Classifications with negative connotations have been fixed to Trump since he announced his candidacy in 2015, most notably “fascist” and “populist.” But these are both incorrect classifications with dangerous consequences.
Fascism is characterized by uber-nationalism, anti-democratic ideals, the use of violence as both a means and an end and skepticism toward capitalism. Trump checks the first two boxes and dabbles in the third. But to assert that he is suspicious of capitalism would be a grotesque fallacy.
Fascism’s archetype, Benito Mussolini, nationalized the economy to promote the state, controlling the means of production and reaping its rewards. In contrast, Trump deregulated the economy, provided massive tax cuts to the rich and aggressively opposed all forms of nationalization — including the post office. Fascism, thus, is not an apt description of Trump’s behavior.
Since Trump’s election, populism has become a buzzword that falls short of accurately characterizing Trump and other far-right politicians. Populism is broadly defined as a “thin-centered ideology” that “considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, the ‘pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite.’” In practice, however, populism tends to manifest as a left-wing phenomenon based on wealth redistribution, and when this principle of dichotomic division applies to ethnicity and immigration, it is not populism, simply nativism.
Thus, the appeal of Trump’s hostility toward immigrants to uneducated whites was not populism, but nativism. While Trump exhibited some characteristics of populists, like his massive rallies and “drain the swamp” rhetoric, his intention was never to better the lives of his supporters; rather, Trump used the nativism and fear within white voters to obtain the one thing he cared for: power.
Trump’s entire presidency was not based on policy aspirations but on consolidating his power, and he was willing to undermine democracy to obtain it. While populist leaders have destroyed democracy in the past through their redistributive policies, as occurred in Venezuela, Trump never cared to respect democracy’s institutional norms.
Thus, the label of populist does not apply. Instead, Trump should be classified as a competitive authoritarian. This political phenomenon occurs when democratic institutions exist, but incumbents abuse the state to create significant advantage vis-à-vis their opponents. Competitive authoritarians may employ techniques used by populists, but their end goal is unchecked power.
Trump’s goal of destroying American democracy — evident in his support for election interference, attempts to censor the press, lawsuits challenging early and mail-in-voting and his incitement of insurrection to overturn the results of a free and fair election — is a goal shared not by populists throughout history but by competitive authoritarians. Trump’s abuse of state power to maintain his political power parallels autocrat Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary, rather than the redistributive politics of Venezuelan populist Hugo Chávez that, ultimately, led to the destruction of democratic institutions.
Severing Trump from the labels of populism and fascism is not nit-picky; instead, it is a vital realization of the threat Trump posed — an acknowledgment crucial to preventing the rise of a future competitive authoritarian.