In attempting to predict how far Trump will go and how bad things will get, many people have asked whether or not it’s correct to call him a fascist. The more appropriate question to ask is: How do hard right regimes evolve and mature, and what are the warning signs for worst-case scenarios? Robert Paxton tackles this in his book, The Anatomy of Fascism. In his formulation, fascist — or potentially fascist — regimes have two options as they develop: to radicalize, or to revert to a traditional authoritarian rule. “Fascist regimes could not settle down into a comfortable enjoyment of power,” Paxton writes. “The charismatic leader had made dramatic promises: to unify, purify, and energize his community; to save it from the flabbiness of bourgeois materialism, the confusion and corruption of democratic politics, and the contamination of alien people and cultures.”
It is the dynamism of fascism, the grotesque thrill of violence and of fulfilling what the charismatic leader calls history’s great plan, that gives the fascist regime its horrifying and distinctive power. Fascists “could not survive without that headlong, inebriating rush forward,” writes Paxton. “Without an ever-mounting spiral of daring challenges, fascist regimes risked decaying into something resembling a tepid authoritarianism.” The need to keep raising the stakes makes fascism inherently self-destructive, as its unthinking brutality ultimately consumes itself — but not before unleashing its terror on the world.