Donald Trump’s China Policy and the Danger of American Fascism

“Fascist” has become one of those terms, like ‘neo-liberal”, “radical” or “Yankees fan” that’s lost a lot of its meaning and just gets tossed around to mean “people I don’t like.” (sorry, my Boston side is coming out). Yet, there is a fear now that legitimate, honest-to-goodness 1930s style fascism is making a revival in mainstream politics around the world, and for some, Donald Trump embodies that fear. While I’ve been hesitant to jump on the “Trump is a fascist” bandwagon for fear of diluting the term (especially since there are so, so many other terms that can also be used to describe the current president and those who surround him), moves like his apparent attempt to force US companies to stop doing business with China (and threatening to declare a national emergency to enforce such an order) continue to make a strong case for very fascist tendencies within the current administration.

I taught my students about O.G. fascism in my social science course over the summer, and I emphasized in class that classifying a regime as “fascist” is a high bar. It’s not only that a regime displays authoritarianism combined with hyper-nationalism and racism or xenophobia; those are components of fascism (and dangerous ideologies in general), but there are many authoritarian and racist or xenophobic governments that have existed that we wouldn’t lump together with Mussolini or Hitler.

Fascism had all of these elements, but combined them with other tendencies that distinguished fascists from various run-of-the-mill dictators: an emphasis on (toxic) masculinity (wait, this does sound like Trump), politicized violence within society against opponents (dangit, we’ve got that too now), and, relevant for today, a somewhat strange combination of virulent anti-communism combined with extensive state control over the economy (remember that the term “Nazi” is merely an abbreviation for the “National Socialist” German Workers Party).

The Nazi and Italian Fascist governments, in addition to all the other things they did, exercised extensive control over industries within their countries in the name of nationalism. They distinguished this control from communism, not so much by the level of state intervention in the economy, but by the purpose of that intervention: communists saw economic intervention through the lens of class struggle, while fascists sought to manipulate their economies for nationalistic ends, such as limiting international trade and establishing economic self-sufficiency (having your country economically reliant upon others was a sign of weakness, the thinking went). This sounds disturbingly similar to Donald Trump’s attempts to cajole, bully, and now maybe even order American companies to cease overseas manufacturing and bring operations back to the US, not just in the name of creating American jobs, but as part of the larger, much more ideological “Make America Great Again” agenda.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the United States is becoming fascist. As many of my students pointed out, our government has various safeguards in place to prevent authoritarianism and other abuses of power. But, these checks and balances and limits on presidential authority do presuppose that the appropriate politicians, government branches and agencies will enforce them, and the Republican-led government seems increasingly content on sacrificing principles in exchange for achieving its policy agenda. So while it’s hyperbole to declare that the US is turning into a fascist country, the fact that such an idea is now a reasonable topic of conversation should be alarming.

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