Thinking About Fascism—Part 2
Donald Trump is a threat to democracy. So are growing numbers of other Republicans. But is it accurate to call them fascists?
In Part 1 of this post, which appeared on Monday, I distinguished between ancient and modern forms of tyranny, between authoritarianism and totalitarianism, and between communist and fascist forms of dictatorship. In Part 2 below, I turn to Donald Trump and the GOP to ask whether and to what extent they qualify as fascist.
What about Trump and the Republicans? Are they fascists? Answering this question is rendered more complicated than it should be by The Hitler Problem. Germany’s National Socialists were easily the most murderous and sociopathic fascists in history. They declared war on just about everyone, occupied other countries with extraordinary brutality, took nationalism to extreme levels, terrorized the German population at home with a ruthless domestic police force, and of course perpetrated the Holocaust, systematically exterminating six million Jews with ice-blooded mechanistic and bureaucratic precision. As a result, Hitler managed to transform himself and his fellow Nazis into all-purpose synonyms for evil incarnate.
In the minds of many people, then, suggesting that Trump is a fascist figure or that some Republicans show fascist tendencies amounts to saying, “Trump is Hitler” or “Republicans are Nazis.” And because both claims are comically hyperbolic, the right can effectively defend itself while also mocking as idiots those who are concerned about the Trump threat and the ongoing radicalization of the GOP.
So let me be absolutely clear: Trump is not Hitler and Republicans are not Nazis.
But are they fascists, even if not as morally toxic as what emerged in Nazi Germany? That’s a more difficult question, though I’m inclined to say no—while also stipulating that there are numerous reasons to consider them more than a little … fasc-ish.
Not Fascist, But Sort of Fasc-ish
As any number of critics pointed out during the Trump administration, the 45th president had numerous authoritarian tendencies and instincts. He believed in personal loyalty, not loyalty to the office he held or to the Constitution. He despised the free press and encouraged popular hatred toward journalists. He treated as a traitor any American who didn’t support him. And then, of course, there were his words and deeds after the 2020 election, which incited an insurrectionary assault on the national legislature in order to keep himself in power despite his failure to win the electoral contest. If that isn’t a tyrannical act, it’s hard to imagine what would be.
But then there are the specifically fasc-ish aspects of the Trump phenomenon. Like his constant, flagrant lying and absurd exaggeration about everything from the most trivial issues to matters of great public import—including the outcome of a free-and-fair democratic election.
Both the frequency of Trump’s lies and exaggerations and the obviousness of their mendacity are what make them fasc-ish. There’s a reason why the term “gaslighting” came into regular usage during the Trump administration: Living in the United States through those years often felt like enduring a sadistic psychological experiment in which we were constantly challenged about whether we would believe our own eyes and minds or the would-be dictator in the Oval Office spouting transparent nonsense. The fascist playbook often involves using precisely this kind of epistemic confusion—a thoroughly polluted information space—as an occasion or opportunity to seize or secure power.
When it comes to political rhetoric, Trump’s most fasc-ish moment probably came in his “American Carnage” inaugural address. Go back and reread it. It paints a picture of a country in a state of physical, moral, and spiritual collapse because of the ineptitude of its leadership—and then presents himself as the nation’s savior, giving the government back to “the people” so the country can pursue its “glorious destiny.”
Then there was Trump’s enthusiasm for any extremist group that gave him support. This led him to express ambivalence about the neo-Nazis who marched through and provoked violence in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017. And to offer periodic kind words for far-right groups and figures, including the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and various heavily armed militias. Once this bled over into active encouragement of their participation in the election-fraud “protest” in Washington DC on January 6, 2021, the tendency strongly resembled the fascist use of paramilitary forces to overwhelm and replace local law enforcement. If Trump runs for president again in 2024 and these groups begin showing up to campaign events as a kind of defense force for the candidate, that would be the most obvious example of fasc-ish tendencies yet.
As for the Republican Party more generally, it is currently split between a few remaining Bush-style Reaganite conservatives and a much larger group of people who’ve adopted Trumpian positions and attitudes toward the culture war, immigration, trade, and foreign policy. This latter group, meanwhile, is divided between politicians who behave as politicians typically have and another group that has embraced Trump’s angrily combative and epistemically anarchic style. (I’m thinking of figures like Reps. Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, and others members of the most Trump-adjacent faction in the House.) This last group is the one that is most fasc-ish in its approach to politics, combining vicious attacks on opponents with a kind of performance-art mockery of anyone who plays by the ordinary political rules.
What would it take for me to pronounce them outright fascists? Probably something like Trump running for president in 2024 with paramilitaries by his side and violence regularly erupting at his rallies; the candidate openly calling for repression of groups (like undocumented immigrants) and deploying lies about the stolen 2020 election as a “stabbed in the back” myth to demonize the opposing party (and insufficiently loyal members of his own party) as traitors; and the candidate promising, among other things, to gut the federal bureaucracy and replace it with cronies vetted for personal loyalty alone.
The Actual Fascists
If Trump and the faction of his party most strongly loyal to him in both personal and stylistic terms can be described as fasc-ish, there are a number of figures in adjacent circles who may well be the real thing—actual fascists in all but name. Since 1945, using the term for self-description has been a terrible marketing move, so it’s hardly surprising that few people looking to exercise an influence on Republican politics claim the label for themselves. But looking at their ideas reveals that they affirm views and express attitudes that closely track with those of the “reactionary modernists” who laid the groundwork in Germany during the 1920s for the fascist revolution to come in 1933.
Who are these aspiring fascists?
Peter Thiel—Thiel is the subject of John Ganz’s two recent must-read posts. He’s a tech billionaire who uses his money to support various right-wing political and intellectual causes, and a libertarian who mainly cares about the freedom of his own class of wealthy industrialists. He strongly supported Donald Trump and is the primary funding source for the ongoing right-populist Senate campaigns of J.D. Vance in Ohio and Blake Masters in Arizona. A few months ago, a deeply reported feature in Vanity Fair included statements from both figures that understandably raised eyebrows. Vance spoke about a future Republican administration in which the president would fire every mid-level bureaucrat in the executive branch, replace them with “our people,” and then defy the courts when and if they dared to try and block the move. Masters, for his part, claims America is at a “crossroads” that could lead to a new “Dark Ages,” calls progressivism a “deadly virus,” and has a habit of expressing admiration for the Unabomber’s anti-technology manifesto.
Steve Bannon—As I argued in an early post, Bannon is a paragon of nihilistic bullshit politics, a guy who has done as much as anyone to whip up and mobilize the trolls who spend their days shitposting on right-wing comment threads online. Now numerous websites do precisely that, but Bannon pioneered it at Breitbart in the early 2010s, and Trump rewarded him for it by making him his campaign manager in 2016 and then giving him (for a few months at least ) a top White House job. More recently, Bannon’s role in the events of January 6, and his refusal to obey a congressional subpoena to testify about it publicly, has landed him in some legal trouble. Will he end up spending time in jail for his defiance? Perhaps so, though that would only boost his street cred with those who happily marinade in the mix of ad hoc conspiracy theorizing and occult tea-leaf reading on his popular “War Room” podcast.
Michael Anton—Most widely known for writing (under a pseudonym) the unhinged “Flight 93” essay that made a furiously indignant case for supporting Donald Trump in the 2016 election, Anton has moved further and further right since his stint working on the National Security Council during the Trump administration. Before the 2020 election, he wrote an essay predicting a coup from the left if Biden didn’t win; while votes were still being counted, he doubled down on the allegation; a year and a half after Trump (rather than the Democrats) actually attempted a coup, Anton denounced “the regime’s failing January 6 lie.” Anton has also personally contributed to moving the Overton Window ever-further to the right by engaging with numerous extremist figures on various podcasts. Despite all of this, or maybe because of it, expect Anton to be offered and accept a top job in any Trump administration of the future.
Curtis Yarvin—Among the most extreme figures to be invited onto Anton’s Claremont Institute podcast for a respectful and lengthy (2-hour) conversation is Yarvin, a close friend and confidante of Thiel who has also paid a visit to Tucker Carlson’s daytime streaming talk show. Yarvin calls himself a “monarchist,” but anyone inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt over this terminology would be well-advised to listen to his conversation with Anton, from which I extensively quote here. What Yarvin pines for is the institution of a tyranny in the United States led by Trump or a Trump-like figure, with technology enabling him to rally the masses to his side and against all the forces of the establishment that would oppose him.
If that isn’t an American form of fascism, I don’t know what would be.
These figures would almost certainly deny that they’re actual fascists, and there’s nothing I could do to prove them wrong. As I said, hardly anyone uses that self-descriptor—and anyway, fascism has always been, in part, a catch-all term for a bundle of often contradictory impulses on the anti-liberal and anti-democratic far right. If you loathe your political opponents and think permitting them to win will fatally damage the country; if you are, at most, conditionally attached to democratic norms (affirming them only in the case of your own victory); if you believe in the reality and importance of affirming strict hierarchies; if you feel contempt for institutional restraints that stand in the way of wielding much more power than liberal democracy typically permits—if this is your preferred political stance, you are probably a fascist. Whether or not you call yourself one.
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