Why Does the F-Word Matter So Much?

Three Way Fight


Guest post by Rebecca Hill

[Rebecca Hill explores recent scholarly debates around whether Trumpism is a form of fascism.] 

When I first wrote this, the United States was braced for political violence surrounding the transition of power from President Donald Trump to Joseph Biden. Over the weekend, the Associated Press reported that defense officials feared an “inside attack” on the inauguration itself. The U.S. deployed over 20,000 National Guard troops to the U.S. Capitol and had to “vet” its members to ensure loyalty to the country. State Capitols are still surrounded by new fencing, and in some cases, razor wire. In at least one state, the roads near the statehouse were blocked with “complex, heavy equipment” to deter a possible domestic terrorist attack.

Outdoor crowd watching Trump on giant video screen
Donald Trump speaks to Stop the Steal rally on January 6 before the U.S. Capitol takeover

How did we get here? Many predicted that Trump would challenge the presidential election results and declare himself the winner. Commentators argued over whether a coup d’etat was imminent. When Trump did challenge the election results through lawsuits and then a seeming threat of individual legal action against the Georgia secretary of state, commentators debated whether Trump’s actions constituted a genuine threat to democracy. Then, on January 6th, following a rally called by Trump to directly challenge the certification of the votes by the U.S. Congress with a march to the Capitol, Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol, breaching police lines and entering the building en masse in search of legislators. The activists had been discussing “the revolution,” “Civil War,” and “1776” coming on January 6th, and in the days immediately following the attack, it has become clear that members of the military, law-enforcement, and elected officials were part of the armed action. The insurrectionists brought zip-tie handcuffs, Molotov cocktails, guns, mace, and knives with them to the Capitol, erected gallows on Capitol grounds, and appeared in discussion forum logs and video discussing executing members of Congress and the vice president. They planted pipe bombs at the DNC and RNC headquarters.

The debate still churns among scholars and political commentators: “is this fascism?” Trump has ignited public interest in the decades-long and unresolved historical debate about the specific characteristics of fascism as compared to other forms of dictatorship. Such academic debates are not necessarily about whether Trump and Trumpism constitute an imminent danger to democracy in the United States. The academic debate about the meaning of fascism hinges on differences between different forms of authoritarian rule or ultranationalist mobilization—for while historians may agree that all fascisms are authoritarian and nationalist, few claim that all forms of authoritarianism and nationalism are fascist.

Robert Paxton, a leading scholar of comparative fascism, who describes fascism as a movement of “mobilizing passions” focused on “community decline, humiliation and victimhood,” that abandons all “ethical or legal restraints” for the goals of “internal cleansing and external expansion,” wrote that Trump’s “open encouragement of civic violence to overturn an election crosses a red line.” For Paxton, it is now “necessary” to call Trump and his supporters “fascist,” and to take Trumpism seriously as a threat to the survival of “our republic,” comparing the actions of the Capitol insurrectionists to the French fascists who marched on their parliament in 1934.

In contrast, Richard Evans, a leading English-language historian of Nazi Germany, argues that Trump is not a fascist. He sees fascism’s core as a quest for a fully militarized, regimented society, and describes Trump as an isolationist who publicly disrespected the military and whose appeal is a “warped vision of personal freedom: a society in which people aren’t subject to government regulation or supervision, where anarchy and confusion reign.” But for Evans, the reason for rejecting the term fascism when analyzing Trump isn’t to be “complacent.” He argues that we may mistake the conditions of the present if we imagine that we are experiencing a “rerun” of events in the past. In their analysis, these two highly respected scholars indicate their own particular understandings of the word “fascism” as well as their understandings of Trump and his supporters as genuine threats to existing liberal democracy.

These comparisons center on the impact of fascist movements on the state, but much U.S. commentary on Trumpism as fascism points to the self-proclaimed organized white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists who have remained part of Trump’s most vocal supporters from the beginning. Highly visible on January 6th, waving Confederate flags, and wearing t-shirts bearing slogans such as “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE” (6 million wasn’t enough) they appear to many observers as the primary evidence that “it can happen here.” This mix of symbols and messages also indicates the extent to which the U.S. far right today blends the legacy of 1776, slavery, the Confederacy, and mythology of the “Lost Cause” with later developments in far-right ideology. In this way, the U.S. version of fascism is no different from other national variants, which also draw from older national mythologies in building their narratives of great national rebirth. Trump’s presidency has brought this American fascism closer to the center of national political power than at any time since the 1960s, whether we see Trump himself as a fascist or not.

Since fascism first appeared under that name in Italy, U.S. observers have drawn parallels between European ultra-nationalists and the United States’ ongoing repression of labor and the left, identifying such groups as the Ku Klux Klan and the American Legion as America’s own “native-born” fascisti. U.S. activists made analogies between U.S. race riots and lynching and European pogroms, and later, Nazi racial violence. Albert Toscano has helpfully surveyed a history of what Cedric Robinson describes as the “Black construction of fascism” drawing analogies between Nazi Germany and the experiences of both colonialism and “normal” U.S. democracy for Black people. Anti-lynching activism, which combined liberal and radical critiques of U.S racism also provided a central framework through which many in the U.S. first understood European fascism itself. That is, the original analog for understanding the Nazis was U.S. racism. For example, following the infamous “Kristallnacht” the U.S. press commentary included all the language hitherto used as part of progressive anti-lynching discourse of the early twentieth century, in one notable case describing the Nazi Government as showing “the morals of a lynching party.”

Recent arguments about whether we should understand Trumpism as “native” to the U.S. or similar to a particularly “European” fascism erase the historically transnational nature of both fascism and anti-fascism. Fascism itself, despite being ultra-nationalist, has never been bound by national borders. Hitler notoriously modeled the Nuremberg laws on U.S. Jim Crow. The U.S. far right has also been influenced by European fascist ideology since the days when U.S. advocates of law and order praised Mussolini. U.S. intelligence agents supporting “White Russians” after the Russian Revolution helped circulate anti-Semitic, anti-Bolshevik propaganda. The process of international circulation of fascist ideology has accelerated with, but did not originate from, the internet.

As experts and non-experts alike weigh in on social media and debate each other about whether the Trumpist attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 was fascist or not, it is worth considering why determining whether or not “fascism” is the accurate term for what is currently happening has become important to so many people. Opposition to something called “fascism” represents one of the very few points of unity on both sides of the Cold War. Within the United States, liberals, the left, and conservatives—and even some fascists—claim to be anti-fascist. Fascism today is rhetorically “Democracy’s Other”—having replaced the monarchy as the political form against which democracy is defined. Like the monarchy, fascism is also understood to be a threat that can be morally met with force, whether by movements, individuals, or states. However, unlike the monarchy of the Ancien Regime, fascism’s character has varied widely from country to country, and even within fascist movements and parties, ideology has been inconsistent over time, making it hard to identify unifying features of fascism. To complicate matters further, much historical research on fascism has revealed the importance of non-ideological individuals who supported fascism through every day institutional practices or apathy.

Since fascist movements existed for some time before coming to power. It is hard to read about the rise of fascism in Europe without feeling acutely the danger of repeating the mistakes of those many intelligent people who seemed to fail to see what was happening even as it happened. One lesson we are taught about the rise of fascism is that it was able to succeed because it was underestimated and misrecognized when it was weak enough to defeat. Another lesson we have been taught, especially about German fascism is the proclamation “never again”—a moral imperative to fight fascism to avoid a repetition of the Holocaust. This understanding of fascism in moral terms calls on people to remain vigilant and to reject complacency about the stability of liberal democracy in the face of anti-democratic reaction.

These moral imperatives make the application of the word especially loaded, and much argument over the “f-word” is less informed by the history of fascism than by the political implications of its use. A group of left scholars informed by the history of Cold War liberal anti-totalitarianism that lumped fascism and communism together as equal dangers to democracy cautions against the use of the word “fascism” to explain Trump and Trumpism. For this group, including Corey Robin, Daniel Bessner, Nikhil Pal Singh, and Samuel Moyn, the use of the word “fascism” to describe Trump is a hyperbolic or even “melodramatic” representation of the threat posed by a weak president that places “constant pressure” on the socialist left to “deemphasize our own program” and form a coalition with neoliberals. In response, scholars Federico Finchelstein, Jason Stanley, and Richard Steigmann-Gall argue that this analysis repeats the very errors of those contemporary observers of the German Nazi Party. Those observers allowed fascism to grow because they saw fascists as weak and ridiculous, while something else—liberalism, communism, or social democracy—constituted the more immediate and serious threat. What is at stake is not so much defining a word, as taking the temperature of the present.

We should be wary of any approach that seems to bend the truth in the effort to “bend the stick.” While there are many facile equations of Trump and Hitler to criticize, for some, it has been a short step from mocking anti-fascist hyperbole to arguing for the “legitimate concerns” of QAnon. Evans’ caution against confusing the present with a re-run of the past in order to identify the current condition as dangerous is well taken; but we can develop a political strategy based on understanding of a “three-way fight” that doesn’t depend on minimizing the threat of an “anti-system right.” The left can do better than such domestic “campism,” a form of “beyond left and right” populism masquerading as Marxism. As we are living through a global far-right resurgence whose end we cannot know, we are all discovering that knowing history—or the proper definitions of words—provides no guarantee that we will be able to understand the present with the kind of clarity we wish for. We may not be condemned to repeat past mistakes, so much as to make new mistakes based on our incomplete understanding of a much-studied past that still remains beyond our reach.

Photo: Voice of America, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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