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 Mussolini or 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,