David Auerbach at academic blog Crooked Timber has an interesting piece comparing Trump to Mussolini, the original fascist blowhard.
Like Mussolini, Trump shifted movements until finding one amenable to his personal bombast, at which point he generated a cult of personality somewhat divorced from steady ideology. As many scholars of fascism have pointed out, Mussolini’s own efforts to form a unified fascist ideology often failed, and when he eventually codified it in 1932 (with substantial help from Giovanni Gentile), it mostly came down to he pure quality of struggle and conflict. Similarly, the Nazis in the north often deviated from the 25 points of their original Party platform, at least those not involving racial prejudice.
Fascists, historians now generally understand, possess a degree of ideological inconsistency at odds with their claims to totalizing truth. (As in Robert Paxton’s famous “Five Stages of Fascism,” where he notes fascist mimicry and diversity as key sources of reasons why fascism is hard to define.) In this sense, Trump fits the fascist core of discarding ideology in favor of an appeal to a violent emotional core, rather than a rational political program.
However, as Auerbach notes:
Yet Mussolini was a paragon of consistency next to trump, whose agenda only seems guided by raw self-aggrandizement. Mussolini may not have plainly advertised his political program, but he most certainly had one.
Indeed, despite the mutability and definitional difficulty, a core definition of fascism remains: racism, populism, economic nationalism, frequent resort to violence, and an apocalyptic attempt to burn down existing political structures in order to recreate a mythical golden age from the ashes. In this sense, Trump’s movement certainly flirts with all these traits. But Trump himself, Auerbach notes, seems less concerned with the content than in the pure fact of being at its center. You could call him a con man, but con men have an end game: to get wealthy. Trump is already wealthy. What he needs, apparently pathologically, is adulation.
Even calling Trump a con artist seems an injustice, for a con artist has an ulterior motive. Trump has no motive other than to be the conman, not the conned.
As such, he is less a political figure than a figure of degenerate celebrity culture. And as new as that seems, Auerbach finds a link to one of the great novels of interwar Europe — Musil’s Man Without Qualities. Specifically, with an infamous murder whose violent narcissism fascinates the Viennese media.
I doubt many people have picked up this link, because nobody reads this book anymore except grad students. And even most of those don’t finish it (guilty as charged!). To Auerbach, this murderer “suffers the same shiftable tendencies as Trump. There is a hole at the core of his being.” Quoting Musil:
“Did you feel no remorse whatsoever?”
Something flickers in Moosbrugger’s mind—old prison wisdom: Feign remorse. The flicker gives a twist to his mouth and he says: “Of course I did!”
“But at the police station you said: “I feel no remorse at all, only such hate and rage I could explode!’” the judge caught him out.
“That may be so,” Moosbrugger says, recovering himself and his dignity, “it may be that I had no other feelings then.”
It’s the same kind of mentality, the narcissistic quality of being in an eternal present tense, where no facts or memories possess stable meaning beyond the utility of the moment.
It’s a fascinating connection. Even if you’ve never heard of Musil’s unfinished masterpiece, this article is worth a read.