Fascism is a much misused, and overused, word. On social media it is often used to mean “any political position with which I disagree.” It is sometimes used as a synonym for totalitarianism, even though all kinds of not-fascist governments can also be totalitarian.
Righties going back to the John Birch Society have tried to argue that fascism is socialism is communism, which is pathetically ignorant considering that fascism originated as a nationalistic backlash against socialism. And in 1930s Europe, rounding up and executing socialists was high on the fascist to-do list.
Yes, the Nazi party called itself the “national socialist” party, but that was just marketing. The Nazis were no more socialists than they were aardvarks. But you can always count on some semi-educated right-wing half-wit on social media to tell you (with relish) that Nazi stands for national SOCIALIST, you libtard. And, of course, you can no more tell them that Nazis weren’t socialists than you can teach a potato to sing. At least we all agree that totalitarianism is bad.
Has Trumpism morphed into a fascist movement? That’s been a debatable point until recently. Now, not so much.
Here is an article in The New Republic by Geoffrey Cain, dated June 3, 2019, headlined The Failure to Define Fascism Today. It provides some good background, pulled from scholarship, on what distinguishes fascism from other political movements. This bit was intriguing:
Yale emeritus historian Robert Paxton’s classic 1998 identification of the “five stages of fascism” argued that we should look to processes, not cosmetic features like flags and uniforms, to understand fascism. Fascism was marked first by conservatives seeking to seduce farmers and industrial workers into the resistance against left-wing unions. The movement then escalated into militants being deployed to city streets to enforce the fascist ideology, eventually leading to total control.
I have not read Paxton’s work, but there’s a summation of his major points here.
Roger Griffin, political science professor at Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom, zeroed in on a different defining feature of fascism in his 1991 book The Nature of Fascism: the fusion of “populist ultra-nationalism” with a “mythic core.” Fascists sought to return to the past, to strengthen the nation by resurrecting it. Fascist leaders everywhere convinced their early followers that their nation had descended from a glorious heritage, hijacked and destroyed by a corrupt elite. The fascists, the heroes, could strengthen themselves into what were called the “New Men,” channeling a mythical tradition of knight-like strength, protecting community and tradition, but often, paradoxically, through powerful, modern militaries.
If you’ve seen the recent footage of the January 6 riot from the New Yorker, you must recognize that box is pretty much checked.
Geoffrey Cain — writing in the summer of 2019 — said “Today, we have no true mass fascist movement: We lack paramilitary squads roaming the streets, and a communist uprising that supposedly merits destruction by a one-party fascist state.” Except that we do have paramilitary squads roaming the streets. Militias, anyone?
And we have a phantom communist uprising. How many Democratic candidates in the November election, including Joe Biden, were labeled “socialist” or “communist” by Republicans? I lost count. It may not matter that there is no looming, or even vaguely distant, threat of a real communist takeover of America. If mobs are organizing in the belief that there is such a threat, it’s the same thing, I say. So let’s check those boxes, too.
And did you know that some of the January 6 rioters were waving the flag of the now defunct South Vietnam? This is considered an expression of opposition to communism.
But now the afore-mentioned Robert Paxton himself has written a piece called I’ve Hesitated to Call Donald Trump a Fascist. Until Now.
Paxton begins the article by explaining why he hadn’t considered Trump to be a fascist leader, even though Trump exhibited many chilling similarities to Hitler and Mussolini on their way up. But then he wrote,
Trump’s incitement of the invasion of the Capitol on January 6, 2020 removes my objection to the fascist label. His open encouragement of civic violence to overturn an election crosses a red line. The label now seems not just acceptable but necessary.
This is the guy who wrote the classic book on fascism.
Writing at Vox, Dylan Matthews talked to another academic authority on fascism.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at NYU and author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, told me in October that she preferred the term “authoritarian” to “fascist” in describing Trump. This past week, though, Ben-Ghiat took to Twitter to draw parallels between the Capitol siege and Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome, and between Republicans now turning on Trump to Italian fascists who voted Mussolini out of power in 1943, not to reinstate democracy but to save fascism.
Something else to consider — Hitler famously consolidated power in Germany through the Nazification of the police. Law enforcement increasingly acted in the interests of Nazi authority, not upholding law or protecting people. At the same time, Nazi paramilitary groups like the SS were deputized to act as auxiliaries to the police. Here it hasn’t yet been made official, but this summer, way too often, police responding to unrest surrounding protests treated white militia as allies. See, for example, Why police encouraged a teenager with a gun to patrol Kenosha’s streets by Zack Beauchamp at Vox.
And today the Associated Press is reporting that the FBI is vetting the 25,000 National Guard troops currently deployed to Washington, DC, because it fears “an insider attack or other threat from service members involved in securing President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.”
How did it come to this? And the answer is that the hard Right in America has been moving us in this direction for a very long time. And too many of us have for many years had our brains pickled in neo-fascist propaganda generated by the likes of Fox News and Rush Laimbaugh. This is not going to go away any time soon.
But if we are clear that Trumpism is a fascist movement that would, if left unchecked, end democracy in America, then we are better prepared to deal with it.
See also Paul Krugman, Appeasement Got Us Where We Are and Olivia Nuzzi, Senior Trump Official: We Were Wrong, He’s a ‘Fascist.’