Trump is Not Mussolini
But the Need for Such a Declaration is Telling
By Brendan Wilson
“FASCIST!” The charge has been revived following comments recently made by the President that suggest his lack of respect for term limits and the peaceful transfer of power.
In one of the more alarming passages of John Bolton's book, Trump bragged to Xi Jinping that "people" were saying that presidential term limits "should be repealed" for him. At a recent rally in South Carolina, Trump was recorded shouting that he’ll “set the term limits at 25 years!” as MAGA-clad supporters chanted “10 more years!” Last week, when asked if he would guarantee the peaceful transfer of power, the President responded, “We’ll have to see.”
It's likely that these comments are in equal measure bluster and sarcasm, but they shot election-year tempers into the stratosphere. Historians and politicians have poured gasoline on the leftist effigy fire by linking Trump with one of the 20th century's worst dictators. Last month, House Minority Whip Jim Clyburn compared Trump’s “strong-arm tactics” with those used by Benito Mussolini during his bloody rise to power. Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiant agrees with this association, explaining that the Italian dictator “chipped away at democratic institutions [by] insulting the press, using violence against the left, [and] joking that he would be in office for 20 years…” Behavior that, she implies, should be familiar to anyone not living under a rock for the last four years.
The charge of fascism is not new in American politics. It was levied against Ronald Reagan in 1984 for his supposed warm relationships with foreign dictators and was hurled at George W Bush following his disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003. Are these accusations fair, or simply a manifestation of election-year hysteria? For some context, we examine the life and times of Il Duce.
Benito Mussolini was a man of humble origin. He embraced journalism early in life and, seeing it as a gateway to power, joined the Socialist Party. As editor of the left-wing newspaper Avanti, he wrote radical, inflammatory essays that won him a wide and passionate following, but also earned him a few shorts stints in prison cell. Initially opposing entry into WWI, he later flipped, strongly advocating Italy’s involvement. This revised position drew the scorn of his comrades and got him booted out of both Avanti and the Socialist Party.
But Mussolini understood that a rise to power sometimes requires ideological flexibility. He soon joined the staff of the right-wing publication Il Popolo d’Italia, using the newspaper as a platform to spread his new nationalist philosophy: “From today onward we are all Italians and nothing but Italians! Now that steel has met steel, one single cry comes from our hearts—Viva l’Italia!”
After WWI, he strongly advocated for centralized, top-down government to galvanize the downtrodden people of Italy and lift them from the political and economic quagmire into which they had sunk. He called for a strongman to save Italy - “a man who is ruthless and energetic enough to make a clean sweep." If only such a man could be found…
In 1919, Mussolini established the nationalist party “Fasci di Combattimento” (fighting bands). He claimed that the party and its adherents would be bound together by ties as close as those that secured the Fasces of the Lictors, the symbol of the power of the magistrate in Ancient Rome. Thus, fascism was born.
Mussolini’s power grew after attracting the loyalty of a group of disgruntled war veterans, the Blackshirts, which signed on as his de facto militia. These black-clad supporters flocked to his enormous rallies, at which he spouted incendiary rhetoric delivered with a sharp, staccato speaking style that enraptured his followers.
It was not important that the facts he used in his speeches were hazy - he was theatrical, passionate, and persuasive. He portrayed himself as the strongman needed to return a sense of pride to a repressed nation. A young Adolph Hitler was said to have been captivated by Mussolini’s forceful speaking style, which he mimicked a decade later to stir similar nationalist fervor in Germany.
The Blackshirts soon controlled swaths of northern Italy and began to spread southward, permeating the peninsula like a noxious gas. They beat-up left-wing journalists, burnt down trade union offices, and terrorized anyone hostile to the Party. Because Italy’s government was anti-Communist, it turned a blind eye to the violence.
In 1922, socialist leaders called a nation-wide strike. Mussolini seized the opportunity, marching his Blackshirts on Rome while threatening to take control by force unless the government intervened to stop the strike. King Victor Emmanuel III, fearing the fate of the murdered Tsar Nicolas II, summoned Mussolini and named him prime minister. In 1924, Mussolini held fraudulent elections which gave the Fascists a majority in parliament. Now that he was holding all the cards, Mussolini declared himself dictator in 1925.
The axe now fell. Free speech was crushed, printing presses of opposition publications were demolished, political parties were outlawed. In the shadows, the secret police lurked, waiting to apprehend anyone suspected of hostility toward Il Duce. Within five years of the March on Rome, the opposition was effectively silenced. Ethnic and religious minorities were railed against in xenophobic speeches and anti-Semitic laws were passed and brutally enforced.
Internally, individual liberties were crushed. Externally, though, the image of Il Duce was carefully curated. Mussolini was hailed by foreign leaders as a genius and a reformer. Winston Churchill praised him as “the greatest lawgiver among men” while Mahatma Gandhi called him “one of the great statesmen of our time.” The French writer Rene Bedel devoted an entire chapter in his book to his magnetic smile.
But his star began to fade in 1935. Channeling the glory of Imperial Rome, Mussolini sought to elevate Italy to empire status through conquest. He invaded Ethiopia with an army of 200,000, personally authorizing the illegal use of mustard gas and aerial bombings to break the back of the resistance. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died. The offensive drew the contempt of the European leaders Mussolini had so assiduously courted. Later that year, the League of Nations condemned the invasion.
Abandoned by the leaders of western Europe, he turned to his fascist counterpart in Germany. Mussolini followed the Fuhrer into WWII with a woefully underfunded, backwards, and unprepared military. After suffering humiliation and defeat in nearly all key battles, the people of Italy turned against him. Disgraced, broken, and depressed, Mussolini fell from power in 1943. He was thrown into prison, broken out by the Nazis, and then recaptured trying to create a new Fascist stronghold in northern Italy. On Aril 28th, 1945, he was shot dead and hung upside-down in the Piazza Loreto in Milan.
At first glance, there are faint similarities. Trump delegitimizes the liberal press, rails against immigration, and unabashedly colors himself a nationalist. But this does not mean that he is Benito Mussolini. To compare the two is not only to ignore the tragic history of that bloody era, it is dangerous because the association could be used to justify a damaging overreaction, like another embarrassing impeachment - or worse.
There are three differences between the two leaders. First, the opposition was completely silenced during Mussolini’s reign. Printing presses were destroyed while journalists were beaten. Anyone was in mortal danger that spoke out against the regime. Today, entire news networks devote 24-hour coverage to humiliating the President, which would have been unthinkable in Mussolini's Italy. Despite Trump’s railing against the media, the function of our free press – open exchange of information and ideas – is intact.
Second, Mussolini advocated and passed laws hostile to minorities and personally ordered the massacre of hundreds of thousands of African citizens. Trump’s speeches on immigration have xenophobic undertones and he does display an inexplicable unwillingness to denounce white supremacists, but he has not advocated laws that result in physical violence and he is actively bringing troops home, not deploying them abroad.
Third, Mussolini seized power through force, deploying his Blackshirts to terrorize Italy until he had complete control of the government. Trump's violent assault on the American people is limited to his all-caps twitter rants. In short, Mussolini was a strongman to be feared while Trump is a loudmouth to the tolerated.
The carnage wrought by WWI, the insidious spread of communism, and economic depression combined to render Italy a political powder keg. Mussolini only needed to strike a match. The United States has its issues (inequality, racial tensions, TikTok), but the Republic created by our Constitution, with its checks and balances and division of power, is robust enough to bar the rise of a Duce-like dictator. For example, less than a day after Trump’s refusal to guarantee to the peaceful transfer of power, the Senate Majority Leader of his own party rebuked him.
Donald Trump is not a dictator, nor does he sit atop a government that would enable him to become one. Democrats can stop fearing that Trump will recreate Mussolini’s march on the capital; and they can stop hoping that the President will share the Duce's fate.
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Dikötter, F. (2019). How to be a dictator: The cult of personality in the twentieth century. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Foot, J., & Hibbert, C. (2020, July 25). Benito Mussolini. Retrieved September 28, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Benito-Mussolini
Haltiwanger, J. (2020, September 25). Historians and election experts warn Trump is behaving like Mussolini and despots that the US usually condemns. Retrieved September 28, 2020, from https://www.businessinsider.com/historians-election-experts-warn-trump-behaving-like-mussolini-2020-9
Warmbrodt, Z. (2020, August 02). Jim Clyburn: Trump is Mussolini. Retrieved September 28, 2020, from https://www.politico.com/news/2020/08/02/clyburn-trump-mussolini-390500