The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The debate over American fascism gets louder

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Last week, President Biden dropped the f-word. He warned during a stump speech in Maryland that the country’s right-wing movement, which remains dominated by his predecessor, former president Donald Trump, has embraced “political violence” and no longer believes in democracy.

“What we’re seeing now is either the beginning or the death knell of an extreme MAGA philosophy,” Biden said, referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. “It’s not just Trump, it’s the entire philosophy that underpins the — I’m going to say something — it’s like semi-fascism.”

Biden was gesturing to various ongoing Republican initiatives to restrict voting access as well as a slate of Republican midterm candidates who, to this day, deny the legitimacy of the 2020 election. There’s also the tacit support of some Republicans for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and the violent rhetoric that has emerged among some corners of the right in the wake of a publicized FBI investigation into classified documents Trump kept in his private Florida golf club residence.

The simple invocation of “fascism” elicited howls of outrage from Republicans and triggered a weekend of political chatter. A spokesman for the Republican National Committee described the president’s remarks as “despicable.” Gov. Chris Sununu (R-N.H.) said on CNN that it was “horribly inappropriate” to brand a segment of the U.S. population as “semi-fascist” and called on Biden to apologize.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) tweeted that “communists have always called their enemies ‘fascists.’” One historian of Latin America responded to Cruz, noting that, while communists had other names for their opponents before the rise of fascist parties in the 1920s, fascists have always used anti-communist hysteria to “stir violence” and “augment their power.” (Never mind the relative absurdity of casting a figure with as centrist a record as Biden as a “communist.”)

For his part, Trump posted Monday on his personal social media website another complaint about the 2020 election having been stolen from him and an unconstitutional demand that he be declared its victor, two years later. Over the weekend, leading Republican lawmakers warned of violence in the streets should the Justice Department move to prosecute as a number of investigations into his activities go forward.

In fiery midterm speech, Biden says GOP’s turned toward ‘semi-fascism’

Biden and his allies did not back down from the message. “You look at the definition of fascism and you think about what they’re doing in attacking our democracy, what they’re doing and taking away our freedoms, wanting to take away our rights, our voting rights ― I mean, that is what that is,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday. “It is very clear.”

There is no consensus in the U.S. political conversation on what “fascism” even is, let alone which set of political actors should earn its ignominious attribution. On the left, there’s a hardening belief that a Republican Party still captured by Trump is hostile to fair elections, bent on dismantling liberal democracy, and is taking its cues from more clear-cut would-be authoritarians like illiberal Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

On the right, there’s a parallel, if more histrionic, insistence that the Democrats and the liberal establishment comprise some sort of tyrannical front. That grievance has supercharged their long-running culture war and underlies recent moves by Republican state governments to ban certain books and censor what schools can teach about race, history and sexuality.

Numerous historians and political scientists have weighed in on the uses and misuses of forging analogies to the 1930s, when fascism took root in Europe. Experts in comparative politics have charted how the modern Republican Party has drifted toward the extremes of Western politics, even while the Democrats still occupy what can be broadly considered in Western democratic terms as the center.

Scholars of fascism see Trump’s political ideology and style not as a redux of the past, but a brand of far-right pseudo-authoritarianism for the present. Regular readers of Today’s WorldView for the past half decade will know that we have not been shy about invoking “fascism” in the American context as we parsed the tumult of the Trump years, the ultranationalism and nativism animating his supporters and his own conspiratorial demagoguery.

Trump’s personality cult and the erosion of U.S. democracy

Biden’s decision to deploy the term may reflect a more aggressive stance ahead of a bruising midterm election cycle. That could be a tactic to gin up Democratic voters. “They have thought they weren’t seeing the strong fighter, the person they elected, and they attributed it to age and to weakness,” Celinda Lake, a longtime Democratic pollster, told my colleagues. “I hope we can anticipate more of this. People have been craving it.”

But the substantive claim Biden made is also important. The “semi-” in “semi-fascism” was doing a lot of rhetorical work for the U.S. president, who was not likening Trump and his movement to the genocidal monstrosity of the Third Reich. But his critics nevertheless seemed to suggest that was the subtext of his remarks, and dismissed the charge offhand.

So what may be a useful lens through which to see Biden’s invocation of fascism? Writer Jonathan Katz put forward a thorough analysis over the weekend, citing the work of Robert Paxton, a respected historian of Vichy France and author of the 2004 book, “The Anatomy of Fascism.”

Katz quoted Paxton at length: “Fascism in power is a compound, a powerful amalgam of different but marriageable conservative, national socialist, and radical right ingredients, bonded together by common enemies and common passions for a regenerated, energized and purified nation, whatever the cost to free institutions and the rule of law.”

All of that scans quite neatly onto the rhetoric and atmospherics of modern-day Republicanism, as Katz himself lays out in his essay.

“The danger is not that American fascism will necessarily or even probably turn out like Italian Fascism — or German, Syrian, Argentinian, or any other. We are not going to live a shot-for-shot remake of the Holocaust or the Second World War,” Katz wrote. Rather, he continued, “the danger would be in the triumph of an exclusionary, violent, anti-democratic cult of personality, which by definition will not be dislodged through elections, politics, or civil debate.”