The attack on the US Capitol Building gave new impetus to an ongoing media debate over whether Donald Trump (and others like him) should be called a fascist. There is a limit to how fruitful debates like this can be, of course. There is no simple rule on how we can use a word. The question is why we want to use it.
Many of those who push for the “fascist” label think it’s the best chance of mobilising people to take a political threat seriously. Nick Cohen argues somewhat along these lines.
On the other hand, many of those who resist the label believe that the wrong diagnosis will lead to the wrong treatment. In this piece, the historian Richard J. Evans points out ways in which Trump differs from Hitler and Mussolini and warns:
rather than fighting the demons of the past — fascism, Nazism, the militarised politics of Europe’s interwar years — it is necessary to fight the new demons of the present: disinformation, conspiracy theories and the blurring of fact and falsehood.
It was pointed out to me that Evans fails to mention racism in this connection. That is a troubling oversight. For many, that is the heart of the Trumpist threat and the main reason for conjuring the demons of the past around it. In How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, the philosopher Jason Stanley writes:
The dangers of fascist politics come from the particular way in which it dehumanizes segments of the population. By excluding these groups, it limits the capacity of empathy among other citizens, leading to the justification of inhumane treatment, from repression of freedom, mass imprisonment, and expulsion to, in extreme cases, mass extermination.
Stanley is aware that “many kinds of political movements involve such a division; for example, Communist politics weaponizes class divisions”. But, he goes on, fascist politics specifically creates division by “appealing to ethnic, religious, or racial distinctions”.
His book is mostly about contemporary movements. Almost all the references to historical fascism, however, are to National Socialism. The first chapter, on appeals to “the mythic past” and traditional family values, quotes a Mussolini speech — “we have created our myth”. But the myth referred to by Mussolini is not explicitly linked with the past. And Mussolini’s fascism, while it emphasised tradition, presented itself as driving forward into the future more than falling back into the past. Mussolini supported traditional values only insofar as they served his religion of the State, and his support was transparently pragmatic.
By contrast, Stanley is able to draw on a wealth of Nazi statements to support his characterisation. He has Alfred Rosenberg directly referring to Germany’s “mythical past” (the same as Luther had done). He has Gregor Strasser and Paula Siber celebrating traditional gender roles. Etc. For Nazism, his story makes perfect sense.
This pattern continues throughout the book. When Stanley seeks historical precursors to the type of fascism he describes, the best fit is always with the Nazis. References to other types of fascism are rare and on points of extreme abstraction, for instance an Italian fascist magazine is quoted saying that: “The mysticism of Fascism is the proof of its triumph”.
Why is this important? What distinguished Nazi fascism was the foundational character of its racism. Mussolini exploited racism, but again he thought that each nation should promote its own ideal racial type, leading to an endless struggle – struggle is the very essence of human history, blah blah blah. The Nazis thought that the world should be dominated by one racial type. Their goal was not endless struggle for its own sake but a final resolution of perfect domination — a pax Aryana.
This is important because there was one historical example that particularly inspired and emboldened them. It was the example of the United States of America.
Carroll Kakel’s book, The American West and the Nazi East, documents how Hitler’s doctrine of Lebensraum was an imitation of the American conquest of its Western frontier. The extermination of the Slavs was conceived in imitation of the extermination of North America’s native population. It showed the Nazis what Aryan peoples could achieve. Similarly, James Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model examines how the Nuremberg Laws were modelled on the Jim Crow laws and, more generally, how the idea of codifying racial domination into law was inspired by American examples. Americans might be surprised to learn that in some cases the Nazis found the model too extreme. Stanley also documents the American precursors to fascist tactics, drawing on W.E.B. Du Bois’ descriptions of paramilitary violence and segregationist laws in Black Reconstruction in America. Nor is it simply that the ideas that inspired the Nazis reside in America’s past. As Sandy Darity and Kirsten Mullen argue, many times the nation was presented with a subsequent opportunity to partially right the wrongs of the past, a different path was taken instead.
Given this, I wonder how the word “fascism” functions in America’s self-awareness.
“Fascism” is a very European-sounding word. It was invented by an Italian and inspired by an image from the Roman Empire — the most European of all institutions. But the elements of Trumpism that most resonate with Nazism were in America long before — that is, to some extent, where the Nazis got the idea. One danger in Americans using the term “fascism” is that it allows them to write off their own philosophies as foreign imports.
The truth is that, for dehumanization of segments of the population, fascism wasn’t needed. Even if we follow Robert Paxton’s suggestion and trace the birth of fascism to the Ku Klux Klan, the Klan were formed to enforce a racial contract signed long before they appeared. We could consider Jamelle Bouie’s suggestion that “Colonial domination and expropriation marched hand in hand with the spread of ‘liberty,’ and liberalism arose alongside our modern notions of race and racism”. The racial dehumanisation that inspired fascists preceded them. It didn’t require suspension of the rule of law; it was built into the rule of law. It didn’t require an attack on democracy; it was popular with voters. It didn’t require demagogues with explosive rhetoric; staid bureaucrats and ‘safe pairs of hands’ did the job just fine. Get rid of fascism, and you can keep most of what is blamed on it, since those things were there long before it.
Many of the mob that stormed the Capitol Building were inspired by Nazis. Many were adorned in Nazi symbolism. Many, no doubt, turned excited images of the Beer Hall Putsch over in their minds. But to see the building invaded by forces inspired by some Germanic ideology is to forget that this ideology borrowed plans conceived within that very building.
I’m not accusing those who use the term “fascist” of forgetting this. But still I worry about the effects of the term. Most people, when they hear “fascism” think of Hitler. You can hardly hear the term without drawing the little moustache in your mind. Fewer will think of Jim Crow or the Klan. Fewer again will think of Andrew Jackson and the Manifest Destiny.
And is fascism really the problem? Not only does the word sound foreign; the system is top-down. The fasces image represents strength in unity. The fasces with the axe — the version favoured by Mussolini — denotes what the Romans called a dictator. A dictator, at least in the popular imagination, imposes his will from above. Hitler is the dictator to whom the dehumanising racism of the Third Reich — with its forced labour, mass imprisonment, and extermination — can be traced, rightly or wrongly.
But what about the dehumanising acts permitted and imposed in America’s history? These were not brought in by dictators wielding emergency powers. They bubbled up from the bottom rather than being imposed from the top. They were brought in through the constitution and the rule of law, not by suspensions of it. What the Axis powers wanted, of course, was the sort of empire that the Allies had acquired without fascism.
It is possible, I submit, that we commit these sorts of acts because we want to, not because some political system drives us to them. We don’t need any ideology either. People just like this stuff; it’s a crowd-pleaser. In any case, fascism isn’t needed to prompt it. In fact, when fascists tried to emulate the American example, they were ultimately destroyed, rather than ascending into hegemony. Fascism may well have got in the way.