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The former president, after years of espousing authoritarian beliefs, has fully embraced the language of fascism. But Americans—even those who have supported him—can still refuse to follow him deeper into darkness.
First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:
The Decisive Outrage
Readers of the Daily know that I am something of a stubborn pedant about words and their meanings. When I was a college professor teaching political science and international relations, I tried to make my students think very hard about using words such as war and terrorism, which we often apply for their emotional impact without much thought—the “war” on poverty, the “war” on drugs, and, in a perfecta after 9/11, the “war on terrorism.”
And so, I dug in my heels when Donald Trump’s critics described him and his followers as fascists. Authoritarians? Yes, some. Illiberal? Definitely. But fascism, a term coined by Benito Mussolini and now commonly used to describe Italy, Germany, and other nations in the 1930s, has a distinct meaning, and denotes a form of government that is beyond undemocratic.
Fascism is not mere oppression. It is a more holistic ideology that elevates the state over the individual (except for a sole leader, around whom there is a cult of personality), glorifies hypernationalism and racism, worships military power, hates liberal democracy, and wallows in nostalgia and historical grievances. It asserts that all public activity should serve the regime, and that all power must be gathered in the fist of the leader and exercised only by his party.
I argued that for most of Trump’s time as a public figure, he was not a fascist but rather a wannabe caudillo, the kind of Latin American strongman who cared little about what people believed so long as they feared him and left him in power. When he would make forays into the public square, his politics were insubstantial and mostly focused on exploiting reflexive resentment and racism, such as when he called for the death penalty for the Black youths wrongly accused in the infamous Central Park–jogger case. But Trump in those days was never able to square his desperate wish to be accepted in Manhattan society with his need to play the role of an outer-borough tough guy. He was an obnoxious and racist gadfly, perhaps, but he was still a long way from fascism.
As a candidate and as president, he had little in the way of a political program for the GOP beyond his exhausting narcissism. He had only two consistent issues: hatred of immigrants and love for foreign autocrats. Even now, his rants contain little political substance; when he veers off into actual issues, such as abortion and taxes, he does not seem to understand or care about them very much, and he will turn on a dime when he thinks it is to his advantage.
Trump had long wanted to be somebody in politics, but he is also rather indolent—again, not a characteristic of previous fascists—and he did not necessarily want to be saddled with any actual responsibilities. According to some reports, he never expected to win in 2016. But even then, in the run-up to the election, Trump’s opponents were already calling him a fascist. I counseled against such usage at the time, because Trump, as a person and as a public figure, is just so obviously ridiculous; fascists, by contrast, are dangerously serious people, and in many circumstances, their leaders have been unnervingly tough and courageous. Trump—whiny, childish, unmanly—hardly fits that bill. (A rare benefit of his disordered character is that his defensiveness and pettiness likely continue to limit the size of his personality cult.)
After Trump was elected, I still warned against the indiscriminate use of fascism, because I suspected that the day might come when it would be an accurate term to describe him, and I wanted to preserve its power to shock and to alarm us. I acknowledged in August 2022 that Trump’s cult “stinks of fascism,” but I counseled “against rushing toward the F-word: Things are poised to get worse, and we need to know what to watch for.”
The events of the past month, and especially Trump’s Veterans Day speech, confirm to me that the moment has arrived.
For weeks, Trump has been ramping up his rhetoric. Early last month, he echoed the vile and obsessively germophobic language of Adolf Hitler by describing immigrants as disease-ridden terrorists and psychiatric patients who are “poisoning the blood of our country.” His address in Claremont, New Hampshire, on Saturday was the usual hot mess of random thoughts, but near the end, it took a more sinister turn. (It’s almost impossible to follow, but you can try to read the full text here.) In one passage in particular, Trump melded religious and political rhetoric to aim not at foreign nations or immigrants, but at his fellow citizens. This is when he crossed one of the last remaining lines that separated his usual authoritarian bluster from recognizable fascism:
We will drive out the globalists, we will cast out the communists, Marxists, fascists. We will throw off the sick political class that hates our country … On Veterans Day, we pledge to you that we will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country, that lie and steal and cheat on elections and will do anything possible … legally or illegally to destroy America and to destroy the American dream.
As the New York University professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat later pointed out to The Washington Post, Trump is populating this list of imaginary villains (which she sees as a form of projection) in order “to set himself up as the deliverer of freedom. Mussolini promised freedom to his people too and then declared dictatorship.”
Add the language in these speeches to all of the programmatic changes Trump and his allies have threatened to enact once he’s back in office—establishing massive detention camps for undocumented people, using the Justice Department against anyone who dares to run against him, purging government institutions, singling out Christianity as the state’s preferred religion, and many other actions—and it’s hard to describe it all as generic “authoritarianism.” Trump no longer aims to be some garden-variety supremo; he is now promising to be a threat to every American he identifies as an enemy—and that’s a lot of Americans.
Unfortunately, the overuse of fascist (among other charges) quickly wore out the part of the public’s eardrums that could process such words. Trump seized on this strategic error by his opponents and used it as a kind of political cover. Over the years, he has become more extreme and more dangerous, and now he waves away any additional criticisms as indistinguishable from the over-the-top objections he faced when he entered politics, in 2015.
Today, the mistake of early overreaction and the subsequent complacency it engendered has aided Trump in his efforts to subvert American democracy. His presence in our public life has become normalized, and he continues to be treated as just another major-party candidate by a hesitant media, an inattentive public, and terrified GOP officials. This is the path to disaster: The original fascists and other right-wing dictators of Europe succeeded by allying with scared elites in the face of public disorder and then, once they had seized the levers of government, driving those elites from power (and in many cases from existence on this planet).
It is possible, I suppose, that Trump really has little idea of what he’s saying. (We’re under threat from “communists” and “Marxists” and “fascists?” Uh, okay.) But he has reportedly expressed admiration of Hitler (and envy of Hitler’s grip on the Nazi military), so when the Republican front-runner uses terms like vermin and expressions like poisoning the blood of our country, we are not required to spend a lot of time generously parsing what he may have meant.
More to the point, the people around Trump certainly know what he’s saying. Indeed, Trump’s limited vocabulary might not have allowed him to cough up a word like vermin. We do not know if it was in his prepared text, but when asked to clarify Trump’s remarks, his campaign spokesman, Steven Cheung, told The Washington Post that “those who try to make that ridiculous assertion are clearly snowflakes grasping for anything because they are suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome and their entire existence will be crushed when President Trump returns to the White House.”
Cheung later clarified his clarification: He meant to say their “sad, miserable existence” instead of their “entire existence,” as if that was somehow better. If that’s not a fascist faux pas, nothing is.
But here I want to caution my fellow citizens. Trump, whether from intention or stupidity or fear, has identified himself as a fascist under almost any reasonable definition of the word. But although he leads the angry and resentful GOP, he has not created a coherent, disciplined, and effective movement. (Consider his party’s entropic behavior in Congress.) He is also constrained by circumstance: The country is not in disarray, or at war, or in an economic collapse. Although some of Trump’s most ardent voters support his blood-and-soil rhetoric, millions of others have no connection to that agenda. Some are unaware; others are in denial. And many of those voters are receptive to his message only because they have been bludgeoned by right-wing propaganda into irrationality and panic. Even many officials in the current GOP, that supine and useless husk of an institution, do not share Trump’s ambitions.
I have long argued for confronting Trump’s voters with his offenses against our government and our Constitution. The contest between an aspiring fascist and a coalition of prodemocracy forces is even clearer now. But deploy the word fascist with care; many of our fellow Americans, despite their morally abysmal choice to support Trump, are not fascists.
As for Trump, he has abandoned any democratic pretenses, and lost any benefit of the doubt about who and what he is.
- Representative George Santos will not seek reelection in 2024 after the House Ethics Committee found “substantial evidence” that he “violated federal criminal laws.”
- Last night, the Senate passed a stopgap bill to avert a government shutdown and fund federal agencies into the new year.
- A new CNN poll shows that Nikki Haley has moved into second place, behind Donald Trump, among likely voters in the New Hampshire Republican primary.
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Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.
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