President Joe Biden's 'semi-fascism' remark was no gaffe

President Joe Biden's 'semi-fascism' remark was no gaffe
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz.

In an August 25 speech in Rockville, Md., aimed at drumming up support for Democrats ahead of the midterms, President Biden tarred Donald Trump and the MAGA movement with the dreaded "F" word.

“What we’re seeing now is either the beginning or the death knell of an extreme MAGA philosophy,” Biden declared with uncommon fire and verve after his talk was interrupted by a pro-Trump heckler who accused him of stealing the last election. “It’s not just Trump, it’s the entire philosophy that underpins the [movement] — I’m going to say something — it’s like semi-fascism.”

Republicans reacted to Biden's characterization of their party leader and his hardcore base as fascist with predictable outrage and umbrage. Some, like conservative Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen, called Biden "a human gaffe machine" and dismissed his comments as "fevered bloviation." Others, like Chris Sununu, the Republican governor of New Hampshire, termed Biden's remarks "horribly insulting" and "horribly inappropriate."

For all of those on the right who may have been offended by the president's candor, I have this to say: This was no gaffe on Biden's part. You anointed Trump as your Führer. You must be held accountable for aiding and abetting his rise to power, and for the existential threat he poses to what remains of our democracy.

If there is anything objectionable about Biden's remarks, it is that the president did not go far enough. There is no need for the modifier "semi" when used to describe Trumpian fascism.

As readers of this column know, I have been warning of the dangers posed by Trump and the movement he has spawned for many years. To be sure, fascism is an emotionally loaded and often misused term. But fascism is as real today as a political and cultural force, a set of core beliefs and a mode of behavior and governance as it was when Benito Mussolini founded the Italian Fascist Party in 1919 and declared himself dictator six years later.

As the celebrated Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote in 1935, fascism “is a historic phase of capitalism … the nakedest, most shameless, most oppressive and most treacherous form of capitalism.” Trumpism, along with its international analogs in Brazil, India, the Philippines and Western Europe, neatly accords with Brecht’s description.

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.
  • Hypermasculinity.
  • 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.

Another instructive definition is the one proffered by political scientist Robert Paxton in his classic study “The Anatomy of Fascism” (Harvard University Press, 2004):

“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.”

Paxton hesitated to call Trump a fascist when he initially took office, but has changed his views. In a January 2021 Newsweek article, Paxton wrote:

I resisted for a long time applying the fascist label to Donald J. Trump. He did indeed display some telltale signs. In 2016, a newsreel clip of Trump's plane taxiing up to a hangar where cheering supporters awaited reminded me eerily of Adolf Hitler's electoral campaign in Germany in July 1932, the first airborne campaign in history, where the arrival of the Führer's plane electrified the crowd. Once the rally began, with Hitler and Mussolini, Trump mastered the art of back-and-forth exchanges with his enraptured listeners. There was the threat of physical violence ('lock her up!'), sometimes leading to the forceful ejection of hecklers. The Proud Boys stood in convincingly for Hitler's Storm Troopers and Mussolini's squadristi. The MAGA hats even provided a bit of uniform. The 'America First' message and the leader's arrogant swagger fit the fascist model….

Trump's incitement of the invasion of the Capitol...removes my objection to the fascist label. His open encouragement of civic violence to overturn an election crosses a red line. The label now seems not just acceptable but necessary.

According to Paxton, there 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.

Now, as Trump flirts with another run for the presidency, liberal democracy is again teetering. Both Trump and Quislings like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have raised the specter of civil unrest in the wake of the FBI's search of Trump's Mar-a-Lago golf resort.

There is no American exceptionalism when it comes to Trumpian fascism. The menace is upon us. So, kudos to President Biden for speaking out, even if he only got the message half right.

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