By Michael Lind
AUSTIN, Texas ( Project Syndicate )—Throughout Donald Trump’s single term as president of the United States, his opponents in both the Democratic and Republican parties frequently portrayed him as a would-be fascist dictator. But with Trump ousted from the White House, this analogy has become untenable.
The Italian leader that Trump resembles most is not the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini but rather Silvio Berlusconi, the scandal-prone former prime minister.
Figures such as Trump and Berlusconi—tycoons or media celebrities who ran for office as antiestablishment populist demagogues—are not uncommon in contemporary Western democracies.
In Europe, the list includes elected leaders like Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, one of the country’s wealthiest men; former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, previously his country’s “Chocolate King”; and his successor, Volodymyr Zelensky, a comic actor who had previously played a Ukrainian president on television.
Although Trump is the first true demagogue to be elected to the American presidency, the entertainer or plutocrat who wins office by posing as a champion of the common people has been a staple of mayoral and gubernatorial races for generations.
Media celebrity, in particular, has become an increasingly common basis for electoral success in America.
In the 1930s, the country music radio star W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel became governor of Texas and then a U.S. senator. In the 1960s-80s, Ronald Reagan famously made the transition from Hollywood actor to California governor and then to the White House. Similarly, Jesse Helms, the late U.S. senator from North Carolina, started out as a right-wing radio star. Then, in 1999, the TV wrestling celebrity Jesse Ventura (who, along with Trump, had attempted to take over Ross Perot’s Reform Party) was elected to a single term as Minnesota’s governor, and in 2003, the movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California with no prior political experience. (Ventura had previously served as mayor of a Minneapolis suburb.)
Fascists get support from powerful groups
Populist demagogues in democratic countries generally do not intend to create police states, and they could not even if they tried. Whereas interwar fascist dictators were backed by their countries’ military, police, bureaucratic, and business establishments, populists rely on the support of alienated nonelite groups and are typically opposed by most of the other power centers in society.
Hence, many flamboyant demagogues in the American South—such as Louisiana Gov. (and then U.S. Sen.) Huey P. Long or the husband-and-wife team of populist Texas governors, James “Pa” and Miriam “Ma” Ferguson—represented small farmers and the white working class against the rich gentry who monopolized wealth and political office in their states.
Some demagogues exploit minority ethnic groups’ bitterness over their own exclusion from wealth and power. In the first half of the 20th century, James Michael Curley, the corrupt four-term mayor of Boston and one-term governor of Massachusetts, won and held power by representing working-class Irish-Americans against the Anglo-American Protestant elite—the so-called Boston Brahmins.
But while populist demagogues can identify legitimate grievances among some voters, they almost never deliver on their promises to followers. Some, like O’Daniel in Texas, become fronts for establishment interests, whereas others merely create personal patronage machines, using their official powers to reward family members or cronies. Very rarely do demagogues create new institutional structures that can carry out reforms long after they leave office.
In Curley’s case, his Harvard-educated son-in-law, Edward Donnelly, played a role similar to that of Trump’s Harvard-educated son-in-law, Jared Kushner. In Louisiana, Long created a family dynasty that included his brother Earl, who followed him as governor, and his son Russell Long, who became a long-serving U.S. senator from Louisiana.
Scandal and corruption
In any case, demagogic populists’ political careers tend to be rich in scandal and corruption. Whereas Berlusconi had his infamous “bunga bunga” parties, Trump had the “Access Hollywood” tape, where he boasted about sexually assaulting women.