No word has been more brazenly and irresponsibly weaponized and diluted by the social justice movement than fascism. Fascism has been discussed in countless op-eds, traded as an insult in political disputes, written on protest signs and shouted across university campuses. You’re a fascist is the new I don’t like you. This may be effective at evoking an emotional reaction, but society will suffer unless we are able to recognise what fascism is and what it is not.
In his book The Anatomy of Fascism, Robert Paxton provides the following definition:
A form of political behaviour 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.
As Paxton identifies, fascism is fuelled by desperation and social decline. The two key examples of modern fascism are, of course, Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Following World War I, both nations suffered humiliating defeats and grappled with mass unemployment, economic crises and political tumult. In this environment of national discontent and resentment, people yearned for strong leadership to address their grievances. In both countries, such conditions enabled fascism to flourish and give rise to a radical, totalitarian one-party state, with a single dominant leader.
The descent of interwar Germany and Italy into fascist rule, characterised by severe political and economic crises and the strategic hollowing out of democratic norms, is a complex historical phenomenon. When people hurl the insult at anyone deemed to have undesirable views, they recklessly strip the term of its specificity.
Allegations that Trump’s ascendance to the presidency and time in office reflect the rise of fascism in America provide a key example of how crying fascist wolf deflects from the issues at hand. Those who accuse Trump of being a fascist cite his baseless claims about voter fraud, attacks on the press, affection for dictators and strongmen and propensity for divisive, racist rhetoric and America First foreign policy. The recent invasion of the Capitol building by pro-Trump protestors has been described as a fascist assault or attempted coup. Applying the fascist label to Trump and Trumpism, however, leads to a misunderstanding of his enduring popularity and of the current political situation in the US.
If Trump were a true fascist, there would not have been an election in which he lost and left power. Fascist dictatorships brutally suppress any dissent, public or private. Trump’s critics were extremely vocal: he was spoken out against on almost every media platform. Traditional totalitarian regimes worship the state and believe that government should be the master, not the servant, of the people. However, Trump and his conservative administration saw big government and regulation as the enemy and wished to free people from governmental shackles so that they could pursue their individual interests. Rather than promoting government tutelage, they prioritised free market capitalism.
The political platforms of Hitler and Mussolini were rigidly ideological. They were unwavering in their allegiance to fascist doctrine and they knew exactly what they wanted to accomplish. Trump is an inconsistent conservative, an egocentric and capricious political opportunist, not anchored by any coherent concrete principles. Once a registered Democrat, Trump has switched his political party affiliation five times. In 2016, he identified certain hot-button issues that resonated with voters and embraced conservative policies as a path to power.
Furthermore, that the Capitol attack was a full-blown attempted coup and the United States was on the verge of losing its democracy is a mischaracterisation. That is not to downplay the horrific violence and intimidation that occurred, but to place it in context. After trying and failing to overturn the election through official means, inciting the mob was Trump’s desperate last resort. The resulting assault was the deeply disturbing culmination of Trump’s rhetoric and cost five people their lives.
Coups typically require strategic organisation and the mobilisation of either the military or other armed forces. One only has to look at the unfolding crisis in Myanmar, where the military has staged a successful coup against Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government. The military, known as the Tatmadaw, seized control on 1 February, declaring a year-long state of emergency and arresting San Suu Kyi and more than forty other members of her party. Military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing has now taken power. Protestors have since rallied across the country denouncing the military coup, despite an officially imposed internet blackout designed to stifle them. The US Capitol attack, by contrast, was a chaotic event, a violent outburst by a riotous mob with no clear strategy or plan, who were only able to temporarily disrupt a legislative proceeding. This is not to undermine the magnitude of the attack, or what it represented. America has long been considered a beacon of democracy and it would once have been unimaginable that such events could occur in the world’s most powerful democratic nation. However, while the unrest in Myanmar demonstrates the fragility of its democracy, the democratic institutions of the United States did not crumble in the wake of the violence on Capitol Hill. In fact, just a few hours after the attack, the joint session of Congress interrupted by the mob resumed and successfully certified Joe Biden’s presidential win, thus reinforcing their fundamental resilience. The Capitol riots exposed the inherent weakness of Trump’s position. While he was able to cause damage through agitation and incitement, there was no coordinated, systematic effort to seize power.
Terminology matters, history matters and nuance is crucial. Tossing the word fascist around brings us no closer to understanding the Trump phenomenon. Trump thrived on a powerful brand of right-wing populism. He identified a popular wave and rode it all the way to the presidency. Many disillusioned, economically marginalised Americans, dissatisfied with the political ruling class, saw Trump as a way to challenge an establishment that had consistently let them down. Trump’s rallying cries against globalisation, open borders and cosmopolitanism spoke to people’s anxieties and anger. There is some overlap between fascism and populism, as they both arise from serious political, economic and social crises. However, to draw an equivalence does a disservice to both movements. Some 75 million people voted for Trump in 2020 and Trumpism retains a vast constituency. The charge of fascism against Trump is a distraction designed to evoke emotion, instead of making an effort to address America’s pressing ongoing problems.
Unfortunately, accusations of fascism are not just limited to Trump. The word has become ubiquitous in mainstream political discourse. Fascism is now so loosely defined, it can be applicable to anything or anybody one deems offensive. As George Orwell presciently states in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” “The word fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies something not desirable.”
Countless prominent thinkers who are critical of modern woke culture have been branded as fascists, including Jordan Peterson, Bret Weinstein, Sam Harris, Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker and Christina Hoff Sommers. These unjust smears are now so common, it is easy to become desensitised to them and the damage they cause. But the consequences of dubbing people who don’t comply with every facet of your ideology fascists are severe.
The promiscuous misuse of the term fascism reveals the immature and impulsive tactics of many of those who claim to be proponents of social justice. In a time of divisive partisanship, one can understand why people gravitate towards the term fascist, which clearly carries significant emotional weight. To call someone a fascist is to instantly shut down discussion. It is to unequivocally announce that this person is beneath contempt and unworthy of a conversation. Rather than relying on the merits of your argument, striving to find common ground and engage in a healthy debate, it allows you to use facile language to simplify complex issues and dismiss others.
Liberalism should be synonymous with tolerance and willingness to engage with people and issues openly, in good faith. The hyperbolic misappropriation of the word fascism is fundamentally intolerant and such tactics should have no place in any social justice movement. In rushing to label everything we don’t like as fascist, we increase polarisation, debase our understanding of history and hinder progress. In order to have any productive or meaningful conversation, it is surely necessary to move away from this hot-headed, dogmatic way of thinking and adopt a more honest, thoughtful approach.