WASHINGTON — Former governor William F. Weld of Massachusetts has equated Donald Trump’s immigration plan with Kristallnacht, the night of horror in 1938 when rampaging Nazis smashed Jewish homes and businesses in Germany and killed scores of Jews.
It was a provocative analogy, but it was not a lonely one.
Trump’s campaign has engendered impassioned debate about the nature of his appeal and warnings from critics on the left and the right about the potential rise of fascism in the United States. More strident opponents have likened Trump to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
To supporters, such comparisons are deeply unfair smear tactics used to tar conservatives and scare voters. For a bipartisan establishment whose foundation has been shaken by Trump’s ascendance, these backers say, it is easier to delegitimize his support than to acknowledge widespread popular anger at the failure of both parties to confront the nation’s challenges.
But the discussion comes as questions are surfacing around the globe about a revival of fascism, generally defined as a governmental system that asserts complete power and emphasizes aggressive nationalism and often racism.
In such places as Russia and Turkey, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan employ strongman tactics. In Austria, a nationalist candidate came within three-tenths of a percentage point of becoming the first far-right head of state elected in Europe since World War II.
In Hungary, an authoritarian government has clamped down on the news media and erected razor wire fences to keep out migrants. There are worries that Poland could follow suit. Traditional parties in France, Germany, Greece, and elsewhere have been challenged by nationalist movements amid economic struggles and waves of migrants.
In Israel, fascism analogies by a former prime minister and a top general have again inflamed the long-running debate about the occupation of Palestinian territories.
“The crash of 2008 showed how globalization creates losers as well as winners,” said Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “In many countries, middle-class wages are stagnant and politics has become a battle over a shrinking pie. Populists have replaced contests between left and right with a struggle between cosmopolitan elites and angry nativists.”
That dislocation may not lead to a repeat of Europe in the 1930s, but it has fueled a debate about global political trends.
“On a world level, the situation that affects many countries is economic stagnation and the arrival of immigrants,” said Robert Paxton, a professor emeritus at Columbia University and one of the most prominent scholars of fascism. “That’s a one-two punch that democratic governments are having enormous trouble in meeting.”
Americans are used to the idea that other countries may be vulnerable to such movements, but while such figures as Father Charles Coughlin, the demagogic radio broadcaster, enjoyed wide followings in the 1930s, neither major party has ever nominated anyone quite like Trump.
“This could be one of those moments that’s quite dangerous, and we’ll look back and wonder why we treated it as ho-hum at a time when we could have stopped it,” said Robert Kagan, a scholar at the Brookings Institution known for hawkish internationalism.
Kagan sounded the alarm this month with a Washington Post op-ed article, “This Is How Fascism Comes to America,” that gained attention. “I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from conservative Republicans,” he said. “There are a lot of people who agree with this.”
Trump has provided plenty of ammunition for critics. He was slow to denounce the white supremacist David Duke and talked approvingly of beating up protesters. He has praised Putin and promised to be friends.
He would not condemn supporters who launched anti-Semitic blasts at journalists. At one point, Trump retweeted a Mussolini quote: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.”
Asked by Chuck Todd on the NBC program “Meet the Press” about the retweet, Trump brushed off the quote’s origin. “I know who said it,” he said. “But what difference does it make whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else?”
“Do you want to be associated with a fascist?” Todd asked.
“No,” Trump answered, “I want to be associated with interesting quotes.”
Trump’s allies dismiss the criticism as politically motivated and historically suspect. The former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich, who has said he would consider being Trump’s running mate, said in an interview that he was “deeply offended” by what he called “utterly ignorant” comparisons.
“Trump does not have a political structure in the sense that the fascists did,” said Gingrich, a onetime college professor who earned his doctorate in modern European history. “He doesn’t have the sort of ideology that they did. He has nobody who resembles the brownshirts. This is all just garbage.”