Should We Call it Fascism?

Should We Call it Fascism?

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.

6 thoughts on “Should We Call it Fascism?

  1. A thought-provoking analysis. I think I agree with your pre-2020 views. I wonder whether the tendency to label the Trump movement “fascist” doesn’t come from those criteria you mention: ultranationalism, extreme authoritarianism or totalitarianism, a dictatorial figure, adoration of violence, illiberalism, and components of myth, spectacle and ceremony. If we interpret each of those criteria loosely enough, we could check each of those boxes: “Well, they’re too nationalist for me, so they’re ultranationalist; and they’re too authoritarian for me, so they’re extremely authoritarian…myth, spectacle, ceremony, check, check, check…wait a minute, those are all the criteria for fascism!” Not that most people really reason it that way. They probably start with some analogies between the Trump movement and what they’ve learned about fascism, then find other analogies, and conclude that it makes sense to call the movement “fascist.”

    I agree that the turn to street thuggery/paramilitarism and the repudiation of established electoral rules are two more worrying parallels with the classical fascism of Mussolini and Hitler. I don’t think the Trump movement had fully embraced those until this year. I wonder, though, whether there are a couple more criteria for fascism that haven’t yet been satisfied. One might be seeing the nation as an army on the march–that ties back to the totalitarianism criterion, since an army on the march requires near-total control of the marchers’ lives. I don’t think the Trump movement sees the nation that way, whereas Mussolini’s fascism and Nazism arguably did (so, for that matter, did Bolshevism and Maoism). Another criterion might be seeing the nation as humiliated and dominated by the world’s great powers, and thus needing to develop the power to compete equally with them on the world stage (definitely important for Mussolini and Hitler, and arguably a key element of Vladimir Putin’s ideology). I don’t think the Trump movement sees things this way, either: they do think that Obama’s multilateralism led the nation into too many bad deals, but it wasn’t because of a lack of national power–it was because of a lack of will.

    If we’re not going to call it “fascist,” we need to call it something. Some argue that it’s best to think of it as a xenophobic version of the kind of nationalist-authoritarian-working-class populism advocated by Juan Peron in Argentina, that shares a lot of the ideology of the European New Right.

    However, it could be that our criteria for fascism focus too narrowly on the characteristics of fascist movements that managed to capture and totally transform the state: Mussolini’s and Hitler’s. I don’t think the Trump movement has (yet) managed that. So perhaps we should be exploring parallels with fascist movements that didn’t manage to totally capture the state: Father Coughlin’s movement in the US, the Mexican Goldshirts, the Romanian Iron Guard, the Hungarian Arrow Cross, the Irish Greenshirts, some factions in Wang Jingwei’s Nanjing regime, and remembering that Marcus Garvey claimed that his UNIA were the first fascists, and that Mussolini had copied his program. Closer to the present, there’s Baathism (itself a tricky question), the various Third Position movements of today (though the Trump movement doesn’t share their anti-capitalism), and the recently banned Golden Dawn Party in Greece. Maybe we should be looking for common characteristics of those movements, and evaluating the Trump movement in terms of them?

  2. A fascinating read, and certainly spooky. I think perhaps part of the trend in labeling the president a fascist is the sort of absence of a way to describe him based on the last several decades of politics in the United States. To some who study politics and history in the United States, Trump perhaps feels more like a populist than a fascist. However, for someone who fixates on the pieces of Trump that are (justifiably!) terrifying, these pieces are reminiscent of totalitarian leaders, if nothing else. The “cult” of Trump, does feel more similar to a dictatorial leader (or social media star… or perhaps even a British royal) in its ferocity than a “typical” American president of the past fifty years or so. Maybe then it’s about a lack of vocabulary with a heavy dose of fear?

  3. I’d argue that in this case, whether or not Trump is a fascist by definition is almost irrelevant. His political strategies mirror those of Mussolini and Hitler. His appeals to fear, his attempts to tamper with our elections, his xenophobia, his nationalism. His demonization of the media, academia, and all his political opponents. He may not be a fascist by definition, and one could just as easily compare his political strategies to Pinochet (not technically a fascist) as to Hitler. Still, the effect is the same. He is a dangerous tyrant, an aspiring dictator, and a threat to our democracy and all marginalized people.

  4. While “fascism” may not be the label that we should ascribe to Trump, I have no doubt that “right wing,” “nationalist,” and “populist” can all be applied to his administration, all characteristics which existed under Mussolini’s fascism. I think labelling Trump as “fascist” has, in part, emerged as part of a wider campaign to stress the seriousness of Trump’s totalitarian rhetoric and actions — and I think it works. Using the term calls to mind the terrifying nature of fascism in the 1930s and 1940s, thus attempting to instill fear about what another four years with Trump in the Oval Office would look like. I agree that President Trump certainly exhibits fascist tendencies and characteristics, though I think we should focus on emphasizing the specific authoritarian policies he has implemented, rather than slapping a label on his administration in an attempt to instill fear. If people really understood the extent of the policies he was enacting, I think that could be even more effective at proving the horrific nature of his policies and beliefs. Now, in the post-election era of Trump’s administration, in which he refuses to accept defeat, his authoritarian-ness is more apparent than ever, and if he continues to refuse the outcome of the election (without any evidence of widespread voter fraud), I believe he will be more in line with fascist tendencies than ever before. Overall, however, I agree with your sentiments that there is not yet enough evidence that Trump’s administration was truly fascist, though I think whether or not he allows for a peaceful transition of power plays a role in that.

  5. Thank you for the interesting read, Clover! As stated in the previous comments, I think that Trump could certainly be classified as a right-wing populist and a nationalist; his rhetoric and his actions throughout his presidency has shown severe xenophobic, nationalistic, and populist traits. Furthermore, never in my 22 years of life have I seen such a devotion to a politician as I have with Trump supporters; it’s as if they worship the very ground he walks on. These traits are seemingly common in dictatorships, and (thankfully) he was not given another four years to destroy our democracy as we know it.

  6. I think that the term fascism has, in a sense, outlived its usefulness. I think that being aware of the type of authoritarian nationalist government that is generally characterized by the term “fascism” is important, and that in no way should we simply ignore these tendencies in our own government, but rather that the word “fascism” has too complex a history to use effectively. As you explained, unless we are referring to the original Fascism in Italy, fascism doesn’t really have a meaning set in stone enough for the complexities and academic discussions that make use of the word. And yet simply ceasing use of the word feels wrong, like we’re ignoring lessons of the past. If we can’t call someone fascist then how can we easily characterize that they’re repeating behavior reminiscent of Mussolini and Hitler? Could we not simply say that? And describe the similarities? Perhaps we could even create a word specifically to denote that.

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