In a tweet on Thursday morning, President Trump floated the very bad idea of delaying the presidential election. (He does not have the legal authority to do so, though that doesn’t mean there are no reasons for concern — more on those here.) Within hours, the president’s statement was being condemned, by conservatives and progressives alike, as fascism.
It’s a word that’s been appearing with increasing frequency recently, including in The Times. But what does fascism actually mean? To what extent can American politics, present and past, be described as fascist? And is it even a useful word anymore? Here’s what people are saying.
How fascism works
The word fascism has become so freighted with meaning that it can be difficult to define; today, it is often used as a shallow epithet for any politics one strongly dislikes. As a historical term, however, fascism refers to the current of far-right, anti-democratic ultranationalism that coursed through Europe in the interwar period. Although primarily associated with Adolf Hitler, fascism first gained form as a paramilitary and political movement under Benito Mussolini in 1919. The name of Mussolini’s party derived from “fasces,” the Latin word for a bundle of wooden rods containing an ax that symbolized power in ancient Rome, and which Mussolini used to represent the Italian people bound by the authority of the state.
A fascist government, as Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian of authoritarianism at New York University, explains, has only one party, led by a dictator who through violence has shut down all opposition, including from the judiciary, the press and so-called enemies of the state.
But what makes fascism distinct from other forms of authoritarianism? Here are a few signature characteristics according to Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale and the author of “How Fascism Works.”
Is America slipping into fascism?
Critics of President Trump have described him as promoting fascism since before he won the 2016 election. But the accusations have gained new force in recent months with the deployment of federal law enforcement in Washington, D.C.; Portland, Ore.; and potentially elsewhere to disperse protests, sometimes brutalizing protesters, journalists and politicians in the process.
America, of course, does not have a one-party government, and it is still holding elections (though fears about their future legitimacy abound), so it cannot credibly be called a fascist state. But do recent events bear the mark of fascist tendencies? The Times columnist Michelle Goldberg thinks so. “This is a classic way that violence happens in authoritarian regimes, whether it’s Franco’s Spain or whether it’s the Russian Empire,” the historian Timothy Snyder told her. “The people who are getting used to committing violence on the border are then brought in to commit violence against people in the interior.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted:
In The New York Post, Norman Podhoretz describes such declarations as nothing more than “elite hysterics”: Presidents are perfectly within their rights to use federal forces to protect federal property, as many have done before. Federal forces were sent into Los Angeles in 1992, at the request of California’s governor, to control the Rodney King uprisings, into Washington, Chicago and Baltimore in 1968 after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and into Chicago in 1877 during the Great Railroad Strike. As the historian Heather Ann Thompson told The Times, “The idea of bringing in troops or law enforcement in its many forms to quell civilian protest is as American as apple pie — it is foundational to this nation.”
It is on the shores of American history that arguments about domestic fascism tend to come to grief. For if one accepts Stanley’s description, most of the country’s politics to date could be said to evince elements of fascism, as the historian Samuel Moyn writes in The New York Review of Books. In fact, when the Nazis went about designing a legal regime to racialize citizenship and prevent miscegenation, they looked to American race law for a model, as the historian James Q. Whitman has documented: “In ‘Mein Kampf,’ Hitler praised America as nothing less than ‘the one state’ that had made progress toward the creation of a healthy racist order of the kind the Nuremberg Laws were intended to establish.”
Much has also been made of recent incidents of unidentified federal agents pulling protesters into unmarked vehicles. Yet as Brandon Soderberg and Baynard Woods report for The Guardian, local police departments have used this “quasi-fascist tactic” for years. The plainclothes officers who were seen in a widely shared video pulling a New York City protester into an unmarked van on Tuesday, for example, did so under the authority not of Donald Trump but of Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Still, Thompson said of Trump, “There is a way in which he is taking this to the next level.” Clark Neily, the vice president for criminal justice at the Cato Institute, pointed out that the Trump administration seems to be using federal agents as a “run-of-the-mill domestic policing force,” including in cities where no violent protest has occurred. Unlike in 1968 or 1992, local officials have not asked for federal intervention. And since then, the number of federal agencies at the president’s disposal has grown. (The Department of Homeland Security was established only in 2002, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement only in 2003.)
Ultimately, the semblance of fascism is still very different from the fact of it. But the journalist Masha Gessen, like Stanley himself, believes that the former is reason enough to worry. After all, fascists have historically come to power through elections. “Trump is now performing his idea of power as he imagines it,” Gessen wrote in The New Yorker last month. “In his intuition, power is autocratic; it affirms the superiority of one nation and one race; it asserts total domination; and it mercilessly suppresses all opposition. Whether or not he is capable of grasping the concept, Trump is performing fascism.”
The cost of calling ‘fascism’
The appeal of reading history into the present is plain enough. But what cost does it incur to understanding? The act of comparison can obscure distinctions even as it illuminates similarities. Moyn argues that by comparing the current moment in America to fascism, one relieves oneself of the responsibility to analyze what is truly new about it. “For all its other virtues,” he writes, “comparison in general does not do well with the novelty that Trump certainly represents, for all of his preconditions and sources.” Nor do analogies to fascism spare much room to appreciate the ways in which the country’s present is continuous with its past. The historian David A. Bell tweeted:
Might there also be a political cost to invoking fascism? Perhaps, Moyn says. But in Trump’s case, the problem with such analogies may be that they’re not so much harmful as useless. “Occluding what led to the rise of Trump (who posed as a victims’ candidate) and ‘Trump-washing’ the American political elite before him who led to so much suffering are less serious mistakes than delaying and distorting a collective resolve about what steps would lead us out of the present morass,” he writes. “Charging fascism does nothing on its own. Only building an alternative to the present does, which requires imagining it first.”
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MORE ON THE F WORD
“The Debate Over the Word ‘Fascism’ Takes a New Turn” [The New York Times]
Is Trump a fascist? That may be the wrong question. [Business Insider]
“The Failure to Define Fascism Today” [The New Republic]
“Why Historical Analogy Matters” [The New York Review of Books]
“Donald Trump Doesn’t Want Authority” [The New York Times]