By Deborah Avant for Denver Dialogues.
We should stop calling Donald Trump a “fascist” (we should also stop calling Hillary Clinton a “liar” and Bernie Sanders a “spoiler”, but for now I’ll focus on the former). Calling “the Donald” a fascist is an “essentialist” claim about who he really is, his underlying or “true” identity. This is distinct from an assertion we could make about his stated views or actions. Views and actions can be changed, one’s true identity cannot. Essentialist claims are bad for politics.
Claims about someone’s identity generate processes of polarization that are hard to break out of. They simplify things a little too much, making it easy to dismiss others’ perspectives. When we call Trump a fascist, we discount the need to listen to what draws people to him. We paint caricatures of his supporters in our minds and skip the much needed next step of thinking through their reasoning. Just like a parent who reprimands her “bad” child rather than his bad behavior, these kinds of claims can lead to backlashes that exacerbate the very problems they aim to solve. They push those with different views further apart. This makes the kind of gridlock we have grown used to in government even more likely. And at its extreme, polarization leads to violence. We have seen some of that with the takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge and related incidents. Around the world, polarization with respect to religious or ethnic identities is systematically linked with violence. Even without the ethnic charge, polarization often leads to societal breakdown, as most recently evidenced in Venezuela.
What if, instead, we kept our focus on Trump’s statements and actions? Go ahead and report on the disgruntled employees that worked at Trump University. Investigate his business ventures. Take a look at how foreign leaders are reacting to his proposals – and examine the feasibility of said proposals. This approach still gives plenty of fodder for mobilizing against the Trump candidacy while providing more room for conversation with his supporters. Instead of dismissing them as fascists, we might ask why they support someone with this or that (pick one, any one) position. And then we might just hear something.
A recent Atlantic article suggests that some are inclined to support him because he says things that other politicians don’t and is unlikely to be beholden to Wall Street. One cab driver I recently chatted with said we’d had a Clinton in the White House and Trump promised “something different”. Like Trump’s past deals and proposals, these are statements we can argue with. We can explain to supporters how his blunt statements offended your colleague with a Middle Eastern heritage or your transgender child, even as we acknowledge that we may need more bluntness than we often get from garden variety politicians. We can agree that Wall Street connections are problematic as we explain why these connections do not disqualify Clinton (Clinton supporters should actually think more about this). I told my cab driver that I could understand the appeal of “something different”, but opined about its potentially devastating consequences for the economy.
We need conversation and debate right now. Politics as usual is not working for many people. Bungled wars, economic crises, and congressional gridlock have been joined by rising death rates. A generation of young adults remember only hard times. Many people in the US want change. Though their initial inclinations are different (as the line up behind the different candidates suggests), honest conversations can bring us to creative solutions. The polarization engendered by essentialist claims, though, only makes it easier to preach to the converted. It makes it much harder to engage with those who disagree, much less change their minds or find common ground.
By now, my friends on the left may think I’ve lost it. Don’t we have to mobilize? To fight against Trump’s xenophobic statements, let alone a Trump presidency? Absolutely. But essentialist talk will hurt the cause more than help it. Focus on the statements, not the man. Listen to the claims of those who support him. Along the way Clintonites, rather than dismissing those young people who support Sanders as naive, fools, or spoilers, should think about their experience in this world and try to understand their perspective. And for you Sanders supporters, listen to the women and moderates who support Clinton and commit to choosing the best option rather than going down with the perfect one.
And, to my friends on the right – most of whom are uncomfortable with Trump but have a visceral reaction to Clinton – listen to what she says, not her voice. Look at her record in the Senate and as Secretary of State. Take the claims of those who support her seriously enough to argue with them on their own terms.
This is an important election and I take seriously the worries Barbara Walter and others have aired about its similarities to Germany past. We should mobilize. But this makes it even more important to resist essentialist claims and try to foster the kind of conversations that generate meaningful ideas for a more productive political path.