The question is no longer whether Trump’s MAGA movement is fascist — but can we defeat it?
The Republican Party’s embrace of fascism is now open and notorious, and impossible to ignore. With the exception of a few stragglers and diehards, the party has been captured by Donald Trump and the MAGA movement he has spawned.
And the takeover is accelerating.
In his latest “Save America Rally,” held in Montgomery County, Texas, on Jan. 29, the former president went beyond his usual tirades about the “big lie” of the stolen election and Mike Pence’s cowardice, ranting that he would consider pardoning the Capitol insurrectionists if he is reelected in 2024. “If I run and I win, we will treat those people from Jan. 6 fairly,” he declared. “And if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons, because they are being treated so unfairly.”
It has been reported that Trump secretly considered pardoning the insurrectionists before leaving office, but hesitated and ultimately took no action. Now, he’s saying the quiet part out loud. His rhetoric is becoming increasingly incendiary.
Implicit in the prospect of pardons is the endorsement of political violence and the promotion of alternative realities, both hallmarks of classic and, now Trumpian, fascism. Lest it be forgotten, four people died on the day of the insurrection. Another 150 officers from the Capitol Police, the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police and other agencies were injured. In the weeks after the attack, an additional five officers died, either from injuries sustained during the riot or because they committed suicide.
At his Texas rally, Trump also called on his supporters to stage massive demonstrations if he winds up getting indicted or sued as a result of investigations led by the Justice Department, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, New York Attorney General Letitia James, and Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis. Without mentioning James, Bragg or Willis--all of whom are Black--by name, Trump vowed, “If these radical, vicious, racist prosecutors do anything wrong or corrupt, we are going to have the biggest protests we have ever had.”
Following Trump’s remarks, Willis sent a letter to the FBI, asking for a “risk assessment” of the courthouse and government center where she works, and for security assistance.
The Republican National Committee, on the other hand, responded to Trump’s speech with abject genuflection. On February 4, the RNC voted to censure Representatives Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois for serving on the House select committee investigating the insurrection. In its formal censure resolution, the RNC condemned the pair for “joining in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens who engaged in legitimate political discourse.” [The RNC later attempted to clarify that the resolution applied only to non-violent protesters.]
There are countless other examples of the GOP’s fascist transformation. To cite just a few, there was the party’s decision to pledge loyalty to Trump rather than adopt a new platform for the 2020 elections. There were the “coupmemos” written by attorneys associated with the Trump campaign. There were the fake Electoral College certifications prepared by party operatives in several swing states. All occurred amid a constant drumbeat of white grievance and nationalism broadcast by Fox News and other right-wing media outlets.
The particulars and the details are important, but the bigger question is, where is Trumpian fascism headed?
The political scientist Robert Paxton, one of the world’s leading authorities on fascism, has identified five stages of fascism:
1. The initial creation of movements;
2. The rooting of the movements in a political system;
3. The acquisition of power;
4. The exercise of power; and
5. Radicalization or entropy, the stage at which movements reach their most extreme heights, or exhaust themselves and fizzle.
We are well beyond the first two phases. We flirted with the third and fourth during Trump’s first term, but our democratic institutions—weak and tattered as they are—were able to resist.
The election of Joe Biden offered only a temporary reprieve. Now, with Biden’s coalition fraying, the GOP and Trump have another opportunity to impose their will and vision, and deal a death blow to what remains of our diminished democracy.
As I have written before, fascism is a loaded term, but if used correctly, it aptly applies to Trumpism.
In his seminal study, “The Anatomy of Fascism” (Harvard University Press, 2004), Paxton offers an instructive definition:
“Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
Trump and Trumpism similarly embody the 14 common factors of fascism identified by the great Italian writer Umberto Eco in his 1995 essay, Ur Fascism:
- A cult of traditionalism.
- A rejection of modernism (cultural, rather than technological).
- A cult of action for its own sake and a distrust of intellectualism.
- A framing of disagreement or opposition as treasonous.
- A fear of difference. … Fascism is racist by definition.
- An appeal to a frustrated middle class—either due to economic or political pressures from both above and below.
- An obsession with the plots and machinations of the movement’s identified enemies.
- A requirement that said enemies be simultaneously seen as omnipotent and weak, conniving and cowardly.
- A rejection of pacifism. Life is permanent warfare.
- Contempt for weakness.
- A cult of heroism.
- A selective populism, relying on chauvinist definitions of “the people” that it claims to speak for.
- A heavy usage of Newspeak—impoverished vocabulary, elementary syntax and a resistance to complex and critical reasoning.
As the current situation demonstrates, fascism is by no means a foreign phenomenon restricted to South American banana republics or failed European states. As University of London professor Sarah Churchwell explained in a June 22, 2020 essay published in the New York Review of Books, fascism has deep roots in the United States, spanning the decades from the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s to the rise of the German-American Bund in the 1930s, the ascendance of Depression-era demagogues like Huey Long, and the election of Trump in 2016.
Churchwell’s article is aptly titled, “American Fascism: It Has Happened Here.” In it, she offers another working definition of fascism, noting that while fascist movements differ from nation to nation, they are united by “conspicuous features [that] are recognizably shared.” These include:
"[N]ostalgia for a purer, mythic, often rural past; cults of tradition and cultural regeneration; paramilitary groups; the delegitimizing of political opponents and demonization of critics; the universalizing of some groups as authentically national, while dehumanizing all other groups; hostility to intellectualism and attacks on a free press; anti-modernism; fetishized patriarchal masculinity; and a distressed sense of victimhood and collective grievance. Fascist mythologies often incorporate a notion of cleansing, an exclusionary defense against racial or cultural contamination, and related eugenicist preferences for certain 'bloodlines' over others."
No one has summarized the perils of Trumpism more insightfully than the celebrated linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky. In a June 2021 interview with Truthout, Chomsky remarked:
“The term 'neoliberal proto-fascism' captures well both the features of the current [Republican] party and the distinction from the fascism of the past. The commitment to the most brutal form of neoliberalism is apparent in the legislative record, crucially the subordination of the party to private capital, the inverse of classic fascism. But the fascist symptoms are there, including extreme racism, violence, worship of the leader (sent by God, according to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo), immersion in a world of 'alternative facts' and a frenzy of irrationality. Also in other ways, such as the extraordinary efforts in Republican-run states to suppress teaching in schools that doesn’t conform to their white supremacist doctrines. Legislation is being enacted to ban instruction in 'critical race theory,' the new demon, replacing Communism and Islamic terror as the plague of the modern age. ‘Critical race theory’ is the scare-phrase used for the study of the systematic structural and cultural factors in the hideous 400-year history of slavery and enduring racist repression...
“What’s missing from 'proto-fascism' is the ideology: state control of the social order, including the business classes, and party control of the state with the maximal leader in charge. That could change. German industry and finance at first thought they could use the Nazis as their instrument in beating down labor and the left while remaining in charge. They learned otherwise.”
In another Truthout interview conducted last month on the anniversary of the insurrection, Chomsky added:
“Trump’s motives are clear enough. We don’t need a degree in advanced psychiatry to know that a sociopathic megalomaniac must always win; nothing else can be contemplated. Furthermore, he’s a canny politician who understands that his worshippers will easily accept the 'Big Lie.'
"Many have wondered at the willingness of two-thirds of Republicans to believe the ludicrous pretense that the election was stolen. Should we really be surprised? Have a look at the views of Republicans on other matters. For example, on whether humans were created as they are today: about half of Republicans. Or on whether Muslims are seeking to impose Sharia law on the U.S.: 60 percent of Republicans who trust Fox News. Or on a host of other pre-modern beliefs in which the U.S. (mostly Republicans) stands virtually alone among comparable societies.
“So why not a stolen election?
“Election subversion is not merely a threat. It’s happening in the 'soft coup' that is underway right now. As is the drift toward a form of fascism. There is evidence that general attitudes of Trump voters on a range of issues are similar to those of European voters for far-right parties with fascist origins. And these sectors are now a driving force in the GOP.
“There’s also substantial evidence that this drift to the far right may be driven in part by blind loyalty to Trump. That seems to be the case on the most critical issue that humans have ever faced: environmental destruction. During Trump’s years in office, Republican recognition of climate change as a 'serious issue,' already shockingly low, declined by 20 percent, even as nature has been issuing dramatic warnings, loud and clear, that we are racing toward disaster.
“The phenomenon is deeply disturbing, and not without grim precedent. A century ago, Germany was at the peak of Western civilization, producing great contributions to the sciences and the arts. The Weimar Republic was regarded by political scientists as a model democracy. A few years later, Germans were worshipping Der Führer and accepting the vilest lies, and acting on them.”
The future, thankfully, remains unwritten. Trumpism can be defeated, but not without recognizing it and calling it out as the fascist menace it is.
Are we up for the enormity of the task? I wonder.
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