Is the Republican Party fascist? An expert explains the 7 themes that dominate fascism movements
Writing in the Washington Post four years ago, journalist Michael Kinsley gave this blunt assessment of the man about to become president:
"Donald Trump," Kinsley wrote, "is a fascist."
Four years later, it's fair to ask: Is the Republican Party fascist?
It's an incendiary question. It's also a serious one. Even after the assault on the U.S. Capitol, eight Senate Republicans and 138 Republican members of the House of Representatives still voted to overturn a free and fair presidential election. It is just the latest example of a party that is well to the right of most conservative parties in the democratic world.
That alone wouldn't make the Grand Old Party fascist. The word itself is hard to characterize. As one of Adolf Hitler's biographers has put it, "trying to define 'fascism' is like trying to nail jelly to the wall."
But it's also real, as I learned working for an English-language newspaper in Rome in the mid-1980s. There, I attended a neo-fascist rally in the Piazza del Popolo complete with searchlights and elderly men, all wearing the same berets, a sign, my interpreter told me, that they once belonged to Benito Mussolini's infamous Blackshirts.
While no two fascist movements are entirely alike, during fascism's heyday in the 1920s and 30s, they shared several common themes. All of those themes are present in today's Republican Party.
Fascists are anti-democratic
All inter-war fascist movements took part in elections with one goal in mind: to destroy democracy and create a one-party state.
That's happening today in Poland, in Hungary, in Turkey.
Here, it is the idea that only Republicans can legitimately win at the ballot box. While this goes to the heart of the attempt to overturn November's presidential election, the claim isn't new.
The same was said of Barack Obama's elections (he wasn't really born in this country) and Bill Clinton's victories (he only won because of Ross Perot's third-party candidacies). If the elections aren't legitimate, neither are the presidencies. The same strategy will be used to undermine Joe Biden.
More than that, Republicans believe only they deserve to win. As far back as 1984, Ronald Reagan declared the GOP is "America's party.''
Such thinking leads in one direction. If Republicans are "America's party" then Democrats are the "anti-America party." From there it's a small step to believing that only Republicans can legitimately win at the ballot box, that Democrats only win by cheating. If saving the country from such a party means resorting to strategies like voter suppression — or violence — so be it.
Never mind that this turns the American experiment in self-government on its head. If democracy means anything, it means your side sometimes loses.
That simple fact ought to be clear to every American. Yet it, and Wednesday's attempted insurrection, did not stop Congressional Republican diehards from voting to reject the electoral votes of several states for no reason other than the fact that they didn't like the outcome of the presidential race.
Fascists attract followers with the "big lie"
For Mussolini the big lie was the "mutilated victory" after World War I, a stain that would be wiped out by establishing an Italian empire in the Mediterranean.
For Adolf Hitler the big lie was the "stab-in-the-back," that the "November criminals" caused Germany's defeat in the same war, a stain that would be wiped out by getting rid of the Weimar Republic.
For Trump one big lie isn't enough. He has two of them.
Trump's first big lie was what he called "American carnage," a fantasy America overrun by crime, drugs and illegal immigrants.
Whether the crisis is real or not is beside the point. The national rebirth, the liberation will be achieved by one man: the party's leader. He, and he alone will restore the nation to greatness. Or, as Trump declared: "I alone can fix it."
Trump's second big lie is that he won a landslide in the 2020 election — a victory that a new batch of "November criminals" has conspired to deny him and his followers. That was the message of his "Save America" rally on Wednesday, which immediately preceded the attack on Congress.
However, this comparison involves more than individuals. Neither Mussolini nor Hitler could have come to power without the help of established conservative politicians. Both men were tolerated because they brought with them large numbers of voters for whom these older parties had lost any appeal. Once in office, these politicians reasoned, the fascist leader wouldn't know what to do. He would be their prisoner. Meantime, they could draw from his well of new voters to hold onto power. As one right-wing leader said of Hitler: "We are hiring him."
The bargain made by Italian and then German, conservatives was clear: They chose the fascist option. They knew what they were doing, and they did it anyway.
That same reasoning led Republicans like Mitch McConnell to back Trump's bid for the White House. The "adults in the room" would keep him in line. They didn't, and they couldn't.
Even with Trump headed out the door, the same cynicism explains why congressional Republicans jumped on board the effort to reject Biden's legitimate victory — and why some stayed on board even as a pro-Trump mob forced them to shelter in place and then flee the House and Senate chambers. Since more than a few of them have their own presidential ambitions, they don't really want to keep Trump in the White House. They do want to keep his voters, so they can replace him. That is why Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley chose to stick with their protest of the Electoral College vote.
To be fair, some Republicans have stood up to Trump's subversion of democracy. Unsurprisingly, however, their numbers grow the further away they are from the center of national power. While local elections officials bravely carried out their responsibilities, while state officials refused to "find" votes that would tip the results in Trump's favor, some Congressional Republicans also refused to go along with this blatant power grab. Most striking was the decision of former Republican defense secretaries who joined their Democratic counterparts to warn against use of the U.S. military to thwart the will of the American people.
Yet, these examples at the federal level have been few and some are "profiles in courage" only for the most opportunistic of reasons in the Republican civil war that is sure to come.
Fascists celebrate violence
Mussolini was handed power in Italy thanks to the violence and general chaos brought on by his paramilitary Blackshirts. Hitler's stormtroopers used the same tactics in Germany.
The Proud Boys, along with other right-wing groups pledged to back Trump, have not yet become the equivalent of the Squadristi or the Sturmabteilung. And Trump boasting that he would like to "punch" protestors at his rallies may have once seemed like little more than preening.
But these appeals to violence are dangerous. Republicans have done nothing, practically speaking, to stand up to them, even as the level of violence around Trump rallies escalated.
There is an equally disturbing parallel development. As violence spiraled out of control in early 1920s Italy, the police and army moved toward collusion with the Blackshirts in their battles with opponents.
Here, most local and state police officers faithfully carry out their duties every day, not knowing if they will come home that night. Some don't. Capitol Hill Police officer Brian D. Sicknick, died at the hands of Trump supporters while he defended this nation's elected leaders.
Yet around the country, others in law enforcement have shown an affinity for right-wing groups, particularly a shared antipathy toward equal justice protestors. More troubling are reports of growing infiltration of police agencies by the far right.
Whether because of this embrace or because they misperceive the threat, local and state law enforcement authorities seldom have taken action against right-wing paramilitaries, even in the notorious invasion of Michigan's statehouse last year. Escalating provocations went unchecked. The contrast between that and the treatment meted out to often peaceful demonstrators is too obvious to ignore, and was crystallized by the ineffectual preparation for and response to Wednesday's assault — which, it bears repeating, was a violent attempt to stop Congress from carrying out its constitutional duty.
Fascists reject established values and objective facts
Fascists dismiss notions like rationalism, egalitarianism, and scientific enquiry — in short, a fact-based world.
The examples of Trump breaking norms and rejecting reality when it suits him are so numerous that there's no point rehearsing them. What's surprising is that anyone has been surprised at how the rest of the GOP was so quick to parrot what Trump aide Kellyanne Conway infamously called "alternative facts."
The rot was evident in the earlier George W. Bush administration, when an aide told writer Ron Suskind that Republicans no longer inhabit the "reality-based community."
"That's not the way the world really works anymore," this aide told Suskind in 2002, "and when we act, we create our own reality."
The problem with this thinking, of course, is that reality — whether it's global warming, or a pandemic, or the results of an election — cannot be wished away.
Fascists have no time for women's rights
Women are crucial to the fascist ideal as wives of virile fascist men and as the bearers of the next generation of fascist boys and girls. But as for equality between the sexes? Forget it.
Fascist states in the 1920s and 1930s classified single women as second-class citizens. Married couples were pressured to have large families; married couples without children had to pay a tax penalty. Mussolini's Italy outlawed contraception, and both his regime and Hitler's banned abortion. Nazis called the operation "racial treason."
Of course, not all abortion opponents are fascists. But all fascists oppose abortion.
The point, again, is that, with the exception of Poland's Law and Justice party, today's GOP is an extremist outlier when it comes to the issue of women's rights among western conservative parties. The same is true of both Law & Justice and the Republicans when it comes to LGBTQ rights.
Fascists abandon their mass of followers once in power
Although fascists build their movements on the backs of middle- and working-class voters, they're quick to abandon them in favor of alliances with the nation's elites: business leaders, bankers, etc. They will still pay lip service to their base; the demands of their new friends, though, come first.
Mussolini attracted support from industrialists such as the auto giant Fiat, and the tire manufacturer Pirelli. The chemical giant I.G. Farben and other German industrialists quickly fell in line shortly after Hitler came to power. In return, both men guaranteed a workforce unprotected by labor unions and one that could be harshly disciplined.
Republicans are long practiced at claiming to champion "Main Street" while their policies overwhelmingly benefit Wall Street, often to the detriment of the "real Americans" they claim to represent.
The 2017 tax cut, the only substantive legislative achievement of Trump's presidency, is a case in point. Just a year earlier, he had promised to cut the taxes of working Americans at the expense of the wealthy. What Americans got was the biggest corporate tax cut in their history at the price of an additional $1.5 trillion of debt over 10 years.
Fascists thrive in a power vacuum
No fascist movement achieves power without help from its opponents. During the inter-war years, men and women were drawn to the fascists once they decided that politicians were more interested in their own petty squabbles. They were either unable or, worse, unwilling to solve the threats plaguing their lives of ordinary people, climaxing with the Great Depression.
The pull of the far right is evident, today, and so are many of the same problems: joblessness; a widening gap between rich and poor; crime; racial and ethnic tensions; poor health care and educational opportunities; threats from across the globe (then, the march to another world war; now, a pandemic).
Republicans could work with the incoming Biden administration to deal with these crises and restore faith in American democracy. Instead, they seem bent on further undermining that faith, thinking it will set them up to grab power later on.
Before this past week, too many in the GOP seemed too willing to choose the fascist option. Now they have seen what it looks like and where it leads. The question Republicans must answer is simple: Will they choose fascism anyway?
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