What’s really at stake in the fascism debate
Image credit: Alisdare Hiuckson, July 13, 2018.

This essay was originally published by Arc magazine on January 27th 2021.

Many themes of the Trump presidency reached a crescendo on January 6th, when the now-former president’s supporters rampaged through the Capitol building. Among those themes is the controversy over whether we should label the Trump movement “fascist.”

This argument has flared-up at various points since Trump won the Republican nomination in 2015. After the Capitol attack, commentators who warned of a fascist turn in American politics have been rushed back into interview slots and op-ed columns. Doesn’t this attempt by a violent, propaganda-driven mob to overturn last November’s presidential election vindicate their claims?

Many themes of the Trump presidency reached a crescendo on January 6th, when the now-former president’s supporters rampaged through the Capitol building. Among those themes is the controversy over whether we should label the Trump movement “fascist.”

This argument has flared-up at various points since Trump won the Republican nomination in 2015. After the Capitol attack, commentators who warned of a fascist turn in American politics have been rushed back into interview slots and op-ed columns. Doesn’t this attempt by a violent, propaganda-driven mob to overturn last November’s presidential election vindicate their claims?

If Trumpism continues after Trump, then so will this debate. But whether the fascist label is descriptively accurate has always struck me as the least rewarding part. Different people mean different things by the word, and have different aims in using it. Here’s a more interesting question: What is at stake if we choose to identify contemporary politics as fascist?

Many on the activist left branded Trump’s project fascist from the outset. This is not just because they are LARPers trying to re-enact the original anti-fascist struggles of the 1920s and 30s — even if Antifa, the most publicized radicals on the left, derive their name and flag from the communist Antifaschistische Aktion movement of early 1930s Germany. More concretely, the left’s readiness to invoke fascism reflects a longstanding, originally Marxist convention of using “fascist” to describe authoritarian and racist tendencies deemed inherent to capitalism.

From this perspective, the global shift in politics often labeled “populist” — including not just Trump, but also Brexit, the illiberal regimes of Eastern Europe, Narendra Modi’s India, and Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil — is another upsurge of the structural forces that gave rise to fascism in the interwar period, and therefore deserves the same name.

In mainstream liberal discourse, by contrast, the debates about Trumpism and fascism have a strangely indecisive, unending quality. Journalists and social media pundits often defer to experts, so arguments devolve into bickering about who really counts as an expert and what they’ve actually said. After the Capitol attack, much of the discussion pivoted on brief comments by historians Robert Paxton and Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Paxton claimedin private correspondence that the Capitol attack “crosses the red line” beyond which the “F word” is appropriate, while on Twitter Ben-Ghiat drew a parallel with Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome.

Meanwhile, even experts who have consistently equated Trumpism and fascism continue adding caveats and qualifications. Historian Timothy Snyder, who sounded the alarm in 2017 with his book On Tyrannyrecently described Trump’s politics as “pre-fascist” and his lies about election fraud as “structurally fascist,” leaving for the future the possibility Trump’s Republican enablers could “become the fascist faction.” Philosopher Jason Stanley, who makes a version of the left’s fascism-as-persistent-feature argument, does not claim that the label is definitive so much as a necessary framing, highlighting important aspects of Trump’s politics.

The hesitancy of the fascism debate reflects the difficulty of assigning a banner to movements that don’t claim it. A broad theory of fascism unavoidably relies on the few major examples of avowedly fascist regimes— especially interwar Italy and Germany –– even if, as Stanley has detailed in his book How Fascism Works, such regimes drew inspiration from the United States, and inspired Hindu nationalists in India. This creates an awkward relationship between fascism as empirical phenomenon and fascism as theoretical construct, and means there will always be historians stepping in, as Richard Evans recently did, to point out all the ways that 1920s-30s fascism was fundamentally different from the 21st century movements which are compared to it.

But there’s another reason the term “fascism” remains shrouded in perpetual controversy, one so obvious it’s rarely explored: The concept has maintained an aura of seriousness, of genuine evil, such that acknowledging its existence seems to represent a moral and political crisis. The role of fascism in mainstream discourse is like the hammer that sits in the box marked “in case of emergency break glass” — we might point to it and talk about breaking the glass one day, but actually doing so would signify a kind of rupture in the fabric of politics, opening up a world where extreme measures would surely be justified.

We see this in the impulse to ask “do we really want to call everyone who voted for fascist?” “Aren’t we being alarmist?” And “if we use that word now, what will we use when things get much worse?” Stanley has acknowledged this trepidation, suggesting it shows we’ve become accustomed to things that should be considered a crisis. I would argue otherwise. It reflects the crucial place of fascism in grand narrative of liberal democracy, especially after the Cold War — a narrative that relies on the idea of fascism as a historical singularity.

This first occurred to me when I visited Holocaust memorials in Berlin, and realized, to my surprise, that they had all been erected quite recently. The first were the Jewish Museum and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, both disturbingly beautiful, evocative structures, conceived during the 1990s, after the collapse of communist East Germany, and opened between 2000–2005. Over the next decade, these were followed by smaller memorials to various other groups the Nazis persecuted: homosexuals, the Sinti and Roma, the disabled.

There were obvious reasons for these monuments to appear at this time and place. Post-reunification, Germany was reflecting on its national identity, and Berlin had been the capital of the Third Reich. But they still strike me as an excellent representation of liberal democracies’ need to identify memories and values that bind them together, especially when they could no longer contrast themselves to the USSR.

Vanquishing fascist power in the Second World War was and remains a foundational moment. Even as they recede into a distant, mythic past, the horrors overcome at that moment still grip the popular imagination. We saw this during the Brexit debate, when the most emotionally appealing argument for European integration referred back to its original, post-WWII purpose: constraining nationalism. And as the proliferation of memorials in Berlin suggests, fascism can retroactively be defined as the ultimate antithesis to what has, from the 1960s onwards, become liberalism’s main moral purpose: protection and empowerment of traditionally marginalized groups in society.

The United States plays a huge part in maintaining this narrative throughout the West and the English-speaking world, producing an endless stream of books, movies, and documentaries about the Second World War. The American public’s appetite for it seems boundless. That war is infused with a sense of heroism and tragedy unlike any other. But all of this stems from the unique certainty regarding the evil nature of 20th century European fascism.

This is why those who want to identify fascism in the present will always encounter skepticism and reluctance. Fascism is a moral singularity, a point of convergence in otherwise divided societies, because it is a historical singularity, the fixed source from which our history flows. To remove fascism from this foundational position – and worse, to implicate us in tolerating it – is morally disorientating. It raises the suspicion that, while claiming to separate fascism from the European historical example, those who invoke the term are actually trading off the emotional impact of that very example.

I don’t think commentators like Snyder and Stanley have such cynical intentions, and nor do I believe it’s a writer’s job to respect the version of history held dear by the public. Nonetheless, those who try to be both theorists and passionate opponents of fascism must recognize that they are walking a tightrope.

By making fascism a broader, more abstract signifier, and thereby bringing the term into the grey areas of semantic and historiographical bickering, they risk diminishing the aura of singular evil that surrounds fascism in the popular consciousness. But this is an aura which, surely, opponents of fascism should want to maintain.