The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The new debate over ‘fascist’ becomes the old debate over victimhood

Among those labeling his opponents as fascist in broad strokes? Donald Trump.

A scene at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)

The president’s excoriation of the political opposition was only minimally qualified.

“Fascists. They are fascists,” he said during a speech. “Some of them, not all of them, but some of them, but they’re getting closer and closer.”

A strong assertion, certainly, but one that barely rippled the surface of the water. Because the president offering that hyperbolic assessment was Donald Trump, two years ago this month. It was one of several times that he would deride Democrats as fascists, even excluding his July 4, 2020, retweet describing a “fascist Democratic Party that wants us to … hate America.”

Trump’s use of the term was largely a function of his I’m-rubber-you’re-glue approach to criticism. Remember when Hillary Clinton called him a “puppet” of Vladimir Putin during a 2016 debate? His response was: “No puppet. You’re the puppet.” So after months of criticism that his approach to the presidency was fascistic, he began applying the term to his opponents.

He had already been calling Democrats Communists, of course, a descriptor that, like his use of “fascist,” is best understood as his using a Political Science 201 vocabulary word as a proxy for “bad people who want to control you.” Fascism is a sufficiently nebulous concept to most people (on both the left and the right) that he could get away with it — particularly because no one expected Trump either to be accurate or cautious in his attacks.

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The vagueness surrounding the term also colors the more recent debate surrounding the use of the term by Trump’s successor, someone held to a different rhetorical standard.

“What we’re seeing now is either the beginning or the death knell of an extreme MAGA philosophy,” President Biden said during a campaign event in Maryland last week. “It’s not just Trump, it’s the entire philosophy that underpins the — I’m going to say something: It’s like semi-fascism.”

The response to Biden’s comments immediately rocketed in two directions. The first was to interpret Biden’s criticism as vague and not specific. The second was to interpret it as broad and not limited.

Granted, Biden is also someone who has a habit of saying things that need to be subsequently revised or amended by his team. But what he said in Maryland was more obviously intentional. Since the beginning of his presidency, Biden has described the threat posed to democracy. He has often done so in international terms, convening meetings and engaging in discussions centered on the global tension between democracy and autocracy. But he’s obviously also focused on the threat in the United States. Earlier this month, he met with a number of historians and writers to discuss the rise of fascistic rhetoric and behavior domestically. However political his rally speech, it seems obvious that he intended to make those particular comments.

It also seems clear that his criticism was aimed not broadly at Republicans but a subset of the most fanatic supporters of Trump. In that, his comments echoed the infamous remarks made by Clinton during that 2016 campaign.

“To just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables,” she said at a fundraising event that September. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it. And, unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”

She later apologized for the breadth of the framing, but that was quickly lost or ignored. Clinton had declared Trump supporters to be “deplorable,” they insisted — and they embraced the idea. Her intended criticism of the way in which Trump had given political space to fringe, toxic ideologies was lost. The comments were cast as another example of how the liberal left looked down on self-identified “real Americans” who were eager to support Trump — an elite working to undercut elites like Clinton from the inside.

Appearing on Sean Hannity’s show Monday night, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway made the same rhetorical shift from the “semi-fascist” comment.

“Folks, they think they’re better than you. It’s very simple,” she said. “ … They actually look down upon you. They don’t think that you’re like them. They don’t want their kids to go to school with yours. They don’t want you to live in their neighborhoods.”

It wasn’t Biden claiming that the “extreme MAGA” supporters were “semi-fascistic.” It’s that the breadth of the political left is beholden to elites (like sniffy writers for The Washington Post) who think they’re superior people. This was wealthy D.C. resident Kellyanne Conway’s defense of supporters of the former president who is summering at his golf club in New Jersey.

Trump spent much of Tuesday morning on Truth Social, the bespoke Twitter clone he helped launch. Among the dozens of messages he shared with his followers was one addressing Biden’s comments.

“They banned a sitting president from social media, impeached him two times, jailed his supporters, and now raided his home,” it read. “And then they go on TV and call us the fascists.”

Trump almost certainly shared this largely because he likes how it summarizes a few of his key hobbyhorses. But it’s interesting in part because it attempts to offer a response to Biden on the terms of the actual charge: that Trumpism is fascistic.

Notice that the allegations against Biden are exaggerated or wrong. “They” — the elites, of course — kicked Trump off Twitter after the riot at the Capitol that he used social media to stoke. That riot is also responsible for one of the impeachments and all of those jailed supporters. An event, of course, that many academics and historians understand in the context of a fascistic effort by Trump to retain power.

“What you are seeing is a classic technique of tyrants and authoritarians where they use the methods of dictatorship while accusing their opponents of being fascist,” former Trump aide (and Jan. 6, 2021, speechwriter) Stephen Miller said during a different Fox News program on Monday night. Miller, too, was hoping to you’re-the-puppet Biden’s criticism, proving while doing so that irony is not fatal. He went on to claim that the Biden administration was “authoritarian and repressive.”

“Interesting how pretty much every person who actually studies authoritarianism and fascism around the world and throughout history is deeply, deeply worried about Trump Republicans,” University College London associate professor Brian Klaas wrote in response to Miller’s comment, “and not at all worried about Joe Biden’s completely normal center left governance.”

The Miller appearance was part of a panel including right-wing author Kurt Schlichter and Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk. (His group, incidentally, recently demanded that reporters attending events involving candidates for office provide access to recorded footage, among other restrictions.) Kirk, echoing host Sean Duffy’s rhetoric, claimed that Biden’s description of “traditional Americans” as fascist (which isn’t what Biden said) was intentional.

“Their language is precise for a reason,” Kirk said. “If you actually encountered a fascist, then what wouldn’t you do against that person? They’re calling half the country fascists because then that justifies a Patriot Act 2.0 type of response.” The Democrats, he insisted, were the real fascists.

Here meaning “bad people who want to control you, the hard-working average American.” Biden’s actual criticism, tailored to a portion of the right and watered down by “semi,” is simply grist for a rhetorical machine built to bolster Trump and to defend, at whatever cost, his effort to return to power.