During former President Trump’s political career, he’s tried to give his best impression of Winston Churchill. Ironically, it looks a lot more like the infamous fascist, Benito Mussolini.
Trump’s emulation of Churchill amounts to a pose. Though Trump made a show of re-installing a bust of Churchill in the Oval Office after the 2016 election, and though he purposely mimicked the British leader’s famous scowl; it was only to make him look “tough, like Winston Churchill,” according to his campaign staffers.
And when the American President sat in Churchill’s chair upon his first visit to the United Kingdom, the British public recognized a fraud and heaped scorn upon the impudent draft-dodger who felt entitled to insult allies, sow international dissension, and pose like the decorated British war hero who rallied the democratic world to defeat Nazi Germany.
Perhaps Trump’s most cringe-worthy attempt to ride Churchill’s coattails occurred when he asked General Mark Milley to clear Lafayette Square of peaceful Americans protesting the murder of George Floyd. “Can’t you just shoot them in the legs or something?” After local law enforcement tear-gassed the protesters enabling Trump’s photo-op holding a Bible in front of a burned parish house, his press secretary preposterously likened Trump to Winston Churchill touring the Nazi blitz bombing of London.
Clearly, despite his public posturing and histrionics, Trump is no Winston Churchill. Far from proving himself a fighter for democracy, he’s acted more like its enemies. In fact, after General Milley refused to attack those peaceful protesters, Trump asked former General John Kelly, “Why can’t you be like the German generals?” In other words, he wanted U.S. generals to be as “totally loyal” to him as he believed German generals had been to Hitler.
Perhaps General Milley, head of The Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it best in his letter of resignation: “[I]t is my deeply held belief that you’re ruining the international order and causing significant damage to our country overseas by kowtowing to the kinds of “fascism” and “extremism” that America fought against in World War II. You don’t understand what the war was all about. In fact, you subscribe to many of the principles that we fought against.”
As the General suggests, Trump is no student of history. I doubt Trump even understands the fascism he embodies. But the similarities are hard to miss. In his essay, “Ur-Fascism,” (Eternal Fascism) philosopher and critic, Umberto Eco, who lived under Mussolini’s rule, delineates archetypal features of fascism, almost all of which Trump has practiced.
For instance, Eco observes that Mussolini, the father of fascism, created a cult of both personality and tradition, claiming to his followers that he alone could restore to them the Greatness of Rome. And Donald Trump has echoed this grandiose promise in his claim that “I am the only one who can make America truly great again!”
And according to Eco, “The first appeal of a fascist…is an appeal against the intruders.” Trump has repeatedly stirred up white middle class fears of foreigners, whether questioning President Obama’s citizenship, labeling Mexicans “drug dealers, criminals, rapists”; or calling for the “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” As Eco also points out, “One of the most typical features of historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”
And, as Eco also notes, “Fascism is racist by definition.” Trump has tweeted racist dog whistles, like falsely equating “good people on both sides” in Charlottesville, Va., after torch-bearing white supremacists chanted Nazi slogans: “You will not replace us,” “Hail Trump,” and “Blood and Soil.” Likewise, on national television, rather than repudiating violent white nationalists, the former President instructed The Proud Boys, a white supremacist group that later violently attacked the Capitol, to “Stand by.”
Along with scapegoating minorities and “intruders,” fascism celebrates a macho contempt for the “weak,” including a disdain for the disabled, women, and non-heterosexuals. Trump, of course, has famously bragged about sexually assaulting women. He stacked the Supreme Court with Christian conservative judges specifically to overturn women’s right to abortion. He also publicly delighted in mocking a handicapped New York Times reporter and ridiculed the physical features of political opponents, like Carly Fiorina (“Look at that face! “) and Marco Rubio, (“Little Marco Rubio.” He’s disrespected tortured prisoners of war, like Sen. John McCain, because they’d been captured. And he disrespects politician who’ve lost elections, like Mitt Romney, (“A loser.”)
Hypocritically, the former President still refuses to accept that he, too, is an election loser. And as Eco observes, “Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.” In Trump’s ongoing denial of his 2020 election loss, he trumpets his disrespect for facts, evidence, reason, and truth, as well as for the rule of law upon which our democratic nation was founded. And his attacks against public education have ignited a culture war that’s sparked school censorship and book banning that, Eco notes, are typically used by fascists “to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”
Just as Fascists hate disagreement, Trump viciously and vengefully attacks anyone whom he feels undermines his absolute authority. He even attacked his own medical and scientific advisors when they contradicted his lie, that the covid virus was like the flu. Then he audaciously compared himself to — that’s right — Winston Churchill. “As the British government advised the British people in the face of World War II, keep calm and carry on, that’s what I did.” But Churchill did not lie to the British people about the dangers they faced.
Now, facing possible criminal charges for conspiring to instigate a violent attack on the Capitol to overturn a legitimate election, Trump has tried to intimidate and undermine the Department of Justice by declaring that he would pardon those violent insurrectionists if he were re-elected in 2024. According to Ben-Ghiat, author of Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present “Benito Mussolini created the world’s first Fascist dictatorship, [in part] as a desperate act to avoid prosecution.” To this end, “Mussolini pardoned his violent supporters to strengthen his power.”
So, in 1925, after years of eroding Italian democratic institutions, Mussolini seized absolute power and declared himself, “El Duce,” The Leader. And, in 2020, after years of attacking and undermining American democratic institutions, Trump fraudulently declared himself re-elected President of the United States.
And now as he plots to make the “Big Lie” true in 2024, Donald Trump’s political machinations bear more than a strong likeness to those of the fascist dictator. But as far as any resemblance between Donald Trump and Winston Churchill — nothing but a scowl.
Thomas Cangelosi is a retired teacher from Avon.