According to Paxton (link to biography), even though fascist movements had varying stated goals, the shared elements lay in what they actually did.
He lists the following five steps. The links go to events in 2016 that approximate Paxton’s steps.
- Intellectual exploration, where disillusionment with popular democracy manifests itself in discussions of lost national vigor;
- Rooting, where a fascist movement, aided by political deadlock and polarization, becomes a player on the national stage;
- Arrival to power, where conservatives seeking to control rising leftist opposition invite the movement to share power;
- Exercise of power, where the movement and its charismatic leader control the state in balance with state institutions such as the police and traditional elites such as the clergy and business magnates; and
- Radicalization or entropy, where the state either becomes increasingly radical, as did Nazi Germany, or slips into traditional authoritarian rule, as did Fascist Italy.
He also says that only Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy progressed through all five of these stages.
An argument can be made that in its own way, filtered through its election mechanisms, the U.S. is approximately at stage 3 of this process. Starting decades ago, a radical wing of the Republican Party went through step 2. This wing coalesced in fall 2016, early in the primary season. If you are among those who agree with this, then the next question for you is how to slow or prevent the fourth step.
Update: Paxton himself thinks it is a stretch to call Trump’s movement fascist. Instead, he suggests that “self-indulgent demagoguery on behalf of oligarchy” would be more accurate, though less catchy:
Donald Trump is a special case altogether. Superficially, he seems to have borrowed a number of fascist themes for his presidential campaign: xenophobia, racial prejudice, fear of national weakness and decline, aggressiveness in foreign policy, a readiness to suspend the rule of law to deal with supposed emergencies. His hectoring tone, mastery of crowds, and the skill with which he uses the latest communications technologies also are reminiscent of Mussolini and Hitler.
And yet these qualities are at most derivative of fascist themes and styles; the underlying ideological substance is very different, with the entitlements of wealth playing a greater role than fascist regimes generally tolerated. Trump’s embrace of these themes and styles is most likely a matter of tactical expediency – a decision taken with little or no thought about their ugly history. Trump is evidently altogether insensitive to the echoes his words and oratorical style evoke, which should not be surprising, given his apparent insensitivity to the impact of every other insult that he hurls.
It seems to me that by Paxton’s own reasoning, it’s too early to make a judgment, since we have not had enough time to see the actions of a Trump Administration. But I take his point that style and actions are different, and one should not be led astray. As commenter Emigre suggests, “we will know whether a Stage 4 is imminent when the military and police follow the lead of the Border Patrol Agents and align their interests with those of Trump and his allies.”