Scholar: 'Donald Trump is Part of the Dark U.S. Fascist Tradition'

Posted March 23, 2016

MP3 Interview with Christopher Vials, director of American Studies at the University of Connecticut, conducted by Scott Harris

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While Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s racist and xenophobic rhetoric delivered at his large rallies have triggered condemnation and protest across the U.S., escalating violence directed at protesters who have attended his events in recent weeks have raised alarm. Trump supporters have been videotaped punching, kicking and spitting at peaceful protesters who expressed opposition to the front-running GOP candidate.

When asked about the documented behavior of his supporters, Trump has refused to condemn the violence at his events or expressed regret for the numerous times he’s explicitly advocated physical attacks against individuals who disrupt his rallies. Further, Trump defended his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who has been observed roughing up an anti-Trump activist and a conservative media outlet reporter. The threat of clashes between Trump supporters and opponents caused the campaign to cancel one rally in Chicago on March 11.

As the Republican Party establishment openly discussed organizing efforts to block Trump’s nomination at their summer convention, the billionaire real estate developer made the implicit threat that his supporters may be angry enough to riot. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Christopher Vials, director of American studies at the University of Connecticut and author of "Haunted by Hitler: Liberals, the Left and the Fight against Fascism in the U.S." Here, he explains why he believes Donald Trump is part of America’s dark fascist tradition. [Rush transcript]

CHRISTOPHER VIALS: First of all, I guess I'd like to say that Trump is – he's not a fully developed fascist in my view – but I would say he is far enough down that road, that if you were to call him an actual fascist or the fascist candidate, you wouldn't really be wrong. And I say that because Trump basically – it's important to remember what fascism really is, and in my book, I argue that it has been a part of American life since the 1920s and it's palpably impacted American democracy. And so, Trump in certain ways – at least fascism tradition did not begin with Trump in the United States, but he does bring it a new visibility and a new level of danger.

For starters, fascism is not so much driven by economics or economic appeals. You know, people who are drawn to kind of fascist appeals or the fascist methods, there's more an emphasis on kind of strength, power, leadership, violence, nation, race. Its kind of core features are militarism, male violence, a hard rejection of equality, anti-intellectualism, a disregard for constitutional democracy, racism. All of these things.

I guess I see Trump as belonging at least to the fascist tradition, or at least being a fascist-minded politician because, though he has an economic platform, it's not really an emphasis, its emphasis is that language of "strength, power, race, violence." He also very authoritarian. He kind of personifies the strong man, he wants to get things done without obeying the usual protocol. He's drawn to other "strong men" like (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and even North Korea's Kim Jong-un.

And it's also the street-level racial violence that he basically brings out in his supporters and he condones. It's not really too much of a surprise to me that organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and StormFront and overtly pro-fascist groups are kind of drawn to his message.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Professor Vials, there have been commentators who declare that Donald Trump is a creation of the Republican party that was born out of the backlash that the party took advantage of among white voters against the civil rights movement when it emerged in the late 1950s and 1960s, and over the decades the Republican party has engaged what many describe as dog-whistle politics, appealing to white voters' racism. In subtle and not-so subtle ways over the years, you can see pretty clearly that there are links between the Republican party's recent history and the popularity of Donald Trump. I'm not sure if you agree or disagree, but I thought I'd throw that out there for comment.

CHRISTOPHER VIALS: No, I actually completely agree with that. And in fact, you were talking about that Trump grows out of this kind of racial backlash, in certain ways, you might call it the "Southern strategy" of the late sixties or the early seventies, and this particular racial strand of Republican rhetoric. And I completely agree with that. In fact, in my book, I argue that George Wallace was basically also one of those kind of rare politicians that I would place in an American fascist tradition. And he was actually even acknowledged as such even by William F. Buckley at the time. But you know, Wallace was a third-party candidate in 1968 and 1972. He really is the progenitor of this kind of coded, racial message of white racial resentment that comes out of and got co-opted by the mainstream Republican party by Richard Nixon in '68 and '72, and it kind of carries forward from then. But these dark currents of American life has really impacted American politics in a number of critical junctures and time will tell if we are at one of those junctures right now.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Professor Vials, relate to our listeners, if you would, the best way you can recommend that fascist and racist and scapegoatist ideology in U.S. can be effectively combatted.

CHRISTOPHER VIALS: I guess the good news is that these kind of fascist types needing fascist figures have really been checked by a pretty vigorous anti-fascist tradition in American life. And this is pretty much ordinary people just getting involved, ordinary people forming social movements, either anti-racist movements or for movements for tolerance or kind of anti-homophobic movement. If ordinary people don't want to see a Trump or kind of a fascist figure – and I know we're all really busy – but the way to really check that is to get involved at grassroots movements at the local level. Because short of that, the president, or the Democratic party itself – left to its own devices, and certainly not the Republican establishment – it's certainly not going to stop on its own.

Read an Oxford Journal review of "Haunted by Hitler".

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