water and the opioid epidemic are the models for that future). Public education, like public health, will decline. Indeed, anything "public" will be at peril. With the politicization of the DOJ, FBI, etc., corruption and unaccountability to those in power will increase. Isolationism and deference to dictators abroad will in the long term make the world much less safe, as any semblance of the "rules-based" order dissolves. Minorities will face a big step backward in terms of unchecked exercise of police powers against them. The move toward enlarging rights for LBGTQ and racial minorities will reverse in the name of religious and individual freedom.

How is American exceptionalism and the fact that most (white) Americans lack the cultural memory and lived experience of suffering under power — like Black folks with Jim Crow, for example, or Jewish people with the Holocaust — limiting their ability to actually process what a Trump dictatorship would be like?

Shortly after World War II, Milton Mayer wrote a book, "They Thought They Were Free." Most Germans experienced the Hitler dictatorship — at least until the latter years of the war — as beneficiaries, not victims. The persecutory focus of the regime was on small minorities. Jews were less than 1%, Roma even fewer, and "asocials" by definition were not even part of society. In the U.S. now, Black people, Hispanics, the LGBTQ community and, needless to say, women represent vast constituencies that cannot be marginalized in the way Nazism's prime domestic victims were. The vast majority of Hitler's victims lived outside Germany. Thus, I do not see the "isolationist fascism" of Trump as being a replay of the dynamics of Nazism. It will be its own unique and largely unprecedented venture, not a carbon copy. Much will depend upon on how well the federal system withstands the Trump regime and some states preserve relative pockets of protection against the worst abuses of the regime. We could literally see "two Americas."

Is it too late to stop Trump and the American neofascists and these other illiberal forces here and abroad?

No, it is not too late. Pro-democracy forces just have to keep winning elections, especially in 2024.  Since the "cult of Trump" is a major component of Trumpism, if we can survive his last attempt to win power through the election in 2024, it is not impossible that the movement will fracture and weaken significantly thereafter. Communism survived the deaths of Stalin and Mao, but Stalinism and Maoism did not.

Going forward what are you most afraid of? What, if anything, are you hopeful about?

I am most afraid of Trump winning in 2024. If he doesn't, I am hopeful that thereafter he may be in jail, or at least convicted on criminal charges, and in any case his movement may fracture and fragment without a single unifying personality. Trump-imitators have not fared as well as the genuine article.