Calling one’s political opponents outrageous names is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Even the world’s greatest statesmen have done so. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, faced with a strong challenge from the Labour Party just weeks after Nazi Germany’s surrender in 1945, said that Labour would inevitably suppress freedom and install “some form of Gestapo” if elected.
Left-leaning politicians have called conservatives “fascists” since the end of World War II. Even Ronald Reagan got into the act. When Reagan, as president, awarded conservative icon Barry Goldwater the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1986, Goldwater remarked in a call with the president that Reagan had called him a "Fascist SOB" when they first met. (Reagan was a liberal then.) But just because a word is bandied about a lot doesn’t make it less hurtful or true.
Fascism is a totalitarian philosophy that directly opposes democracy. It argues that the nation, as embodied in the state, is supreme. Fascists further argue that only one party can represent the whole nation and direct the state. Free elections, free speech, and free markets have to go.
That’s exactly what the “fascists of the 20th century” did. Within three months of coming to power, Germany’s Adolf Hitler had abolished all competing political parties. Benito Mussolini took longer to eradicate the forms of democracy but obtained dictatorial powers from the Italian legislature nearly immediately upon becoming prime minister. Both men ruthlessly suppressed the press, placing mass media under government supervision and control.
Twentieth-century fascists also extended state power to the economy. Private property was respected in form, but industrialists, bankers, unions and others acted in accord with government coordination and according to government plans. Individuals could get rich under fascism, but only with the approval and assistance of the state.
Compare these regimes with Trump’s United States. We all remember the frightening days of the early regime, when an ascendant autocrat demanded unlimited power and a compliant Republican Congress went along. The first days of the new state media conglomerate were earth-shattering as respected journalists were fired or imprisoned. National economic councils planned to organize U.S. business to achieve “a new national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal era,” upending markets around the globe. Trumpism reached into every corner of national life. Or maybe we don’t remember those things. Because they never happened.
Instead of the abolition of democracy we got angry tweets about some media being “the enemy of the people." Instead of concentration of political power in one man’s hands, we got a White House so disorganized that people inside openly flouted the president’s desires. Instead of economic centralization, we got turbocharged capitalism — thanks to the 2017 Republican tax cut. And we got an election where the opposition mobilized a record-high turnout and won back control of the House.
We didn’t get fascism; we got a bizarro-world reality show set in the West Wing.
Some might say modern fascism is different, that it envelops its prey in velvet gloves rather than crushing it with iron fists. But even those world leaders who arguably are creating a more moderate fascism actually do things to consolidate political and economic power in their hands.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin is perhaps the best example of modern fascism in action. Like the old fascists, he glorifies the nation (his party is called “United Russia”) and equates the nation — that is, the people — with the state — that is, the government. Like the old fascists, he identifies himself with the state and portrays his tenure in office as essential to the nation’s well-being. He has seized control of mass media, either directly or through allied oligarchs, and mass political opposition is effectively suppressed. Through selective prosecution and occasional mysterious deaths, potential competitors get the message to play ball or else. Accordingly, he reigns supreme, and has for nearly 20 years.
Trump is crude and rude. He is often imprudent and often untruthful. He is, at best, racially insensitive and has demonstrated a callous disregard throughout his life for the feelings of women to whom he is sexually attracted. None of these traits are commendable, but none make him a 21st-century fascist.
What he is, instead, is a bully. It is his most salient characteristic, his default position.
But so, famously, was our 36th president, Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ was also crude and rude, imperious and impulsive and so famed for lying that the phrase “the credibility gap” arose to measure the distance between what his administration said — particularly about Vietnam — and the truth. Both men are the sort of people avoided by polite company. Neither was a fascist.
Democracy survived LBJ. It will survive Trump, too.