Scrambling to understand Donald Trump’s wild and, so far, remarkably effective campaign for the presidency, commentators have rushed to find parallels to explain the man who has dominated coverage and led in most polls of likely Republican voters. Some see the orange-maned billionaire as a fascist akin to Hitler or Mussolinior compare him with such bygone American demagogues as Father Charles Coughlin, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, or Alabama Governor George Wallace. Others maintain that he is a homegrown version of Russian President Vladimir Putin or French National Front leader Marine Le Pen.
But, at best (or worst), Trump bears only a superficial resemblance to any of these individuals. He evinces no desire to create a militarized state that abolishes free elections and jails or executes its critics, as did the former dictators of Germany and Italy. If he expanded welfare programs and commanded industrial firms to produce what he wanted, as did Hitler and Mussolini, Trump would alienate those conservatives who now cheer his hostility to immigrants and the media. Neither does Trump share Coughlin’s religious zealotry or McCarthy’s fondness for accusing federal officials of treason. And there’s a sharp contrast between Wallace’s blue-collar belligerence at soft-handed elites and the real estate mogul’s incessant boasting about how much money he has made and how famous he is. Further to compare Trump with the shrewd Russian autocrat or the seasoned French hypernationalist is like comparing a carnival barker with a brilliant, if malevolent, magician.
The Trump phenomenon is better understood as an amalgam of three different, largely pathological strains in American history and culture. To search for a single individual whom he most resembles misses the larger forces that churn out figures who storm their way through the political universe, leaving damages for others to repair.
The first and perhaps most obvious strain is hostility toward immigrants whose ethnic and religious identities seem to clash with those of the native-born majority. In the 1850s, the American Party—labeled the “Know-Nothings” by its opponents—accused Irish and German Catholics of being agents of the pope and a threat to republican government. Later in the century, white workers on the Pacific coast led a mass campaign against Chinese newcomers, whom they blamed for undercutting wages and spreading disease. Federal lawmakers affirmed their bigotry by excluding any Chinese laborers from entering the United States. In the 1920s, fears of Slavs, Jews, Italians, and others suspected of being hostile to America’s white “Nordic” heritage persuaded Congress to impose quotas that all but banned immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. Trump’s attacks on “rapists and murderers” crossing the southern border and on potential Muslim terrorists jetting across the Atlantic belong to this long and ignominious tradition.
The GOP front-runner’s contempt toward established political authorities also echoes American populists’ past. “We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned,” Future Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan declared in 1896. “We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!” Trump’s gibes at “stupid” and “incompetent” politicians in both major parties are quite crude in comparison, but the sentiment is similar.