It is nearly one week since America’s four-year long experiment with fascism was officially terminated. That Donald Trump refused to concede defeat after losing the election meant that the world had to postpone its long-awaited collective sigh-of-relief. In the meantime, we were treated to a glimpse of just what the Trump presidency stood for, as a motley crew of white supremacists, QAnon-ers, and assorted anti-democratic loons stormed the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., in what very much looked like a dress-rehearsal for a genuine fascist assault upon democratic rule.
Throughout Trump’s presidency there has been an ongoing debate as to whether the label of “fascist” fits the ex-president. Some argue that Trump’s cult-of-personality, his far-right exclusionary nationalism, and his contempt for democracy meant that this orange-tinted demagogue was indeed a fascist. Others hold that fascism should be understood strictly in the sense of the aftermath of the First World War, and the emergence of the movements supporting Mussolini, Hitler and others. For these theorists, fascism was an expansionist ideology that is inseparable from history’s two most destructive conflicts. Trump, by contrast, was the first president in more than a generation not to start a new war.
It is a debate that can have no meaningful resolution, given the various subjective interpretations that apply to nearly all political labels. Nonetheless, when considering whether Donald Trump was a fascist or not, one might recall the old saying: “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck”.
Donald Trump looked, swam and quacked like a fascist. His administration can be compared to historical fascist regimes in a number of ways. Firstly, he was undoubtedly the leader of America’s far-right and was the most far-right president the US has ever seen. Trump launched discriminatory travel bans, attacked the rights of women at home and abroad, filled his administration with far-right individuals, and regularly amplified far-right voices, especially on Twitter. Trump was, and is, a white supremacist, just like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
Secondly, there can be no doubt that Trump desired to be a dictator. His reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement was indicative of this authoritarianism. From behind his desk in the Oval Office he pontificated about “law and order” and declared that he would send in the army to deal with largely peaceful protesters. When he desired to make a public appearance, the streets outside the White House were forcibly cleared by the National Guard and the police, who disgracefully used tear-gas on peaceful protesters. This was only one act of state violence among many and it appeared that Trump’s rhetoric served to embolden federal security forces into unleashing a violent crackdown on protesters in multiple cities. This was state-sanctioned violence, directed at a left-wing street movement and this too was reminiscent of the fascism of the twentieth century.
Perhaps the clearest indication of the fascistic leanings of the Trump administration was the massive expansion of the system of detention centres for migrants at the US’s southern border with Mexico. Under this system, migrants to the US are held “in prison-like facilities” while they wait for a decision about whether they can remain in the country or not. Under Trump, the number of migrants held in such facilities grew by more than 40% and by the end of his term in office there were tens of thousands of people being detained. In 2019, the US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez noted that the US was “running concentration camps on our southern border”. The statement drew a barrage of criticism from Trump supporters but there was undoubtedly an element of truth to her implicit comparisons with the fascist concentration camps of the past.
There are yet more similarities. Just as with the fascists of the twentieth century, Trump came to power by scapegoating minority groups. He thus shared with the fascists of the past a designation of the other — be they immigrants, gays, foreigners, or even women — as being the enemy of the true people, which in typical fascist style was the dominant group (white people) whose will Trump himself claimed to embody. In foreign policy, the ex-president’s reckless, non-cooperative, unilateral agenda reflected his view that America’s immense strength gave it the right to act as it saw fit, without regard to its allies and with no moral purpose beyond naked self-interest. Such a right-through-might stance would not have been out of place in 1930s Europe.
To delve into a deeper comparison, we can see that the US shares many of the societal features that characterized the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 30s, for example, its growing political instability and polarization, and the valorization by millions of a single leader, to name but a few.
Perhaps the most telling similarity comes in the realm of economics. The Nazis first rose to prominence against the backdrop of hyper-inflation in the early 1920s, before coming to power eventually amidst the misery of the Great Depression. A similar pattern occurred in Italy where fascism rose out of the economic chaos that followed the Great War. It is indisputable that a precondition for the success of fascism was the existence of severe and widespread economic hardship.
The US has its own economic difficulties, with one recent study showing that 50 million Americans are now at risk of going hungry, partially as a result of the pandemic. Of course, economic hardship in the US long predates the pandemic, with American workers suffering from a decades old trend of stagnating wages and diminishing job prospects. Such trends have been identified as a crucial factor explaining the rise of Trump, just as economic conditions were key to the rise of the fascist regimes of the twentieth century.
There is, however, one crucial difference that relates to the US’s socioeconomic situation. Perhaps the key context that characterized the rise of fascism in the twentieth century was the credible threat of revolution from the left, with the economic difficulties that contributed to the rise of fascism also resulting in socialist movements that threatened to overturn the prevailing political economy right across the western world. To counter this threat, the elite in some countries (most notably in Italy and Germany) gave their support to the fascists because they believed that they were best placed to crack down on revolutionary activity and ensure that the elite maintained their hold over society.
The US, by contrast, has no such comparable revolutionary movements and its ruling class does not yet face an existential threat to their wealth or their societal positions. The threat of widespread economic redistribution has so far been contained under the political system of liberal democracy in a way which was not possible in Italy or Germany. One could argue that this accounts for the fact that Donald Trump received no substantial support from economic elites in his quest to overturn the election result.
An interesting thought experiment would be to consider how the US establishment would have treated Trump’s claims about the fraudulent election had the victor been Bernie Sanders, rather than the capitalism-friendly Joe Biden. It is perhaps not a big stretch of the imagination to say that much of the American establishment, including its media, its military, and its judicial system, may have backed Trump. But under the circumstances of the business-friendly Joe Biden winning the presidency, Donald Trump’s proto-fascism served no wider purpose for America’s ruling class.
None of this is to say that the US is immune to a fascist (or whatever its modern equivalent is) takeover. For one, the recent election revealed that there is popular support for the fascism that Donald Trump represented. Despite widely advertising his intentions not to respect the election result, Trump still garnered nearly 75 million votes. This should tell us that there is potentially a sizable electoral constituency for American fascism.
And while much of the senior leadership of the Republican Party has essentially disowned Donald Trump, the same cannot be said for the overwhelming majority of House of Representative Republicans who continue to support him. Indeed, Republican Congressmen and Congresswomen were one of the few sections of “official America” that gave some semblance of support for Trump’s attempted coup. Many in the Republican Party have now cottoned on to the fact that Trump’s brand of politics is an easy route to electoral success. As such, they will now propagate conspiracy theories and spew out racist dog-whistles knowing full well that a sizable portion of the American electorate will respond favorably.
Furthermore, if the success of Trump is owed partially to the economic hardship inflicted on many Americans, then we can imagine that the fascism of Trump was not a one-off. Instead, bitterness and rancor will continue to grow and this will result in increased racist sentiment in some segments of society. As such, the mini-Trumps of the Republican Party will find an ever more receptive audience. This could yet prove to be Trump’s most dangerous legacy although the new president does have it in his power to somewhat reverse these trends.
If Joe Biden does not seek to challenge the inequitable status quo of modern America, then we could yet witness the birth of new movements for economic justice. The current level of inequality in the US is unsustainable and with a generation of young people politicized by the Black Lives Matter movement, it is possible that conditions for the emergence of a credible movement for economic justice could soon emerge. Events will take their own course, but it is not inconceivable that the more reactionary elements of the American ruling class may turn to the fascistic forces that Trump unleashed, as a means of self-preservation.
With Trump’s election loss and his subsequent failure to overturn the election, American fascism has suffered a defeat. However, time will tell whether this defeat is decisive or is a mere temporary set-back.
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