One of the real quandaries of Trump-era politics has been how to describe the school of thought (or action) its central figure leads. The more it has become apparent that the 45th president and his adulatory followers do not represent just a temporary phenomenon or a minor variation on an old conservative theme, the more tempting it has become to compare Trumpism to right-wing authoritarian movements outside of and antagonistic to democracy, which generally go by the term fascism. This temptation has been felt by Never Trump conservatives anxious to save their own tradition from contamination by the great orange demagogue, and by progressives who wish to powerfully distinguish the threat posed by MAGA folks from the conservatives of the past they’ve deplored. By and large, all of us Trump-despising opinion-spinners have avoided the f-word as a general descriptor. But that may now be changing.
Beginning in the wee hours of November 4, 2020, when Donald Trump began his defiant effort to overturn his reelection defeat by hook or by crook, the MAGA movement has become more and more explicitly anti-democratic and insurrectionist. There was reason to hope the “fever” (to use Barack Obama’s customary term for right-wing extremism) might break after Trump was finally forced from office, or at least ease its death grip on the Republican Party.
Instead, in exile from the White House, Trump has become steadily more mendacious and irresponsible, and for all the efforts of GOP leaders to “move on,” his status as the de facto leader of his party has only strengthened. But more importantly, Trumpism is now even stronger than Trump, as evidenced by the near-national drive of Republicans to vindicate the “big lie” of the stolen election of 2020 via efforts to strong-arm voters and election officials in the future, and to inculcate an atmosphere of cultural panic over wildly exaggerated phenomena like “wokeness” and “critical race theory” and “cancel culture.” Put these two developments together and you have a Republican Party bent on denying the legitimacy of its opponents, whom it treats as incorrigible thieves and tyrants, and a threat to civilization and liberty itself.
That we are dealing with something more alarming than politics as usual was signaled by our current, normally mild-mannered, president, who said this in Philadelphia about the twin drive of Republicans to make voting harder and election subversion easier:
[H]ear me clearly: There is an unfolding assault taking place in America today — an attempt to suppress and subvert the right to vote in fair and free elections, an assault on democracy, an assault on liberty, an assault on who we are — who we are as Americans.
For, make no mistake, bullies and merchants of fear and peddlers of lies are threatening the very foundation of our country.
It gives me no pleasure to say this. I never thought in my entire career I’d ever have to say it …
The assault on free and fair elections is just such a threat, literally. I’ve said it before: We’re are facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War. That’s not hyperbole.
Former George W. Bush speechwriter and veteran Never Trumper David Frum explains how Trumpism has become much more dangerous since its leader left office, particularly now that the former president is praising, rather than ignoring or explaining away, the January 6 insurrectionists:
[T]hrough the Trump years, it seemed sensible to eschew comparisons to the worst passages of history. I repeated over and over again a warning against too-easy use of the F-word, fascism: “There are a lot of stops on the train line to bad before you get to Hitler Station.”
Two traits have historically marked off European-style fascism from more homegrown American traditions of illiberalism: contempt for legality and the cult of violence. Presidential-era Trumpism operated through at least the forms of law. Presidential-era Trumpism glorified military power, not mob attacks on government institutions. Post-presidentially, those past inhibitions are fast dissolving. The conversion of Ashli Babbitt into a martyr, a sort of American Horst Wessel, expresses the transformation. Through 2020, Trump had endorsed deadly force against lawbreakers: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he tweeted on May 29, 2020. Babbitt broke the law too, but not to steal a TV. She was killed as she tried to disrupt the constitutional order, to prevent the formalization of the results of a democratic election.
My colleague Jonathan Chait also suggested recently that Trump’s praise for the January 6 insurrectionists was a turning point for Trumpism and the Republican Party:
The anti-anti-Trump right has dismissed the insurrection as overblown, a protest march gone bad, perhaps ill-considered but never posing any serious threat to the republic. The far right’s highlighting of Babbitt’s death sends a different message: The insurrection was good. Babbitt’s effort to penetrate the defensive barrier was brave, and the stopping of her charge a crime.
By throwing himself behind this message, Trump is endorsing the most radical interpretation of his presidency. January 6 was not a minor misstep after a successful era, as fans like Mike Pence and Lindsey Graham now say. It was the heroic culmination of a righteous uprising.
There are other features of post-2020 Trumpism that bear the foul aroma of fascism. There’s the stabbed-in-the-back foundational myth, which for Germans generally meant the “betrayal of the nation” during or after World War I; for Trumpists, it’s the 2020 stolen election. There’s the mass petite bourgeois resentment of “cosmopolitan” elites. There’s the fabrication of opponents’ crimes to justify their own, via one Reichstag fire moment after the other. There’s the leader’s cult of personality and will-to-power machismo. And there’s the united front, with reactionary religious interests and radical elements among the police and military veterans.
Though Frum — and above, yours truly — used analogies from Germany to bring home the chilling point, it’s best to steer clear of Hitler and his Nazis in trying to find precedents for where Trumpism appears to be heading. Except on its neo-Nazi fringe, the MAGA movement is not guilty of anti-Semitism at all (it is, in fact, deeply supportive of Israel), which is hardly a small thing in comparing it to the fascist movement in which exterminationist anti-Semitism was absolutely central. And much as I fear that, given full power to do what they want, Trumpists would love to beat or jail BLM or feminist or voting-rights activists along with members of the hated media, I can’t imagine they have genocide in their bones. There is wisdom as well as prudence in the Jewish community’s resistance to any Holocaust or Nazis analogies that cheapen the significance of what happened in German-occupied Europe.
Frum appears to think Argentina’s Peronist movement is a good example of Trumpism’s spirit and trajectory:
After Perón lost power, Peronism became a myth of a lost golden age—a fantasy of restoration and redemption—and always a rejection of the frustrations of normal politics, of the tedium of legality. Who needed policies when the solution to every problem was a magic name? Politicians who hoped for the old leader’s blessing trudged to his place of exile, were photographed with him, and then sabotaged by him. The only plan he followed was somehow to force himself again upon his country, one way or another.
That does sound familiar, doesn’t it? I sometimes hear echoes of Franco’s Spanish military insurrection of 1936 in the Trumpist habit of depicting left-of-center politicians and journalists as bent on Marxist totalitarianism and extinction of Christianity. There was a whiff of Mussolini’s March on Rome in the January 6 insurrection. And Trump’s tilt of U.S. foreign policy in the direction of anti-democratic forces everywhere is reminiscent of fascist fellow travelers everywhere who justified repression and violence in the fight against the international left. It is true that Trump has nothing like a systematic philosophy or governing agenda. But then most fascist movements really began with a leader, a grievance, and a demonized enemy rather than a policy program.
Perhaps the lurch of Trumpism into something resembling fascism will abate or even reverse itself, particularly as its Republican captive audience comes to believe it can win power by more conventional means. I’m not sure I will believe it until Trump supporters abandon the big lie about 2020, stop pursuing anti-democratic tactics, and demobilize their, well, fascistic rhetoric.