This isn’t something I really want to write, but rather, something that feels like it must be written. I won’t say that Edward Fitzpatrick’s column comparing Donald Trump to Italian fascist Benito Mussolini is “shameful,” but only because it is so astonishingly un-self-aware, from the liberal columnist. Shame requires agency, and Fitzpatrick’s column has such a huge blind spot that he can’t possibly be missing it consciously.
So I asked an expert how much of “Il Duce” he sees in Trump. “There is a fair amount,” said David I. Kertzer, a Brown University professor of Italian studies and anthropology who won a 2015 Pulitzer Prize for a book titled “The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe.”
The checklist of comparisons is enough to lead any open-minded person on the left or right shout at the computer screen (or newspaper page) with how obviously it applies to the current President of the United States, Barack Obama:
- Mussolini and Trump have both been guilty of “trying to instill fear, scapegoating a broad category of people and offering themselves as the all-knowing leaders.”
- Mussolini’s anti-Semitism reminds Kertzer of Trump’s intention to “expel millions of undocumented immigrants.”
- “Both men are experts in manipulating the media.”
- “Both are experts at whipping up the crowd’s emotions and stoking fears.”
- “Both gloss over facts and nuanced analysis.”
- “Both men equate nonviolence with weakness, and both skewer enemies and have even backed violence against protesters.”
This, Fitzpatrick says, has “no place in America.” Well, I’ve got news for you, Ed: We’ve already got it in America — sitting in the White House. One reason I wish somebody else in Rhode Island had written this response is that a thorough job of it would include not just brief quotes from the current president, but broad proof that they weren’t one-off one-liners, but indications of a deeply held political philosophy on Obama’s part, and this is all far enough outside of my job scope that I’m not prepared to take the time for that.
Of course, public discourse, these days, is such that effort is generally fruitless anyway. Some people (like most readers here) won’t need the extra arguments in order to agree, while some people (probably like Fitzpatrick) will simply dismiss the point out of hand as political rhetoric. If anybody is persuadable and wishes to explore differences of opinion, we can undertake that exercise.
But for now, consider, a few brief selections from Obama’s Mussolini-like repertoire:
- Trying to instill fear: Look to Obama’s career-long end-of-the-world rhetoric about climate change or the vice-president telling a black audience prior to the last presidential election that Republicans would “put you all back in chains.”
- Scapegoating a broad category of people: Naturally, one recalls Obama’s “clinging to guns or religion” comment as a candidate, or former Attorney General Eric Holder’s statement that we’re a “nation of cowards.”
- Offering themselves as all-knowing: Umm… “I think I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”
- Allusion to anti-Semitism and racism: One could recall Obama’s statement that his grandmother was a typical racist white person, or just refer back to the “clinging” statement, but the president’s attitude toward Israel hardly gives an impression contrary to dislike for the Jewish state.
- Manipulating the media: This one hardly needs evidence, although the “Yes We Can” song captures the point well, as does Chris Matthew’s leg tingling, but if we really want to get into manipulation, how about his administration’s spying on journalists or being, as one New York Times Washington correspondent put it, “the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered”?
- Whipping up crowds emotions: Again, nobody who lived through 2008 should need evidence on how this one applies to Obama.
- Glossing over facts: Well, there’s “like your health plan, keep your health plan,” of course, and that the Benghazi attack was a reaction to a YouTube video, but for my purposes, here, I’ll go with “ISIS is contained.”
- Skewer enemies and back violence: To pluck from the full basket, one could cite the attack that Republicans are scared of the press as well as “widows and orphans” on the skewering point and periodic statements like “get in their face” and “voting is the best revenge,” but like a true modern fascist (rather than a reality star who just plays one on TV), Obama’s divisiveness and the way in which he’s fomented the violence of the Black Lives Matters movement over years have been much more subtle.
This brings us to the one area in which Fitzpatrick’s expert does not see a link between Trump and Mussolini:
Kertzer said there are differences between Trump and the former Italian prime minister, who founded the Fascist Party in 1919. For example, Benito Mussolini began on the far left and believed in a strong national government, while no Republican candidates are pushing for a stronger national government.
Isn’t this pretty much the only point that matters? Now, I think Kertzer happens to be wrong about Trump, on this one, and that The Donald would be perfectly happy to consolidate power at the federal level if he thinks it’s needed for something he wants to do, but from their point of view, what’s Fitzpatrick and Kertzer’s argument here? That Trump is whipping up crowds and demagoging in order to become president and reduce the power of that office? That’s bizarre.
And in any event, there can be no doubt that Obama absolutely shares Mussolini’s preference for centralized, powerful government, and the same is true of the all-but-crowned Democrat candidate for president, Hillary Clinton. If we’re at the point of choosing between competing fascists, as Fitzpatrick would have to conclude if he were being fair, we must decide accordingly.
If this is the choice (and I still hope it won’t be), then at least President Trump would keep alive the reality that America’s new dictators have to use their power knowing that their opposition may one day have access to the same weapons. Perhaps more important, if the president is Trump, at least we know that the news media won’t let him get away with anything, in contrast to the way in which journalists have given Obama a free pass for all sorts of Constitutional abuse and as they would surely do for Clinton.