Trump and the Libertarian Authoritarians

 A recent article in Vox asked whether the F word, “fascist,” should be applied to Trump. The scholarly consensus is that it shouldn’t. (D. Mathews, The F. Word,, Jan. 14, 2021) While it’s widely acknowledged that Trump is an authoritarian, contemptuous of democracy, the Constitution, and the rule of law, he and his movement are missing a few key fascistic ingredients. The article quotes Stanley Payne, a University of Wisconsin historian and author of A History of Fascism 1914-1945: Trump“[n]ever founded a new fascist party, never embraced a coherent new revolutionary ideology, never announced a radical new doctrine but introduced a noninterventionist foreign military policy . . . Not even a poor man’s fascist. Ever an incoherent nationalist-populist with sometimes destructive tendencies.”

 I agree he’s not a fascist, and would go so far as to say that labeling him as such misses what is uniquely awful about Trump and Trumpism. Fascism had an abiding faith in government. It believed its projects required strenuous collective effort, chiefly war, to conquer perceived external enemies and eliminate perceived internal ones. To accomplish this, the fascist party must gain complete control of the government and the government complete control of society. The fascist ideal is a totalitarian one that requires subordination of the individual will to the nation and its leader, the sacrifice of liberty – and even life itself – for the supposed higher good that the leader dictates.

 Trump, by contrast, asks nothing of his supporters other than to adulate him, to vote for him, to fight for him when he loses an election. Trump, in contrast to Der Fuhrer and Il Duce, is more a follower than a leader. For the sake of his popularity, he supports causes with which he has no particular affinity: gun rights, religious freedom, abortion. After his Michigan supporters showed distaste for the government shutdown, he tweeted “Liberate Michigan,” undermining his own CDC guidelines for the sake of showing his base that he was on their side.

 The contrast between fascism and Trumpism can be seen clearly in the differences between the Nazi rallies of the 1930s and Trump rallies. The N├╝rnberg rallies helped to forge a mass movement that acted in unison, starting with the mass Heil Hitler salute, a disciplined military choreography. The Trump rally is more like a malicious version of a sporting event, people in the stands cheering on the home team. Chants of “lock her up” and “build the wall” are closer to fans shouting “defense, defense” at a basketball game than they are to regimented Nazi masses. And when the rally is over, Trump “fans” go their separate ways.

 This contrast points to the distinctive character of American authoritarianism. While far from monolithic, we can say that one of the core characteristics of much of the radical right is the value it places on freedom. But their conception of freedom is particularly dark. Freedom in a constitutional democracy is bounded by at least two significant limitations: first, the harm principal, that freedom does not extend to harming others; second the democratic principle, that freedom is limited by laws decided by Democratic majorities and their representatives. Citizens subordinate their individual preferences to the will of the majority, subject to constitutional limitations.

 The radical right in America rejects these principles. They defend the right to own semiautomatic rifles even if that contributes to mass shootings, to use the land the way they see fit even when it despoils the environment, and to not to wear masks even at a lethal cost to public health. And as we saw on January 6, they insist on the right to have the leader they preferred even if that leader was not chosen by the electorate, based on vague and unproven allegations of voter fraud. This is a freedom that denies democracy and thinks the idea of the common good is nothing more than a scam perpetrated by government elites. It is no wonder that one of the foremost symbols of the American far right is the Confederate flag, the banner of a cause that asserted the “freedom” to enslave others. His radical right supporters loved Trump because he epitomized this idea of reckless freedom, the unrestrained exercise of one’s will and preferences, consequences be damned. It is the freedom to be as callous, as racist, as misogynistic as you wanna’ be.

 This strain of freedom, this libertarian authoritarianism, has been latent in our politics long before Trump. As the historian Nancy MacLean chronicles in her book “Democracy in Chains,” the libertarianism systematically and aggressively promoted by the Koch brothers and other wealthy donors sought, and in large part succeeded, in thwarting the preferences of the majority for the sake of the economic freedom of the wealthy from taxes and from regulations that protect workers and the environment. These libertarian elites have found a home in the Republican Party that their donations and influence have helped to radicalize. The subversion of democratic institutions by this extreme antigovernment agenda ultimately leads to a contempt for law and government itself. People oblivious to legal nuances then take the law into their own hands.

 Trump may not be a fascist, but he represents an American political tendency that is potentially as dangerous. If we want to address the lawless radical right, we have to realize its roots in a libertarian antigovernment movement that has been mainstreamed into the Republican Party and now quite dominates it, thanks to members of the Republican donor class. Only when we address this antidemocratic strain in our politics, promoted by people at the top of the economic ladder, can we combat Trumpism and worse.

Robert Katz

Robert Katz served as a staff attorney and supervising attorney at the California Supreme Court from 1993-2018. Before that he was in private practice representing public agencies, and worked as a newspaper reporter covering local government in Santa Cruz County. 

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