The 'fascism debate' is over. Fascism is winning.
And if millions don't vote for democracy between now and Tuesday, it will win a lot more.
Way back in 2015, on a then-popular social media site called Facebook, I started getting into arguments with friends — mostly fellow journalists — about what to call the brand of politics a certain reality star-turned-presidential candidate was espousing.
For me, the answer was blindingly obvious, for reasons I’m tired of rehashing. If at this point you need a catalog of Donald Trump’s ultranationalism, racial chauvinism, anti-immigrant fear-mongering, sexism and misogyny, antisemitic conspiratorialism, encouragement and celebration of political street violence committed in his name, militarism, zest for war crimes, performative hostility toward the free press, cult of personality, adoption of a slogan associated for the previous 75 years with literal Nazi sympathizers, and total disdain for both free elections and all principles of liberal democracy — then congrats on your recent fourth birthday, you’re gonna love kindergarten next year.
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The friends I was arguing with, mostly political reporters and editors, thought I was being absurd and alarmist. What did I think Trump was going to do if he somehow became president: try to build concentration camps? These were, don’t forget, the days when newspaper editors were trying to argue that it was partisan cant to say that Trump had ever told a lie because it was impossible to know what he believed in his heart.
In the White House, as Trump tried to transform his extremist rhetoric into policy — promulgating his Muslim and transgender bans, seizing the children of immigrant families, reinstating the federal death penalty, starting his commission to “promote patriotic education” amid a nationwide spike in bans of LGBT and anti-racist books, siccing the military on civil-rights protesters, etc., etc. — the goalposts kept shifting. OK, maybe Trump’s goals are fascistic but he’s having a hard time achieving them. OK, so he clearly wants a one-party dictatorship, but we’re still having elections, aren’t we? Scholars of 20th Century fascism were trotted out to say things like: “He does not have his own obedient ‘squadristi’ eager to beat up foes.” Then Trump stood on a national debate stage and instructed the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” Three months later, those cadres helped lead the storming of the United States Capitol.
For a moment I thought the fact of that event — that Trump, his personal allies, and his street-fighting followers attempted to literally, violently overturn the 2020 election, culminating in an attack that the leading scholar of European fascism, Robert O. Paxton, acknowledged closely resembled the landmark French anti-parliamentary riot of February 6, 1934 — would end the debate. Indeed, even Paxton, who had for years resisted applying the label despite the obvious applicability of his own definition to understanding how Trumpism fit on the fascist spectrum, wrote in the aftermath of the failed coup: “Trump's incitement of the invasion of the Capitol on January 6 … 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.”
How naïve we both were. There’s nothing American journalists love more than not labeling a conservative party extreme and nothing the right loves more than hiding under a big blanket of relativism whenever it has to. And conveniently for all of them, there is nothing political historians love more than gatekeeping their personal definitions of fascism. (Renzo De Felice, the mid-20th Century Italian historian who authored a 6,000-page biography of Mussolini, famously refused to draw parallels even between the Italian Fascists and the German Nazis, saying, “I am opposed to generalizations.”) So even with an attempted overthrow of democracy on the books and Paxton’s statements in hand, there were always going to be scholars willing to raise their hands and say, aaaaah well, teeeeechnically if you look at this analysis of the Weimar Republic with one eye closed (looking at you, Corey Robin and Dan Bessner) who could be used to abruptly wave away the argument.
What I’m saying here is screw them and screw the argument. It’s over. We have now diddled around for long enough that the fascist — or fascistic, or semi-fascist, or post-fascist, “populist quasi-fascist” or whatever qualifying or softening term you like — wing of the Republican Party has now taken over that party in full. That party and faction now controls the Supreme Court. Its most influential thinkers, such as the antisemitic monarchist Curtis Yarvin and Steve Bannon, have the ears of the party leadership. Its most powerful donor, Peter Thiel, long ago said that he “no longer believe[s] that freedom and democracy are compatible.” Republican leaders agree.
This is the faction that is poised to take either one or both houses of Congress on Tuesday, as well as several crucial statehouses and governorships — unless a tidal wave of voters large enough to overwhelm all attempts at voter suppression, intimidation, gerrymandering, and the built-in reactionary advantages of Senate apportionment can somehow pull off a miracle and secure victories for Democrats and democracy instead.
And yet, the bulk of the American political press has spent the last two years continuing to pretend that this hasn’t been happening; that, at a maximum, the “events of January 6” were the product of a one-off conspiracy theory we’ve all decided for some reason to nickname the “Big Lie” — and which, despite the obvious Nazi overtones of that phrase, is somehow severable from the rest of the current Republican platform. It isn’t. It is the Republican platform: that the only legitimate election is an election that gives them absolute power, and that this power will be used to create a Christian nationalist, white-ruled authoritarian nation in which the status of all out-groups is contingent and lived under the omnipresent threat of violence by favored squadristi-type groups and the state.
Look at this ad:
One thing to note is that the argument of that ad is identical to the propaganda approach of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and neo-Nazi David Duke, who left the KKK in 1979 to found the National Association for the Advancement of White People, a Klan clone whose 1980s newsletter ran headlines like “Anti-White Discrimination Accelerates.” The other thing to note is that the group that put out the ad, the America First Legal Foundation, counts as its board members not only Stephen Miller (the author of the family separation policy), but former Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, as well as Trump’s former acting attorney general, the director of his Office of Management and Budget, and a former vice president for policy of the Heritage Foundation.
Look at this quote from the current Republican candidate for governor of Wisconsin:
MADISON, Wis. — Hinting at his plans to overhaul how elections are run, the Republican running for governor of Wisconsin this week said his party would permanently control the state if he wins.
“Republicans will never lose another election in Wisconsin after I’m elected governor,” construction executive Tim Michels told supporters Monday at a campaign stop.
Look at the rising tide of violence against Democratic politicians and candidates by factions of the right — a tide that has not only gone uncondemned by Republican politicians but cheered on with Halloween costumes and jokes at campaign rallies. And I am not just talking about just the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — by a man whose blog featured the same vitriol about “anti-white racism” featured in the America First ad above, as well as antisemitism and paranoia about “pedophilia … and ‘elite’ control of the internet.” (He also repeated the exact phrase — “Where’s Nancy?” — that the Jan. 6 putschists chanted as they roamed through the Capitol.) There have been assaults on local Democrats as well. Security is being ratcheted up at Democratic events throughout the country. The Republicans who laugh off the violence, meanwhile, apparently have no such concerns.
In a meeting four days after the storming of the Capitol, Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the pro-Trump paramilitary Oath Keepers, made their near-term vision clear: “My only regret is they should have brought rifles,” he said. “We should have brought rifles. We could have fixed it right then and there. I’d hang fucking Pelosi from the lamppost.”
The Democrats spent two years ramping up the courage to attack this threat — by restoring voting rights the Republicans had stripped away, mulling some kind of Supreme Court reform, etc — but were cut off at the knees by the two most conservative members of their coalition, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
They also, extremely stupidly, boosted the primary campaigns of the most extreme Republicans they could find in many races this year, in the vain hope that it would somehow guarantee their victories on Tuesday. Centrist pundit Josh Barro insists that this was his greatest proof that “the ‘threats to democracy’ rhetoric is not serious.” No, it’s just proof that Democrats employ idiotic strategies sometimes, which shouldn’t be news to anyone.
The most useless of the idiots, Shadi Hamid, also weighed in a few more times on the “fascism debate” this week, including stripping down an already pretty weak Adam Tooze argument to such a farcical degree that even my old friend Jonathan Chait got in a good dunk.
(Tooze’s argument was that the Nazi and Fascisti movements were shaped by “(1) the experience of total war; (2) the active threat of class war and revolution; (3) the shadow of the end of history as defined by the rise of Anglo-American global hegemony” — conditions that he implied were necessary for anything to be defined as fascism. The general complaint I’ve heard is that no American or British movement could ever meet those conditions. I don’t know if that’s entirely true: Trump and his followers do profess an opposition to “globalism” — i.e., the hegemony currently overseen by the United States — and some forms of American empire. And they definitely at least fantasize about crushing a leftist class war/revolution, even if one doesn’t really exist. But Tooze also takes the position in his piece that, by this definition, Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal weren’t fascist, which may be an academically defensible position but a silly one. Franco’s Falangists did not hold free elections for 41 years, banned all dissent, and murdered hundreds of thousands of Spaniards they deemed enemies of the state. Whatever you call that, I don’t want it.)
Hamid’s main point was that:
The odd thing about the use of the word “fascist” to describe, say, the Brothers of Italy, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), or the Trumpist wing of the Republican Party is that it somehow manages to fail on both counts: it’s not historically accurate or verifiably true in any meaningful sense. And it serves no obvious electoral or political purpose that couldn’t be served through less inflammatory means.
This is all dumb. Among other things, Brothers of Italy is literally the direct descendant of the Italian Fascist Party — the only one that Renzo De Felice thought really counted. AfD is openly racist and anti-democratic; its factional leaders engage in Holocaust denial and have active neo-Nazi ties. Sounds pretty historically accurate and verifiable to me. If he thinks that also describes Trump’s Republican Party then it seems like he’s agreeing we’re in for a hell of a time.
The more salient point is that we don’t know if calling fascists “fascists” will be politically effective. What we do know is that it took seven years to get to this point: at which a Democratic president is giving multiple speeches about a single rogue party’s threat to democracy, and a centrist pundit like Hamid is at least willing to finally admit, tepidly, that the Republicans are “authoritarian.” And yet even still, millions of Americans, including the most powerful voices in the media, have not yet responded to the alarm.
Which is why, all along, I have thought it important — necessary, as Paxton said — to call it fascism. It has never been about winning an argument. It was and is about invoking a still-potent bit of history; calling forth the solidarities that could have perhaps stopped what has already happened and could still forestall the much worse consequences that could come. A lot of Americans don’t know what “authoritarianism” is, or why it’s bad. Almost no one cares about the subtle differences between Falangism and Fascismo. But everyone knows in their gut what fascism is. And if we are lucky, and enough people willing to vote for the only major democratic party left get to the polls between now and Tuesday, there may be time left to stop it.
Edited by Tommy Craggs