The debate over whether to call Donald Trump a fascist, and why it matters.
Is Donald Trump a fascist?
It’s a question I’ve tried to answer a few times in the six-odd years that he has dominated American politics. Back in 2015, no fascism expert would use the word to describe Trump. In October 2020, they were inching closer but most dismissed the term as likely an exaggeration or distraction.
The assault on the Capitol building on January 6 has changed matters significantly. Robert Paxton, a Columbia University historian of fascism and Vichy France, wrote after the attack, “I have been reluctant to use the F word for Trumpism, but yesterday’s use of violence against democratic institutions crosses the red line.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at NYU and author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, told me in October that she preferred the term “authoritarian” to “fascist” in describing Trump. This past week, though, Ben-Ghiat took to Twitter to draw parallels between the Capitol siege and Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome, and between Republicans now turning on Trump to Italian fascists who voted Mussolini out of power in 1943, not to reinstate democracy but to save fascism.
They are hardly alone in the sense that some important line was crossed when Trump supporters, at his urging, stormed the Capitol building, leaving over 50 police officers injured and two dead, and leaving four rioters dead as well.
Not everyone is on board with the label. Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College and an expert on European politics in the 1930s, told me on Tuesday, “I saw Paxton’s essay and of course respect him as an eminent scholar of fascism. But I can’t agree with him on the fascism label.” When I asked Matthew Feldman, director of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, if he agreed with Paxton, he replied, “No. I still think less Mussolini than Berlusconi (and people forget his 1994 cabinet was made up of a majority of radical right ministers).”
So where are we? How do we define “fascism,” and where do those definitions leave us in terms of analyzing Trump and Trumpism? Among academics, we still have nowhere near consensus — though the post-January 6 period has seen a notable shift among some previous holdouts.
Personally, I have no problem with people who want to describe Trump as a fascist in efforts to condemn him or convey the gravity of his offenses. I do, however, think people who use the term should be aware of the risks — of why it’s important we use it correctly. Imprecision could deny us important vocabulary to describe movements in the future that are worse and more fascist than Trump. And it could distract our attention away from American precursors to Trump and toward European analogues, which runs the risk of ignoring the contribution of specifically American varieties of white supremacism and authoritarianism to the horrors on January 6.
These concerns are not dispositive. It’s totally reasonable, especially after the events of the last week, to call Trump a fascist, even given those caveats. But I think they’re important for those horrified by Trump’s actions (as we all should be) to keep in mind.
Does Trump fit canonical definitions of fascism?
Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion. (p. 218)
There are obvious resonances between this definition and the experience of Trumpism. His base of “committed nationalist militants” exists in “uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites,” most recently represented by Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Josh Hawley (R-MO), two Ivy League-educated Republican senators who spearheaded the challenge against certifying Joe Biden’s victory and gave oxygen to the mob’s grievances.
The entire slogan and ethos of “Make American Great Again” is meant to evoke a sense of national decline, humiliation, and victimhood, particularly on the part of white Americans. And on January 6, at least, the movement attempted to use redemptive violence unchecked by the law to achieve a kind of “internal cleansing,” complete with killings of opposition lawmakers.
But I would add a few caveats. Fascist movements in the 1930s genuinely rejected liberal democracy, not just in practice but as an ideal worth aspiring toward. The de facto position of Trumpists in recent weeks has been to overturn democratic election results, but importantly, that is not what they perceive themselves as doing.
Living in an alternative information ecosystem that has falsely told them over and over again that the election was rigged, they view themselves as defenders of the Constitution, protecting America from rampant voter fraud. Their rhetoric suggests that they see their mission as saving constitutional democracy, not undermining it. That’s distinct from, say, Nazism or Mussolini’s fascism, which did not attempt to uphold democracy even in rigged form but rejected it as undesirable.
“Fascists were in favor of totally overthrowing the existing constitution, which was usually democratic and perceived as weak. This was wildly popular. We are not in that position today,” Paxton told me in 2015. Despite everything else that has gotten worse, I think that judgment is correct.
Trump’s base does not want to junk the US Constitution, even if that’s the practical effect of their actions. They want to uphold it — it’s just that they are doing so through flagrantly antidemocratic means, fueled by delusions. That is still awful, but it’s different from those earlier precedents.
Roger Griffin, professor of history and political theory at Oxford Brookes University and author of The Nature of Fascism, has a slightly different, shorter definition than Paxton:
Fascism is a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism.
The word “palingenetic” means rebirth, reflecting Griffin’s view that fascism must involve calling for the “rebirth” of the nation. That might at first glance sound like Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again,” but in 2015 Griffin argued that Trump’s failure to call for a total overthrow of the constitutional order as part of that “rebirth” meant the definition did not apply. He told me then, “As long as Trump does not advocate the abolition of America’s democratic institutions, and their replacement by some sort of post-liberal new order, he’s not technically a fascist.”
When I emailed Griffin again after the Capitol attack, he hadn’t changed his mind. “Trump is far too pathologically incoherent and intellectually challenged to be a fascist, and suffers from both Attention Deficiency Disorder, lack of self-knowledge, capacity for denial, narcissism and sheer ignorance and lack of either culture or education to a degree that precludes the Machiavellian intelligence and voracious curiosity about and knowledge about contemporary history and politics needed to seize power in the manner of Mussolini and Hitler,” Griffin wrote back.
Stanley Payne, a University of Wisconsin historian of Spain and author of A History of Fascism 1914-1945, agrees that Trump’s lack of coherent revolutionary fervor makes him fall short of fascism. “Never founded a new fascist party, never embraced a coherent new revolutionary ideology, never announced a radical new doctrine but introduced a noninterventionist foreign military policy,” Payne wrote to me in an email. “Not even a poor man’s fascist. Ever an incoherent nationalist-populist with sometimes destructive tendencies.”
Richard J. Evans, the Cambridge historian and leading chronicler of the Third Reich, echoed Griffin and Payne in an article in the New Statesman, concluding, “You can’t win the political battles of the present if you’re always stuck in the past.”
Berman, the Barnard professor and author of The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century (which charts the rise of both social democracy and fascism), disputes the “fascism” label for Trump for similar reasons. She said in an email that the term should only be used for true revolutionary movements that want to overthrow the state entirely:
We should reserve the term “fascism” for leaders or movements that are not merely authoritarian. Fascists were revolutionaries, they aspired to control the state, economy and society (totalitarian vs authoritarian), had large, organized mass movements behind them (which included institutionalized paramilitaries alongside control of the military as well as extensive secret police and intelligence services) and of course came to power after democracy had largely failed. So to my mind Trump (and the Republican party) remain better characterized as pseudo-authoritarian rather than fascist — both because of their particular features/characteristics and because for all its weaknesses and flaws, American democracy (at least thus far) has not deteriorated to the point where constraining institutions no longer operate.
There’s a distinction between more modern forms of authoritarianism and historical fascism. Fascists saw themselves as challengers to elected institutions and democratic forms of government. Hitler and Mussolini cancelled elections once they consolidated power; today, regimes like Putin’s in Russia or Erdogan’s in Turkey simply use crackdowns on opposition forces and election rigging to ensure they are not electorally challenged.
The latter model at least pays lip service to constitutional and democratic norms, much as Trump continues to insist that he should be president not because the democratic system is corrupt but because he in fact won according to democratic norms. This approach is no less authoritarian, but for the reasons Berman describes, it’s arguably less fascist.
The stakes of the disagreement
If you’ve been rolling your eyes at the long-running debate over whether “fascist” applies to Trump, I’m a bit sympathetic. One sometimes gets the sense that while calling Trump a fascist might cause one to fail their comparative politics exams in poli sci grad school, the dispute is overly technical and nitpicky elsewhere.
A dispute over another word — “coup” — can shed some light on if and why the dispute matters. Multiple scholars of international relations who study coups argued in wake of the riot on January 6 that the term “coup” was inaccurate.
“At no point did yesterday’s protestors attempt to actually seize control of the levers of state power— nor did anyone watching think these goons were now running the government,” Erica De Bruin, assistant professor of government at Hamilton College and author of How to Prevent Coups d’État, wrote.
To critics, this is hairsplitting. In a pointed meme, sociologist Kieran Healy translated commentators saying, “It’s not a coup because it doesn’t meet the technical conditions of the military branch yadda yadda yadda…” as actually saying, “I have a very comfortable job.”
The split on fascism feels akin to the split over “coup,” and both arguments seem to suffer from some confusion over what exactly we’re arguing about. On the one side are academics who value these definitions because they enable better research and analysis. If you study coups, you need to have a clear definition of what a coup is before you start compiling datasets, looking for causes and patterns, etc. And that definition may not perfectly anticipate what people want to call coups in the future.
On the other side are commentators and citizens who want to convey the gravity of what happened on January 6, how unprecedented in American history it was, and how grievous a threat to liberal democracy it represented. Some coup scholars, to their credit, argued that the term could be used differently in the different contexts. As De Bruin wrote, “I’m not trying police the language of those finding it useful to use the term ‘coup’ to coordinate opposition right now.”
Similarly, the dispute over “fascism” seems to conflate two issues. There’s the question of whether or not it’s appropriate to call Trump a fascist to express your outrage with his and his allies’ violent challenge to the democratic process. And there’s the question of whether in a technical sense, historians and comparative politics scholars are well served by lumping him in as a “neo-fascist” alongside groups like Golden Dawn in Greece or the British National Party. I can easily see the answer to the latter question being “no” — the Republican Party is in many, many respects not a good comparison group to Golden Dawn — even if the answer to the former question is “yes.”
But I want to raise a couple of concerns about whether it’s wise for lay people to use “fascism” to express alarm and outrage at Trump and Trumpism. The first has to do with the future, and the second has to do with America’s past.
My first concern about using the word “fascism” now is that things could get much, much worse — and at that point, will we have the vocabulary to describe what is happening? I first heard fascism comparisons flying in American politics back in the mid-2000s. I remember an adult I knew from church forwarding me a list of “warning signs of fascism” enumerated by writer Lawrence Britt back in 2003. The list, clearly constructed to evoke aspects of the Bush administration, included items like “religion and ruling elite tied together,” “power of corporations protected,” and “obsession with national security.”
There were clearly important illiberal aspects of the Bush administration. It spied on American citizens without warrants and set up a global network of black site torture prisons. But Republicans also peacefully and unremarkably transferred power to the Democrats in Congress in 2007, and the Bush administration did so too with the Obama administration in 2009. Republicans benefited from the antidemocratic nature of the Electoral College in 2000 and played dirty to win Florida, but Bush won the 2004 election fair and square and certainly never challenged US democracy in as blatant and overt a way as the Capitol insurrection.
Which for me raises the worry: If the “Bush is a fascist” meme had caught on more in the mid-2000s, would we have lost important terms to describe the escalation of these illiberal tendencies under Trump? Would condemnations of the Capitol insurrection have been dismissed as merely crying wolf from people who described lesser actions by Bush as fascist? And correspondingly, does using the term fascist now run the same risk?
It is not hard to imagine the Republican Party’s coalescing opposition to “one person one vote” — in its defense of the Electoral College, or the slogan that we are “a republic not a democracy” — getting even more extreme. One could imagine a Republican presidential nominee in 2040 or perhaps sooner building these themes into an explicit critique of constitutional government, a call for patriotic elites representing the interests of real (white) Americans to rule without the constraints of elections or Congress or courts.
One could imagine this presidential nominee forming a paramilitary group, initially just to “protect” his (it’ll probably be a “he”) supporters from antifa and socialist mobs. One could imagine, in other words, textbook fascism, and I worry using the term now will diminish its power if and when that turn comes.
That might be a minor concern; there will always be skeptics who will accuse anyone who uses the term “fascism,” however carefully, of “crying wolf.” Maybe it’s best not to worry about their allegation.
But I’m still not convinced fascism is the best comparison class. Fascism is not just a term, it’s an analogy to a specific moment in European history. And arguably the antidemocratic forces in America right now bear a slimmer resemblance to that moment than they do to previous instances of white supremacist politics in America.
The gang that attacked the Capitol, as Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow has noted, looked an awful lot like a lynch gang, more than they did a group of well-organized brownshirts. There’s a decentralized, carnival-like atmosphere to their violence that recalls the loosely coordinated nature of historic anti-black violence in America, like the Red Shirts who helped bring down Reconstruction. The writer John Ganz has rightfully pointed to Klan figures like David Duke, and “Old Right” racists like Pat Buchanan, as important American progenitors of Trumpism.
America also provides important precedents for the authoritarianism of the modern right, too.
As University of Michigan political scientist Robert Mickey has written, a whole region of the United States — the former Confederacy — was under authoritarian rule from the 1890s until the slow collapse of Jim Crow in the 1940s through the 1980s. That could provide more useful lessons for modern anti-authoritarians than the experience of European authoritarianism around the same time.
There is nothing stopping a thoughtful observer from drawing on both the American and European traditions of authoritarianism in describing Trump. But my hope is that the urge to call him a fascist does not detract unduly from the non-fascist, but strongly racist and authoritarian, origins of his politics right here at home.
Author: Dylan Matthews