There is an important and useful debate about whether fascism is the appropriate term. I am neither a scholar nor a journalist—I am a political organizer who is foremost concerned with the consequences of how we talk about the threat posed by Trump and, much more importantly, his millions of followers.
Fascism is a term that is understood by most Americans. It conveys the existential threat his movement poses to our democracy, the scope of changes needed to alleviate the racism and suffering that led to his rise, and the steps we must take to ensure his movement does not find a successor. If Trump is the leader of a fascist movement, it should motivate everyone who believes in democracy, from the center-right to the progressive left, to seek a part in a transformation of our politics and our economy on a scale not seen since the New Deal or Reconstruction.
The argument that Trump is a fascist has always been straightforward: it is that we should take his words seriously and literally. He has told us time and again that he opposes democracy and that only white people should be considered fully American. He is clearly an aspiring authoritarian who mobilized a nationalist movement based on ethnic identity to overturn democracy, or what academics would call an “ethno-nationalist authoritarian.”
However, there are key differences between his movement and European fascist movements of the 1920s and 1930s. Critics of the analogy point to Trump’s strained relationship with the military, his aversion to expansionary conflict, his movement’s unwillingness to explicitly oppose democratic rule, the lack of calls to sacrifice on behalf of the homeland, and the limits of his movement’s paramilitary abilities, all of which differ from European fascism.
But on each of these points, Trump’s differences with Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco are largely the result of differences in circumstance, not intent. American fascism is based on individualism, because in the United States it is the individual, and not the collective folk, who reigns supreme. Our culture has a stronger expectation of constitutional and democratic rule than did early 20th century Europe, so American fascism venerates “the Constitution” as a totem while completely disregarding the rule of law it enshrines.
Like Erdogan in Turkey or Putin in Russia, Trump is a “competitive authoritarian” who seeks to maintain the veneer of democratic legitimacy, even as he supersedes the law and degrades the legitimacy of elections. Trump’s conflict with the military comes from the disgust of top brass with his personal and political conduct, not a lack of belligerence or willingness to stoke international conflict on his part. Trump’s differences with the fascisms of the past have more to do with differences in time and place, but have comparably violent and dictatorial intentions.
So American fascism is not a European import, but the current incarnation of a deeply American tradition. American fascism shares many strands with more traditional forms of American conservatism, but there is one key difference: whereas conservatism seeks to bend the law to defend the existing racial, gender, and economic hierarchy, fascism is willing to break the law all together.
Trump’s fascism is also an outgrowth of white supremacy. While most of our society upholds and embodies white supremacy, there is a difference between an active movement to overturn representative democracy and the larger caste system of racial oppression we’ve been living in since slavery was established on this continent.
Artist and Black liberation activist Bree Newsome says, “The danger in people using ‘white supremacy’ & ‘fascism’ interchangeably is it misses how the forces opposing fascism in this moment are also white supremacist institutions. These are related but distinct terms & it’s also key to understanding how the mainstream empowered fascism.” Corporate America has broken with Trump, but they are still pillars of white supremacy and architects of the inequality that helped fuel his rise.
Historian of authoritarianism Timothy Snyder has referred to Trump’s fascism as an incipient or pre-fascism. In this telling Trump has fascist instincts and tendencies, but his vision of society and the paramilitary capacities of his supporters is not sufficiently developed to be considered a full blown fascist threat. We are indeed fortunate that Trump’s fascist vision of the future is as incoherent as everything else about him, and that his paramilitary capacities were limited by his lack of capacity for long-term or disciplined strategic thinking.
However, the events of the past 10 days should make the extent of Trump’s fascist intentions and abilities much more clear. Scholars who had previously been skeptical of the term, including Robert Paxton, author of The Anatomy of Fascism, began considering Trump a fascist after the recent events. Even before the insurrection, Trump was clearly organizing an attempted coup. In the months leading up to the election, he made various efforts to bring the leaders of the Department of Justice, the Supreme Court, and the military into line to ignore the Constitution. Those attempts failed, but his efforts to convince his supporters to disregard the results succeeded.
The events of Jan. 6 should be considered a fascist insurrection that was the final attempt of a long-simmering coup. The more information that emerges, the more clear it is that we narrowly averted catastrophe. “This could have been a slaughter; the decapitation of the legislative branch of government,” a former senior homeland security official told former Obama adviser David Axelrod. The violent insurrection was organized with the active participation of Republican members of Congress, officers in the Capitol Police, and former members of the military. Democratic members of Congress feared for their lives. And yet, while the insurrection was ongoing—and after it!—139 House Republicans voted to overturn the results of the election.
The intention of Trump’s fascist insurrection was to keep him in power against the wishes of the majority of Americans, and in so doing, demolish the constitutional order. If the results of presidential elections can be overturned by force, there are no laws of the land that are meaningful beyond the dictates of the man in power. While Trump never explicitly stated his opposition to constitutional democracy and multiracial democracy, it couldn’t have been made more clear.
The Future of the Fascist Movement
We must consider the defeat of Trump’s insurrectionary, incoherent fascism not as the end of the threat posed by American fascism, but as the beginning.
Whether Trump is a fascist, or merely a pre-fascist, the fact is that he has demonstrated the path to power for future, more coherent fascist leaders to follow. Power abhors a vacuum. So as long our political system affords politicians who can win over the fascist bloc of Republican voters a pathway to the party’s nomination, and therefore the presidency and majorities in Congress, there will be politicians who’ll take advantage of the opportunity.
The majority of Republican voters support Trump’s American fascism—even after the coup. According to polling by The Washington Post, 51 percent of Republicans say GOP leaders didn’t go far enough in nullifying the election, 56 percent say Trump bears zero blame for the insurrection, and 66 percent say he has acted responsibly. Trump’s approval rating is way down due to the unfavorable coverage, but he’s still at 60 percent favorability among Republicans and is the prohibitive frontrunner for the Republican Party presidential nomination. Sadly, these numbers are likely the floor, and not the ceiling for these beliefs.
The fascist majority within the Republican Party means that Republican office holders can’t break with Trump’s vision of the party even if they wanted to. Democratic Rep. Jason Crow told MSNBC, “A couple of [my Republican colleagues] actually broke down in tears talking to me, and saying that they are afraid for their lives if they vote for this impeachment.” Republicans are already talking about primarying the members who supported impeachment and are taking steps to remove Liz Cheney (R-WY) from leadership for supporting impeachment. So long as the majority or even a significant plurality of Republican voters are fascist, it will continue to be in Republican politicians’ interests to support fascism.
Outside the party proper, the corporate establishment that supports the GOP has shown it is neither willing nor able to stop the rise of candidates like Trump. The 2016 primary was seen as an anomaly, but is likely closer to the new normal for the GOP. Fox News, the Koch brothers, and the Chamber of Commerce all tried to stop Trump. They failed. At first, Marjorie Taylor Greene was considered a pariah; but she was quickly transformed into a desired surrogate for Republicans in close races. Madison Cawthorn had a series of articles written about his white supremacist ties, but was a primetime speaker at the Republican National Convention anyway.
The establishment wing of the GOP will make another effort to reclaim the party, but they are likely doomed to fail. The Reagan-era project of right-wing neoliberalism has nothing more to offer intellectually or politically; the welfare state has been shrunk to its smallest possible form. More importantly, when given a choice between the veiled racism of buzzwords like “forced integration” and “welfare queens” and the more explicit racism of “shithole countries,” most Republican voters choose the latter. The corporate wing of the party may wish to continue giving people the racism they want and governing as they please, but the strategy of laundering laissez-faire economic policies through racist rhetoric breaks down when crude, populist racism is offered as an alternative.
The militant prong of the fascist movement is also likely to continue to grow. The social media platforms that have exacerbated white nationalist radicalism are unlikely to face additional regulations in a Biden administration which placed former Facebook and Uber lobbyists in key personnel roles. The transformation of Kyle Rittenhouse into a hero of the conservative movement creates an incentive for future killers to follow his lead. The militia movement has grown steadily since the Obama presidency showed the possibility of a multiracial America.
Trump’s support among enlisted service members was threatening enough to the incoming Biden administration that the Joint Chiefs had to issue a report clarifying they stood behind him. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of current and former law enforcement and military who are devotees of Trump. There is no shortage of veterans or police officers who could be mobilized to violence by white grievance politics and serve as easy recruits for the next fascist leader.
And, while the next leader to follow in Trump’s fascist footsteps is not waiting in the wings, it is only a matter of time before he (yes, probably he) appears. American fascism is not a supply problem, but a demand problem. The rise of American fascism isn’t just the result of a singularly talented reality TV demagogue, but of a public that grew up on myths of white supremacy and American might forced to deal with an increasingly unequal economy and a collapsing empire. The threat doesn’t just come from hateful or authoritarian politicians, but a system where winning a plurality of voters in the GOP (a mere 25 percent of all voters) can give fascist politicians control of the entire federal government.
What We Do About It
The rise of fascism in America is the result of an economic and constitutional order that is trapped in a precipitous decline. We are in a doom loop of oligarchy, white supremacy, and partisan gridlock. Sadly, the political institutions created by our 18th-century Constitution can’t solve the problems we face.
There is a reason our Constitution no longer serves as the example the Supreme Court uses when advising newly democratized nations: it is poorly designed and uniquely hard to change. Even though fascism threatens to abolish the constitutional order, the solution isn’t to cling to the Constitution, but to radically reform it—or, one day, rewrite it—to strengthen majority rule and limit the political power of the white supremacist minority.
Fascism can’t be defeated solely through elections, or in the streets. Fascism is defeated by reconstructing the constitutional and economic order to ensure a democratic government is capable of representing the interests and meeting the basic needs of all its citizens. The threat is existential, so the solutions must be systemic. To stop the rise of fascism, we must break up the two-party system by changing how we elect people to Congress.
America’s two-party system is something of an anomaly amongst modern democracies. Most wealthy democracies, including those that were rebuilt out of the ashes of fascist dictatorships, have a multi-party system with proportional representation. One of the major benefits of a multi-party, proportional system is that right-wing authoritarian parties find it less easy to grab the levers of power.
Trump’s fascist movement at its core only commands the support of roughly a quarter of all voters. For example, he won 44 percent of the Republican primary vote in 2016, and then won the presidency with 46 percent of all voters in the general election, which would that mean around 20 percent of all voters are Trump Republicans. Under our system, that’s enough for them to control the presidency and determine what makes it through Congress. We need political reforms that ensure the fascist faction can’t take power or serve as a veto to the actions of the pro-democracy majority. Unfortunately, as of right now, pro-democracy Republicans have nowhere to go to staunch the rise of dictatorship.
Instead of spending money on TV ads and consultant fees, Never Trump groups like the Lincoln Project should organize pro-democracy Republicans to reform the party system, so they can have a party with representatives in Congress. And they shouldn’t have to do it alone. Progressive Democrats like the Squad, moderate Democrats, and pro-democracy Republicans. In a multiparty system, each of these factions could have their own party with representatives in Congress, freeing them from the ideological constraints of needing to work with parts of their existing party coalition with whom they have vast differences.
While the idea may seem far-fetched, the realization that a multi-party system is needed stretches across the political spectrum. Experts at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a group of cross-disciplinary experts whose roots go back to its founding during the American Revolution by John Adams and others, recently put out a report called Our Common Purpose, in which they argued for political reforms that would move us beyond the two-party system. Liberal institutions like The New York Times editorial board and Democratic Party stalwarts like Jim Clyburn have endorsed proportional representation, as have leftist publications like Jacobin, and center-right intellectuals like Yuval Levin at American Enterprise Institute.
In fact, a proposal to move toward a multi-party system was introduced last Congress by Democratic Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA). The Fair Representation Act would make it legal for states to create multi-member congressional districts. Instead of having 435 districts, each with 1 seat per district, states would create new Congressional Districts with three to five members each. Multi-member districts would likely produce a four- to six-party system in the House, which would greatly diminish the ability of the fascists to win, or join, the majority. Pro-democracy Republicans wouldn’t have to worry about losing a primary to Republican fascists. In such a multi-party system, we could form coalition governments that deny the fascist party the opportunity to join the governing majority.
The fight to create a government where the majority can rule and the fascist minority can’t easily take over is not likely to succeed overnight, but the prospects for our democracy to survive the growing fascist threat depend on its success. One place where the reform coalition could start would be to add the Fair Representation Act to HR 1, the big democracy reform bill that is likely to come before the House later this month. Even if such a fight were to fail, it would serve as a useful organizing opportunity for leaders of the various factions to begin moving toward a new form of government together. The current slate of democracy reform proposals in HR 1 are meaningful, but don’t come close to resolving the structural failures of our constitution that are fueling the rise of fascism. Even reforming the party system is incomplete, but it’s the biggest possible step in the right direction—even if it takes years to win.
Fascism is also defeated when governments reconstruct the economy by mobilizing the resources of the state to put people to work, combat corporate monopolies, and ensure the basic needs of all are met. While there will always be people primarily motivated by ethnic hatred, unequal economies are fertile breeding grounds for antidemocratic movements. The least equal parts of America are still those areas that had the densest population of slaves.
If we are going to become the multiracial democracy we must be, we will need to create an economy that provides for the basic needs of all. Neoliberal means-tested programs and austerity are both fuel for the fascist fire. Just as FDR defeated the rising fascism of the 1930s by putting millions to work in the New Deal, Biden and the Democrats can defeat Trump’s fascism by putting millions to work in a Green New Deal, deficits be damned.
While it’s scary to think about confronting the threat of fascism, we have defeated it before and we will defeat it again. The Confederacy and the Nazi regime were crushed in the aftermath of war, when the political and military power of the fascists was demolished, and multi-ethnic democracy could be forcibly imposed. We need a comparable mobilization of political will and economic resources to defeat American fascism. After all, it’s our unwillingness to finish the process of destroying the remnants of slave-power during Reconstruction that brought us to this point.
If we act swiftly and decisively, we may be able to staunch the rise of American fascism without experiencing the horrors of civil war or dictatorship. If we don’t, the rise of fascism is likely to continue—and civil war or dictatorship become increasingly likely. To do so, we must look American fascism square in the face, and not just assume it’s enough to change the individuals in charge, but have the courage to change the system that produces and enables it.