A few days before the Senate was due to vote on whether to proceed with the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump on charges of inciting insurrection, an article in The Washington Post’s opinion pages boldly proclaimed that “Trumpism is American fascism.” Equating the Trump phenomenon with fascism is nothing new. The comparison started with his election in 2016, feeding a cottage industry over the next four years. At the time, most academic experts on fascism vehemently disagreed. In August 2020, for instance, a prominent Georgetown University historian raised the rhetorical question, “How fascist is President Trump?” The response followed, stante pede: “Not that much.”
The arguably most important reason for dismissing the fascist charge was that scholars of fascism did not want to contribute to what Gavriel D. Rosenfeld has called “symbolic inflation” — the fact that invoking Adolf Hitler has led to a process where the “value of ‘Hitler’ as an admonitory signifier has become progressively devalued over time.” Examples abound. Jörg Haider, for instance, the leader of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) who propelled it to international prominence in the 1990s, was routinely associated with Hitler.
It was only in the aftermath of the assault on the US Capitol that one of the most eminent contemporary scholars of fascism, Columbia University historian Robert Paxton, came out to state that “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.”
A Diagnosis of Decline
Behind this reassessment of Trump(ism) is the fact that those who invaded the Capitol on January 6 had no qualms about engaging in violent actions. In fact, by now, it has become obvious that many of the insurgents considered violence a perfectly acceptable means to advance their agenda. The Proud Boys — recently labeled a neo-fascist terrorist group by the Canadian government — add a whiff of squadrismo to the mix. The squadristi (this picture is taken at the Foro Italico, a piazza in front of the Olympic stadium in Rome, depicting an armed squad heading out for a punitive expedition) were Benito Mussolini’s armed goons routinely swarming out to the countryside where they terrorized socialists and trade union leaders.
Squadrismo was informed by a “palingenetic vision of politics” that was also at the heart of Mussolini’s version of totalitarianism. The term was originally coined and developed by Roger Griffin, another leading expert on fascism. Griffin defines fascism as a palingenetic form of populist ultranationalism, where “palingenetic” refers to the myth of rebirth, revival and regeneration provoked by a profound sense of decline, decay and decadence. It follows that fascism is revolutionary and, thus, by definition, the opposite of conservatism. The last thing fascists are interested in is defending and preserving the status quo.
From this perspective, there can be no doubt that Trumpism has certain affinities to fascism, to put it cautiously. The very slogan that informed Trump’s 2016 campaign, “Make America Great Again,” reflects the palingenetic spirit of fascism. It serves both as a diagnosis and a promise. A year ago, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat gave a sense of how the diagnosis might go. In his view, the United States, if not the whole Western world, suffers from decadence, manifested by “forms of economic stagnation, institutional sclerosis, and cultural repetition at a high stage of wealth and technological proficiency and civilizational development.”
There undoubtedly is much truth to this diagnosis. In fact, a Pew survey from early 2019 revealed that a significant majority of the American public shared this view. When asked about their expectations 30 years into the future, a majority thought that the United States would lose importance on the world stage; that the country would be saddled with a huge national debt; and that socioeconomic inequality would be even higher than at the moment. At the same time, the vast majority of respondents had little confidence in the capability of the country’s elected officials to meet these challenges. In fact, more than half of respondents thought that “Washington” had a “negative impact” on finding solutions to the country’s major problems.
Various studies from 2020 provide further confirmation of the perception of decline. A Brookings Institution preview of the results of the 2020 Census, for instance, painted a picture of stagnation, both in terms of population growth and mobility. A U.S.News analysis of the most recent findings of its annual country rankings found widespread skepticism that more than three years of Trump had made the country “great again.” In fact, compared to the previous year, more Americans thought the US was corrupt: at 31%, a 5% increase on 2019. At the same time, the number of Americans who thought their country was “trustworthy” declined from 61% in 2019 to 55% in 2020.
Finally, according to a Pew study from early 2020, most American Christians have come to believe that their religion has lost, and continues to lose, influence in American life. Worse still, most also believe that there is a fundamental “tension between their beliefs and the mainstream culture.” This is particularly galling given the fact that at one time in the not-so-distant past, Christian culture was mainstream culture. Not for nothing, in 2016 and 2020, (white) evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Trump.
Something Like Fascism
Diagnosis, however, is relatively easy. Coming up with a genuine remedy is a fundamentally different issue, provided it goes beyond trite platitudes couched in catchy sloganeering epitomized by Trump’s MAGA campaign. “Make America Great Again” is one of these slogans that sound good but are fundamentally meaningless in the true sense of the word. As such, it is part of the new type of “simulative politics” characteristic of contemporary Western-style democracy, a politics staged as an organized spectacle, the “embodiment of a reality style of politics,” as Douthat puts it, by a president who was “performing a drama that doesn’t necessarily have strong correlates in the real world.” All of this makes Trump a “cartoonish imitation of something like fascism,” a “weird, internet-enabled simulacrum of fascism.”
The carnivalesque mise en scène of the storming of the Capitol — a pastiche of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, itself a symbolic act given there were only seven prisoners held in the fortress — lends some credence to Douthat’s interpretation. Exemplary here is the “almost-farcical” case of “Elizabeth from Knoxville” who thought she would take part in a revolution only to get Maced (and complain bitterly about it). The farce, of course, goes only so far, given the very real violence resulting in material destruction and the loss of life. It is at this point that the simulacrum turns into reality, exposing the potential of genuine fascism hiding behind the ludicrousness and absurdity of the last days of Trump.
Trumps’ departure has not diminished the potential. Quite the contrary: His ignominious exit has added new fuel to the anger and resentment among many Americans that propelled Trump to the presidency in the first place and has done nothing to assuage diffuse political disenchantment or weaken latent authoritarian inclinations. In fact, an authoritative empirical study from June 2020 found a “substantial minority” of Americans being open to “authoritarian alternatives.” In late 2019, around a quarter of US survey respondents expressed support for a strong leader “who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections.” Overall, it concluded that between a “quarter and a third of the American public flirt with the idea that an alternative to democracy would be a good thing.”
The study does not disaggregate the results along color lines. It stands to reason, however, that a majority of those yearning for a strong leader are white voters, the very same voters who constituted the bulk of Trump’s loyal supporters. White Americans have always considered themselves the only true embodiment of the nation, rooted in a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage, which was only gradually extended to Europeans of other Christian faiths. In fact, for much of the 19th century, Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Germany and Italy were considered less white than Americans of Anglo-Saxon stock and, as a result, subject to discrimination.
Over the past several years, the universe of white American identity and pride has come crashing down. For one, as numerous projections have pointed out, by 2045, white Americans will have become a minority in what they see as “their own country.” The result has been both growing white “racial anxiety” and the beginnings of a sociocultural and sociopolitical backlash against the rise of visible minorities, reflected in the support and vote for Trump. Secondly, there is the seemingly inexorable decline of Christianity’s influence in American society. Over the past few decades, American Christians, and particularly white American Christians, have progressively lost their “cultural dominance” and, with it, the assumption, as the editor of a prominent Christian news outlet put it, “that people are like us and people understand us, and people accept us.”
Finally, there is the notion that the United States is the greatest country in the world and, therefore, predestined and entitled to assume the leadership of the Western world. This was certainly true in the postwar period, given the essential threat posed by the Soviet Union. Today, it is a rather iffy proposition, as the skepticism of a majority of the American public about the country’s position in the world clearly shows.
The Trump years have severely tarnished the American image among the country’s key allies. The trade war with China exposed American weaknesses in the face of a new challenge to its supremacy. The pandemic, and particularly the way it was handled, only made things worse. In late 2020, a mere quarter of the German population and around a third of the French had a favorable view of the United States. In the UK, traditionally America’s closest ally in Europe, only around 40% saw the US in a favorable light.
If there has ever been fertile ground in the United States for the kind of palingenetic form of populist ultranationalism Griffin has identified as the core of fascism, it is now. Fertile ground, however, is not enough. It takes the right enabler to translate the mixture of anxiety, resentment, political disenchantment, the flirting with authoritarian alternatives and the yearning for revival and the reestablishment of the “natural order” into political action. Trump might have appealed to some of these sentiments. However, in the end, the combination of egocentric narcissism and mental slothfulness assured that he would never amount to more than a cheap pastiche of the likes of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi.
This is not to say that Trump was nothing but a fleeting moment in contemporary American politics. Quite the opposite. Trump might have been the wrong person at the right time. His impact, however, is enduring. It is reflected most prominently in the direction large parts of the Republican Party have taken. Whereas in the not-so-distant past Republicans championed various culture-war causes, from opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage to the promotion of school prayers, today, a large number of Republican officials on the federal, state and local levels have adopted positions that lean in the direction of Trump-style subversion of the American democratic system. As Chris Hayes has recently put it in the pages of The Atlantic, the fight these days between Democrats and Republicans is less about policy, where under the impact of COVID-19 “the gaps are narrowing. It’s about whether the United States will live up to the promise of democracy — and on that crucial question, we’ve rarely been so divided.”
Even after the shock of January 6, Republican officials continue to feed into the politics of anger and resentment that was at the heart of the assault on Congress. Yesterday, as the Senate voted to proceed with Trump’s impeachment 56-44, just six Republicans joined their Democratic colleagues in the move to condemn the president’s role in inciting an unprecedented domestic assault on American democracy. With 17 Republican votes needed to impeach Donald Trump, a reckoning is unlikely.
The temptation to harvest white resentment for individual gain is too strong and, with it, the temptation to follow the lure of some form of post-fascist fascism, American-style. In 1935, Sinclair Lewis published a novel with the provocative title, “It Can’t Happen Here.” Lewis, of course, thought fascism was a possibility, even in the United States. It might be a good idea to give his book a second look.
Professor Hans-Georg Betz is a Senior Fellow at CARR and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Zurich. See full profile here.
© Hans-Georg Betz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).