In Donald Trump's America, the debate over the word 'fascism' and its applicability takes a new turn

On 2 June, as police officers across the country deployed brutal tactics in response to protests over the killing of George Floyd, the former secretary of labour Robert Reich announced that his old vocabulary — crowded already with harsh words for President Donald Trump — was making way for a new addition

The New York Times June 11, 2020 06:33:05 IST
In Donald Trump's America, the debate over the word 'fascism' and its applicability takes a new turn

On 2 June, as police officers across the country deployed brutal tactics in response to protests over the killing of George Floyd, the former secretary of labour Robert Reich announced that his old vocabulary — crowded already with harsh words for President Donald Trump — was making way for a new addition.

“I have held off using the F word for three and a half years, but there is no longer any honest alternative,” Reich tweeted. “Trump is a fascist, and he is promoting fascism in America.”

Reich wasn’t alone. Until last week, journalist Masha Gessen was also a sceptic. Gessen had just published Surviving Autocracy, which lists “fascism” among the words that get thrown about in the American political conversation without sufficient precision. The day after the book’s publication date, Gessen wrote a short essay for The New Yorker commenting on what it meant when the president — enamoured already of military parades and masked men in combat attire — told governors to crack down on protesters. “Whether or not he is capable of grasping the concept,” Gessen wrote, “Trump is performing fascism.”

It was a notable turn. The word fascism is so loaded that even some of the president’s most vociferous detractors had long been reluctant to use it.

Derived from the Italian for “bundle” or “group,” fascism was born at the end of the First World War in Italy, adopted by the Nazis in Germany and soon became such a widespread epithet that George Orwell decided the closest synonym to “this much-abused word” was “bully.” Ever since Trump became the Republican Party’s standard-bearer in 2016, the term has been floated and then dismissed for being too extreme and too alarmist, too historically specific or else too rhetorically vague.

Some observers countered that it would be reckless to write off the possibility of a nationwide slide into fascism, even if, in the initial years of the Trump presidency, it was too early to tell. A number of books published in 2017 and 2018 essentially told Americans to watch out. The ham-fisted slogans, the crude racism, the lurid nationalism, the venal corruption — all of it could lay the groundwork for what the historian Timothy Snyder, in On Tyranny (which he followed with The Road to Unfreedom a year later), called “a confused and cynical sort of fascist oligarchy.”

In Donald Trumps America the debate over the word fascism and its applicability takes a new turn

File image of President Donald Trump outside the St John's Church. By Doug Mills © 2020 The New York Times

Even the positive reviews of Snyder’s books exuded a certain discomfort with his conclusions, finding them so unthinkable that they were “surely” exaggerated and “overwrought.”

But when Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale, published How Fascism Works in 2018, he suggested that not being worried enough was itself a worrying sign. Trump’s rhetoric was alarming, yes, but his administration was also separating migrant children from their parents and placing them in detention centres that were hidden from public view, which Stanley compared to concentration camps in Germany in the 1930s.

“The word ‘fascist’ has acquired a feeling of the extreme, like crying wolf,” Stanley writes — not because Americans are so unfamiliar with fascist tactics but because we are becoming inured to them. “Normalization of fascist ideology, by definition, would make charges of ‘fascism’ seem like an overreaction.” Our senses have been dulled by exposure. The United States has had a long history of pro- or proto-fascist sentiment, including the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, the America First movement of the interwar years and the Jim Crow laws that Hitler cited as an inspiration. “Fascism is not a new threat,” Stanley writes, “but rather a permanent temptation.”

Writing in The New York Review of Books last month, the historian Samuel Moyn took issue with Stanley’s book, and with fascism analogies in general. Moyn’s argument, like a recent op-ed by Ross Douthat in The New York Times, rests on a straightforward premise: If the president were truly keen to crush democracy and impose a dictatorship, then a global pandemic should have provided him with the ideal opportunity. The president, they argue, had chosen instead to do basically nothing. “It is surely fodder for some future ironist that, after our era of fearing Trump’s actions,” Moyn writes, “he appears set in the current pandemic to go down in history for a worse sin of inaction.”

It’s true that the president has so far shown no interest in the kind of painstaking, collaborative, scientific action that would stand a chance of arresting a public health crisis. But the observation that he was squandering a chance to consolidate power seemed to assume a particular understanding of power, more attuned to shortages of N95 masks than enthralled by helicopters and pepper balls. It also played down what he did do during the pandemic, such as restrict immigration even further and fuel attacks on Asian-Americans by insisting on the term “Chinese virus.”

Not to mention that the timing for Moyn’s essay was unfortunate; it appeared on 19 May, nearly two weeks before the president was on a call with governors, threatening to send in the military if they didn’t “dominate” protesters who were calling for an end to police brutality. That call happened to take place on the same day that protesters were tear-gassed so that the president could pose in front of a church.

But the critique of fascism analogies runs deeper than whatever it is the president says or does. Moyn suggests that crying fascism obscures the extent to which Trump is a thoroughly American creature while also exonerating the establishment rot that allowed him to flourish in the first place. Corey Robin, in an updated edition of his book The Reactionary Mind, has argued something similar.

Both Robin and Moyn seem animated by a similar suspicion — that fascist analogies ultimately serve centrists trying to gin up fear among the Left, pushing progressives to settle for expedient political choices by overstating the strength of a floundering Right.

Robin cites a modern classic by the historian Robert O Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, to attest that what made the fascism of Mussolini and Hitler so potent was its youth and its novelty, an advantage forsaken by a lumbering and nostalgic Trump. But one of the most striking aspects of Paxton’s book, which was published in 2004, is how much attention he shines on the circumstances that allowed for fascism’s emergence in the early 20th Century and its subsequent rise.

Paxton wasn’t labouring under the same conditions as current writers, who get drawn into endless debates over whether the president is a fascist. Historically, fascist movements hardened into fascist regimes when given the opportunity by enfeebled conservative elites trying to cling to power, who resort to bringing in an outsider to rile up the base. It was only after the Nazis started losing electoral support that Hitler cut a back-room deal to be appointed chancellor.

Like a vampire, Hitler had to be invited into the house.

And maybe it’s telling that Americans have traditionally been so preoccupied with a nightmare scenario that has “the coverlet of European fascism draped over it,” as Gerald Early put it recently in the journal The Common Reader. Early was reflecting on the novelist Sinclair Lewis, whose fictional depiction of Nazism in the United States — “with all its brutal and arbitrary violence, police state surveillance and unrelenting incarceration” — bore more than a passing resemblance to the historical reality of American slavery.

Lewis had a “keen awareness of race in America” and was probably thinking ironically when he decided to call his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, Early writes. “He knew, as any aware American must, that it already had.”

Jennifer Szalai c.2020 The New York Times Company

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