Cleveland: a historical perspective

The rhetoric that surrounds Donald Trump's convention triumph signals a new phase in the intertwined history of fascism and populism. Español 

Federico Finchelstein
23 July 2016

Presidential Candidate Donald Trump and Vice Presidential Nominee Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana at the conclusion of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Thursday, July 21, 2016. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill.

Both American voters and historians will need to go beyond the scandals of Cleveland, to look deeper than the Melania Trump plagiarism story and the moment when Senator Cruz got booed. From an historian’s perspective, two related themes were strikingly present in the Republican national convention (RNC): a politics of fear, mobilised by the ethnic majority (or so-called "silent majority", assumed to be pro-Republican), and the fantasy of sending Hillary Clinton to prison. The radical ideas of a massive deportation of Hispanic migrants and the banning of Muslims from entering the country were voiced at the convention along with the equally radical promise of prison for the Democratic candidate.

These notions not only signal a populist disregard for the separation of powers, they also show the fascist genealogies of the populism that Donald Trump represents so well. The promise of repressive measures against minorities and rivals places the Trump movement where it belongs: in the history of how fascism became populism. The result of this change was an authoritarian form of democracy that combines electoral procedures with themes and practices more typical of fascism.

The rhetoric in Cleveland is a new symptom of the same clinical history. Whereas mainstream Republicans called for the jailing of Hillary Clinton, a few even asked for her summary execution. This, of course, is related more to electoral calculation than to actual political proposals; but from a historian’s perspective, it is precisely the most striking dimension. What is relatively new in American presidential politics is not new in the history of fascism and populism. A high level of fascist-minded ideological rhetoric - from the racism against Hispanics and Muslims to the imagined incarceration of Clinton - dominated the convention and will probably remain a key element in its memory.

The RNC in Cleveland confirmed the pre-eminence of a new right-wing form of American populism. The latter has almost entirely replaced policy proposals and debates. In their place are fear, untruths and promises of violence against those imagined as irreconcilable enemies rather than political antagonists.

The “lock her up!” theme belongs to an anti-democratic tradition that regards opponents as criminals, unworthy of mere different political opinions. Political ideas of sending others to prison by way of acclamation have a specific history. Fascists (always) and populists (often) use prison as the way to deal with the opposition.

Modern democratic populism was originally constituted in 1945 as a post-fascist response to the left. However, it was not a radical break with the past, and populism was not engendered outside a historical continuum. Trump presents the last chapter in a long history of contestations of liberal democracy. Like all populist movements, Trumpism shares a fascist genealogy. But rather than being fascist, Trump is a populist to the core.

Modern populism was born in Argentina 1945 after General Juan Perón renounced fascism to create a hybrid: a democracy that mixed electoral legitimacy with authoritarian traits, demagoguery and a reductive idea of the people. General Perón, like many of his future emulators - comandante Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, and now Trump in the United States - identified the needs of the people with his own desires and opposed them to the status quo. All of them promised to send their enemies to jail, and when in power they often did. The idea of carceral punishment for the other candidates was, in my view, the predominant feature of the Republican convention in Cleveland.

Populism is the opposite of pluralism in politics. It talks in the name of an imagined majority and dismisses all views that it considers part of the minority. Its enemies often include actual religious and ethnic minorities and always involve the independent press. Perón spoke in the name of the people and imagined himself as the opposite of the elites. Like Trump, the Argentine general set his own persona against politics as usual. He represented "anti-politics" and conceived his own role in messianic terms. He was tasked with radically changing Argentina, giving it a new historical foundation at a time of terminal crisis.

If Perón was the epitome of 20th-century populism, the Trump movement represents populism's new wave for the new century. This time, however, populism returns to some fascist themes that Perón and classic populism had rejected. Trump - and his European counterparts such as France's Marine Le Pen or Germany's AFD and Pegida - return to xenophobia in a way that the Latin American caudillo would never have imagined.

If racism was one of the key elements in  Perón’s presentation of an authoritarian democracy that distanced itself from fascist and racist views of the past, today racism seems again to be at the centre of politics. If Buenos Aires was the world capital of populism after 1945, there is a real possibility that Washington will become its global capital in the 21st century. This is why historians from around the globe have a lot to say on this matter. This week the Cleveland convention became the global centre of populism.


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