My wife likes to mock claims that Trump can’t possibly be a fascist by quipping that, “if it’s not 1930s Europe, then it’s just sparkling authoritarianism.” In the last few weeks, it seems, a number of pundits have taken it upon themselves to point out that Trump comes without a DOP label.
Shadi Hamid, for example, is very angry that the New York Times went into meltdown over publishing Senator Tom Cotton’s call for Trump to deploy the U.S. military in American cities, but hardly blinks at running an apologia for Beijing’s imposition of authoritarianism on Hong Kong.
He’s not wrong that the Beijing’s combination of nationalism, authoritarianism, and policies in Xinjiang and Tibet fit dictionary definitions of fascism. As he puts it:
Fascism, in today’s context, isn’t mere authoritarianism, but the attempt to suppress all dissent, public or private, in the name of the nation; it is the expression of a regimented society that elevates order as both the means and end of all political life.
The words “in today’s context” do a lot of work here. Fascism is a notoriously wooly term, in part because 1920s and 1930s fascism entailed more than merely Nazism and Italian Fascism. Making comparisons even thornier, those regimes ended nearly eight decades ago. Contemporary liberalisms, conservatisms, democratic socialisms, and communisms look different than their forebears. We should expect the same of twenty-first century fascisms – and, in fact, many scholars of fascism agree.
Whether we consider Trumpism – and, indeed, most “nationalist” conservatives – a species of “democratic fascism” (see also) “post-fascism,” reactionary populism, or whatever is mostly a matter of semantics. I’ve tended to use “reactionary populism,” but I find “democratic fascism” compelling. The term captures one of the key changes between modern fascisms and dictionary fascism: their rejection of revolutionary politics in favor of at least a rhetorical commitment to electoral politics. Despite such rhetoric, the endgame for democratic fascists seems to involve the use of “lawful evil” means to render elections semi-competitive or non-competitive.
Trumpism has other important characteristics that we’d expect to see in twenty-first century democratic fascism, particularly as manifested in the United States. As I wrote over on Twitter:
The standard “centrist” objection to the label fascism is that demonizes a significant minority of Americans and renders bipartisanship impossible. This begs the question, since bipartisanship with fascists isn’t an end in of itself. The standard left objection is that it does… pretty much the opposite.
For those doubtful about the fascism analogy for Trumpism—and I count myself as one of them—the point is to appreciate both continuity and novelty better than the comparison allows. Abnormalizing Trump disguises that he is quintessentially American, the expression of enduring and indigenous syndromes. A response to what he represents hardly requires a restoration of “normalcy” but a questioning of the status quo ante Trump that produced him. Comparison to Nazism and fascism imminently threatening to topple democracy distracts us from how we made Trump over decades, and implies that the coexistence of our democracy with long histories of killing, subjugation, and terror—including its most recent, if somewhat sanitized, forms of mass incarceration and rising inequality at home, and its tenuous empire and regular war-making abroad—was somehow less worth the alarm and opprobrium. Selective outrage after 2016 says more about the outraged than the outrageous.
I didn’t find these arguments terribly compelling in their 2017 variant, but I fend this iteration more than a little perplexing. I admit to not understanding why the label “fascism” renders Trump exotic. I also don’t get why examples of American illiberalism, racism, and militarism – past and present – should lead us to shrug our shoulders about active effort to push the United States much further down the path toward a herrenvolk political community.
Oddly enough, the presumption that fascism is must be an import cuts against the grain of the “international turn” in the historiography of fascism. It obscures not only the transitional and dimensions of fascism during the 1920s and 1930s, but also the ideological and social networks that link Trumpism – and the broader contemporary American right – to European and Latin American co-ideologues.
Laura Field does a nice job of summing up the basic mistakes that the anti-Resistance left, the ‘new liberal centrists’ (my term), and the soft not-Trump right make in their treatment of the fascism question:
The idea that Trump is not a fascist (or is too incompetent to become one) implies a counterfactual world in which he did not come up against serious pushback from regular Americans across the political spectrum, time and time again. Trump’s failures—and, again, his defeat is not yet accomplished—have not simply been a matter of splendid-incompetence-meets-sound-institutions. They have also been a result of unprecedented mass activism on the part of ordinary liberals and progressives, as well as independents and Never Trump conservatives. From the women’s marches to ACA phone-banking to outrage over the child separation policy, Trump’s worst excesses have often been kept in check by the country’s citizens—often in the face of institutional failures, and certainly with very little help from the spineless GOP.
Attempted fascism is still fascism. In today’s advanced industrialized democracies no right-wing movement making a serious bid for electoral success is going to run on an “abolish democracy” platform. If you don’t believe Trump would prefer to rule by decree, ask yourself what he’d do if ‘his Article II’ contained something like the Weimar Constitution’s Article 48.
[T]he fact that millions of Americans have fought this administration is a valuable sign of civic strength, and it should be recognized as such. If Trump is defeated in November it will be thanks in no small part to progressives who were willing to compromise, to “liberal hysteria,” to Black Lives Matter organizers, and to the so-called Resistance. The people involved in those efforts deserve gratitude and respect, not dismissive call-outs and belittling Tweets.
Reality is about to intrude, it’s true, but political realities don’t just happen on their own. They are the products of action and inaction, of choice and ineptitude, of chance and of vigilance and of freedom. If the Trump era has meant anything, it’s that nothing in politics should be taken for granted anytime soon.
See you all on the other side.
ETA: edited for the prose stylings of not having been up for 22 hours.