Recently on one of the web sites I frequent, there was a discussion of Trump's political inclinations, and in the course of this debate a number of terms were tossed about. Now, in general, I find conservatives have a pretty good grasp of these terms (eg understanding fascism is not that different from communism), but it still might be useful to look at some of the mroe common bits of terminology and discuss what they mean*.
Communism is one of the terms most people understand pretty well simply by intuition. Communism is a form of government where all production is owned and controlled by the state, as is the distribution of all goods. Which only makes sense as, technically, the state continues to own all goods, only allowing individuals the use of them. Where some people fall into trouble is assuming that Marxist communism is the sole form, and thus arguing all communists are internationalist, atheist and so on. While it is true Marxism is the most common today, along with its off-shoots such as Trotskyites, there have been many communist theories and some were nationalist, some even religious, so, while modern communism often is atheist and internationalist, those are not essential traits.
Socialism is a term that cannot help but confuse. Originally it was a synonym for communism, and was used as such by Marx and Engels. However, modern speakers tend to use it differently. The most common use, that adopted by many newscasters and mainstream political commentators, is to use it to describe a mixed system of private and government ownership, specifically any such mixed economy where the proportion of state ownership is greater than our own. Basically, since most choose to describe our mixed economy as "the free market", any economy with our level of public involvement or less is "capitalist" and anything with more public involvement, but less than total control is called "socialism". (There is often a fuzzy zone of states with just a little more public ownership which are often called capitalist in some contexts and socialist in others, but that is just more confusion, created by an already poorly defined term.)
The other use of socialism is by people who call themselves libertarian, but who tend to adopt many conspiracy theories and have an overall fear of government. These people will often use "socialist" as a pejorative for anyone who does not agree with their specific beliefs**. If one disagrees with the specific limits they want to place on government, he will be called a socialist, is he does not "really" believe in freedom.
Fascism is another term which causes endless confusion.Fortunately in recent years a a number of conservative writers have been at pains to correct them, but there are still many in the general public who hold odd ideas. Fascism is, for lack of a better description, communism without ownership. That is, the government exercises all the same power over businesses and the distribution of goods, but retains the appearance of private enterprise. In all other respects, economically it is identical to communism. In fact Ludwig von Mises called communism "socialism of the Russian type" and fascism/Nazism "socialism of the German type".
So, what are the misconceptions? Well, first of all, fascism is not a "right wing" philosophy. The old "political spectrum" theory that communism was the extreme version of liberalism and fascism/Nazism the extreme form of conservatism is absurd. In part, it comes from one fact and one poorly defined term. In our time, most fascist theories have been nationalist***. There is no requirement it be so, but that has been the case in the 20th century. Unfortunately, the term "conservative" has been defined in different ways in different places and eras. In the 19th century in Europe, and even in many European countries in the 20th century, "conservative" was used, not for small government proponents, but for nationalists, royalists and protectionists****. In the US, it was used at one time to describe protectionists and nationalists, but by mid-20th century was beginning to change to mean small government proponents. However, because of this dual meaning, fascism was called "conservative" because of its nationalist aspects, and, because of the confusion of terms, the theory arose that fascism was an extreme form of free market and small government beliefs. Obviously, this is nonsense, as an all-encompassing state such as fascism creates is hardly consistent with free markets or small government. It is clearly much more similar to big government beliefs.
A slightly less confused term, though still poorly defined, is the free market, or capitalism. Capitalism is not really that badly used, as it really means little more than an economy where private individuals own the assets used to produce wealth. Thus it is technically not incompatible with mixed economies where the state owns part of the economy. Only once one reaches the total control of fascism or communism would it be inappropriate.
But the "free market' is horribly ill used by most political commentators. Taken literally, a free market would be one where the government intervenes only to settle contractual disputes, and to prevent force, theft and fraud. Some might argue that it could still be sued with some degree of government regulation, but that creates its own problems, as when does regulation become great enough that it is no longer a "free market"? However, that is a minor dispute compared to the way in which the term is regularly used. In most cases, mixed economies with partial government ownership, as well as intrusive regulation, is dubbed "the free market", just as long as the amount of public ownership is not much greater than that in our own economy. In other words, it is simply assumed we are a "free market" no matter what we do, and others are judged relative to us. The problems with this usage should be obvious.
Which brings me to the final term I want to discuss. This one is a bit different as rather than one misused by the mainstream and liberals, I want to discuss a term where I end up arguing with conservatives. And that term is "democracy".
How many times have you seen someone call the US a democracy only to have someone state "no, we are a republic!" Well, I want to say, this is wrong, or at least not entirely correct.
The problem is, the people making this claim are using a single definition. They are accept the terms as established by Aristotle and used by the Founders (though even they were not as doctrinaire as some think, as I shall show). Aristotle set up pairs of government, one each for single man rule, rule of an elite and mass rule, and had a good and bad version of each. (Eg tyranny and monarchy.) In the case of mass rule, he contrasted "democracy" with "republic", using "democracy" to mean what political science would call "direct democracy", where matters are decided by direct vote, and majority rule is absolute.
However, that is not the only way in which "democracy" can be used, and even the founders, in many cases, recognized this, using the term "pure democracy" in many cases when describing this sort of direct democracy. Why? Because they recognized that "democracy" literally means nothing more than "rule of the people" and, using it in another sense, republics can be described as democratic, or as democracies. These are not direct democracies of the Aristotle sense, but what political scientists call indirect democracies, where representatives elected by popular vote, or in other ways, vote on decisions and majority rule is moderated by the procedure. You can see this in the writings of many politicians of the era who often are critical of "pure democracy" or "rule of the masses" (and sometimes just "democracy"), but at the same time will call our government "democratic", will describe it as a "democracy" at times, and even create a party called the "Democratic Republicans". From this, it is clear to me they did not think "democracy" had only a singular meaning as in Aristotle, but that "democracy" could be used in both the Aristotelian sense, and in a more general sense of any state wherein popular vote played a role, whether deciding directly or electing representatives to decide.
So, having gone through all of this, I suppose there is little left for me to do except to finally talk about Trump and his beliefs. As that was what inspired this entire essay, it seems silly not to at least give a brief synopsis of my thoughts.
I do not believe Trump is a fan of democracy or other popular rule. Obviously, he will use the forms of democracy to gain office, and like all seeking office will pay lip service to the "will of the voters" and the like. He is simply too clearly in love with the idea of exercising unfettered power for him to desire anything which might limit it.
Nor do I think he is a conservative in the small government, federalist sense for the same reasons. He obviously wants power, and he does not want to pass it back tot he states or the people. He may fit the nationalist, protectionist, nativist sense of "conservative" -- the one more common int he 19th century and later in some European nations -- and that would make it tempting to see him as a fascist, but I would argue that is not entirely accurate as well.
I grant that Trump has some protectionist ideas, and some nationalist ones, but he is too inconsistent, not enough of a systematic thinker, and, though he wants power, he does not seem to have an organized plan to nationalize the economy. Thus, I would think calling him a fascist is to ascribe to him too coherent a political philosophy.
My thought is that Trump is a simple despot. He seems to believe his every thought is brilliant and should be acted upon, his every whim is a great insight. And because he believes he is the smartest man ever, he wants unlimited power to allow him to put his brilliance into action. That is the philosophy of a simple dictator, a despot, what once was an absolute monarch, or what Aristotle would call a tyrant.
Which is actually a little more troubling than were he a fascist, or any other consistent philosophy. As I wrote elsewhere*****, consistency is essential for almost anything we want to do> Even the worst government, if consistent in its actions, is easier to handle than arbitrary actions, even if managed by the most well meaning individual. Trump's tendency to change course, his unpredictability and his lack of a driving philosophy mean under a Trump regime it would simply be impossible to know what would be coming in the next week, the next day, the next hour. And that is a recipe for complete inactivity, a collapse of the economy, and general chaos.
* Some of these topics were discussed earlier in "The Political Spectrum".
** This is akin tot he way many use the term "neocon" to mean anyone with whom they disagree, or the way the Trump fans used "GOP establishment" to describe any opponent regardless of actual degree of influence with the GOP, or even for those who are not GOP members at all. (I was called GOPe once when telling how I left the GOP after it became clear Trump was the nominee, which should make obvious how little meaning the term has.)
*** here is no necessity that fascism be racist either. Italian fascism was devoid of racist elements for the most part. As with fascism's nationalist history, any association with racism is historical accident and not a necessary trait of fascism.
**** The Republicans, and American conservatives in general, continue to suffer from this mixed definition. We can see it today in the Trump campaign ("The Problem With the Big Tent", "What Does Not Kill You...", "Misunderstanding Conservatives"). In that case, the nationalist, protectionist, populist, even racist elements of the GOP are trying to seize power from the small government, free market, free trade, federalist conservatives, to allow them to redefine the term "conservative" to fit their beliefs. A similar struggle has taken place from time to time with more activist social conservatives who object to too strict a small government position as it prevents laws they consider important. Because conservatism is so poorly defined, this has been a recurring struggle.
***** See "Predictability and Pragmatism - Why I Oppose Trump", "The Myths and Realities of Strict Construction", "Predictability", "The Consequences of Bad Laws", "Traffic Lights, Predictability and Conservatism", "Inflation and Uncertainty", "In Praise of Contracts", "Contracts and Freedom" and "Juvenile Culture and Totalitarianism".