Discover more from dam straight
Fascism Or Not-Fascism, Should You Care Either Way?
Recently on twitter, where all serious and unserious debates take place there was a discussion about whether or not Donald Trump is a fascist.
For many, those who aren’t scholars of fascism and those who are, Trump fits the fascist label perfectly. It seems obvious to them because of Trump’s emphasis on nationalism, his disdain for human and civil rights, scapegoating of minorities and immigrants, his misogyny, his attempts to control and manipulate the media, his use of fear to drive public policy against the most vulnerable in society, the support he’s gained from big businesses in order for them to establish their mutually beneficial relationships, his efforts to make voting more difficult and general delegitimization of the democratic process as a whole, his and his cabinet members’ corruption, and his claim that he is the only savior of America.
However, as fascism scholars have made clear over the past four years, they don’t think Trump fits the category perfectly.
The most recent form of this debate on twitter started with a single tweet, that despite what others say, was earnest and posed an interesting historical and political question. Daniel Bessner, a historian, asked: “Now that Trump lost, the interesting thing about the fascism debate is why so many Americans were invested in identifying him as fascist.” Now a lot of twitter (including myself) provided a very glib answer: “I think it was because of the fascism.” Nevertheless, I should put away my snark and treat the question seriously. Since I’m a historian, I came away from Bessner’s tweet with more questions than answers. I’ve broken down the tweet to encompassing a few questions.
First: Is Donald Trump a fascist? I think he is, but that’s a debate that historians, philosophers, political scientists, and other scholars will be having for decades, because that’s what we love to do. Second: Is the threat of full-blown fascism in America possible? On this question, I definitely do not think America is immune from falling into a fascist regime, and this goes without saying but a full-blown American fascist regime will look very very different from the historical examples we are used to. Third: Why are we having this debate? Specifically, why are so many Americans (who are and aren’t in the academy) interested in applying the fascist label to Donald Trump? On this question, I will address what I think lay Americans (who probably don’t spend their time steeped in fascism historiography and scholarship) think they gain from using the term, and why I think it it has proven useful for many and damaging to some in the political discourse.
Ok, now let’s dig into my questions, and my perhaps less than perfect answers. A disclaimer: though I’m a doctoral student studying American history, the questions surrounding fascism and American nationalism are not my immediate area of expertise. However, for the past several months I have been steeped in researching the history of “America First” as a phrase and the America First Committee (an anti-WWII organization that was popular between 1940-1). So, I have grown increasingly interested in the academic and political debate over what to call Donald Trump, as a historian and as a newly minted (as of 2017) citizen of the United States.
Before I get to the first question and try to parse out why I think Donald Trump is a fascist, it might help to define fascism. But therein lies the rub. It’s really goddamn hard to define, even for scholars. However, something that we’ve seen a crap ton of since November 2016, is an attempt to list out the features of fascism in order to create a checklist that Donald Trump fits. That doesn’t really work. Though historians may disagree with me, I don’t really think there is a minimum threshold that a fascist (be it a political leader with power or your average Proud Boy) needs to fit in order to be called a fascist; there isn’t a fascist minimum. Trying to create a definitive list of fascist “things” also will lead you to do something that historians and all scholars hate: generalize and abstract from the past in a dangerous way.
So let’s try to find a definition. Aristotle Kallis, a historian, argues that fascism is basically a “coherent ideological system with its own revolutionary agenda in search of a third way beyond the established universal creeds of liberalism and socialism.” Another definition that emphasizes the “revolutionary” and “nationalistic” nature of fascism is from Roger Griffin: “Fascism is a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultranationalism.” Basically Griffin is arguing that the root of fascistic thinking and behavior is a nationalism that supports a “national rebirth.” From Kallis and Griffin we can see a formation of what “generic fascism” could look like, but I think Paxton is more useful here (even though Paxton has recently argued that Trump is not a fascist). Robert Paxton, in his 2007 article “The Five Stages of Fascism” argued that an emphasis on doctrine and intellectual coherence is not as important as examining the process by which fascism takes hold in a country. He stated that “early fascist programs are poor guides to later fascist policy.” Another key aspect of fascism that is generally agreed upon by all scholars is that real authentic fascism cannot be imposed from above, it’s not something that Donald Trump can just “declare” tomorrow, even if he had won the election.
“Fascism is” as Paxton states “an authentic mass popular enthusiasm and not merely a clever manipulation of populist emotions by the reactionary Right or by capitalism in crisis.” As a historical phenomenon, Paxton insisted on studying “fascism in motion, paying more attention to processes than to essences”, to study it “contextually, spending at least as much time on the surrounding society and on fascism’s allies and accomplices as on the fascist movements themselves,” and finally using comparison responsibly and thinking about comparison as a “way of thinking more than a method.”
However, one of the key problems with the fascism debate today, as well as the historiography, is that it is too focused on European models of fascism, and that if we really want to think about how American fascism can come about we have to recognize that there have been fascisms not only outside of Europe, but they have looked significantly different. Federico Finchelstein, in his book From Fascism to Populism in History argues that fascism scholars have tended to “reify important aspects of fascism, such as notions of national rebirth, modernism, and biopolitics, while also omitting the analysis of fascist processes of global circulation, adaptation, and reformulation.”
Basically, Finchelstein argues for scholars to think about fascism in a transnational and global phenomenon with an eye to the fact that fascist behavior and politics will differ between nations given their specific cultural and political contexts. Geoff Eley, a historian of Germany, has argued this as well. In his book, Nazism as Fascism he states that conducive to the “fascist temptation is [a] collapse of publicness, civility, and the pluralist generosity in a common culture, the encroaching paralysis of any trustworthy relationship to a normative set of practices whose older habituations and guiding intuition used to be far more reliably democratic. This is what distinguishes the present. It contains a profoundly different order of crisis than the originally ones of the interwar.”
This is how I think Americans and scholars should think about American fascism. We need to recognize that fascism needs to be “theorized in terms of the crisis that produces it.” And if we think about American fascism and why the term has seen a resurgence it is because it has become a warning. Though there have been a ton of books that have seen the ire of scholars for equating fascism to authoritarianism, populism, tyranny, or dictatorships, I think there is still value in calling Trump a fascist. I don’t think the term is an overreaction from the center-left or one from the far left.
So why is Donald Trump a fascist? Well let’s go back to his acceptance speech at the RNC: “I am your voice,” Trump stated, he promised that “the forgotten men and women of our country” would receive their due and “the chance to express themselves.” He promised that he “alone” could fix the problems in the United States, and though the media and most Americans saw this statement as pure nonsense, Trump supporters were willing to accept Trump as the only person capable of providing for a resurgence of American power and Americans’ security. White nationalists, neo-nazis, and actual fascists have only increased their support for Donald Trump in the past five years, and though scholars argue the movement isn’t a “mass movement” yet, the level of racial and political violence against minorities does not console me. Donald Trump has not only pursued restrictive immigration policies through “legal” methods, but he has supplanted these policies with exclusionary and at times violent rhetoric against migrants. Finally, Donald Trump is not “joking” when he says that elections are rigged. His challenging of the American democratic system and its institutions are more than just dogwhistles, they are an attempt to encourage conservative elites to become more and more comfortable with his support of what Toni Morrison has called “fascist solutions.” The administration has consistently used “America First” and other dog-whistles to challenge opposing viewpoints as illegitimate and claim that “outsiders” are perpetrating discord and fear amongst Americans. The fundamental rejection of objective facts and science also supports the bubble that Trump has built for his supporters (and slowly more and more conservative elites), and now after a victory by Joe Biden in various states and in the popular vote, this bubble is insisting that all of the Trump administration’s opponents are enemies. Trump’s rhetoric, his baseless claims, and his attempt to destroy democratic institutions are not just dangerous, they are encouraging what Geoff Eley calls a “fascism producing crisis.”
So, even though American fascism does not look exactly like the fascist movements of the 1930s, such as the state takeover of the economy or complete hegemony over the political process, the alliances that Trump has fostered over the past four years have only engendered his break from democratic politics. Americans have no doubt encountered and understood the illiberal beliefs and policies put forward by an increasingly extreme conservative party for the past few decades, but the election of Trump and his four years in office have encouraged a more public (and perhaps shameless) distancing from democratic ideals. For example, Republicans love to yell “we’re a republic not a democracy.” But Senators have taken that facile phrase and pushed it further. Senator Mike Lee tweeted before the election that “democracy” wasn’t “the objective, liberty, peace, and prospefity (sic) are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” As Jamelle Bouie has argued, the phrase “we’re not a democracy, we’re a republic” has come to “naturalize political inequality and make it the proper order of things,” not to actually explicate the so-called worries of the Founding Fathers who worried about “direct democracy.” In 2020, white nationalists, the alt-right, and other extremists in the right-wing still do not have complete power over the Republican Party, but with Republican senators willing to accept Donald Trump’s claims of immense “voter fraud” and illegitimacy in the election, it’s clear that Mitch McConnell and most of the leaders of the Republican Party don’t plan on letting Trumpism go, nor its more fascist solutions to losing.
Historians and fascism scholars have argued that Trump is not a fascist because of all the things he hasn’t yet done, like openly practice violence against those he deems “enemies of the state,” but I ask, is the not so subtle encouragement of the fascistic behavior of an already existing ICE and police force not dangerous enough? Robert Paxton, in 2017, argued that “opportunist concerned exclusively with his own celebrity and wealth.” And that since Trump’s Republican allies (at least in 2017) had only worked to support their own deeply-held beliefs of deconstructing the administrative state, Trump’s America was not willing to establish a “corporatist economy” and fascists in the 1930s would never leave the workings of the economy and society to the free market. But that’s not a completely accurate understanding of how Republicans now view the role of the government in supporting the economy (see: Josh Hawley’s ideas on creating a new social contract that is populist…but only for white America). Republicans are shifting in how they talk about the role the government needs to play in supporting the economy, and implicitly or explicitly they have been talking about an economy that works better for the “working man” and not the “elites.” While this may look like your ordinary conservative populism, the injection of ultranationalism, misogyny, anti-democratic thinking, and general fascistic rhetoric is what makes this crisis distinct and even more dangerous. People who call Trump a fascist are not trying to draw facile analogies to Germany or Italy, they are worried (rightfully) about Trump’s aspiration to authoritarianism and how he uses fascist rhetoric to supplant that aspiration. So, if we really hate it when people call Trump a fascist, can we at least admit, as Masha Gessen has, that “whether or not he is capable of grasping the concept, Trump is performing fascism.” What is the use of historians anatomizing fascism if we don’t see that it hasn’t died yet? Diagnosing fascism based on success or failure seems like an exercise that doesn’t contribute to the current political crisis at all. Even if I agree with those arguing that Trump isn’t a full-blown fascist…yet, it is completely fair to argue that Trump is comfortable with and has only grown more comfortable performing fascist aesthetics, which encourages his loyal supporters to do the same. Fundamentally, I see this as a distinction without a clear difference, because diagnosing fascists and fascism should not be based on success or failure, nor should it be based on contextless historical analogy, it should be based on understanding the process by which fascist politics and fascist language has taken hold in America.
The second question: Is the threat of full-blown fascism in America possible? As I said earlier, the simple answer is yes. The more complicated answer requires us to think about what will go into the creation or production of an “American” fascist regime. If we agree that calling Trump a fascist is not just about analogizing him to past fascists, but in actually understanding the context of American politics that has encouraged his fascist rhetoric, then we can agree that understanding the conditions for American fascism will also be different than historical examples. We have to recognize that fascism is not just a system of governance or the beliefs of individuals attempting to build a mass movement, but it is also a form of politics and a language.
In order to justify using the term today and to understand how we might enter a full-blown fascist regime; we have to not only fully understand and contextualize past fascisms but also pull out or de-contextualize the term from its historic moment in the early twentieth century. There are multiple forms of fascism, and it has moved differently in the past (not just in Europe but in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia as well). The crisis (as Eley describes it) that can produce fascism in America probably includes the following developments: first, the inability of our governing institutions to adequately represent and govern its populace; second, the destruction or virtual elimination of procedure and expertise from our governing agencies; third, the rapidly declining faith in the government’s legitimacy from the public; fourth, the way the Left (specifically those protesting police violence and other state injustices) has been targeted by the state; and fifth, the willingness of conservative elites to combine their history of illiberal policies with the confrontational and delegitimization of democratic institutions of more fascist leaders and thinkers.
Finally, in order to understand what an American fascist regime could look like, we have to do something that very few people in the “online” debate have been doing. Listening and learning from those who have created a different definition of fascism based on their understanding of Americans’ (specifically Black Americans’) lived experiences. The scholarship on Black anti-fascism in the twentieth century is pretty large, and it is only growing, but it is not something academics have spent a lot of time talking about as “public” scholars. Recently, however, Alberto Toscano published a fascinating article called “The Long Shadow of Racial Fascism” in which he detailed how we could stop obsessing over “analogy” and instead think about “Black construction[s] of fascism.” Toscano brings in an excellent examination of George Jackson’s theories on fascism: “Fascism has established itself in a most disguised and efficient manner in this country. It feels so secure that the leaders allow us the luxury of a faint protest. Take protest too far, however, and they will show their other face. Doors will be kicked down in the night and machine-gun fire and buckshot will become the medium of exchange.” Instead of me just quoting all of Toscano’s amazing article, I suggest all of you read it. But a key thing to glean from it and other academics who write about the history of systemic racism and authoritarian control in America is to recognize that understanding that people experience the American government drastically differently based on their zip-code and definitely their race. As Toni Morrison argued in her 1995 address to Howard University: “before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third…[and] the forces intersted in fascist solutions to national problems are not to be found in one political party or another, or in one or another wing of any single political party.” Morrison was responding to the Crime Bill, and emphasizing that the history of systemic violence against Black people, minorities, women, and immigrants has not been limited to one group. It has been a systemic part of American society since its inception. Thus, I would argue the fascist temptation has existed in America for decades now, there have been “fascist solutions” and fascist institutions in American government for decades as well. However, what is different now is not that Trump was elected, but that in electing and embracing Trump, a large group of Americans have stated their comfort with even more “fascist solutions” While we are not in a full-blown fascist regime right now, the fact that Mitch McConnell and other Republicans are even willing to entertain Trump’s baseless claim of voter fraud and his delegitimization of the election reflects how Republicans are now willing to spend the next two months encouraging one of the major stages of the “fascism-producing crisis” I listed above: the decline in faith among the public in democratic elections and institutions.
Last question: Why are we having this debate? Specifically, why are so many Americans (who are and aren’t in the academy) interested in applying the fascist label to Donald Trump?
I think fascism scholars are correct to worry that yelling “this is fascism!” or “that is fascism!” in response to every little thing that has happened over the past five years can be distracting from the damage that Trump has done to democratic institutions, government agencies, and American life generally. However, what is interesting is that while the fascism epithet may have begun as a way to claim that Trump was an aberration from the Republican Party, over the past four years, the epithet has only deepened the general public’s understanding of how Trump has built from and drawn from a long history of extreme-right wing politics and rhetoric. Besides the superficial histories of the America First Committee and Charles Lindbergh, the past four years of Americans’ engagement with our political history of oppression and exclusion, I think we have a better understanding now of how America’s history of segregation, systemic oppression of minorities, and other nativism has contributed instrumentally to the current crisis. Fundamentally, when Americans, specifically those who don’t want to spend hours reading the deep historiography of fascism, have used the term as a warning. While those who love using fascism as an epithet in order to sell more of their own books will undoubtedly not end. I don’t think the American public is under the delusion that the current crisis is exactly like 1930s Germany or other historical examples. While fascists in the streets and in our institutions have been present for decades now, it is with the election of Trump and his inciting rhetoric, policies, and alliances that Americans have finally begin to connect the dots between a fascist in charge, neo-Nazis spreading hate online, and ICE taking terror to certain communities. It is only recently, sadly, that many white Americans have become aware of America’s history of violence, authoritarianism, and racism. Just like with most injustices in America, they do not really gain a large enough platform until white people start deciding they have been affected. However, what is heartening in this discussion about and reaction to Trump’s fascistic behavior over the past few years, is that we have been willing and should not stop listening to the voices that were warning us about this for decades: specifically Black activists, migrants, women of color, and members of the LGBTQ community, who have been organizing against America’s fascist temptations for years now.
We are not going to see the replication of classical fascism in America, but that doesn’t mean fascism is dead, nor is it incorrect to examine fascism alongside Trump and Trumpism, especially because it informs us not just about what we’ve lived through these past four years but also what the actual conditions are for a fascist state to develop in the United States and how Trump is far from an aberration in the American story.
 Aristotle A. Kallis, The Fascism Reader (Routledge, 2003), 47.  Roger Griffin, The Nature of Fascism (Routledge, 2013).  Robert O. Paxton, "The Five Stages of Fascism." The Journal of Modern History 70, no. 1 (1998): 1-23.  Paxton quotes: Raymond Grew, "On the Current State of Comparative Studies," in Marc Bloch Aujourd' hui: Histoire comparee et sciences sociales, ed. Hartmut Atsma and Andre Burguiere, (Paris, 1990), p. 331.  Federico Finchelstein, From Fascism to Populism in History, (University of California Press, 2019), 54.  Geoff Eley, Nazism as Fascism: Violence, Ideology, and the Ground of Consent in Germany 1930-1945, (Routledge, 2013), 218.  Jamelle Bouie, “Opinion | Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Understands Democracy Better Than Republicans Do,” The New York Times, August 27, 2019, sec. Opinion.  Alberto Toscano, “The Long Shadow of Racial Fascism,” Text, Boston Review, October 27, 2020, http://bostonreview.net/race-politics/alberto-toscano-long-shadow-racial-fascism.  Toni Morrison, "Racism and Fascism." The Journal of Negro Education64, no. 3 (1995): 384-85.