The Atlantic’s Tom Nichols, wrote yesterday that he “long resisted using the word fascism to describe Donald Trump and his Republican followers, but we have to overcome our reluctance to use strong language and admit that America is now beset by a dangerous antidemocratic movement masquerading as a party.” His column, Fear Of Fascism. No one I know liked the idea of Biden using the modifier “semi” when he accused Trump and his supporters as being advocates for “semi-fascism.” Is the word “fascism” too scary to use? And Nichols, a conservative Never-Trumper, knows a little something about the subject. His most recent books are The Death off Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge And Why It Matters (2017) and Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within on Modern Democracy (2021). After the Republicans confirmed Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Nichols reregistered as an independent, stating that “Republicans have become a threat to the rule of law and to constitutional norms.”
Yesterday he noted that “Biden has been getting a lot of static for referring to the ideology of Donald Trump and his followers as ‘semi-fascism.’ It isn’t surprising that right-wing pundits, such as the Fox News contributor Mollie Hemingway, are practically having to take out loans to buy extra strings of pearls to clutch. But even John Avlon at CNN and Matt Lewis at the Daily Beast are trying to warn Biden off from insulting millions of voters. It’s risky politics for the president to use words like semi-fascism, much as it was a needless fumble back in 2016 for Hillary Clinton to call people ‘deplorables.’ For the rest of us, even to consider the word fascism feels like failure. It is a Rubicon we fear to cross, because it makes our fellow Americans into our civic enemies and implies that there is no road back for them, or for us.”
We cannot, however, let our understandable fear of words such as fascism scare us out of talking about the reality staring us in the face. The GOP itself might not meet the full definition of a “fascist” party— not yet, anyway— but it’s not a normal party, and its base is not an ordinary political movement. It is, instead, a melding of the remnants of a once-great party with an authoritarian, violent, seditionist personality cult bent on capturing and exercising power solely to benefit its own members and punish its imagined enemies among other Americans.
Is that fascism? For most people, it’s close enough. A would-be strongman and a party of followers enveloped in racism, seized with nostalgia for an imagined glorious past, and drunk on mindless blood-and-soil nationalism all stinks of fascism. There’s a reason, however, that I still counsel against rushing toward the F-word: Things are poised to get worse, and we need to know what to watch for.
Fascism is more than a romance with a forceful right-wing leader. (And let’s remember: Trump is not a “strongman” in any way— he is one of the weakest and most cowardly men ever to serve as president.) A fascist takeover relies on a disciplined and organized mass party led by dedicated people who, once they gain the levers of government, will zero in on destroying the mechanisms— laws, courts, competing parties— that could dislodge them from power.
Violent, tiki-torch-wielding nincompoops are dangerous, but a rabble is not a disciplined party. Ivy League Republicans stumbling around and losing to Democrats in a 50–50 Senate are not the iron ladies and men of steel who can build a fascist state. Faux intellectuals such as Steve Bannon blathering about Leninism are not capable of inspiring the masses. And real fascist street fighters do not start blubbering and shedding tears when they’re arrested. (To paraphrase Jimmy Dugan, there’s no crying in fascism.)
This is why it’s a mistake to assume that every group of howling weirdos wearing “Trump 2024” capes and carrying bear spray is composed of “fascists.” Some of these people are deluded, some are bored, and some are just idiots. If we build them into something more, we’re not only missing the chance to pull some of those people back into American democracy; we’re going to fail to spot the real fascists hiding among them. Glaring drivers jacked up on Fox News and talk radio flying “Fuck Joe Biden” flags on their cars aren’t fascists; they’re the raw material of fascism, the battering rams that actual fascists— cleverer and nimbler than the hapless overgrown adolescents who will end up in front of a judge— will use to knock down our institutions by goading them into violence.
This might seem like a distinction without a difference. And I suppose, like so many people, I am prone to “normalcy bias”— a kind of innate denial that life could ever change dramatically. For those of us who remember the Cold War, it is a special humiliation to think that we defeated the Soviet Union only to find Americans in Budapest cheering on the likes of Viktor Orbán.
But something has changed in American life. Trumpism, which has captured the base of the Republican Party, is authoritarian, antidemocratic, anti-constitutional, and anti-American. For now, Trump and the GOP activists are capable only of igniting scramble-brained jacqueries. But Trump’s most faithful followers are headed for fascism, and they will use the GOP as the vehicle to get there unless the rest of us remain true to a pro-democracy coalition.
It is also important not to be overly distracted by Trump himself. We are in a prefascist interlude, but Trump himself is too incompetent, too lazy and selfish, to lead an actual fascist movement. But avoiding the word won’t prevent it from happening. What should really scare us is realizing that smarter and tougher American fascist leaders are out there, waiting. Trump has paved the way for them by corroding the guardrails of the American system, normalizing the kinds of rhetoric and attacks on opponents used by actual fascists, and convincing ordinary American voters that mass violence is an alternative to the ballot box.
We can prove him wrong and stop this threat in its tracks. But time is growing short.
Nichols wasn’t advocating directly for contributing to progressive Democrats running for Congress. Let me do it for him. Progressives didn’t fare well against a tidal wave of conservative money— coordinated by Hakeem Jeffries and Mark Mellman— from AIPAC, Democratic Majority For Israel and crypto-billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried— but these are some who are still standing. Please consider contributing what you can to their campaigns by clicking here (for House seats) and here (for Senate seats). Fascism really is scary— not the word, the thing— and it’s worth a couple of bucks to help stop it in its tracks. No one who knows what "fascism" means, is unaware that Marjorie Traitor Greene (Q-GA), Paul Gosar (R-AZ), Claudia Tenney (R-NY), Ronny Jackson (R-TX), Lauren Boebert (Q-CO), Gym Jordan (R-OH), Mary Miller (Q-IL), Scott Perry (R-PA), Bob Good (R-VA), Matt Rosendale (R-MT), Andy Biggs (R-AZ), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Mo Brooks (AL), Mayra Flores (Q-TX) and Ted Budd (R-NC), to mention a few that come right to mind, are exactly that. There's no Rubicon for any of that lot to cross.
This morning, coincidentally, Robert Reich suggested that “fascism” is a word that does need to be used by the mainstream media. He was specifically talking about Florida’s fascist governor Ron DeSantis, who, he wrote “is the nation’s consummate culture warrior. Lately he has been campaigning on behalf of Republican election-deniers around the country, including gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania and US Senate candidate JD Vance in Ohio. In Florida, discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity are now barred in schools. Math textbooks have been rejected for what officials call ‘indoctrination’. Claiming tenured professors in Florida’s public universities were ‘indoctrinating’ students, DeSantis spearheaded a law requiring them to be reviewed every five years. Teachers are limited in what they can teach about racism and other tragic aspects of American history. DeSantis has got personally involved in local school board races, endorsing and campaigning for 30 board candidates who agree with him (so far, 20 have won outright, five are going to runoffs). Abortions are banned after 15 weeks. (DeSantis recently suspended an elected prosecutor who said he would refuse to enforce the anti-abortion law.) A new state office has been created to investigate ‘election crimes.’ Florida’s Medicaid regulator is considering denying state-subsidized treatments to transgender people. Its medical board may ban gender-affirming medical treatment for youths.”
So, is it useful to characterize DeSantis’s combination of homophobia, transphobia, racism and misogyny, along with his efforts to control the public schools and universities and to intimidate the private sector (eg, Disney), as redolent of fascism?
America’s mainstream media is by now comfortable talking and writing about “authoritarianism.” Maybe it should also begin using the term “fascism,” where appropriate.
…Authoritarianism implies the absence of democracy, a dictatorship. Fascism– from the Latin fasces, denoting a tightly bound bundle of wooden rods typically including a protruding axe blade, adopted by Benito Mussolini in the 1930s to symbolize his total power– is different.
Fascism also includes hatred of “them” (people considered different by race or religion, or outside the mainstream, or who were born abroad), control over what people learn and what books they are allowed to read, control over what had been independent government units (school boards, medical boards, universities and so on), control over women and the most intimate and difficult decisions they’ll ever make, and demands that the private sector support the regime.
Perhaps my “just wondering” tweet about DeSantis hit the nerve of the fascism now taking root in the Republican party?
Or is DeSantis’s own nascent presidential campaign behind the outsized reaction to my tweet?
After all, if you’re seeking a presidential nomination in today’s GOP, there’s nothing like an accusation of fascism to rally Trump supporters. It might be a particularly useful strategy if your primary opponent in 2024 will be Trump.