Since President Trump was elected, there has been an ongoing debate about how to classify him: Right-wing populist? Authoritarian? Ethno-nationalist? This may seem like an exercise better suited to a historian of the Trump presidency, but political labels frame how we think about figures and events in the present, which in turn guides our response. The use of one label in particular has vividly demonstrated this fact over the past several weeks.
"I have held off using the f word for three and a half years," the economics professor and former labor secretary Robert Reich recently explained, "but there is no longer any honest alternative. Trump is a fascist, and he is promoting fascism in America." In the New Yorker, Masha Gessen isn’t shy about using the "F word": "Whether or not he is capable of grasping the concept, Trump is performing fascism."
Even Ron Wyden, a Democratic senator from Oregon, has now decided that the president is a fascist: "The fascist speech Donald Trump just delivered [a reference to his first public address since the killing of George Floyd sparked protests and riots across the country] verged on a declaration of war against American citizens. I fear for our country tonight and will not stop defending America against Trump’s assault."
In many cases, the declaration that Trump is a fascist isn’t accompanied by any explanation of what’s meant by the word "fascism." And even when explanations are provided, they’re often cursory – as if there’s a universal definition of fascism that everyone agrees with and understands.
In the summer of 2018, in reference to Trump’s rhetoric toward immigrants and how families were being treated at the southern border, Joy Reid asked Gessen: "Is it too much to call this fascism?"
Gessen responded: "I don’t think we have fascist rule in this country, but what we have is a fascist leader. We have a nativist, nationalist leader who is devoting all of his energy into portraying a group of people as a super dangerous enemy, both sort of subhuman – animals, infestation – and superhuman at the same time…that is fascism."
So that’s one definition: nativism, nationalism, and the weaponization of xenophobia. These are certainly elements of fascism, but are they sufficient to declare someone a fascist?
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If so, there are fascists in power all around the world – particularly in Europe, where the rise of authoritarian populism has coincided with surging nativist and anti-immigrant sentiment (especially after the migrant crisis in 2015).
Despite Reich’s recent claim that he "held off using the f word for three and a half years," he has been describing Trump as a fascist for a long time:
"Trump has finally reached a point," Reich wrote in 2016, "where parallels between his presidential campaign and the fascists of the first half of the 20th century – lurid figures such as Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Oswald Mosley, and Francisco Franco – are too evident to overlook."
Joseph Stalin was not a fascist. By grouping Stalin and Hitler together under the label of "fascism," Reich ignored the fundamental differences between two vast and complicated totalitarian systems. While both of these systems were catastrophically destructive tyrannies that eliminated political opposition, dominated civil society, and left millions dead, this is no reason to present them as interchangeable.
As the singular horror of the Holocaust makes clear, the Nazis were obsessed with race and ethnicity in a way that Stalinists were not (this isn’t to dismiss the ethnic massacres carried out by Stalin or Soviet anti-Semitism, which was pervasive).
The Nazi and Soviet conceptions of race and class led to actions that were unique to each system – just as there was no Russian equivalent of Auschwitz, there was no German equivalent of the "Kulak Operation," which left hundreds of thousands dead on the basis of their perceived class. These crucial distinctions are lost when we classify every form of tyranny under the "fascist" heading.
But that isn’t the only problem with Reich’s analysis. He describes a monolithic fascism (encompassing Hitler, Franco, Mosley, Mussolini, etc.), which obscures the distinctions between fascist leaders, states, and movements. This is a problem for other commentators who do regard Trump as a fascist today, such as Adam Weinstein, who recently published an article (about Trump’s response to the protests and riots over the past couple of weeks) in The New Republic entitled "This Is Fascism."
Weinstein argues that the Trump administration "reached an important stage of fascist maturity in the streets of dozens of cities last weekend" and says Trump’s message to the country is: "Join the fascist party. We’re winning."
Weinstein acknowledges that the type of fascism he’s talking about isn’t simply Nazism updated for the 21st century – he cites an essay by the Italian novelist and critic Umberto Eco that introduces a more nuanced view of how fascism should be broadly understood: "It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, ‘I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.’ Life is not that simple."
This is why Eco emphasized what he described as "Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism" – a loose concept that wasn’t meant to provide a concrete set of features that constitute fascism, but which sought to identify the political and cultural substrate of fascism.
According to Weinstein, "Trumpism-Republicanism has long possessed most of Umberto Eco’s 14 loose characteristics of Ur-Fascism," including the "'cult of tradition,' the machismo, the 'cult of heroism,' the conviction that 'thinking is a form of emasculation' and 'disagreement is treason." Weinstein also cites "the obsession with a plot" and Trump’s "appeal to xenophobia."
It’s true that many of the characteristics Eco listed seem prescient with regard to Trump’s behavior, as well as the political and cultural realities that made his presidency possible. Weinstein mentions this eerily prophetic observation: "There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People." Eco’s essay was published in 1995.
Eco predicted the Trump phenomenon in other ways, too – Ur-Fascism makes an "appeal against the intruders" and an "appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation." The followers of Ur-Fascism "must feel besieged" and put their trust in the "cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection."
From Trump’s impetuous executive orders about immigration and free speech to his recent announcement that Antifa would be labeled a terrorist organization, no president has been more committed to pursuing action for action’s sake.
That said, Eco’s piece is also full of reminders that fascism wasn’t a single coherent set of ideas, even at its apex in the middle of the twentieth century: "Fascism had no quintessence," he wrote. "Fascism was a fuzzy totalitarianism, a collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions."
While he didn’t expect Nazism to reemerge in Europe, Eco argued that the specter of fascism hadn’t disappeared: "[B]ehind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives. Is there still another ghost stalking Europe (not to speak of other parts of the world)?"
Eco’s capacious definition of fascism provides a disturbing answer to this question – the fascist ghost will always be with us.
"There was only one Nazism," Eco wrote. "But the fascist game can be played in many forms, and the name of the game does not change." Eco spent much of his essay outlining these different forms – he highlighted the religious differences between "Franco’s hyper-Catholic Falangism" and the pagan mysticism of Nazism, argued that Italian fascism was less totalitarian than German fascism, and made observations like this:
"Take away imperialism from fascism and you still have Franco and Salazar. Take away colonialism and you still have the Balkan fascism of the Ustashes. Add to the Italian fascism a radical anti-capitalism (which never much fascinated Mussolini) and you have Ezra Pound."
In other words, "Fascism became an all-purpose term because one can eliminate from a fascist regime one or more features, and it will still be recognizable as fascist." However, it’s important to note the modesty of the argument Eco was making: "These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it."
Eco doesn’t try to provide a definitive list of the quintessential elements of fascism – as he acknowledges, such a list doesn’t exist. This raises the question: given the sheer number of regimes and movements that have one or more of the features of Ur-Fascism, is it really useful for "fascism" to be an "all-purpose" term? Today, is the "fascism" label helpful in understanding the emergence of authoritarianism in many different countries with different historical contexts, political situations, and so on?
These questions are particularly important because "fascism" is so rarely used with any historical nuance or precision. Although Eco stressed the fact that there was "only one Nazism," in the popular imagination, fascism and Nazism are essentially interchangeable. As Weinstein acknowledges, to "many Americans," it’s "obvious" who can be described as fascists: "Hitler and the Nazis, of course, and perhaps Islamist terrorists."
This is an admission that the title of his article – "This Is Fascism" – is more or less guaranteed to be read as "This Is Nazism" by a huge number of Americans. No political label carries more weight than "fascism" – its use is bound to conjure images of concentration camps and World War II. When Trump’s critics describe him as a fascist, it doesn’t matter if they’ve read Umberto Eco and appreciate all the historical complexity of fascism – they’re making a deeply divisive and hyper-incendiary claim that will reliably be misunderstood by millions of Americans.
This is why, when Trump is decried as a fascist, it’s a gift to his defenders. They can immediately take the maximalist view of fascism-as-Nazism and demand the evidence that Trump is rounding up people and putting them in death camps, planning to invade Poland, etc.
Meanwhile, Trump is taking a similarly extreme line on Antifa – a loose collection of activists who confront far-right groups at counter-protests and demonstrations around the country, sometimes violently. In recent weeks, Trump has increasingly been presenting Antifa as a major threat to public safety in the United States, mentioning the group twice in his recent speech about deploying U.S. troops to cities where looting and rioting was taking place in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and that promise to designate it a terrorist group (which he has no legal basis to do).
Antifa provides the perfect propaganda tool for Trump, who can suggest that legitimate protests (many of which have directed their ire at his administration) have been infiltrated by a shadowy group of thugs "who are leading instigators of this violence."
Trump’s attacks on Antifa have been met with a predictable response – instead of engaging in an honest conversation about the loosely structured alliance’s tactics and principles, many commentators have cited Trump’s hostility toward the movement as more evidence of his fascism.
Consider this tweet by gun control activist David Hogg, which won 13,200 retweets and 62,100 likes: "My grandpa was part of the Antifa forces in WWII sad Donald Trump has labeled him and his fellow vets as terrorists." In Hogg’s mind, Antifa’s anti-fascist credentials are every bit as legitimate as – and analogous to - those of the American soldiers who stormed Omaha Beach. Not only that, but he regards any criticism of Antifa as criticism of anyone who has fought fascism at any point in history.
Hogg isn’t the only one who believes criticism of Antifa automatically exposes sympathy for fascism. According to a recent article by Ishaan Tharoor in The Washington Post, Trump’s promise to declare Antifa a terrorist organization "presents a question that may not need an answer: If Trump is against ‘antifascists,’ then what is he for?" Weinstein makes similar observations – he argues that the "Republican Party wants to make ‘antifascist’ a category of terrorist."
Like Hogg, Tharoor and Weinstein are collapsing the distinction between anti-fascism as a general principle and Antifa as an organization. Many civil rights groups have rightly criticized Antifa for its violence, vandalism, etc., but of course this doesn’t mean they’re criticizing the opposition to fascism in general.
However, it’s also clear that Trump is cynically presenting Antifa as a major instigator of the violence over the past couple of weeks – a claim for which there is little or no evidence – to galvanize support for a harsh response. Beyond the fact that Trump doesn’t have the legal authority to designate a domestic group like Antifa a terrorist organization (particularly considering how amorphous the group is), he has never pushed for any violent white supremacist organizations to be placed on that terror list.
Just as some commentators are treating Antifa as the embodiment of anti-fascism to discredit Trump as pro-fascist, the president is treating Antifa as the embodiment of violent criminal activity to discredit legitimate protesters.
The debate about how to classify Trump will continue. His critics have a vast lexicon to draw upon: "authoritarian," "nationalist," "populist." But the word "fascist" obscures more than it illuminates, and it has a long history of misuse.
Eco mentions the radicals in the 1960s who used expressions like "fascist pig" to "refer to a cop who did not approve of their smoking habits," and George Orwell urged his readers to "use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword."
This isn’t to say everyone who describes Trump as a fascist is doing so out of ignorance or cynicism – many journalists and academics simply think it’s the most accurate way to describe the Trump phenomenon, and their arguments deserve to be taken seriously.
But given the many discrepant forms of fascism that have existed throughout history, the virtual certainty that the word will be elided into Nazism by many, the fact that the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century were committed by fascists, the perils of overusing and undervaluing critical and resonant language – we need to start taking our use of the word "fascism" itself more seriously as well.
For Eco, one key feature of fascism is the employment and promotion of an impoverished vocabulary in order to limit critical reasoning. Surely the truest form of anti-fascism is to reject this demagogic flattening of thought and speech.
Matt Johnson has written for Stanford Social Innovation Review, The Bulwark, Quillette and Editor & Publisher. He holds a master's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas. Twitter: @mattjj89