One word floats to the top of the "mainstream" discussion about Donald Trump now: "fascist." He's a fascist? Is he a fascist? CNN yanked a list of supposed fascist characteristics out of somewhere and diagnosed Trump as a "proto-fascist," whatever that might mean.
Donald Trump is not a fascist. As a historian you'd think I'd be a big fan of historical analogies, but I'm really not. They encourage lazy thinking. They make us imagine that problems are simple and that we know how to solve them because we solved different problems in the past. Some problems, it's true, are simple.
However, most problems governments face are not simple. If they were simple, we would not need governments to face them in the first place. Take the argument that we can't afford to appease the enemy - the Soviets, the terrorists, whoever the enemy might be - "because Munich." Appeasement started World War II! We all learned about it in school! Well the last half of that is true anyways. The rest isn't. The most important historical effect of the Munich/appeasement story is that it damned near caused World War III in 1962, when the Americans were so obsessed with "remembering the lessons of Munich" that seriously contemplated initiating an objectively unnecessary nuclear war over a few soon-to-be-obsolete missiles in Cuba.
So then. Fascism is a specific political movement. It grew in Europe between the two world wars. And Donald Trump is not part of that movement. Neither is any politician today, really, although maybe some of the European far-right parties come close. Trump saying he wants to ban Muslims isn't fascist. Fascism isn't really racist. Nazism is racist. Benito Musslini, Hitler's favourite fascist pal, thought the Nazis' obsession with biological race was kind of comical.
There is, however, an important lesson we can learn from the history of fascism. Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany not because he was overwhelmingly popular, but because government was seriously divided, the mainstream political factions had lost popular legitimacy, and the conservatives thought that the political benefits of temporarily latching on and riding his wave of popularity would be better than the political costs of denouncing him as the inane populist bigot that he was
That, plus the assumption that in the long run they'd be able to control him and shoot his feet out from under him before he ever got his hands on real power.
Now, does that remind you of a few people in today's Republican Party?
If Western civilization wants to survive the next few decades, sooner or later there is going to have to be some sort of reckoning over the Right problem. I mean the right wing there. The left has its historical demons. There was a time -- long beyond memory now -- where people didn't accuse the left of being pacifist pansies. There was a time when if you thought of a terrorist, you pictured a left-wing Marxist or anarchist. There were left-wing terrorist groups, setting off bombs and assassinating politicians. And there are plenty of people on the left who are unbelievably anti-science and prefer magical thinking to reality. If you want to see what I mean, go to an environmental gathering and point out the blindingly obvious fact that we should be building more nuclear power plants.
But right now most of the world's problems can be squarely laid at the feet of far-right political movements. The Islamic far right is the root and branch of Middle Eastern terrorism. When Western people go on shooting rampages because they hate cops and abortion clinics, they are almost invariably far-right. Science denialism and opposition to public education emerges from the far-right. Donald Trump is from the far right. The Tea Party is far right.
Fascism, interestingly, is only sort of far-right. When it got started the left was actually a fairly powerful political force. So powerful that Hitler called his party the "National Socialist Party." That word didn't get in there by accident. It's not a mistranslation. There were some pretty far-right people in the Nazi Party, but they wanted to appeal to disillusioned leftists, too. And they did, because plenty of those people figured that despite Mein Kampf Hitler would give the country a much-needed kick in the pants and then he could be safely got rid of before anything too serious happened.
The Rob Ford scandal ought to teach us that it's hard to remove even the most incompetent buffoon from even the most formally nonpartisan kind of parliamentary assembly in Canada, even when he himself freely confesses to conduct rendering him objectively unfit for office. Once a personality cult has got started, the more outsiders condemn the cult, the more it simply confirms in their own minds how right they must be.