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Trump and the Playbook of Fascist Politics

In a new book, Yale philosopher Jason Stanley lays out the traditional tactics of fascist politicians, and shows they have retained their potency.
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President Donald Trump casts a shadow in Brussels on July 12th, 2018.

President Donald Trump casts a shadow in Brussels on July 12th, 2018.

Like other leaders with authoritarian leanings, Donald Trump achieved power using a time-honored formula: dividing society into the virtuous "us" and the dastardly "them," and constantly repeating untruths in an effort to sharpen that split. Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley refers to this as "fascist politics."

The aspiring fascist's playbook, he argues, involves evoking the glories of a mythic past; promoting emotion over reason; delegitimizing independent sources of news and information; and insisting on the sanctity of the traditional family structure, which places the man in charge. That becomes the template for the national power structure, in which a father-figure leader takes his rightful place as unquestioned ruler.

"The structure of fascism is very old, and the arguments it makes are very tempting," says Stanley, author of the new book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. Fascist politicians, he argues, exploit both our fear and our laziness.

"Any institution that is run democratically takes a huge amount of work," he notes. "All too often, what Americans mean by 'freedom' is 'freedom from the burden of having to make decisions.'"

He discussed our vulnerability to fascist arguments—and how we might counteract it—in a telephone interview from his New Haven home.


Did you write this book in response to the rise of Trump, and other rulers around the world with authoritarian leanings?

I'm a philosopher of language and an epistemologist. I jumped into the political fray—the first piece I wrote for the New York Times was in 2011—in reaction to  birtherism. My 2015 book How Propaganda Works came out two weeks before Trump announced his candidacy. It's about how democracy is at risk when the public political culture collapses into demagoguery. That book warns we have always had a fascist element to our politics.

So you agree with President Barack Obama's recent comment that Trump is more a symptom than a cause.

Absolutely. We set ourselves up for Trump. Look at all the crazy conspiracy theories. Look at all the lies leading up to the Iraq War. When the media repeated those lies, we set ourselves up for not trusting the media.

Trump ran as the "drain the swamp candidate," but his supporters don't seem to mind that he is presiding over one of the most corrupt administrations in history. You explain this by arguing that the word corruption has a different meaning in the context of fascist politics.

Yes, it means corruption of the traditional order. It means non-whites gaining equal rights, women gaining power over men. In fascist politics, "law and order" doesn't mean law and order. It means "those people, by their very nature, are lawless." Lawless means being of the wrong group.

Another tactic of fascist politics: You paint the democratic system as corrupt, and then you paint your own corruption as evidence you're the best person to deal with the problem. You see a lot of that happening with the president.

Jason Stanley.

Jason Stanley.

You note that another time-honored tactic of fascist politics is the evocation of a mythical past, which in Trump-speak translates as "Make America Great Again." What does that accomplish for a politician?

You attach a sense of nostalgia to the fascist ideals you promote. That is a powerful emotion—and, as Steve Bannon has said, emotion gets people to the polls. In the case of the United States, you attach a sense of nostalgia to this image of an all-white state—and then make people feel they have lost something.

There are many reasons older white people might feel uncomfortable in a rapidly changing society. How do fascist political strategies exploit these negative emotions?

They attempt to worsen that feeling of victimization. The leader wants them to believe he is the only thing they have any more.

When he announced his candidacy, Trump infamously declared that many Mexican immigrants were rapists. You link that line to a fear spread by many fascist politicians: the notion that the purity of the nation is going to be spoiled, either literally or symbolically, by invading outsiders.

Fascist politics marshals these basic emotions and tries to strip people of their capacity for rationality. Disgust does that very powerfully. When you feel a disgust reaction, it's really difficult to react calmly and rationally.

When you prime people with an ethic of purity—make them feel mixing the races is impure—then you trigger disgust. Recently, Tucker Carlson said, "I don't like illegal immigrants because of litter." That's a good example of spreading the idea that illegal immigrants bring with them impurity.

Are pundits and politicians who use these tactics consciously using the fascist playbook?

I don't think it's important whether it's conscious. Hitler was very good at describing his methods. But other people very naturally (gravitate to this approach). Trump has described himself as a germophobe. In this type of politics, you always see the idea of foreigners as "dirty."

As I was reading your book, Trump declared that he could show us 100 photos of Robert Mueller and James Comey "hugging and kissing." His point was that Mueller is biased against him, but the way he said it evokes fascist politicians' traditional distaste for homosexuality. The implication is, "These sissy boys have no right to question a manly man like me."

It's definitely an attempt to feminize them. Fascism is harshly patriarchal, and the patriarchal leader rules through strength. Femininity is something shameful. Being gay is antithetical to patriarchal values. They're not being "real men."

The message is: How can Mueller and Comey be protectors of the country if they hug and kiss each other? Gay men are not going to protect the women and children, which is what a real man does. These are not protectors—I'm your protector.

This is outside the scope of your book, but do you think this adherence to a patriarchal structure helps explain why evangelical Christians, who tend to adhere to notion that father is in charge of the family, continue to stand by Trump in spite of his clear lack of morality?

Certainly. The structure of religion involves a powerful authority figure. Of course, there are also parts of Christian thinking that are inimical to fascist thinking—particularly its social Darwinism. Trump says life is all about winning. You can't believe that if you're a Christian. So there's the tension.

You note that Socrates warned that democracy will tend to produce demagogues. Do you think the rise and fall of fascism is a cyclical component of human nature, destined to reemerge every so often in our history?

I think fascism in its modern form—the structure I describe—is not older than the 19th century. It requires nationalism, and that's a 19th-century invention. Before nationalism, many of fascism's elements existed, and Plato talks about them in The Republic. But it takes a particular form in the 19th century, when people come up with this doctrine of a nation-state based around a common language and a common cultural identity.

You also note the irony of demonizing refugees, who by definition have perhaps the least power of any group of people on the planet. Given the fact the changing climate is almost certain to produce more refugees in the decades ahead, and demonizing refugees can be an effective strategy for fascist politicians, are you pessimistic about the future?

As a humanist, I am a pessimist. But that increases the need to work on this material, and urge people not to buy into the fascist myths. After all, at some point, they might end up being refugees themselves.

So we have identified these tactics, and seen they are effective on many people. What can the rest of us do to counter them?

As Obama said, I think we have to go back and address what made us vulnerable to this in the first place. Also, we have to recognize that we will always be vulnerable to it. We have to strengthen liberal democratic norms. We need to have zero tolerance for dehumanizing people—including criminals. We need to not divide society into the "deserving" and the "unfit." We are all human.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.