Donald Trump remains the highest-totaling fundraiser in the GOP, and experts say the fundraising emails fueling his political ambitions increasingly echo conspiracy theories and employ fascist rhetoric that appeals to the right’s worst impulses.
Trump’s fundraising emails helped generate $378 million in small donations for the 2020 campaign, and there is $110 million in the former president’s war chest as of February. That’s more than the total reported by the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee combined. This fundraising success suggests Trump’s messaging resonates with a substantial chunk of the Republican base as other far-right politicians launch sensational attacks on abortion rights, Black history, public schools and LGBTQ people ahead of the midterm elections.
Trump’s deceptive fundraising emails are not just an obnoxious grift. If you are a supporter subscribed to Trump’s coveted email list, you are told that “sinister forces” are destroying a nation that rightfully belongs to “loyal patriots like you.” Only Trump can “save America” from this humiliation, the emails say, giving a nod to fascist rhetoric of the 20th century, according to experts.
Some appeals appear to operate like a sweepstakes, offering donors a chance to meet Trump in person or attend a “top secret” rally. A February email signed by “Donald J. Trump” invites supporters to join the celebrity president’s “inner friend circle,” where a “select few” will be “exposed to confidential information — information that I trust will not be shared with anyone else.”
The promises of secret information and proximity to Trump appear to invoke QAnon, the racist, anti-Semitic far-right conspiracy theory about Trump battling an “elite” cabal of “pedophiles” that continues to receive winks and nods from Trump and allied lawmakers such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia).
Experts have debated whether Trump and his movement are fascist for years, but Trump’s lies about a stolen election and the January 6 attack on the Capitol crossed a red line for historians such as fascism expert Robert Paxton. Some journalists now openly refer to Trump’s movement as “fascist” or “neofascist.” Indeed, experts say elements of fascist thought can regularly be found in Trump’s speeches as well as his fundraising emails, which are paid for by the Save America Joint Fundraising Committee and backed by two pro-Trump super PACs.
In a handy explainer published at The Conversation, John Broich, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University, broadly defines “fascism” as historians see it. Fascist parties first appeared in Italy after World War I and spread across Europe and the world, including to the United States, South America and India. Fascism is the “logical extreme of nationalism,” the idea that nation states should be “built around races or historical peoples.” Fascists are obsessed with race, Broich writes, as well as the idea that true “patriots” and “good people” are being “humiliated” while “bad people” benefit.
“Fascism [says] our existing right isn’t hardcore enough; for example, they still dig democracy or still dig relative pluralism, so let’s tear everything down and rebuild around the folk, ‘the people’ — and that’s one of the main bingo boxes that Trump ticks,” Broich said in an interview.
Broich recalled when Trump famously told a mainly white audience in Minnesota that they had “good genes” — before warning them that President Joe Biden would flood their community with refugees from Somalia, a statement critics said invoked eugenics and racial superiority.
An April 5 Trump-signed fundraising email with the subject line “It’s very, very sad,” bemoans that “Our Country” is being “destroyed by Joe Biden and the Democrats.” “We are no longer respected,” the email reads, “it’s so sad to see what happened to our great USA.”
“To say ‘we’re no longer respected,’ that’s classic, that is like a caricature of old-style fascisms,” Broich said. “We’ve been humiliated, we’re going to get our pride back — that’s just like a sad joke, that’s like straight-up Mein Kampf.”
The fundraising pitch is largely devoid of actual political content, besides the quick mention of a “disaster” at the border and a pledge to “SAVE AMERICA.”
Of course, there is a real humanitarian disaster at the southern border, and migrant rights groups blame racist policies put in place under Trump and continued until recently under Biden. Trump and Republicans such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott have long exploited xenophobic fears of immigrants of color to rally their nationalist base. Trump built his presidency around his border wall, and Abbott is currently further militarizing the border with all the resources he can muster in response Biden’s decision to nix Title 42, the so-called “remain in Mexico” policy.
Broich said fascism is “revolutionary rightism” that is both anti-establishment and rabidly anti-socialist. Fascism is “revolutionary” in the sense that the current political system must be seized or overthrown in order to protect “the people” (or the “folk,” also known as “volk” in German) from whoever the “other” targeted by fascists may be. (In the case of Nazi Germany, targets included communism, liberalism, socialism, immigrants, Jews and Slavs.)
In the same April 8 fundraising email, Trump declares that the “system is totally broken.” He writes that the country is “going into socialism and communism” — at the same time, apparently — and the leadership of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is to blame. Trump erroneously brands all Democrats “socialists” and “communists.” (Of course, to the chagrin of many progressives, the mainstream Democratic Party is decidedly not socialist.) Still, if Trumpists believe the system is broken and communism is somehow on the rise, then they could also believe that violence is needed to “save America,” fascism experts say.
This sentiment was clearly present as armed militias, fascist gangs and angry Trump supporters searched for lawmakers to attack on January 6. Trump’s rhetoric continues to encourage violence more than a year later. During a recent speech in South Carolina, Trump urged followers to “lay down their lives” in defense of a country supposedly under attack by progressive forces. Inspired in part by Trump, Republicans across the U.S. have responded to widespread calls for racial justice by pushing to ban books and classroom discussion of “critical race theory,” their inaccurate catch-all term for equity programs and anti-racist education:
Getting critical race theory out of our schools is not just a matter of values, it’s also a matter of national survival. We have no choice…. The fate of any nation ultimately depends upon the willingness of its citizens to lay down — and they must do this — lay down their very lives to defend their country…. If we allow the Marxists and communists and socialists to teach our children to hate America, there will be no one left to defend our flag or protect our great country or its freedom.
Besides the call to arms, how is this different from the red-baiting that has dominated GOP rhetoric for decades? In short, it’s not. Socialism is a well-worn boogeyman for Republicans. However, for Broich and other experts, Trump’s fascist departure from Republican orthodoxy crystallized with the violent effort to overturn the election on January 6. Broich said fascists embrace paramilitaries or at least street violence to enforce their politics, and Trump’s egging on of violent groups such as the Proud Boys fits the description.
“Both parties have wanted to outmaneuver the other at the [ballot] box, but now I think with Trumpism, they don’t have a problem with abandoning democracy,” Broich said. “I think that is the big change.”
Trump’s fascism is rippling across the Republican Party, especially at the state level, where extremist lawmakers are demanding publicity by attacking public school teachers, LGBTQ students and families, voting rights and any realistic discussion of the nation’s racial history. Anti-racist curriculums and gender-affirming health care for trans teenagers, for example, are cast as affronts to patriots and Christians, or as Broich puts it, “assaults on the integrity of the volk.”
“For Trumpism, we might say it’s an ‘assault on real Americans,’ you’ve got to have them under attack so you can rally around the flag of Trump as a counterattack,” Broich said.
Not all reactionaries and authoritarians are fascists. Former President George W. Bush generally is not considered a fascist because he is a member of a political establishment rather than a revolutionary rightist. Bush was warmonger and is criticized for undermining the Constitution, but he still represents the current system and the mainstream GOP. Trump, on the other hand, bucked Jeb Bush and the Republican establishment as a populist outsider from the right in 2016. Since then, Trump has ignored a long list of democratic norms culminating in his refusal to concede in the last election.
“Fascism is always a revolutionary rightism, so fascism has to attack an established, older right…. That is impossible for Jeb Bush, but it was explicitly what Trump did,” Broich said.
Broich argues that fascism exists on a spectrum like any other political ideology, but there are defining characteristics of fascisms historically. Check enough boxes on the fascist bingo card — anti-left violence, racism and xenophobia, crony capitalism, extreme nationalism, paramilitaries and street violence, a strong central leader — and you’re in fascist territory. Of course, Trump is not identical to fascists of the past, but a close look at how he rallies supporters — and takes their money — offers a glimpse of what a fascist future could look like. Even if Trump is no longer in the White House, his fundraising emails show that we can’t ignore the continual possibility of such a future on the horizon.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misnamed John Broich. The professor’s name is John, not Joe.
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