The last few years have understandably seen a lot of discussion about fascism. Daniel Bessner, a left-wing historian, is sick of it. “Fascism’s power in American discourse comes from the fact that it has no stable meaning — it’s mostly an all-purpose curse word, a highfalutin ‘fuck this,’” he argues in a review essay in The New Republic. “It may therefore be time to retire the term.”
On the narrow point of terminology, I largely agree that fascist should not be used to describe figures like Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis. Historians and political theorists have innumerable definitions of fascism — some narrow, others extremely broad. But most people understand fascism to mean a single-party state in which effective political opposition is impossible — or at least extremely dangerous. Neither Trump nor DeSantis is trying to build a system like this.
What I do believe is that it’s accurate to describe Trump and DeSantis as engaging in and advocating authoritarian measures that weaken democracy without eliminating it altogether as a fascist would. A more limited and precise term might be democratic backsliding — a term I favor (despite its unsuitability in headlines), because it correctly conceives of democracy and dictatorship as existing on a continuum rather than in a binary. I think Joe Biden’s term, “semi-fascist,” captures this well enough.
But Bessner doesn’t endorse either authoritarian or democratic backsliding to describe the Republican Party’s growing hostility to democracy. Indeed, he does not agree that its hostility to democracy is growing at all.
The main evidence Bessner leans on to dismiss fascism, and the broader phenomenon of right-wing democratic backsliding, is a new book, Fascism Comes to America: A Century of Obsession in Politics and Culture, by Bruce Kuklick. The book shows how promiscuously the term fascist has been employed throughout U.S. history:
At one point or another, every political perspective in the United States has been identified as fascist. In the last two decades alone, Jonah Goldberg railed against “liberal fascism” as Chris Hedges dubbed the “Christian Right” “American fascists.” Dinesh D’Souza claimed that Hillary Clinton was fascist; Paul Krugman said the same about Trump. And even fringe ideologies weren’t safe: Sebastian Gorka linked socialism with fascism, while Nouriel Roubini made similar claims about libertarianism.
From this observation, Bessner reasons that the term has simply become a meaningless epithet. There are, however, two problems with this logic that he does not consider.
The first is that the existence of false positives does not disprove the phenomenon. We could fill not just one but many books listing people and things unpersuasively labeled racist. (And not just on the left but increasingly on the right. Trump regularly employs the term racist to describe any Black person who criticizes him or investigates his crimes.) But this would hardly establish that racism is an imaginary phenomenon.
Second, World War II discredited the fascist label completely without thoroughly eradicating its underlying ideas. It is therefore possible for fascist, or semi-fascist, ideas to exist in a context in which the term fascist is shunned. The residue of the World War II struggle against self-identified fascist powers made the term into a synonym for evil in both Russia and the West, yet the former is replicating its features rather closely. Vladimir Putin has criminalized dissent while mobilizing the country in a genocidal war of territorial conquest — all in the name of opposing fascism. Attaching a widespread opprobrium to the term fascist does not seem to provide a society much inoculation against the rise of murderous ultranationalist dictators.
Bessner, using Kuklick’s argument, claims that the commonality of the term fascist is inversely proportional to its actual danger. “It was precisely this lack of threat that allowed fascism to become a generalized term of vilification,” he writes. “If there were actual fascists running around, you wouldn’t go around calling everyone fascist.” In reality, as John Ganz points out (in a response to Bessner that is very much worth your time), it was during the rise of fascism in the late 1920s and early 1930s that the Communist Party had a policy of applying the fascist label to every party other than itself — including the social democrats (or “social fascists,” as Moscow called them).
Again, while I agree with Bessner that the Republican Party is not fascist, what’s striking about his claim is that he doesn’t even believe it is moving in that direction. He cites George W. Bush, whose “many accomplishments — stealing an election, starting pointless wars, violating sundry civil liberties — are objectively more damaging (and more Nazi-like) than anything that Trump and his GOP tried to implement,” suggesting that, if anything, the party is moving away from fascism.
While I would never defend the Bush administration, it is worth pointing out that both its foreign and domestic security responses to 9/11 were enacted through Congress. This distinguishes them from Trump-era policies like the Muslim travel ban, attacks on protesters in Lafayette Square, and efforts to intimidate independent media. More important, Bessner’s comparison misses that the whole problem with authoritarianism is not that democratic governments never make terrible errors but that authoritarian ones have difficulty correcting them. The Bush administration did not prevent protest, or stop the opposing party from campaigning against the Iraq war and eventually ending it, despite Bush’s vigorous objections.
Bessner is right that the 2000 election was an ugly moment in democratic backsliding, when Republicans prevented a legally required ballot recount from taking place, for fear it would overturn the result, and were supported by their judicial allies. (The result of a recount was not known at the time. Ultimately, it would have depended on which categories of ballots the counties chose to accept.)
But many people who denounce the postelection events of 2000 believe that the Republican Party has grown more hostile to democracy since then. These early signs of weakening commitment to democratic norms are consistent with believing that the party is evolving toward authoritarianism. A perfectly healthy Republican Party would never have nominated Trump in the first place. The Brooks Brothers Riot was a sign of things to come.
And what about the terrifying extremist groups on the right? Bessner waves this off as just more of the same:
Others might argue that the rise of far-right groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, and especially their participation in the “insurrection” of January 6, 2021, suggest that there’s an unprecedented threat to U.S. democracy that only the word “fascism” can describe. But organizations like these have existed for decades and undertaken numerous spectacular acts — the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 comes immediately to mind, as do the murders of doctors providing abortions — and the term “fascist” was not usually applied to them.
I’d say the reason the word fascist was not applied to the Oklahoma City bomber is probably that he was acting outside of the party system. Timothy McVeigh didn’t care about making Bob Dole president. That places his actions in a very different category than those of right-wing extremists who are seeking to overturn the results of an election.
Indeed, the whole transformation from the 1990s to the Trump era is that far-right paramilitary organizations have gone from a position outside party politics to inside of them. Of course, having large numbers of armed kooks milling around is never a good thing, but it’s much worse when they have become the paramilitary wing of a major political party. Trump not only encouraged this opening up of the party’s rightward boundary, but his main rival, DeSantis, has done absolutely nothing to halt it. DeSantis, on the contrary, has openly courted numerous representatives of the far right (QAnon devotees, J6-ers) who would have been shunned by the pre-Trump party. Proud Boys can now work in paid jobs in the Republican Party. The profound implications of this development seem to fly right past Bessner.
So if the GOP, according to Bessner, is not getting any more authoritarian, and might even be getting less so, what is the deal with all the fascism talk? He explains that it’s because liberalism is collapsing now that the Cold War is over:
To my mind, the major reason fascism talk has lately reached a crescendo is that, for the first time in almost a century, liberalism finds itself in crisis …
For most of the twentieth century’s second half, liberalism was kept vigorous and popular because it was able to define itself against a communist enemy, which, liberals affirmed, was the primary obstacle standing in the way of a better world. But communism has been defeated, and 30 years later everything looks and feels pretty much the same, only worse. Liberals therefore need a credible enemy whose viciousness might attract Americans to the centrist cause and, in the process, help them overlook liberals’ manifold and manifest failures. Simply put, fighting fascism provides liberals with an opportunity to reinvigorate their project in a moment of crisis. This is why fascism talk exploded under Trump and not under Bush; under the latter, liberal dreams had not yet curdled.
As a simple matter of timing, this makes very little sense. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. George W. Bush didn’t leave office until two decades later. How can it be that the Soviet bogeyman prevented liberals from calling Bush fascist?
What this passage does explain is Bessner’s own refusal to accept the growing threat of right-wing authoritarianism. To acknowledge the danger of the right is to “attract Americans to the centrist cause and, in the process, help them overlook liberals’ manifold and manifest failures.” Bessner is preoccupied with factional conflict and wishes for liberalism to collapse so that a more radical politics can take its place.
Bessner really gives the game away when he cites one time that the fascism label has been used in the U.S. context that he can endorse: “In several instances, left-wing thinkers concluded that they needed to employ ‘fascism’ to help Americans appreciate that sometimes the policies of their liberal capitalist society uncomfortably mirrored those of Nazi Germany,” a usage he calls “noble.” So, according to Bessner, it’s coherent and good to use fascist as a description for the U.S. polity as a whole, but using the term for its most racist, violent, anti-democratic fringe is incoherent and bad.
As Bessner puts it, fascism “became a useful foil against which centrist liberals defined themselves.” His paroxysms of illogic all follow straightforwardly from this directive: That which is useful to centrist liberals must be denied.