Politics / November 14, 2023

The “Is Donald Trump a Fascist?” Debate Has Been Ended—by Donald Trump

The former president’s rhetoric in a recent speech and on social media veered into openly eliminationist threats.

Chris Lehmann
Florida Freedom Summit in United States

Donald Trump speaks at the Florida Freedom Summit at the Gaylord Palms Resort on November 4, 2023, in Kissimmee, Fla.

(Paul Hennessy / Anadolu via Getty Images)

Ever since Donald Trump’s surprise election to the presidency in 2016, political commentators have officiated over a meandering, recursive “fascism debate.” The chief motivation was a taxonomic one: Had the Trump movement ventured further into the realm of antidemocratic and authoritarian politics than its various forebear insurgencies had gone? Was the American political system, which had so long prided itself on its exceptionalist immunity to corrosive blood-and-soil mobilizations of mass ethnic purges on the model of failed European democracies in Spain, Italy, Germany, and Portugal, now just another breeding ground for dictatorship?

Like most above-the-fray forensic inquiries about steadfast historical categories of description, the fascism debate has amounted to an exasperating and self-involved intellectual sideshow. All the while, the real conditions of political engagement on the right have plainly curdled into strongman reaction everywhere you turn—from threats to bomb Mexico over the fentanyl crisis to the multifront assault on ballot access to the crusades to ban and burn books that perpetrate ideological thoughtcrimes. Things have deteriorated to the point where the movement’s maximum leader no longer bothers to conceal or downplay his determination to throttle the last vestiges of formal democratic conduct in American public life. After serial reports on how Trump intends to remake the federal workforce in his strongman image, deploy the federal justice system to wreak “revenge” on political enemies and invoke the Insurrection Act to criminalize dissent, and adopt new and far more draconian versions of his first-term immigration bans, Trump delivered a pretty decisive last word in the fascism debate with his Truth Social post commemorating Veterans Day. The post, which reprised the core message of a two-hour rally speech he delivered in Concord, N.H., read as follows:

In honor of our great Veterans on Veteran’s Day, we pledge to you that we will root out the Communists, Marxists, Fascists, and Radical Left Thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our Country, lie, steal, and cheat on Elections, and will do anything possible, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America, and the American Dream. The threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous, and grave, than the threat from within. Despite the hatred and anger of the Radical Left Lunatics who want to destroy our Country, we will MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!

Every mainstay of fascist rhetoric is on lavish display here, from the “stab in the back” narrative about domestic political fomenters of subversion to the dehumanizing characterization of political foes as “vermin” who are worthy targets of total elimination—all packaged as a celebration of military honor. Lay this outburst alongside such recent lurches into textbook authoritarian leadership as Trump’s vow to suspend the Constitution and his ongoing courtship of the eliminationist and conspiratorial QAnon wing of the MAGA movement, and the only wonderment is that the “fascist debate” lumbered on unresolved for as long as it did.

Of course, the immediate aftermath of Trump’s fascist broadside demonstrated just why that’s been the case for these eight long years and counting. Covering the New Hampshire speech, The New York Times initially graced it with this online headline: “Trump Takes Veterans Day Speech in Very Different Direction,” an exercise in counter-empirical euphemism right up akin to “Hindenburg Charts Abrupt Course Earthward.” The headline was later modified to “In Veterans Day Speech, Trump Vows to ‘Root Out’ the Left,” which was an incremental improvement (as would have been, say, “Political Story Number Seven”), but still did not name the newsworthy thing that was actually occurring. It instead encouraged readers to view Trump’s declaration as an unseemly personal lapse, as opposed to the centerpiece of a wide-ranging plan to govern that has been reported exhaustively throughout the political press, including in the Times’ own pages. The basic work of informing Americans what the leader of the Republican Party has in mind for anyone not scheduling a MAGA chest tattoo fell to other news outlets. “Trump Calls Political Enemies ‘Vermin,’ Echoing Dictators Hitler, Mussolini,” was The Washington Post’s display text. Even Forbes, the bible of investment-class consensus that has long advertised itself as a “capitalist tool,” managed to rise to the moment, with “Trump Compares Political Foes to ‘Vermin’ on Veterans Day—Echoing Nazi Propaganda.”

Still, it’s worth noting that even in these blunter appraisals, the use of the term “echoing” sets out to achieve the same distancing effect upheld by the “no” camp in the fascism debate. If something is echoed, it’s either safely embalmed in the past or placed at a decent geographic remove; the ugly fact of the matter is that Trump’s rhetoric and governing program are flat-out fascist, with nothing audibly distorted or visibly acid-washed in the MAGAverse’s appropriation of European rule by dictatorship.

This chronic impulse to distance and euphemize what’s happening in our battered field of vision is what’s permitted the MAGA movement to continue adopting plainly fascist rhetoric and positions, to the point that it is no longer bothering to mask its antidemocratic intent. Indeed, even when professing to disown fascist aims, Trump flacks can’t resist advancing fascist talk. Here is how Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung replied to the critics and historians pointing out the obvious truth that Trump’s “vermin” rhetoric is clearly fascist: “Those who try to make that ridiculous assertion are clearly snowflakes grasping for anything because they are suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome and their entire existence will be crushed when President Trump returns to the White House.” Strangely, the “We’re not fascist, and we’ll crush you to death for saying so” T-shirt raises a lot more questions than it dispels.

The mainstream media’s stolid resistance to the F-word is rooted in its elite horror of “taking sides” in political disputes. The unmistakable fascist drift of the Trump movement was abundantly clear back when Trump enacted his first Muslim ban and used his executive power to create a federal agency to pursue the nonexistent plague of immigrant violent crime, but the press could never venture beyond its self-induced state of nonaligned hypnosis to call those ethno-nationalist initiatives what they were. When Trump commented on the violent alt-right and Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., by declaring that “there were very fine people” on both sides of the dispute, the media largely treated the remarks as just another undifferentiated source of controversy and contention, rather than a clear endorsement of lethal white nationalist street violence. The pattern has continued, from Trump’s similarly forthright sanctioning of the Proud Boys in a presidential debate on through to the January 6 coup attempt and beyond.

With an emboldened MAGA movement now poised to elevate Trump to his third straight nomination to the presidency, mainstream reporters can no longer take refuge in the threadbare fiction that calling out fascist rhetoric and policies is unseemly, improper, or vulgarly partisan. As Politico’s Jack Shafer has argued, members of the political press have to continually press Trump and his primary rivals on Trump’s plan to transform the country into a martial-law dictatorship: “If he has totalitarian designs for mass political trials in storage and plans to release them in 2025, the press and his political opponents, including Joe Biden, should escalate their criticism of him pronto to make it the leading political issue.” The same should obviously go for lead Republican donors, and party officials such as Republican National Committee chair Rona McDaniel, who has sidestepped all direct press queries about Trump’s remarks on her tour through the Sunday news shows. After conniving so flagrantly to sustain the lie that Trump was ever a legitimate player in small-d democratic politics, the national political press has a forbidding catchup-and-cleanup job in front of it.

Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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