Douglas Kellner in American Nightmare writes, “certainly [Donald] Trump is not Hitler and his followers are not technically fascists, although I believe that we can use the term authoritarian populism or neofascism to explain Trump and his supporters” (2016: 20). Kellner is not the only analyst who uses the terms fascism and populism interchangeably to describe Trumpism, nor is it the first time that populists have been branded as fascist. General Juan Perón’s contemporaries from the right and the left considered him a fascist in the 1940s.
Populism certainly shares with fascism a view of the people-as-one. Differently from liberals who consider “the people” as made up of populations with diverse interests and projects, populists and fascists think that the people share one overriding interest embodied in a leader. Like fascists, populists are antipluralists and are convinced that a leader like Chávez, Mussolini, or Trump is the only and truthful voice of the people. Similarly to liberals, populist and fascist leaders have a sense of mission to liberate their peoples and nations from oppression. Like liberals, Mussolini and Chávez promoted their ideologies and strategies of regime change worldwide. Liberal democracy was diffused in three waves, fascism was disseminated to Europe and Latin America, and Chávez’s strategies of regime change were emulated in other Latin American nations.
Yet populism is different from fascism because it did not use paramilitary violence. Populists branded their political rivals as antagonistic enemies but did not seek their physical elimination as fascists did. Fascists abolished democracy and elections. Fascists considered the plebiscitarian acclamation of a leader to be a superior form of democracy. Populists on the contrary considered that the vote expresses the popular will. Perón like other populists in Latin America in the 1940s struggled against electoral fraud. Chávez conveyed 16 elections between 1999 and 2012 to displace traditional political parties and to consolidate his hegemony.
Trumpism is not fascism, at least not yet. A better definition is a right-wing form of populism. As Ernesto Laclau argued, populism is a political practice that creates political identities. In his book On Populist Reason, Laclau contrasted everyday, mundane, and administrative politics with those exceptional moments of a populist rupture. He argued that populism divides politics and society into two antagonistic camps: power and the underdog. The logic of populism is based on the construction of an enemy, is anti-institutional, and could lead to the rupture of the system.
Recent examples of populist ruptures in Latin America are Venezuela under Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales’s Bolivia, and Ecuador under Rafael Correa. These leaders came to power after major crises of political representation. Political parties were perceived as instruments of local and foreign elites that implemented neoliberal policies and thereby increased social inequality. These left-wing populists rose to power on platforms that promised to eliminate corrupt politicians, use constitution making to revamp existing institutions, experiment with participatory forms of democracy, abandon neoliberal orthodoxy, and implement policies to redistribute income.
Donald Trump ruptured the neoliberal multicultural consensus. He opposes free trade agreements like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He links national decline with the absence of industrial production. Trump singles out corporations for moving factories overseas, promising to bring manufacture jobs back to the United States. He uses blatant racist tropes against Muslims and Mexicans, destroying the myth that the US was becoming a colorblind, postracial society. His base of support is not only made up of “the losers of globalization,” uneducated white males. Middle-class and educated white men and women also supported him because many felt they were not getting their fair share and that they were facing increasing insecurity in their lives. They felt that women, blacks, Hispanics, and gays were empowered by unfair policies of affirmative action and political correctness that negatively targeted white heterosexual males.
Left-wing populist ruptures in Latin America led to the abandonment of neoliberalism and to the adoption of redistributive policies. Trump nationalist policies would reverse free trade agreements and would simultaneously boost neoliberal reliance on the market, increasing class inequalities. He would get rid of multiculturalism attempting to restore his nostalgic image of America as a white, male, Christian, and heterosexual nation.
“The people” is a discursive construct. Right-wing populists in Europe and the United States used ethnic categories to construct their peoples as facing ethnic and religious enemies such as Muslims and nonwhites. Trump constructed his people as white and in opposition to Muslims, Mexicans, or militant black activists. Differently from exclusionary ethnic images of the people like Trump’s, Chávez articulated a political construct of the people. Chávez framed the political arena so that he did not face political rivals but instead an oligarchy he defined as the political enemy of the people, “those self-serving elites who work against the homeland” (Zúquete 2008: 105).
Populists view the people as one and profess that they represent and embody the people. Chávez said, “This is not about Hugo Chávez; this is about a ‘people.’ I represent, plainly, the voice and the heart of millions” (Zúquete 2008: 100). Donald Trump also had a unitary view of the people. Sounding like Chávez, Trump asserted in a rally in Florida, “it’s not about me—it’s about all of you.”
“The people” is performed and embodied in confrontations between politicians who claim to be their leaders, even saviors, against those constructed as their enemies. Mass meetings and political rallies create a sense of belonging and build antagonistic identities. Despite an innovative use of television and social media like Twitter, Trump’s campaign, like that of other populists, made ample use of mass rallies. His rallies showed his followers, for the most part whites, that they were no longer a besieged minority. As Trump said, he was the candidate of “the forgotten men and women of this country”: the white working and middle class.
Populist mass rallies are designed to gratify followers. Trump often told his audience, “Let’s go and have fun tonight.” Chávez’s mass rallies were parties where he and his followers danced. Chávez politicized the feelings of exclusions and anger to the humiliations that the poor and the nonwhite have to endure in daily life. Trump stirred passions of anger in his rallies. He incited his followers’ violence, saying, “Knock the crap out of him, would you? I promise you I will pay the legal fees” (Horchschild 2016: 224).
Populist gatherings also intend to build a leader into a character larger than life. Chávez was constructed into a savior who even risked his own life leading a military insurrection against President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992. Since beginning his campaign, Trump referred to his extraordinariness: “We need a truly great leader now … We need somebody that can take the brand of the United States and make it great again.” Billionaire Donald Trump claimed to represent people’s dream for social mobility. He flaunted his wealth; his name became a brand for skyscrapers, hotels, casinos, and other commodities; he owned the Miss Universe franchise; he was a media celebrity. People in his rallies told ethnographer Arlie Hochschild (2016: 226) to be amazed to “be in the presence of such a man.”
Like other populists, Trump demonized his enemies as inherently immoral and corrupt: “Crooked Hillary” and “Corrupt Kaine.” Differently from Hillary Clinton, who used a sophisticated technocratic language to make arguments about the economy, or world politics, Trump resorted to commonplaces and generalities. He stirred emotions and constructed politics as a moral confrontation between good, incarnated in his persona, and the crooked establishment personified by Clinton. She was portrayed as the embodiment of all that is wrong with America, therefore and without a proper trial, Trump and his followers condemned her to prison chanting in his rallies, “Lock her up!”
Similarly to left-wing populists who confronted traditional political parties, Trump accused the “failed and corrupt political establishment” for giving up America’s sovereignty to global and greedy elites that brought “destruction to our factories.” With images of the predominantly white crowds that attended his rallies, his last TV campaign ad concluded, “The only thing that can stop this corrupt machine is you. I am doing this for the people and for the movement.”
Once in power, populists in Latin America displaced democracy toward authoritarianism by occupying the state, declaring war on the media, and regulating the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Chávez, for example, gained nearly absolute command of all institutions of the state. He had a supermajority in the legislature and in 2004 put the highest judicial authority, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, in the hands of loyal judges. Hundreds of lower court judges were fired and replaced by unconditional supporters (Hawkins 2015: 11). The National Electoral Council was politicized. Even though it made sure that the moment of voting was clean and free from fraud, it did not enforce rules during the electoral process and routinely favored Chávez and his candidates.
To impose their version of reality as the only permitted truth, Chávez created laws to control the content of what the privately owned media could publish or broadcast. In 2000, the Organic Law of Telecommunication allowed the government to suspend or revoke broadcasting concessions to private outlets when it was “convenient for the interest of the nation.” He took radio and television stations from critics. Under Chávez, the Venezuelan state became the main communicator, controlling 64 percent of television channels (Corrales 2015: 39). Chávez also regulated the work of NGOs, and to counteract the power of workers’ unions, he created loyal social movements from the top down.
Even though the economic policies of left-wing populists are the opposite of Trump’s, it is worth using Latin American experiences with populists in power to speculate about the future of democracy in America. The constitutional frame of American democracy constrains and fragments political expression. Under these institutional constraints, it is difficult to find majoritarian control over government as in Latin America, and until Trump, populism was confined to the margins of the political system. Trump’s populism under this hypothesis would be no more than a passing phase, and the institutional framework of US democracy and civil society would be strong enough to process populist challenges without major destabilizing consequences.
An alternative and plausible scenario is that Trump could attempt to follow the Latin American populist playbook of controlling all the institutions of the state. He has threatened Republicans who did not support him wholeheartedly during the campaign, and it is conceivable that he might want to transform the Republican Party—an institution to which he does not have any long-lasting loyalty—into his personalist venue.
Like his Latin American populist cousins, Trump does not like the media. He threatened to use libel and menaced to sue newspapers. Trump used coarse language against civil rights groups like Black Lives Matter. His policies of massive deportation, stop-and-frisk in poor and predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods, surveillance of American Muslims, and rolling back gender and LGBTQ rights would lead to confrontations with civil and human rights organizations.
Even if the institutional framework of democracy does not collapse under Trump, he has already damaged the democratic public sphere. Hate speech and the denigration of minorities are replacing the politics of cultural recognition and tolerance build by the struggles of feminists and antiracist social movements since the 1960s. Trump’s potential incremental attacks on civil liberties and human rights, confrontations with the media, use of the legal system to silence critics, could lead, as in Venezuela, to the slow death of democracy.
Carlos de la Torre is professor of Sociology at the University of Kentucky. He is the author of Populist Seduction in Latin America (2000) and editor of The Promise and Perils of Populism: Global Perspectives (2014).
Corrales, Javier. 2015 “Autocratic legalism in Venezuela.” Journal of Democracy 26 (2): 37–51.
Hawkins, Kirk A. 2015. “Responding to radical populism: Chavism in Venezuela.” Democratization 23 (2): 242–262. doi:10.1080/13510347.2015.1058783.
Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2016. Strangers in their own land: A journey to the heart of our political divide. New York: The New Press.
Kellner, Douglas. 2016. American nightmare: Donald Trump, media spectacle and authoritarian populism. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
Laclau, Ernesto 2005. On populist reason. New York: Verso.
Zúquete, Pedro. 2008. “The missionary politics of Hugo Chavez.” Latin American Politics and Society 50 (1): 91–121.
Cite as: de la Torre, Carlos. 2017. “Trump: Fascist or Populist?” FocaalBlog, 1 February. www.focaalblog.com/2017/02/01/carlos-de-la-torre-trump-fascist-or-populist.