Robert Welch was the epitome of the paranoid anti-Communist, a man who made Joe McCarthy seem placid and reasonable by comparison. Co-founder of the rabidly right-wing John Birch Society, headquartered in McCarthy’s hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin, Welch believed the red-baiting senator didn’t go far enough in exposing the Communist infiltration of American society. According to Welch, none other than Dwight Eisenhower—World War II hero and twice-elected president of the United States—was “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” Moreover, Milt Eisenhower, the president’s younger brother, was his “superior and boss within the Communist Party.”
To which the conservative intellectual Russell Kirk mockingly retorted, “Ike’s not a Communist, he’s a golfer.”
Just a few months into the presidency of Donald Trump, I’m beginning to feel Kirk’s estimation of Eisenhower—that he was too guileless and banal, almost laughably so, to be considered an extremist of any kind—also applies to the current leader of the free world. Donald Trump is not a fascist, he’s a golfer (albeit one who cheats at it).
Of course, I am not comparing Eisenhower and Trump, the former a man who helped save Western civilization from barbarism then helmed a world-class educational institution (Columbia University) before becoming president of the United States, the latter a vulgar, draft-dodging egomaniac. What they have in common, however, is hyperventilating critics who portray them as something they’re not. Hardline anti-Communists like Welch convinced themselves that the president of the United States was a secret Soviet agent, as this was the only way they could understand a series of disappointing foreign policy developments beginning with the “loss” of China to Mao Tse-tung’s Communist forces in 1949.
As for Trump, the accusation he’s a fascist implies a level of intellectual rigor and discipline that frankly is unfair to fascists. Whereas fascists venerate blood, soil, and nation, romanticizing self-sacrifice in pursuit of their fatherland, Trump is merely a narcissist, committed to no cause beyond his own venal impulses. His frequent outbursts at the media, for instance, while characteristic of despots (right down to his use of the Stalinist-Hitlerite term “enemies of the people”), seem inspired less by a longing to shred the First Amendment than childish hyper-sensitivity. This is a man, after all, who has used the media constantly (and quite brilliantly) throughout his long public life, up to and including his successful campaign for the presidency.
Trump’s political agenda reeks more of opportunism than the advancement of some grand ideological project.
Trump’s political agenda (with its seeds in exacting revenge on a president who mocked him on national television) reeks more of opportunism than the advancement of some grand ideological project. This doesn’t minimize the array of ugly forces Trump has emboldened, in particular the racist “alt-right” whose exemplars are the conspiracy-peddling Breitbart.com and self-described “ Leninist” Steve Bannon. I’m guilty of having described candidate Trump as a “fascist demagogue.” In truth, Trump often behaves like a fascist without actually being one. A key reason for my reassessment concerns Trump’s attitudes toward minorities, or “fear of difference,” one of the 14 elements of “eternal fascism” as defined by Italian author Umberto Eco.
Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is a racist and xenophobe. One does not talk about Mexicans and Muslims the way Trump has, or spend five years claiming the first Black president is not a real American, unless he’s willing to exploit racist and nativist sentiments, appealing to the very worst aspects of the American character. Nor does one speak about and behave toward women the way Trump has throughout his life unless he’s a rank misogynist. Racism and misogyny are among the most basic human prejudices, motivated by irrational fear of people of a different hue, nationality or gender. They require no thought—indeed, quite the opposite, only ignorance.
Much the same can be said of Trump’s alleged anti-Semitism. To be an anti-Semite, however, requires a bit more effort than color- or gender-based prejudice. You need to have theories about how the world works and how Jews are manipulating vast, complex systems to control it. You probably talk about these things a lot (usually on C-SPAN’s call-in shows) and write long-winded letters to random journalists and politicians explaining your theories. In my experience, anti-Semites are almost universally obsessive personalities insistent on connecting everything back to Jews. Also: Anti-Semites are often very well read, the problem being most of what they’ve read is conspiratorial nonsense reinforcing what they already believe.
Donald Trump, by contrast, clearly thinks about nothing other than himself. He doesn’t sufficiently care about anything beyond his immediate wants and desires, much less the fate of Jews. He’s apathetic about anti-Semitism for the same reason he’s apathetic about the people he scammed with Trump University and the workers he stiffed in Atlantic City: He’s a selfish asshole. Anti-Semitism has no direct bearing on him or his bottom line; thus, his impulse upon being questioned about the subject is to brag about his election victory or defensively yell at a reporter.
The same attitude applies, I wager, to gays.
There is little in Trump’s history to suggest personal animus toward LGBT people and much to suggest the opposite. Some have pointed to Trump’s abandonment of his mentor, McCarthy lawyer Roy Cohn, as he lay dying of AIDS, but this is indicative not so much of homophobia (Cohn was closeted) as Trump’s dominant character trait: being a selfish asshole. A dying Roy Cohn was useless to Donald Trump, so he disposed of him. Trump would have reacted the same way were Cohn a straight man dying of cancer and not a disease with which so much social stigma and shame were associated.
While Trump gestured toward the religious right during his presidential campaign, telling them he opposed gay marriage and validating their feelings of victimhood at the hands of secular liberals, he also went out of his way to take a position totally at odds with social conservatives on what is becoming a major culture-war topic: transgender bathrooms. Transgender people, he said, should “use the bathroom they feel is appropriate.” To be sure, the real test of Trump’s commitment to LGBT equality will be in the appointments he makes and the policies he pursues as president, and his lifting the Obama administration’s guidance to high schools regarding transgender bathrooms suggests he remains partly captive to the religious right. But while socially conservative figures have hopped aboard the Trump train, anti-gay animus simply was not a major animating factor in Trump’s victory, as it had been in 2004 for George W. Bush, who campaigned on the Federal Marriage Amendment.
None of this, mind you, is intended as a defense of Trump. I have little doubt that, were it advantageous to him, he would consciously exploit anti-Semitism and homophobia without hesitation. He is expert at stoking white racial resentment against, well, anyone who’s not white and male. But those are easy targets, and Trump knows that going after Jews makes no electoral sense, so he won’t bother. (The anti-Semitic overtones in Trump’s closing campaign advertisement, which darkly warned of “global special interests” that “control the levers of power,” were far too subtle to be recognized by the average voter as such.)
Trump’s liberal critics miss the point when they label him a homophobe and an anti-Semite, just as his conservative fans err when they laud him as the best ally of the Jews since Cyrus the Great and a friend of Dorothy. Trump is simply indifferent. The only context through which he could possibly be moved to care about Jewish causes, for instance, is his grandchildren, born of a Jewish mother. But they live under a blanket of private security and will never want for anything. So the current unease felt by many Jews about the increasingly conspiratorial and polarizing tenor of American political discourse is not something with which Trump can empathize (assuming he is capable of empathy). Similarly, Trump’s appeals to gays, which usually take the form of vowing to “protect” the “LGBT community” from the ravages of “radical Islamic terrorism,” are wrapped up in belligerent pledges to fight ISIS. In this sense, the president opportunistically instrumentalizes gays in a way that makes their visibility palatable to a conservative audience that otherwise wants little to do with them.
Donald Trump is many unsettling things, but I suspect he’s just too lazy to be a fascist. That doesn’t mean, of course, that he won’t cause a great deal of damage. But it’s likelier to be felt more abroad, where the president of the United States has much more freedom of action than at home.