In contrast to his multiple business failures, Donald Trump’s presidency spurred at least one growth industry: commentary on fascism. Academics, public intellectuals, and influencers on sites from Twitter to TikTok have been laser-focused on Trump’s resemblance to a host of past and present unsavory leaders with a weak attachment to democracy.
As the events of January 6 signaled, Trump is at once a dangerous, amoral, and pathetic figure. Sequestered in the White House with only a fringe group of loyalists around him, he spent weeks tweeting and mounting improbable legal challenges to the election. Trump resembles a third-rate autocrat continually planning failed coups, while becoming ever more unhinged in the process. Trump’s power has always come from his combination of triviality and cruelty. Both characteristics made it difficult to imagine that he could win an election, and when he did, these qualities made him a source of endless media fascination. Trump is not out the door yet, so postmortems are premature. But it is not too soon to ask if fascism is the correct lens to understand the political meaning and consequences of the last four years.
Trump is a classic authoritarian personality with a fascist rhetorical style. That alone should ring alarm bells. Yet the label “fascist” can sometimes hide as much as it reveals about the illiberal tendencies in contemporary American politics. Trump’s presidency exposed the fissures embedded in our democracy, and concentrating only on his fascistic actions distracts from the unstable political landscape that led to his rise in the first place.
As a concept, fascism tends to serve as a metaphor for evil, violent, and authoritarian behavior, and Trump is certainly guilty of all three. His MAGA rallies and disregard for government norms and practices also evoke aspects of interwar fascist politics and practice. Even so, whatever his dictatorial proclivities, Trump’s administration was not a fully realized fascist regime. I and other academics who have explored the similarities prefer to focus on the dangers posed by his fascist behavior.
In its original conception, fascism was a collectivist system of government that Giovanni Gentile, a philosopher and Mussolini’s minister of education, described in tedious detail in Foreign Affairs. Fascism, he wrote, aspired to community, coherence, and eliminating the boundaries between the state and the person. Liberalism, with its soulless individualism, was as much its enemy as Marxism. Trumpism, with its affinity for isolationism and free trade and its antipathy to government regulation, has no common cause with collectivist isms—even the fascist ones.
Yet Trump’s style is fascistic. His attraction to violence to deal with dissent, his flagrant disrespect for the law, his affinity for making up his own facts, and his taste for public spectacle easily fit the fascist behavioral template. Thankfully, Trump is not a talented politician. Any astute aspiring autocrat should immediately have recognized the opportunity to consolidate power that the Covid-19 pandemic afforded. Even a half-hearted attempt to control the coronavirus in March could have erased Joe Biden’s margin of victory.
Still as the violence at the Capitol showed, Trump managed to do much damage during his four years in office. He has encouraged and given new legitimacy to networks of armed paramilitary “patriots” who intervene in local and national politics and showed up en masse in Washington, DC earlier this month. Paramilitary groups are not new, but they have existed on the margins. Trump invited them into mainstream politics, and they will not leave when he does. Charlottesville was the beginning, not the end, of a new genre of organized racism. Mussolini cleverly used armed squads (Squadristi), which roamed the Italian countryside fomenting violence and fighting socialists, to advance his own political ends. There is nothing more terrifying, or fascist-like, than Trump telling the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” or inviting his supporters to convene in DC to “Stop the steal.”
At the same time, the fear that, although we dodged a bullet this time, a shrewder and craftier version of Trump may be in our future is overblown. Josh Hawley, the right-wing Republican senator from Missouri, is a name that frequently comes up on Trump 2.0 lists. He is active in the National Conservativism movement, an international group of politicians, academics, and media people that aims to restore exactly what its name promises. Hawley’s decision to challenge the presidential vote certification as well as his raised fist when he greeted the protesters outside the Capitol suggest that he is more a bungling opportunist than fledgling fascist.
But make no mistake, there is nothing to be sanguine about here. Trump and Trumpism have revealed a willingness among many leaders and citizens to capsize our long-established, if flawed, democracy. Trump’s phone call to Georgia’s secretary of state was more Don Corleone than Il Duce. His January 6 rally, which ended with him telling his supporters “the best is yet to come,” does not bode well.
Trump’s desire to stay in office likely has little connection to any grand fascistic political vision. Still the wrecking ball that Trump swung at our political culture should warn us of the fragility of our institutions, norms, and values. The last four years ought to remind us that our democracy will always require our vigilance.
To read the other side of The Debate, read Samuel Moyn’s “Allegations of Fascism Distract From the Real Danger.”