In the modern political lexicon, at least for secular people, “fascism” has taken the place of the devil. But it is not appropriate for describing the United States in 2020.
Undoubtedly, some of Trump’s supporters — in their racism, their attraction to violence and their contempt for democratic norms — have things in common with European fascists of the interwar period. They belong to a long and sinister American tradition that includes the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that the great historian of fascism, Robert Paxton, called “the earliest phenomenon that can be functionally related to fascism.” And Trump’s extreme nationalism, his praise of violence, his not-so-coded racism and his insistence on absolute loyalty from his followers all recall elements of fascist ideology.
But the existence of these echoes and connections does not mean that the United States is in danger of a fascist takeover. The accusations of fascism leveled against Trump and some of his supporters distract attention from the real threat to democracy that Trump poses, which is a far older and more common one. The accusations are also highly unlikely to convince anyone other than liberals. It may indeed prove counterproductive.
Fascism, as it took shape in Europe between the world wars, was bound up with a unique phenomenon that has had no real equivalent in American society: a regimented mass movement, with a uniformed paramilitary arm, committed to the radical remaking of society as a whole. Even before Hitler came to power in Germany in early 1933, his SA paramilitary force had hundreds of thousands of members. Fascist seizures of power depended on these mass movements effectively merging with, and taking control of, the state. Only then could the party leader’s rhetorical violence be transformed into mass violence, the suppression of all opposition, the nullification of civil rights and the vicious persecution of vulnerable minorities.
But Trump not only lacks a mass movement at his command; he has made no attempt to create one. The various far-right militia groups, including the armed protesters who marched into the statehouse in Michigan after Trump’s call to “liberate” the state, remain small, disorganized fringe movements. The few hundred federal agents sent into Portland and other cities, while threatening and abusive, do not amount to a fascist paramilitary. Even as Trump threatens to involve new cities in the program, the Department of Homeland Security is already starting to remove agents from the Portland hot spot, in a sign it may be retreating from its blundering attempts to use them as a political police. At best, as Yale political scientist Jason Stanley puts it, Trump has been “performing fascism.” But the performance — perhaps better-called playacting — is far from the real thing.
Trump’s speeches may sometimes recall the rhetoric of fascist leaders in his praise of violence, his demands for obedience and his disregard for constitutional restraints. Nonetheless, his actual abuses of power fit into a very different, older pattern. From the start, the history of modern democratic republics has been inseparable from that of charismatic political leaders who can forge intense emotional connections with committed cadres of followers. Indeed, modern democracies have often depended on such leaders to bind together their fractious polities.
Some leaders have a greater ability than others to inspire emotional responses, but in many cases followers project hopes and fantasies onto surprisingly unlikely figures (as with the relationship between many Christian evangelicals and a president who embodies the seven deadly sins). The charismatic bond takes shape through, and is shaped by, media such as print in the 18th and 19th centuries, supplemented by radio, film and television in the 20th, and by the Internet and social media today.
If powerful enough, the bond forged with supporters allows the leaders in question to run roughshod over constitutional restraints. In what is often misleadingly called the “age of democratic revolution,” democracy soon failed in most of the revolutions in question: in France, in Haiti, throughout South America. It was not just a matter of the fragility of new constitutional systems in the face of civil war and social collapse, but of the positive attraction of charismatic authoritarianism, especially in moments of national crisis when figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Toussaint L’Ouverture and Simón Bolívar exploited widespread popular acclaim to usurp extra-constitutional powers.
If the young United States did not follow this pattern, it was due to unusually fortunate circumstances, including the lack of serious foreign threats after the end of the independence struggle, and the character of its charismatic hero of that struggle, George Washington. For all his grievous flaws as an enslaver, Washington resisted capitalizing on the massive popularity he enjoyed at the start of his presidency to override constitutional restraints, even when he faced bitter partisan opposition. He set a pattern that his successors have generally hesitated to challenge.
Still, we should not overestimate the stability or resilience of the American democratic system, especially because of two relatively recent changes: the immense expansion of the power of the executive branch since the mid-20th century and the rise of a right-wing media machine that has proven chillingly effective at creating an intense emotional bond between Trump and his “base.” Republican members of Congress know all too well that attacks from Trump, amplified by Fox News, One America News and Rush Limbaugh may well lead to their defeat in primary elections, and it leaves them supine in the face of the president’s abuses of power.
But these abuses, even if they continue and multiply — even if they lead to a stolen presidential election — will still not come close to “fascism.” Historically, most threats to democracy, and most forms of political evil, have not been fascist. Napoleon Bonaparte, the charismatic gravedigger of the French Revolutionary democracy, was not a fascist. Simón Bolívar, who seized dictatorial powers several times in the history of the South American revolutions, was not a fascist. Even in interwar Europe, democracy failed in many countries — Poland and Yugoslavia, for instance — without leading to a fascist takeover. Poland’s Józef Pilsudski overturned Poland’s young democracy in a coup but did not have a regimented mass movement behind him, or a fascist party that proceeded to take over the Polish state. The distinction matters. Authoritarian regimes like Pilsudski’s were oppressive. The genuinely fascist ones were much, much worse, for their own populations and for the world.
It might still be asked, given the undoubted echoes of fascism in Trumpian rhetoric, and some of his actions, whether the term might still have political usefulness. Electoral politics, after all, is rarely free from hyperbole.
But again, the answer is no. Most American voters outside the progressive left do not think of fascism as in any way an American phenomenon. Fascism for them is the World War II enemy — an alien, foreign ideology. To associate it with a president for whom they may well have voted in 2016, and for whom they may still be considering voting for, is likely to seem absurd — another example of overkill on the left, and perhaps another reason to distrust the candidate the left is supporting.
These voters may not know the history in detail, but they do, instinctively, understand the difference between fascism and less deadly abuses of power. Joe Biden, who knows and connects to the moderate American electorate very well, has called Trump an “existential threat” with “little understanding” of “our democracy,” but he is not calling Trump a fascist. We should follow his example.