By Clover Spriggs '21; Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast
Last November, I was at JFK airport in New York, outside one of the Hudson News type convenience stores, and I saw an entire display of merchandise devoted to Donald Trump – his face was on candy bars. I was shocked. I’d never seen something like it before, such exaltation of the President of the United States. Unfortunately, it reminded me of the personality cult of Mussolini that I’d recently learned about in the Italian Fascism course I was taking. It was significant imagery of and devotion to a political leader, not about politics or the state, but about the leader himself. The comparison was unavoidable, but it’s something I’d been extremely hesitant about.
Over the past few years, I’ve had many conversations about U.S. politics where people use language related to dictatorships and fascism to describe President Trump and his administration. This has always made me skeptical. Even with everything we’ve seen from this administration over the last three years, I have been hesitant about these words. Fascist and dictator refer to specific things and I believe that they should be reserved for such. By calling President Trump a fascist or a dictator, we’re labeling him as something that he is not, at least by strict definitions. Even though his actions and statements might feel like they’re edging on dictatorial and fascist, calling them such when they’re not is potentially more harmful than it is anything else. The term fascism itself is complicated, and its use in the U.S. both come from and reinforces this complication.
Over the past 70 years, the word fascism has been diluted and generalized. It originates in Italy in 1919 when Mussolini founded his Fasci di Combattimento. This developed into a widespread movement and then into a regime which remained in power for over 20 years. The original fascism is “Fascism” with a capital “F,” rooted in interwar Italy. As similar movements rose up across Europe during the same period, the term fascism expanded to include those iterations as well. Overtime, Fascism became fascism. Rather than something historically specific, fascism became a general phenomenon.
For the most part, scholars disagree on a definition for fascism, how we should define it, or even what we should define it as. Is it an ideology, a movement, a regime type, or something different altogether? Discussions of fascism tend to point to the inclusion of ideas of ultranationalism, extreme authoritarianism or totalitarianism, adoration of violence, illiberalism, and components of myth, spectacle and ceremony. While these common threads exist, there is no single definition of fascism. This might be why we see it used so often. The word fascism seems to hold more connotation than concrete meaning in everyday usage. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has two definitions of fascism, one describing it as a political philosophy with certain characteristics, and the other as “a tendency toward or actual exercise of strong autocratic or dictatorial control.” This is the problem. Fascism is both something very specific and something very general at the same time. When we use it to describe our politicians and what is happening in our political system, we get into a complicated area.
I do not believe that we are at a place where fascism and fascist are accurate descriptors, but in the past few months, I’ve started to wonder if perhaps these words are becoming less drastic characterizations. Historically, fascist movements have risen out of crises of democracy, where the democratic state and its institutions are called into question and begin to lose legitimacy. Over the past year, President Trump has furiously called into question the credibility of our elections. There is widespread belief in fraud on both sides of the partisan divide. Concerns of mail-in voting fraud are the most prominent at the moment. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are voting by mail. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, the percentage of votes cast by mail-in ballot in the 2020 primaries was almost double that of the 2016 and 2018 primaries. President Trump has been most outspoken about fraud in relation to mail-in ballots and even issues at polling places, calling on his supporters to act as unofficial poll watchers and keep an eye out for issues. With these statements, President Trump continues to claim that the outcome of this election could be illegitimate.
Questions of electoral legitimacy in the U.S. have been raised in the past (Russian interference in the 2016 election, issues of the alignment between the electoral college and the popular vote, and in the race for governor in Georgia between Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp, who refused to recuse himself from overseeing the election in his role as secretary of state). But this time feels different. We have a president who is pushing illegitimacy to the extent that he has refused to say that he will accept the results of the election. In the first Presidential debate with Joe Biden on September 29th, President Trump said that he would have to wait and see if he thought the election was fair.
These questions of illegitimacy are serious, scary, and feel reminiscent of fascist movements I’ve read about in the past year. But that being said, I still do not feel that it’s right to say that U.S. is trending towards its own kind of fascism as some have said or to call President Trump a semi-fascist himself. We’re not at that point, but as we see how President Trump and the country respond to the results of the election in November, I worry my perspective on this might change.