Donald Trump: unpleasant demagogue or harbinger of fascism?

By Jill Segger
October 26, 2016

In a 1944 article for Tribune George Orwell asked 'What is facism?' – a question arguably more easily answered then than it is today..

But because we are seventy years on from the demise of Hitler and Mussolini and have been – in this country at least – less impacted by the Spanish and Portuguese versions practised by Franco and Salazar, we have an opportunity to weigh some of the common factors of fascism and to acknowledge that because it takes different forms in different cultures, there is a danger of missing possible warning signs. And, because, as Orwell lamented, it has become for some little more than a swear-word – a form of extreme insult, it is today particularly inportant to keep Godwin's Law in mind.

 Donald Trump has posed democracy a serious challenge by his mendacity, racism, xenophobia, misogyny and horrifying willingness to both hint and wink at violence. I would suggest, however that although he is a deeply unpleasant demagogue, he is not himself a fascist although he may represent a dangerous staging post on the way to that vile condition.

There are two significant characteristics of fascism which seem to apply across all the cultures where it takes root. One is to plug into inchoate discontents through grandiose rhetoric and, by being all but policy-free, open up a space which people can populate with their own grievances. (“I'll make America great/rich/free/safe again”) The other is to use democratic structures to undermine democracy. Trump is certainly doing both these things and as he slides in the polls, his growing insistence that the election is “rigged” is potentially very dangerous. But whether this will pave the way for his forthcoming defeat to spark the lawlessness and violence characteristic of fascism's response to opposition remains questionable.

Everything about Donald Trump's thin-skinned narcissism and immature behaviour suggests that in defeat he is more likely to flounce away and slam the door than to display any lasting capacity to foment and manage a popular uprising against the democratic process. His followers may well cause some immediate disruption but without leadership, that is unlikely to be long term. And here is the fulcrum on which balances the dangerous possibility of the Trump campaign being the harbinger of fascism to America. Trump has no party. Mainstream Republicanism is not behind him and GOP support dwindles by the day. Fascism has always needed a power base with one foot in establishment and the other in popular support. A dictator will change those proportions once in power, but that is how it begins.

Much will depend on the ability of a Clinton administration to read the signs of the times and to address the grievances of the 'left behind'. It is a sorry outcome of the mephitic atmosphere which has emanated from Donald Trump's campaign that such an experienced politician as Hillary Clinton should have permitted herself to be provoked into describing her opponent's supporters as “a basket of deplorables.” Some of the behaviours on display have indeed been deplorable but the haughty and contemptuous response only served to embed the idea that she represented an out-of-touch elite who would do nothing to change the status quo. If her actions as president reinforce this perception, the ground that has been turned by Trump will be open to cultivation by a leader with greater ability to build a movement. In the term 'alt-right', potential recruits are already pinning its badge.

The constituency which has responded eagerly to Donald Trump is diverse, but it shares a romantic view of an imagined glorious past. This is common to right wing populism in most cultures. So if fascism does come to America, it will not wear brown shirts and carry knuckledusters. It is more likely to be clad in buckskins and armed with holstered handguns.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: You can follow Jill on Twitter at:

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