ILA Fellow Professor Dennis Tourish discusses the rise of Trumpism and the similarities between it and other fascist movements. If Trumpism is a fascist movement, how can leaders work to shore up democracy and stop it?
The following blog is adapted from the open access paper “It Is Time to Use the F Word About Trump: Fascism, Populism and the Rebirth of History,” published in Leadership.
I am not an American citizen thus cannot vote in the upcoming U.S. election. I write as a global citizen, since what happens in the U.S. has a huge impact on the rest of the world. As a leadership researcher, I am also concerned by the rise of what I see as dark side leaders in many parts of the world — leaders who thrive by promoting division, bigotry, and fear to bolster their own standing. It is in that context that I consider here the ongoing prominence of Donald Trump.
At the time of writing, Trump remains the front-runner to secure the Republican nomination for the 2024 U.S. presidential election. A second Trump term is possible, during which he could, if convicted, pardon himself and return in glory to the White House. In this blog, I argue that we should now regard him as a fascist and respond with an appropriate sense of urgency. How did this come about, and what can be done to reverse the tide?
THE RISE OF TRUMPISM
I identify major factors below that help to account for Trump’s astonishing political success:
Media Celebrity and the Myth of Trump as a Successful Businessman
Much of Trump’s support was derived from the credibility born from his role as a media celebrity. He presented the “reality” TV show The Apprentice, in one form or another, from 2004 until 2015. There was precious little reality in it. Due to multiple failed investments, Trump’s finances were in freefall until the show came along. It required him to play the part of a successful businessman. This performance earned him an estimated $427.4 million that he then mostly squandered on a new generation of business duds. It is somehow fitting that a political career relying on fraud, lies, and flimflam has been built on the foundational myth of Donald Trump as a successful businessman.
The Role of Economic Context and Neoliberalism
There is also the important matter of the economic context in which he emerged into the political arena. Turchin (2023) shows how, adjusted for inflation, the purchasing power of U.S. workers has declined significantly over the past thirty years, while the wealth of a few has grown stratospherically. People are angry and afraid for a reason. Economic calamity enables populist and fascist leaders to promote a narrative of crisis and to arouse fears that they then promise to ease. The anger and desperation of many people found paradoxical expression in support of a self-proclaimed billionaire whose inaugural presidential address promised retribution and renewal:
“For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government, while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land… We are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people… The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sRBsJNdK1t0)
Trump as Ethnic Entrepreneur
But the rise of Trumpism isn’t just about economics. Barack Obama’s presidency saw a Black man in the White House for the first time in history. This inflamed racist feelings on the Republican right, which argued that he was an illegitimate president and not really American. Levitsky & Ziblatt (2018) cite the Tea Party activist and radio host Laurie Roth as follows: “This was not a shift to the Left like Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. This is a worldview clash. We are seeing a worldview clash in our White House. A man who is a closet secular-type Muslim, but he’s still a Muslim. We are seeing a man who is a Socialist Communist in the White House, pretending to be an American” (p. 159).
This is politics as deranged fantasy. Experts on civil wars have coined the term “ethnic entrepreneurs,” to describe those who exploit racial tensions for their own interests (Walter, 2022). Trump has become precisely such an individual. He championed the absurd idea that Obama hadn’t been born in America, thereby disqualifying him from the Presidency. When his birth certificate was released in 2011, proving otherwise, Trump argued that it was a forgery. More recently, and in an appalling echo of the language common in Nazi Germany, he has said that immigrants coming to the U.S. are “poisoning the blood of our country” (Gibson, 2023).
Echo Chambers and the Hunger for Charismatic Leadership
Trump’s ascendancy can also be partly explained by media fragmentation, and the increased reliance of many voters on a small handful of highly ideological media outlets, such as Fox News, Breitbart, The Sean Hannity Show and, in the past, The Rush Limbaugh Show. Social media, an echo chamber par excellence, amplifies this effect. The sense of absolute conviction that is then developed, combined with intense identification with a leader (a puzzle to many who have been baffled by the hold that Trump has over his followers) is strongly reminiscent of organizations that are generally defined as cults (Hassan, 2019).
I argue that this owes little to any imagined charisma on Trump’s part, but a great deal to the social situations in which his followers find themselves – a social media echo chamber, membership in an exciting and revolutionary movement, and the possession of simple answers (MAGA) to complex problems. Followers and leaders collude in the social construction of a charismatic persona that is vital for “Strongmen” leaders of all types. It is a self-reinforcing cycle, since people enthralled by populist leaders grow hungrier for charismatic leadership and ever more dependent on the revered leader. We also have to consider:
THE CENTRALITY OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES TO TRUMPISM
Conspiracy theories have always been a central feature of fascist movements. Notoriously, the Nazis made extensive use of The Protocols of The Elders of Zion, a forgery probably written around 1902 and drawn from several sources, which purported to detail a Jewish plot to take over the world. Writing in Mein Kampf, Hitler dismissed claims that the Protocols were forged as “the best proof that they are authentic … the important thing is that with positively terrifying certainty they reveal the nature and activity of the Jewish people and expose their inner contexts as well as their ultimate final aims.” It is typical of conspiracy theories that the absence of evidence, or the presence of counter evidence, is taken as further proof that the conspiracy is real. It has simply become adept at concealing its existence.
One of the best-known conspiracy theories within the MAGA movement is QAnon, which claims that Barack Obama is a Muslim sleeper agent and Hillary Clinton is part of a Satanic global pedophile sex trafficking ring that ritualistically murders children. As part of the “Deep State,” so the story goes, this ring has been running the U.S. for years and has been involved in countless attempts to assassinate Donald Trump, who alone can defeat it. Trump, in turn, has reposted QAnon messages on social media, signaling at least some endorsement of its insane and evidence free claims.
Even more believe in the greatest conspiracy theory of them all — that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump by the Democrats. This would have required a gigantic conspiracy involving thousands of people, none of whom seems to have blabbed to their families, friends, neighbors, or media about what they had done. The theory thrives in the twilight zone of paranoid conspiracy. At this stage, few of its adherents would be surprised if Trump announced that he has in fact won every Presidential election since 1789, only to be thwarted by ballot rigging Democrats.
It is startling to reflect that neither Trump nor any of his acolytes have produced the slightest shred of evidence in support of their Big Lie about the 2020 election. As things stand, there is more evidence in favor of alien life on Mars than there is that the election was rigged. But all this poses the following question:
WHAT IS FASCISM ANYWAY?
There is no one agreed upon definition of fascism. However, scholars generally cohere around a number of distinguishing traits. In particular, Paxton (2004) identifies what he describes as nine “mobilizing passions”’ of fascism. These are:
- a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;
- the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it;
- the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;
- dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;
- the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;
- the need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s destiny;
- the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;
- the beauty of violence and efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success;
- the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle. (p. 41).
Blown hither and thither by events, including the prospect of mass opposition, any pretense of respect for the norms of democracy by Trump would likely have a lifespan shorter than that of a fruit fly.
Fascist movements are usually helmed by a supreme leader, said to “intuitively” understand the people and their historic destiny. These strongman leaders habitually pose as champions of the people, opposed to a corrupt elite. The leader promises to do away with this elite and unite the nation around a crusade against hated enemies and behind a project of national renewal. Much of this seems very like an indictment of Trump’s role in American politics over recent years. It is important to recognize that the dividing line between populism and fascism has always been fluid. Fascism became populism after 1945, and populism can once again become fascism in our century. We therefore need to ask:
IS TRUMPISM FASCISM?
Holding first place in the case for the prosecution is, of course, the events of January 6th, 2021, when a mob inspired by Trump attempted to stop the certification of Biden’s win in the preceding election. Trump and his party have now decisively rejected democracy and are seeking to ensure that the only elections which will be held in the future are those that they are guaranteed to win. In second place are the plans that have been declared for a Trump second term, should it come to pass.
It was unprecedented for a defeated candidate to encourage such violence or refuse to participate in a peaceful transfer of power. At one point during these events Trump tweeted ‘Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our country and our Constitution.’ O’Toole (2023) argues, I think convincingly, that this was at the very least “implicitly providing a mandate for murder.”
A refusal to accept legitimate election results, and the incitement of violence against political opponents, are of course classic ingredients of fascism. Trump himself is no longer alone in only being willing to accept election results that are in his favor. When Kari Lake lost her campaign for the governorship of Arizona in 2022, she immediately claimed that the election had been rigged. These developments have led Ben-Ghiat (2023), a leading expert on authoritarian leaders, to conclude that ‘Trump can be called a fascist because he differed from any previous American president in having the explicit goal of destroying democracy at home, disengaging America from democratic international networks, and allying with the autocrats he admires, like Putin” (p. 400). When we look ahead, this verdict only gathers strength.
Plans for a Second Term
A Trump second term, if it comes to pass, will be better prepared, and more autocratic, than his first. Plans are afoot to bring agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission — responsible for enforcing rules on television and internet companies — under direct presidential control. Employment protections for career civil servants would be removed, opening the way to the dismissal of all those from intelligence agencies, the State Department, and defense bureaucracies deemed insufficiently loyal to Trump. The Economist reports that expressing any doubts about what happened on January 6th will be grounds for dismissal. Culture wars would proliferate. Trump has promised to create a presidential commission that would promote a “patriotic” curriculum in schools that would, among other things, eliminate scholarship on systematic racism.
Linked to this, more attempts are being made to promote what is known as voter suppression. Some state Republican officials, “have rewritten statutes to seize partisan control of decisions about which ballots to count and which to discard, which results to certify and which to reject. They are driving out or stripping power from election officials who refused to go along with the plot last November, aiming to replace them with exponents of the Big Lie. They are fine-tuning a legal argument that purports to allow state legislators to override the choice of the voters” (Gellman, 2021).
A new Trump administration might not begin as a fully-fledged fascist regime, although this is a possibility. It may be worth remembering that when Mussolini became Italian Prime Minister, in late 1922, he initially formed a coalition government and promised that he would abide by the constitution. It took a further two years before he announced that this hadn’t worked, and he would now impose a full-scale dictatorship on Italy. On Christmas Eve 1925 he acquired full powers without any oversight and gave himself the title of Head of Government. Even Hitler’s first government had only two Nazi Party members at the beginning, though this soon changed.
Blown hither and thither by events, including the prospect of mass opposition, any pretense of respect for the norms of democracy by Trump would likely have a lifespan shorter than that of a fruit fly. Even if opposition parties are not formally banned, at least initially, voter suppression would seek to ensure that they become ineffective. If this proves insufficient the Great Replacement Theory surely provides a convenient rationale for openly restricting the franchise to those who can be deemed “True Americans.” Dissenters would be branded as “traitors,” eventually leading to restrictions on freedom of speech and demands that those derided as traitors be put on trial. Trump’s recent description of his political opponents as “vermin” is a forestate of what might lie ahead. After all, vermin are exterminated rather than debated with. However, none of this is inevitable. Which leads to the million-dollar question:
HOW CAN TRUMPISM BE DEFEATED?
Defeating Trumpism requires new narrative spaces that offer hope and an alternative to those models of capitalism that have generated widespread immiseration. It is what George H.W. Bush memorably described as “the vision thing.” Thus, in relation to Donald Trump, Turchin (2023) argues that “what gave him the presidency was a combination of conflict among the elites and Trump’s ability to channel a strain of popular discontent that was more widespread and virulent than many people understood, or wanted to understand” (p. 15). Trumpist narratives offer simple solutions to complex problems — build a wall between the United States and Mexico, throw out immigrants, remove abortion rights, oppose restrictions on gun ownership (to make people safer), and fight culture wars against “the liberal elite,” all of which will “Make America Great Again” (MAGA). They can only be countered effectively by narratives that offer better ideas. In my view, a key resource here is Hodgson’s (2021) argument in favor of what he terms “liberal solidarity.” Among much else, this stresses the potential of a guaranteed basic income, the promotion of social solidarity, and a measure of wealth redistribution through, for example, expanding employee share ownership.
From the perspective of liberal solidarity, such a prospectus does not mean the pursuit of total equality in outcomes, or the elimination of market economies. It does involve their reform. A re-imagining of society along these lines is long overdue and a necessary antidote to Trumpism. Advocating the need for a more activist state is not an easy sell, particularly in the United States, and is certainly not a panacea. We have plentiful examples from the twentieth century which show that centrally planned economies that completely displace market forces are incompatible with democracy. State intervention must be judged by the extent to which it solves more problems than it creates, and it needs to be held democratically in check. This is a difficult debate. But it is one that it is necessary to have.
In parallel with economic renewal, the deficits of American democracy need to be fixed. At present, a majority of U.S. senators are elected by 17 percent of the population. A key problem in presidential elections is the Electoral College. A candidate requires 270 votes in the Electoral College to become President. But the College was designed to favor small states and slave states. This means that there has always been the possibility of a candidate losing the popular vote and yet amassing enough votes from the Electoral College to be declared President. This is precisely what happened in 2016, when Hillary Clinton won 65,853,514 votes against Trump’s 62,984,828 — a margin of just over two percent. Yet the Electoral College system ensured that Trump was awarded 306 votes against Clinton’s tally of 232. He thus became President. There are many ways to describe this, but democratic isn’t one of them.
The abolition of the Electoral College (a system unique to the U.S. (DeSilver, 2016)), the placing of limits on political donations, and the adoption of a modern electoral system throughout the country are clearly needed. Again, I am not suggesting that achieving such radical reforms would be easy. Those who benefit from the current system would clearly resist it. But the time to engage in the battle for change is now, before Trumpism in one form or another further dismantles existing restraints on its power. No democracy is perfect, but we would miss it once it is gone.
Trumpism has consequences far beyond the U.S. Autocrats throughout the world have been emboldened by Trump’s successes, and many seek to emulate his example. As Pinker (2018) noted, in his robust defense of enlightenment values, “Between 1803 and 1945, the world tried an international order based on nation-states heroically struggling for greatness. It didn’t turn out so well” (p. 451).
We are seeing the rebirth of history rather than, as Francis Fukuyama once rashly proclaimed, its end. What happened before can happen again. But it doesn’t have to. Humanity faces multiple problems, including the existential challenge of climate change. Global co-operation is more vital than ever. Purely national responses, or a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, can’t keep the climate at bay, and will certainly fail to keep out the climate refugees now expected to number in the millions in the decades ahead. Leaders and non-leaders alike can commit to a more inclusive and co-operative future, fight back against racism and poverty, and recommit to democratic forms of government. The battle against Trumpism and for a secure and stable future is a battle of ideas that society cannot afford to lose.
Ben-Ghiat, R. (2023). Epilogue. In G. Rosenfeld & J. Ward (Eds.), Fascism in America: Past and Present (pp. 395-402). Cambridge University Press.
DeSilver, D. (2016, November 22). Among Democracies, U.S. Stands Out in How It Chooses Its Head of State. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2016/11/22/among-democracies-u-s-stands-out-in-how-it-chooses-its-head-of-state/
Gellman, A. (2021, December 6). Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/01/january-6-insurrection-trump-coup-2024-election/620843/
Gibson, G. (2023, December 17). Trump Says Immigrants Are ‘Poisoning the Blood of Our Country.’ Biden Campaign Likens Comments to Hitler. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2024-election/trump-says-immigrants-are-poisoning-blood-country-biden-campaign-liken-rcna130141
Hassan, S. (2019). The Cult of Trump. Free Press.
Hodgson, G. (2021). Liberal Solidarity. Edward Elgar.
Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2018). How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future. Penguin Books.
O’Toole, F. (2023, January 19). Dress Rehearsal. The New York Review of Books. https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2023/01/19/dress-rehearsal-january-6-fintan-otoole/
Paxton, R. (2004). The Anatomy of Fascism. Penguin Books.
Pinker, S. (2018). Enlightenment Now. Random House.
Turchin, P. (2023). End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites and the Path of Political Disintegration. Allen Lane.
Walter, B. (2022). How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them. Penguin Random House.
About Professor Dennis Tourish
I am a Professor of Leadership and Organization Studies at the University of Sussex Business School. I have a particular interest in dysfunctional and dark side leadership, which probably comes from growing up in Northern Ireland at a time of great conflict between its two main communities. We had many dark side leaders, and miserable times as a result of their activities. All this fed into my book The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership: A Critical Perspective, published by Routledge in 2013.
I also have a strong interest in organisations that we commonly think of as cults, particularly but not exclusively those of a political nature. There are more of these than we normally imagine, and most of us can be vulnerable to the appeal of cult membership when we are going through some major crisis in our lives. Put simply, we are in pain – and a cult and its leaders offer to make the pain go away. This interest is reflected in what is now an old book that I co-authored with Tim Wohlforth – On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, published by ME Sharpe in 2000.
More recently, I have also become interested in research ethics and in research fraud. It seems to me that much of the research which appears in academic journals is bogged down in trivial issues, that its methods are often unable to really address the issues being investigated, and even that an unknown but significant amount of it is based on fraud. Leadership studies is far from immune. There are many reasons for this, but the pressure put on academics to publish to advance their careers is one of them. This led to my book Management Studies in Crisis: Fraud, Deception and Meaningless Research, published by Cambridge University Press in 2019. It seems that many people share my concerns. I published a paper in the journal Academy of Management Learning & Education in 2020 called ‘The triumph of nonsense in management studies,’ based on my book. To my surprise it won their best paper of the year award.
Leadership really matters, in business, society and politics. My interest is in helping people to spot where it is going wrong, and encouraging everyone not to put too much reliance on the alleged wisdom of powerful people at the top. We face many problems. An engaged and critical citizenry, at work and elsewhere, is vital if we are to overcome them.