It has been hard to take Donald Trump too seriously. He is a candidate without any substantial policy proposals, no governmental experience and a rambling, self-obsessed way of delivering a speech. His bullying and rudeness seem like show biz shtick with an implied wink in every insult. Like every political journalist, I must confess his lighter-than-air candidacy has made the early campaign season unusually fun.
But, as I watched Mr. Trump propose a plan to halt the entry of all Muslims into the country and receive hearty cheers of approval from a campaign crowd, it no longer seemed especially amusing. Instead, it struck me that this may be what fascism looks like in a world where politics has been subsumed by the entertainment business. Trump is Don Rickles with the political inclinations of Francisco Franco.
Quite a few commentators and political figures have had the same thought and, surprisingly, most of them are conservatives. Max Boot, a right-leaning fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations went on Twitter to say that "Trump is a fascist." Jeb Bush's national security adviser, John Noonan, chimed in and characterized Mr. Trump's ideas as fascism. "Nothing else to call it," he tweeted. Right-wing radio host Steve Deace labeled Mr. Trump's subversion of religious liberty "creeping fascism." The New York Times' conservative columnist Russ Douthat also used the political "f" word in a column last week, and then retracted it briefly until deciding the retraction was premature in light of Mr. Trump's proposal to shut the door on all Muslims traveling to this country.
While not calling Mr. Trump a fascist, most of his competitors for the Republican presidential nomination condemned his ban on Muslims as being out of step with American values (with the significant exceptions of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul). Mr. Bush said Mr. Trump is "unhinged." New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie branded the idea "ridiculous." South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said the scheme was "downright dangerous." Ohio Gov. John Kasich called it yet another example of Mr.Trump's unfitness for high office.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan waded into the debate to declare that "This is not conservatism."
Singling people out for surveillance and exclusion because of their religion certainly reeks of fascism. Still, Mr. Trump is no Hitler. He's not that evil or ideologically coherent. And he is not Mussolini -- at least not yet. Still, his appeals to hyper nationalism, his scapegoating of ethnic groups, his fear-driven appeals to disgruntled working-class voters and his presentation of himself as the strong man who can fix every problem through the force of his will all have echoes of fascist political leaders of the past. And he has clearly learned that many people will accept a leader's Big Lie -- or at least his constant fibs and fantasies -- as long as he never backs down and is able to counterattack against the liberal news media or "weak" rivals who are part of a corrupt party establishment.
Some observers -- the ones who have been mistakenly predicting Mr. Trump's political demise for six months -- are saying he may have finally gone too far. One -- the usually insightful Rachel Maddow on MSNBC -- weirdly speculated that Trump may be intentionally trying to run his own campaign off a cliff before inevitable failure in the primaries proves too great a blow for his massive ego. Already, though, it looks as if this latest foray to the fringes may not do Mr. Trump very much damage.
Tuesday on Fox News, host Sean Hannity assured his audience that Mr. Trump really did not intend to keep every Muslim from coming in, just the bad ones. On her own Fox show, Megyn Kelly -- who has no great love of Mr. Trump after the insulting comments he directed at her during and after the first Republican debate last summer -- spent more time excoriating the mainstream media for giving Mr. Trump hours and hours of free air time than she did criticizing Mr. Trump himself. Hosts Elizabeth Hasselbeck and Brian Kilmeade on Fox and Friends concluded that it was President Obama's lame leadership that had forced Mr. Trump to take protecting the country to an extreme.
Fox News holds far more sway with Trump supporters than do Republican politicians and conservative intellectuals. My prediction (in this year when all predictions are a fool's game) is that Mr. Trump will not be hurt and might actually gain if he becomes a target at this week's GOP debate in Las Vegas. Why? Because he always wins when it comes down to a mud fight.
The share of the electorate Mr. Trump has corralled is filled with frightened and angry people. They do not mind a little fascism if it is being sold by a man who embodies their mood -- a man who assures them their enemies can be crushed, as long as no one gets too picky about collateral damage and the Constitution.