The danger of Donald Trump isn't that he's an actual, real-life fascist, no matter what the Washington Post (or your Facebook feed) says. Trump is not Hitler, and he will not drive the country toward literal fascism. But that's not to say Donald Trump isn't dangerous for America — and, to be honest, for everyone else. The danger of Trump is that he's figured out what demagogues have long known: Fascist rhetoric works.
Fascism doesn't sit on the traditional left/right political scale. As an ideology, it is anti-liberal — it rejects the idea of human equality and democracy — and anti-conservative, with roots in social Darwinism and the notion that all religious belief is backward. Above all, fascism is authoritarian. It relies on law and order, on the glamorization of modern warfare, and on the idea that democracy is too confusing and complicated for ordinary people, introducing complicated ideas and concepts to a populace too ignorant to understand them. What countries need, fascist believe, is one person to lead them. That leader is the nation personified. He (and it's always a he) is the soul of the nation, above the needs of any individual or group. He is what matters.
Fascism is not really what Trump promotes. What he recognizes, though, is that fascist rhetoric is just as effective today as it was a century ago. In a certain way, this makes sense: Of course we want a strong leader in tough times, and our concept of nationhood — the thing that makes us different from Canadians, or Chadians, or the Chinese — has long directed how we feel about who we are as Americans. Americans want leadership, and Americans want to feel like they're a part of something bigger. Think about the American identity, about always wanting to do better, to win, to achieve goals and surpass the competition. Think about phrases like "that's not who we are" in reference to racism or refusing entry to refugees — with the implication that we are better, more accepting than "they" are. Or the pride we take in winning, even in the "world championships" we award for competitions in which other countries don't play. American-style nationalism isn't an inherently Republican or conservative trait; it's the language of patriotism, of chanting "USA! USA!" at any politician's speech, of flying the flag on your front porch, because we're better, the best, the most important nation on Earth. Even the most liberal of Democrats want to feel like they belong to the greatest country in the world.
And therein lies the problem. With fascism, as with Trump's rhetoric, for "us" to belong, that means someone else — a minority group, dissenters, people who hold differing religious beliefs — can't. Both fascism and Trump hold that something, or someone, has made the nation "ungreat." For Trump, this "other" has been cast, both implicitly and explicitly, as Muslims and Mexicans; for his supporters, it has often been minorities in general. Those elements must be removed, stripped away, for "greatness" to return. And no matter how many times Trump lies about, well, pretty much everything, that message doesn't change. And that message is the most dangerous of all.
Calling Trump a fascist is easy, but that doesn't make it true. And when we call him something he's not, we lose sight of what he actually is, and what he's actually doing. We lose that he is stoking the fires of hatred. We lose that he appeals to people who are willing to look past what he says and see only what they believe he means — that America should be doing better, should feel less divided, and most importantly, should be doing more for people like them. We don't need to use words like "fascist" to explain that Trump is finding easy scapegoats for tough problems, and making himself richer in the process.
Trump isn't a fascist in the sense that he wants a state-controlled economy and the elimination of democratic institutions. He's not going to burn down Congress. But he is using fascist rhetoric to respond to the very real challenges Americans — specifically those in poorer, often whiter, more rural areas — face. He says that the world is in crisis and only he can fix it. He says that America isn't great anymore, and only by making it more like it "was" (read: more white, more male, and more like himself) can it return to greatness. That's not fascism, but it's still very, very wrong. It was wrong in 1919. It was wrong in 1933. And it's wrong right now.