Umberto Eco's Ur-Fascism, an assessment of the defining characteristics of fascism, is well worth the long read. Having lived through the Mussolini regime, his perspective provides both a personal understanding and a political framework.
Many quotable parts, but these leapt out:
To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside. In the US, a prominent instance of the plot obsession is to be found in Pat Robertson’s The New World Order, but, as we have recently seen, there are many others.
The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies. When I was a boy I was taught to think of Englishmen as the five-meal people. They ate more frequently than the poor but sober Italians. Jews are rich and help each other through a secret web of mutual assistance. However, the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.
Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. To have a good instance of qualitative populism we no longer need the Piazza Venezia in Rome or the Nuremberg Stadium. There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.
If we were to assess Trumpism (although it is dangerous to link this to just one person; this is a global movement of mildly differing ideologies) within Eco's urfascist framework, I think we wind up with a set of political regimes which embody the following:
An embrace of the Cult of Tradition. While easy to see Trump himself as a non-traditionalist due to his Bacchanalian and hedonistic impulses, there remain Traditonalists embedded deep within this movement. Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Mike Pence; these are the Traditionalists.
A form of Irrationalism with a particular bias towards Action. Trump's rejection of truth, his anti-intellectual streak, and the outlandishly postured anti-elitism of the movement as whole all draw from these deep wells.
A deep and embedded Fear of Difference, outwardly and most obviously characterised as xenophobic leanings, but also by Pence's homophobic politics.
Drawing from an economically Frustrated Middle Class. It's no coincidence that Europe's current flirtations and earlier embrace of fascistic politics follow large economic downturns.
A defined and exclusionary Social Identity. This appears to present as nationalism currently, separate from white supremacy; to hear the leaders of this movement speak, they are avowed anti-racists (which, like, eyeroll) but they fundamentally believe Americans/English/French/Russian people are better than Iranian/Chinese/Mexican people.
Trump's defining political character is America's Humiliation by the wealth and power of, in particular, China, the cunning and scheming of Isis and Iran, et cetera. Summarised as "We don't win anymore."
Selective Populism is a frequent addition to this awful melting pot. The movement talks a lot about the will of the people, that there is a Silent Majority (never mind that Trump never got an actual majority—he just fractured his enemies and coasted in on 25% of the vote. Thanks America!)
Newspeak, to go straight back to Eco: "impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning." Trump's syntax and vocabulary are awful, and so limited as to be childish and easy to mimic. "We're going to win bigly" springs to mind.
To varying degrees, either the promotion or acceptance of Machismo. All the discussion of locker room talk, the misogynist policies of the Republic party, the outlandish hatred directed at women, in particular; these are all Machismo in one form or another.
Combining these elements, and slight sprinkles of a few others as noted by Eco, gives us the core of the new fascism. But how to counter it? The last time the West encountered broad fascism, it lead to civil war and global conflict. We must prevent this outcome, but countering an ascendant ideology is no small task.
Time to think dangerously.