First, the dark clouds for those worried about fascism in America: President Donald Trump has adopted a phrase used in Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany to attack the free press. He has reportedly demanded loyalty to himself, rather than to the Constitution, from top law enforcement officials. Most recently, he called political opponents “treasonous” for failing to applaud him ― a tactic also used by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Now, the silver lining, according to some of his fiercest critics: Trump has neither the cunning nor the self-discipline to set himself up as a truly authoritarian leader.
“He’s too incompetent to be a successful fascist,” said Eliot Cohen, a top State Department official under President George W. Bush, who nonetheless called Trump’s latest remarks “extraordinarily reckless.”
Trump made the “treason” comments at a Monday speech in Cincinnati, where he was supposed to be taking credit for the strong economy. He appeared to go off script to complain about the Democrats who did not clap for him at his State of the Union speech last week.
“They were like death and un-American. Un-American,” he said, and then playing to the audience, added: “Can we call that treason? Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”
Treason is a specific crime defined in the Constitution and the U.S. criminal code as levying war against the nation or giving aid and comfort to the enemy. It is punishable by death.
The White Office scrambled Tuesday to downplay Trump’s comment, with press officers explaining that his remark was “tongue in cheek” and then trying to shift the blame to the Democrats for allegedly wanting the country to do badly just so it would reflect poorly on Trump.
“The president was clearly joking with his comments,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at Tuesday’s daily press briefing.
But since becoming president, Trump has not just flung the word “treason” at congressional Democrats who didn’t applaud him enough. In a Wall Street Journal interview last month, he described the FBI agent who had expressed critical views of him in text messages in 2016 the same way. “That is a treasonous act. What he tweeted to his lover is a treasonous act,” Trump said.
Those accusations follow Trump’s labeling the news media as “the enemy of the American People.” That turn of phrase was used in Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Josef Stalin’s Russia to attack critics, often with fatal results.
Since he took office, Trump has also demanded personal “loyalty” from top FBI and Justice Department officials – a dramatic abandonment of the modern idea that those agencies should operate with a degree of independence.
This leadership style, critics say, is more in line with that of a mafia don or a dictator than the president of the United States.
“We’re dealing with someone with clear authoritarian tendencies,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University history professor and expert on Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. While the United States of today is a very different country than Italy of the 1920s and there is no fascist movement here per se, she suggested that Trump’s behaviors are reminiscent of Mussolini’s.
“He clearly would like to rule by executive fiat,” Ben-Ghiat said of the American president. “He attacks those sectors of society who deal with facts, like the press and the judiciary.”
Republicans who support Trump argue that his opponents are taking his words too literally.
“Pure Trumpism. Nothing to worry about,” said one top Republican National Committee member, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the president candidly.
“He obviously gets into trouble when he goes off script,” said a GOP consultant, who similarly spoke on condition of anonymity. “He doesn’t understand how government works. He has a limited vocabulary. He doesn’t do nuance.”
The consultant added that he doubted Trump would be able to change his behavior much, at this point in his life. “It’s hard to get someone 71 years old to change. It’s like trying to convince a dog to fly.”
Plus, “he’s not someone who admits mistakes,” the consultant said. “Combine that with a lack of knowledge of history and a limited vocabulary, and you run into problems.”
One British historian agrees that Trump’s opponents are overreacting to what he acknowledges are the president’s “fascist impulses.”
“Trump will be removed either after two years or six years, and that will be the end of Trumpism,” said Roger Griffin of Oxford Brookes University. “I wish people would talk less about Trump than the glories of the American constitution that prevents him from acting like a tin-pot dictator.”
Making inflammatory comments is not the same thing as acting on them, Griffin added. “It will be a bad day for American democracy when Trump actually proposes making not clapping treasonous and the judiciary allows it,” he said. “Then we can start worrying.”
But to Cohen, who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, ignoring Trump’s provocations carries its own risks. “By destroying norms, he’s opening the door for others who would be better at being fascists,” Cohen said.
And Robert Paxton, a Columbia University historian and author of The Anatomy of Fascism, said that while he agrees Trump is too incompetent to become a true authoritarian ― the president has proven unable to mobilize Congress to support most of his professed priorities, for example ― he could still do great damage to the country on a whim.
“If he wants to conduct a military strike, he doesn’t need to mobilize anybody,” Paxton said. “I don’t take total reassurance from his incompetence.”