Donald Trump, to put it mildly, is unusual. No analogy or comparison or him is close to being perfectly accurate. Despite, or indeed because, of that, he’s wound up being compared to quite a few other figures, from history, fiction or current events. Perhaps a quick survey would be helpful as background to other discussions.
Three of the most popular Trump comparisons are:
- Andrew Jackson, who was President of the United States from 1829-1837. This is Trump and Bannon’s preferred analogy.
- Classical fascist leaders, such as Mussolini and Hitler.
- Modern populist/authoritarian leaders, such as Putin, Erdogan, Chavez, Duterte or even Milosevic.
I’ll discuss the first two below. The third will have to wait until future posts.
Further Trump analogies that I think are worth brief mentions include:
- Silvio Berlusconi, erstwhile prime minister of Italy.
- Berlusconi/Trump analogies start with Berlusconi being a corrupt media mogul, a real estate developer, a minor performing artist, and a major sexual sleazebag.
- Berlusconi flouted conflict-of-interest concerns, bragged fancifully about his cabinet, and accused the media of being his corrupt enemy.
- Berlusconi was friendly to authoritarian leaders (Putin, Gaddafi et al.), and to the Mafia.
- To my knowledge, however, Berlusconi didn’t go nearly as far as Trump in adopting alt-right/Bannon kinds of ideologies.
- Berlusconi actually led Italy for quite a while. But few people say he led it well.
- Orwell’s fictional tyrants.
- Doublethink and the other dishonesty from 1984 are obvious matches to Trump/Bannon.
- Governments’ tendencies to rapidly turn friends to foes and vice-versa have multiple echoes in Trumpworld.
- So does the fake populism of Animal Farm.
- But Orwell’s Stalinist purges were a lot deadlier than anything Trump has so far pursued.
- Machiavelli’s hypothetical princes. I think this one fits well.
- Trump has a lot of Medici-like traits. (They were businesspeople who went into politics, and who liked to build gaudy things.)
- Renaissance princes governed city-states, in a simpler era, when people had much less knowledge or education. I can actually envision Trump as being intellectually capable of handling their jobs.
Donald Trump compared to Andrew Jackson
Let’s return to Trump’s own favorite analogy. President Andrew Jackson is probably most famous for:
- Being an effective military officer long before he was President.
- Being elected as a “man of the people” and trying to govern as same — in opposition to, for example, central bankers.
- Having a hot temper.
- Defying the edicts of the Supreme Court …
- … so that he could “ethnically cleanse” — if I may use a modern term — large numbers of Native Americans out of their traditional homelands.
- Introducing the “spoils system” of political appointments, as in “To the victor belongs the spoils.’
Except for the military part, that all sounds a lot like Trump.
- If the Pulitzer Prize winning Jackson biography American Lion is to be believed — and I found the book very persuasive when I read it — Jackson placed personal vendettas above the country’s well-being.
- Jackson whined a lot about supposedly rigged elections. (In Jackson’s case his complaints were focused on 1824.)
That sounds like Trump too.
Donald Trump compared to classical Fascists
Benito Mussolini popularized an ideology called “Fascism”, named after a symbol of authority in the Roman Empire. Key elements included:
- Authoritarian leadership.
- Militant nationalism, based on an ancient past. Italy was technically a young country, united in the mid-1800s for the first time in many centuries. Thus Mussolini’s history-venerating nationalism was focused on Ancient Rome.
- Militaristic discipline. Mussolini famously vowed to make “the trains run on time”.
- A semi-planned economy, featuring accommodation between the government, corporations and workers. More on that below.
Adolph Hitler did much the same thing for the similarly young countries Germany and Austria, based on an imagined German history. His actions are better remembered today than Mussolini’s, for reasons that include:
- The Holocaust.
- Germany’s historic status as an economic, military, and intellectual powerhouse.
- Two brilliant propaganda innovators (Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl).
Many versions were tried in other countries as well, e.g. Franco’s Spain and Peron’s Argentina, the latter of which was of particular interest to Trump.
The messaging/propaganda side of fascism anticipates Trump. According to a famous 1990 profile of Trump:
- Trump kept a book of Hitler’s speeches by his bed.
- One Trump minion called him a master of the “big lie”.
- Another tended to click his heels — presumably as a joke — when visiting Trump Tower.
And “Make America Great Again” fits well with classic fascist tropes.
Trump seems like a dabbler in fascist economics.
- Every time he tries to intimidate a corporation into making a decision politically rather than economically, he’s operating from a fascist kind of playbook.
- But he seems generally favorable toward free enterprise. Indeed, he’s showing signs of following a Paul Ryan kind of laissez faire, slavishly-serve-the-wealthy set of policies, and those aren’t particularly fascist at all.
Finally, in a clear and important difference, Trump to date has been far less violent than the most famous fascists. Indeed, on the international front, Trump has managed to portray himself as a pacifist and a militarist at once.
Meanwhile, the street violence that helped Mussolini and Hitler take power has been replaced by “verbal violence” in the modern era, especially on social media. For as David Frum observes:
In a society where few people walk to work, why mobilize young men in matching shirts to command the streets? If you’re seeking to domineer and bully, you want your storm troopers to go online, where the more important traffic is. Demagogues need no longer stand erect for hours orating into a radio microphone. Tweet lies from a smartphone instead.
Ultimately, no distant historical model is a perfect guide to Trump. He’s a clueless narcissist, and there are only two known ways for such people to become national leaders:
- Monarchal inheritance.
- Demagoguery that modern mass media.
The best comparisons for Trump are the ones I’m out of space to write about here — other modern demagogues such as Putin (who however is much more rational and generally skilled than Trump), Erdogan (who however was a very competent mayor of Istanbul and Prime Minister before he went visibly cuckoo), or Chavez (who actually was as big an idiot as Trump).
- I’m collecting links at the bottom of my recent post Politics and policy in the age of Trump.