With his incendiary populist rhetoric and highly stage-managed mass rallies, Donald Trump has sent a chill down the spine of many observers outside America, myself included. So, how do we make sense of the Republican presidental candidate and his ideas?
As a historian, I am being increasingly asked questions about the controversial businessman who has shaken up U.S. politics and is a possible future leader of the Western World. Does he really mean what he says? Could he really win the White House? Moreover, is he a ‘new fascist’? The latter question has certainly become a regular theme in media commentaries on Donald Trump.
Personally, as a historian of fascism – as tempting as it may be – I don’t think it is all that helpful to paint Trump as a ‘new fascist’. As George Orwell once pointed out in a short, but very astute, essay on ‘What is fascism?’, there is a danger that over-use of the word ‘fascist’ can rob it of its historical significance. Caution is needed here.
Trump is certainly a rightwing nationalist and xenophobe, with some worrying authoritarian tendencies evident in his personality. He is very preoccupied with his own self-image, employs a kind of hyper-masculine language about individual men and destiny, and appears to want to leave a big mark on both American and wider history.
Even more worryingly, he has also managed to reach out to significant numbers of disgruntled U.S. voters using highly emotive language, a powerful discourse which is acutely thin on policy detail and is often devoid of any logic. His populism is based on the claim that the Washington elites are irreparably ‘corrupt’, that parts of his own party have also become seduced by the very same ‘establishment’, and that politicians generally have lost touch with ‘real’ Americans. He asserts that he is the ‘true’ voice of ordinary America.
On the question of U.S. power in the world, Trump cynically exploits the claim so beloved of Conservative commentators that America has slipped into serious decline and is on the verge of ‘collapse’, and he regularly repeats the catchphrase ‘Let’s Make America Great Again’, which has become a key slogan of his campaign. He has promised to increase spending on the military, but with a view to placing American ‘security’ first. He is also notably intolerant, and has blatantly played the ‘race card’ in his political campaigning, the most infamous examples being the bizarre scheme to build a giant wall to keep out Mexicans, and the promise to place a ban on ‘all Muslims’ entering the USA. As part of his electoral strategy, he often whips up anger in the belief that there are enough disaffected voters out there who will carry him to the White House, including disillusioned blue-collar working-class voters who have voted Democratic for decades, but now appear to feel unloved and unwanted in ‘rust-belt’ areas that have suffered the full impact of globalisation. Whether this road to power will succeed or not is a major question which, frankly, I cannot answer.
But Trump’s big speech at the recent Republican national convention, although predictably light on detail, encapsulated many of these central themes once again, summed up in his strong emphasis on ‘America First’. And, I suspect, it is the latter phrase that can provide us with some important clues about the real nature of ‘Trumpism’. To my mind, what he is seeking to construct for Americans is a new ‘feel good’ form of something that is actually quite familiar to scholars of U.S. history. It is not ‘fascism’ he is indulging in as such but, rather, a 21st century reconstruction of the type of American isolationism that dominated the country’s foreign policy outlook for much of the 1930s.
For many ordinary Americans at the time, this stance was embodied in the brief but spectacular rise of the anti-war ‘America First’ movement in the late 1930s, and a key figurehead of the movement was Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974). Indeed, although I would not want to push the analogy too far, there are some interesting ideological similarities between Lindbergh’s world-view and that of Donald Trump’s.
Lindbergh was an aviator, explorer, inventor, and self-made businessman. He had suddenly come to worldwide attention in 1927, when he carried out a non-stop solo flight from New York to Paris (nearly 3,600 miles), flying in a single-seat plane, the Spirit of St. Louis. In the mind of many, he embodied the heroic ‘American Dream’ – a strong individual rising from nowhere and overcoming incredible odds. His private life also became a regular source of fascination for gossip columnists. Significantly, Lindbergh (see photo) was increasingly active on the rightwing political scene. He supported America’s growing interwar ‘isolationist’ tendencies, advocating firm neutrality during times of war, but from a position of strong military strength, with constant alertness against ‘outside’ threats. America, in his view, could only be safe and secure if it was ‘Fortress America’.
In line with this outlook, in May, 1940, Lindbergh became a star speaker for the anti-war ‘America First Committee’, and was able to pack out highly stage-managed America First meetings in New York City and Chicago, with many more Americans hearing his controversial rightwing views in national and local radio broadcasts.
Lindbergh was also regularly accused of being a ‘fascist’ by his critics. In his case, there was some fairly compelling evidence for this. He supported eugenics, and was friendly with leading Nazis, such as Herman Goering. He clearly flirted with fascist ideas but, on the other hand, Lindbergh also sought to put some public distance between himself and explicit support for ‘foreign’, un-American creeds. However, Lindbergh’s racist views became intimately bound up with his open support for America First and its critique of the ‘corrupt’ Washington elites. In one notorious speech, delivered to an America First rally on September 11th, 1941, Lindbergh asked: ‘Who Are the War Agitators?’, and he accused Britain, Jewish groups, and advisers to the Roosevelt administration of agitating for war, adding: ‘We cannot blame them for looking out for their own interests, but we also must look out for ours’. More generally, Lindbergh and his fellow supporters of America First emphasised the need to always place American interests before anything else in the world.
If we turn back to Donald Trump, all this sounds eerily familiar. In a little-reported speech on his ‘America First’ foreign policy made in April, 2016 (with a level of policy detail rare for a Trump speech), he said he would return U.S. foreign policy back to a ‘timeless principle’ – ‘My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else. It has to be first. Has to be. That will be the foundation of every single decision that I will make’. On other occasions, he has stated the need to ‘roll-back’ and withdraw American forces from key parts of the globe, something designed to appeal to both the Left and the Right.
Similarly, just before the recent Republican convention, he caused consternation in Europe when he suggested that, under his presidency, he might not honour the core principle of the NATO military alliance. Trump said the U.S. would not necessarily defend NATO members in the Baltic area in the event of a Russian attack, a principle enshrined in Article 5 of the alliance’s original treaty.
And, in his acceptance speech at the convention itself, ‘The Donald’ (as he is often called) – now finally in place as the Republican presidential candidate – returned back to many of his core ideological themes: he pledged to build a ‘great border wall’, promised to ‘completely rebuild our depleted military’, and proclaimed to his excited supporters: ‘Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo’. One suspects Lindbergh’s ghost would be smiling.
Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University