Revisiting the “fascism” debate

Three or four years ago, as Donald Trump was first a surprise presidential contender and then an even more surprisingly elected president, there was a lot of discussion about the applicability of the term “fascist” to modern conditions and to Trump in particular. (Here’s one of my early contributions to the debate.)

That debate has mostly bubbled along at a low level since. Events in other parts of the world have shown that Trump is in no way an isolated phenomenon, but they’ve also shown that the task of defeating authoritarianism is much more urgent than the question of what to call it. When we need a distinctive name, “Trumpist” seems to work quite well.

This week, in the New York Review of Books, historian Samuel Moyn revisits the debate, and it’s well worth a read. He has a great many sensible things to say about the uses of comparison, and suggests that the warnings in 2016 were not without reason:

The horrors coming were likely, though no one knew their exact form. Sometimes, the sky does not fall in precisely the way the chickens fear, but it is still the right move to cluck.

But Moyn’s basic contention is that “fascist”, as a description of Trump or his supporters, is misleading and even dangerous, because it obscures their deep roots in American history and as a result absolves certain political actors of their share of blame:

Abnormalizing Trump disguises that he is quintessentially American, the expression of enduring and indigenous syndromes. A response to what he represents hardly requires a restoration of “normalcy” but a questioning of the status quo ante Trump that produced him. Comparison to Nazism and fascism imminently threatening to topple democracy distracts us from how we made Trump over decades … Selective outrage after 2016 says more about the outraged than the outrageous.

I think there’s a lot of truth in this. On a number of occasions I’ve drawn attention to the demons that lurk deep in the American body politic: the worship of violence, the religious fundamentalism, the seemingly ineradicible racism.

These are not things that the United States needed to borrow from Europe of the 1920s and ’30s. On the contrary, the Nazis themselves looked to the US as a model for how to deal with the “inferior” races. Trump’s Republican Party did not suddenly discover or invent the appeal to racial and gender insecurity; it drew on a long history.

And while the rather lonely band of “Never Trump” conservatives deserve credit for their stand, very few of them have been willing to acknowledge the role they played in creating a party – and by extension a country – in which a Trump became possible.

Unquestionably, America has in many ways and at many times been a force for good in the world. Even American exceptionalism, the idea of the United States as “the indispensable nation” (the phrase is Madeleine Albright’s, but the concept goes back two centuries), has had its benefits.

America’s self-image as the great pioneer of liberal democracy is not unfounded. But there is a dark underside to it that is not acknowledged as often as it should be. Jacob Levy expressed it well a couple of years ago:

The early American republic, and especially the Jacksonian republic, was at once much more democratic than any European state of the same era and much more racist, and these were not unrelated. A hierarchical society with countless small social gradations can treat racial subordination as continuous with many other kinds of subordination. A levelled hierarchy among whites sharpens the distinction at the edges of that category; a social hill is replaced by a social plateau that ends in cliffs. The expanding rights and proud equal dignity of lower-class whites came to consist precisely in their equal claim to whiteness; this became a foundational fact of American democratic equality.

Similar things could be said about America’s treatment of other minorities, of women, and its unhealthy veneration of the military. Exceptionalism has even hollowed out the commitment to democracy: an electoral system that was state-of-the-art in the 1820s has been allowed to ossify, producing not just occasional undemocratic results, but an extraordinary lack of public concern about them.

Ironically, I think that Moyn himself is captive to some extent to the exceptionalist myth. While he entreats us not to treat Trump as an isolated part of the American story, he doesn’t really consider the commonalities between Trump and the range of other autocrats who have come to power in other places in the last decade: Rodrigo Duterte, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orbán and the rest.

Even exceptionalism is not as exceptional as its proponents think. American nationalism has its unique features, but there are also worldwide trends at work that any nuanced understanding of Trump has to come to terms with. These are dark times. Aatish Taseer, writing in the Atlantic on Modi’s India, concludes ominously by asking “whether any harbor would survive the destructive wrath of what may be coming for us all.”

Moyn’s concern is that over-dramatising the significance of Trump – “indulging in a melodramatic righteousness,” as he puts it – could make America complacent about the idea of a return to the pre-Trump era. It’s a legitimate worry. But given the dangers the world faces, I’m not convinced that a touch of melodrama is out of order.

“Fascism”, with its bond to a similarly dangerous time a century ago, may perhaps be the word we need to understand our plight.

4 thoughts on “Revisiting the “fascism” debate

  1. I don’t really see how this argument works. German militarists and conservatives set the stage for Hitler over many decades, right up to their decision to put him into power. That doesn’t mean that they were all fascists or (obviously) that Hitler wasn’t. Fascism (or any “ism”) doesn’t come out of nowhere – it builds on existing bases.

    Liked by 1 person

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