As Donald Trump’s rhetoric and behavior become more extreme, the question arises, is he unhinged or a fascist? Probably both, but it doesn’t really matter: he’s a menace—and more of one every day. The evidence for this conclusion is arrayed in the statements by The Donald himself.
At the same time, President Biden, at 81, is considered by many too old to be president and too lacking in mental acuity. Media report on his every physical and verbal stumble, but polls suggest respondents say Trump, at 77, is considered up to the job.
Lately, a few news outlets have begun to notice Trump’s own verbal slips. He’s confused Biden with Barack Obama multiple times. And Iowa with both Idaho and South Dakota. And Jeb and George W. Bush. And Hungary and Turkey. He repeatedly pronounces Hamas as “hummus.” Rival Ron DeSantis says Trump has “lost the zip on his fastball.” MSNBC accused him of being “incoherent.”
Such cognitive slips could blunt Trump’s effort to portray Biden as senile. Much more serious is Trump’s alarming and growing extremism. Recently he said he’d “root out the radical left thugs that act like vermin,” using a term that Adolph Hitler used for Jews and Benito Mussolini for political foes. Despite threats from Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and radical Islamists, he said “the real threat is from the radical left, and it’s growing every day.” And Trump said that much-decorated Gen. Mark Milley, his own appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, committed treason and deserved execution for making an authorized call to a Chinese general after Jan. 6 to assure him that the US was stable and would not attack China.
Having tried to discredit the media and the US election system — sowing doubt about what “truth” is and distrust in a bedrock institution of democracy — he’s now trying to do the same to the judicial system. He declared the multiple civil and criminal charges against him as Democrats’ “election interference.” He’s attacked prosecutors, judges, and a court clerk, resulting in repeated threats of violence against them from his supporters.
Even more dangerous than his rhetoric are his plans for his second term if he wins next year. He said he would pardon “a large portion” of those convicted of violence or sedition in the US Capitol riot he incited on January 6, 2021. Trump-friendly think tanks are working out plans for Trump’s second term that include firing up to 50,000 federal employees and replacing them with MAGA true believers in every agency, who’d then serve Trump’s political and financial interests, not the public’s. One group is compiling a list of Trump loyalists to take the jobs.
In a reversal of a 50-year-old policy separating the Justice Department and FBI from White House influence, Trump has said he’d have them investigate and prosecute adversaries, including “the Biden crime family” and former Trump administration officials who’ve turned against him, such as former Attorney General Bill Barr and former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.
He claims that all 91 felony charges and a civil fraud case filed against him have been politically-motivated despite detailed evidence of wrong-doing—and that what’s been done to victimize him gives him permission to do the same to his accusers.
Groups working on Project 2025 — plans for his second term — have suggested he invoke the 1792 Insurrection Act on his first day in office, entitling him to deploy federal troops to put down civil unrest of a type that might well occur in reaction to his election. Such an act would supersede the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which forbids using the military for civilian law enforcement.
At the California Republican Convention in September, Trump said shoplifters would be subject to extrajudicial execution: “We will immediately stop all the pillaging and theft. Very simply, if you rob a store, you can fully expect to be shot as you are leaving that store.” He also said he’d require local police to reinstate “stop and frisk” policies or lose federal funding. And he’s called for drug dealers to face the death penalty.
He’s also planning a mass roundup of undocumented aliens—there are 10.5 million of them—and building huge detention centers to hold them until they can be deported. In March, Trump told followers in Waco, Texas, “I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”
So, is Trump crazy (or “unhinged”)? The case for crazy was made by psychiatrists and scholars consulted last month by New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall, who cited a Harvard psychiatry professor describing Trump as “rageful, grandiose, vengeful, impulsive, devoid of empathy, boastful, inciting of violence, and thin-skinned. At times it seems as if he cannot control himself or his hateful speech. We need to wonder if these are the precursors of a major deterioration in his character defenses.” Others called him psychopathic.
Edsall supplied the words “narcissism and megalomania” and quoted a Penn State psychology professor who said “Trump is an aging malignant narcissist. As he ages, he appears to be losing impulse control and is slipping cognitively. So, we are seeing a more unfiltered version of his pathology. Quite dangerous.” The professor added, “Trump seems increasingly paranoid, which can also be a reflection of his aging brain and mental decline.”
What about the problematic case for Trump as fascist? To be fair, Trump is not Hitler, who killed millions in war and genocide. He’s not Mussolini, also a killer, Hitler’s partner in Jewish genocide and an international aggressor. He’s not Vladimir Putin, who has made war repeatedly and brutally and ordered the killing of adversaries. He’s not Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who killed about 3,000 foes, tortured tens of thousands, and imprisoned 100,000. Trump hasn’t ordered any killings, used torture, or imprisoned adversaries — yet. He’s not a totalitarian, controlling every aspect of people’s lives.
True, but Trump does exhibit a number of classic fascist characteristics, particularly his incitement of violence against opponents and encouragement of violence by supporters. The Jan. 6 Capitol riot is the most obvious example, but there is a miles-long record of his doing so, all the way up to the present.
In advance of Jan. 6, when Electoral College votes were to be counted, he invited supporters to be in Washington to protest (and reverse) what he alleged (falsely) was a stolen election, predicting “it will be wild.” Speaking to thousands of supporters who gathered, he declared “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore” and urged them to march on the Capitol. He insisted that armed supporters be allowed through magnetometers.
When supporters invaded the Capitol, fighting with police and causing five deaths, Trump watched on TV for 187 minutes, refusing numerous pleas for him to call off the mob. He attacked Vice President Mike Pence for refusing to stop the count and Trump did nothing as rioters chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” After finally telling rioters to go home, he said, “we love you. You’re very special.”
Fascist dictators commonly use their police or armies to inflict violence on dissenters. Trump has said he would do the same if re-elected, but so far he has merely used rhetoric, which has triggered attacks by individual extremists and right wing militias. After he told one group, the Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by,” they and other groups planned for and participated in the riot. Nearly 1,100 rioters were arrested and charged with various offenses.
There are many other fascist tendencies of Trump. He persistently demonizes minority groups, illegal immigrants, and Democrats, sometimes leading to violent attacks. He has created a cult of supporters who believe any lie he spreads. And like other cult leaders, he demands unwavering loyalty from them and acceptance of him as their sole leader.
Further, Trump attempts to discredit and intimidate the media. He famously called the media “the enemy of the people,” an accusation made by Hitler of Jews and by Lenin, Stalin, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez of dissenters from their ideas. He adds that the media are purveyors of “fake news” (as opposed to his “alternative facts”) and “among the most dishonest humans alive.” In a speech to CIA employees, he declared he was “at war” with the media.
Like many fascists, Trump has come to power by dominating a major political party, in his case the GOP, and recasting the party in his image. Nearly 70 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of him. Forty-five percent say “there’s nothing he could do to lose my support.” Despite all evidence and court decisions, 63 percent of Republicans believe Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
Either out of fear of losing their seats in primary elections or out of genuine belief, most Republican House members accord Trump overwhelming support. Even after rioters caused them to flee on Jan. 6, eight GOP Senators and 138 House members voted to object to declaring Biden the winner in 2020. Only 10 House Republicans (including two in this state) voted to impeach Trump after Jan. 6 and only seven Senators voted to convict him. All but two of the seven were defeated for reelection or decided not to run again.
Republican foreign policy from Richard Nixon through George W. Bush was hawkish and committed to basing US troops overseas to deter adversaries and support allies. Trump has moved the GOP to a more isolationist stance less friendly toward allies. He also wants to cut off aid to Ukraine, handing Russia a victory that risks its moving further to reconstitute the Soviet bloc. He says he wants to preserve democracy — but he admires fascists like Putin, authoritarians like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and totalitarians like Kim Jong Un.
Fascists often are corrupt, using state powers and resources to line their own pockets and those of their friends. Examples of Trump’s and his family members’ profiteering on his office are legion. Further, fascists commonly dominate the government bureaucracy, military, and domestic security agencies, using them to enhance their power. Project 2025 is designed to equip Trump to do exactly that if he’s re-elected.
More ominously, fascists do their best to ensure they stay in power. If they allow elections, they are invariably rigged to allow the dictator and his party to win. Trump famously tried to overturn his 2020 loss by legal and illegal means. Many GOP legislatures are writing laws designed to insure victories, and if Trump doesn’t win in 2024, he can be expected to challenge the results again.
So, the final verdict, please. Trump exhibits many characteristics of an “unhinged,” narcissistic, rageful — and possibly mentally-impaired — sociopath. And he also exhibits many traits of a fascist strongman. If Trump wins the 2024 election, America will cease to be a democracy.
Historian Robert Kagan wrote a long, chilling piece in Sunday’s Washington Post declaring that a Trump dictatorship is all but inevitable. He doesn’t argue that Biden should drop out of the race and let a more-electable Democrat take his place. I’d favor that, but Biden is stubbornly determined to run — probably thinking he’s the only Democrat who can defeat Trump. I think he’s the one Democrat Trump CAN beat.
In my view, the only way Biden could eke out a victory in 2024 is to make this a “choice” election (as opposed to a referendum on Biden’s first term), emphasizing Trump’s craziness and plans for a second presidency. I hope the media start focusing as critically on Trump’s deficiencies as much as it has on Biden’s age. And now is the time for many former Trump officials and supporters who’ve turned against him to remind the country of their reasons — and to do so persistently.