In the days following the right-wing attack on the certification of the electoral college votes in the U.S. Capitol, the debate still churns on among scholars and political commentators: “is this fascism?” As the commentary populates our social media feeds and podcast queues, it is worth considering why determining whether or not “fascism” is the accurate term for what is currently happening has become so important to so many people. Opposition to something called “fascism” represents one of the very few points of unity on both sides of the Cold War; and “fascism” has replaced “monarchy” as the “other” against which democracy is defined. For this reason, defining something as fascism means to oppose it. The definition comes with the moral imperative: never again!
That moral imperative is what makes the argument over the “f-word” heated. For some leftist scholars, the argument that Trump is not a fascist is accompanied by arguments that neither he nor the movement around him represent a serious threat. Informed by the history of Cold War liberal anti-totalitarianism that lumped fascism and communism together as equal dangers to democracy, this group cautions against the use of the word “Fascism” to explain Trump and Trumpism. For them, the use of the word “fascism” to describe Trump is a hyperbolic or melodramatic representation) of the threat posed by a “weak” president that places “constant pressure” on the socialist left to “deemphasize our own program” andform a coalition with neoliberals.
In response, another group of leftist scholars has argued that this analysis repeats the very errors of the contemporary observers of the German Nazi party. Those observers allowed fascism to grow because they saw it as weak and ridiculous, while something else – liberalism, communism, or social democracy - constituted the more serious threat. In response to arguments that Trump’s weakness means he is not a fascist, these scholars argue that fascists can fail citing as an example the Munich “Beer Hall Putsch.” What is at stake in this debate is less the definition of “fascism” than identifying the biggest political danger to be fought in the present.
While this argument continues, highly regarded historians of fascism continue to disagree about whether Trump is or is not a fascist based on their own long standing definitions. Such academic debates about the meaning of fascism often rest on identifying differences between different forms of authoritarian rule or ultranationalist mobilization, for while historians may agree that all fascisms are authoritarian and nationalist, few claim that all forms of authoritarianism and nationalism are fascist. Robert Paxton, leading scholar of comparative fascism who had long resisted describing Trump as a fascist, despite seeing “resemblances’’ recently changed his position because of the use of mass violence against the state on January 6th.
In contrast, Richard Evans, a leading English-language historian of Nazi Germany, argued that despite the insurrection, Trump is still not a fascist, because for Evans the core of fascism as a quest for a fully militarized, regimented society, while Trump has publicly disrespected the military and his movement follows a “warped vision of personal freedom: a society in which people aren’t subject to government regulation or supervision, where anarchy and confusion reign.” Despite a disagreement about the core of fascism itself, both Paxton and Evans argue that Trump and Trumpism have already damaged U.S. democracy.
While these historians argue about the relationship of fascist movements to the state, much U.S. commentary on Trumpism as fascism points to the self-proclaimed organized white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists who have been among Trump’s most vocal supporters from the beginning. Highly visible on January 6th, waving Confederate Flags, and wearing t-shirts bearing slogans such as “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE” (6 million wasn’t enough) they appear to many observers as the primary evidence that “it can happen here.” This mix of symbols and messages also indicates the extent to which the U.S. far right today blends the legacy of slavery, the Confederacy and mythology of the “Lost Cause” with later developments in far-right ideology. In this way, fascists in the United States are no different from fascists in other countries, who also draw from older national mythologies in building their narratives of great national rebirth. In my own view, Trump’s presidency has brought this American fascism closer to the center of national political power than at any time since the 1960s, whether we see Trump himself as a fascist or not.
Recent arguments about whether we should understand Trumpism as “native” to the U.S. or similar to a particularly “European” fascism erase the historically transnational nature of both fascism and anti-fascism. Alberto Toscano has helpfully surveyed a history of what Cedric Robinson describes as the “Black construction of fascism.” Fascism, despite being ultra-nationalist, has never been bound by national borders. Hitler modeled the Nuremberg laws on U.S Jim Crow. The U.S. advocates of ”law and order” praised Mussolini. U.S. intelligence agents supporting “White Russians” after WWI helped circulate anti-Semitic, anti-Bolshevik propaganda. The international circulation of fascist ideology has accelerated, but did not originate with the internet.
As we live through a global far-right resurgence whose end we cannot know, we are all discovering that knowing history - or knowing the “right” definition of a word - provides no guarantee that we will be able to understand the present with the kind of clarity we wish for. Yet, the debate about the word itself indicates the importance of historiographical argument in contemporary political decision-making. We may not be condemned to repeat past mistakes, so much as to make new mistakes based on our incomplete understanding of a much-studied past that still remains beyond our reach.