"Fascism" and "evil" are strong words. They are not to be thrown around lightly. Since the rise of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee in 2015, our media and civil society have chattered, far too quietly, whether our now President-elect qualifies as a "fascist." A historian of fascism, Robert Paxton, claimed in a Slate interview that it's "enormously tempting" to use the term to criticize one's opponents. Doing so without historical awareness and sophistication risks diminishing the evil that Italian fascism, German Nazism, Japanese militarism, and other regimes committed against their peoples. In this reluctance, Paxton is wise. Fascism is more complicated than simple right-wing authoritarianism. And using the term in a debate tends to end conversation rather than promote it.
Paxton goes on to describe how Trump exhibits some, but notably not all, of the tropes of fascist politics that history has witnessed. Among these differences Paxton depicts Trump and the Republican Party as friends of the "aggressive individualism" for which Depression-era, wartime fascist regimes sought to serve as the sociopolitical remedy. He points to the efforts of the Republicans to deregulate businesses as evidence of this pursuit of aggressive individualism. And the context of Trump's rise, Paxton argues, contrasts dramatically with the Depression that spawned the first fascist regimes. America today, he says, is more economically powerful than any nation on the planet, quite politically stable, and possessive of the strongest military in human history.
With all due respect to Paxton, such political criticism does not match his talents as a historian. Trump and his Redhats are fascists, and they have reconstituted the Republican Party as a vehicle for the evil of American fascism.
"Evil," too, is a term that many fear to use or, alternatively, deploy too frequently. A lot of secular liberals, in particular, are loathe to employ a term that they may see as wrapped up tightly in Christian or spiritual robes. Mencian or Lockean visions of humanity as inherently good may condition their views that evil is too strong a term to describe human immorality. Alternatively, less conscientious public commentators, pop journalists, and average citizens often castigate their opponents as "evil." Some of my students are prone to using the term to criticize pretty much anything they consider antithetical to "timeless" American values.
But evil exists nonetheless. To stumble over the semantic purity of the term is to fail to appreciate the inherent social dynamism that linguists like John McWhorter view as commonplace of human language (not to mention grant credence to the Platonic essentialism that sustains Christian notions of evil). To hesitate to label some values, ideas, or actions as "immoral" is to fall into the rational trap of cultural relativism. Not all cultures and values are correct, nor must we accept and tolerate them all. Take Nazism, of course, or bigotry in its many shades. Evil is a human trait, a capacity each of us have within us. It is the singular mission of our ethics to turn away from such darkness.
What constitutes this brand of American fascism? Form, most certainly, if not the exact same functions of fascisms past and abroad. "One can eliminate from a fascist regime one or more features," Umberto Eco wrote of "Ur-Fascism" in 1995, "and it will still be recognizable as fascist." Consider the following fascistic traits of the Trumpists, strongly echoing Eco:
- "Cult of tradition": the effort to "Make America Great Again" juxtaposes Reaganism, white nationalism, fundamentalist Christianity, corporatism, and America Firstism into a new if unquestionable tradition that ends progress rather than stimulating it.
- "Rejection of modernism": we once were great, back in the days of President Theodore Roosevelt, so let's go back to that time.
- "Action for action's sake": "winning" is all that matters. Note the "game" is not the point. So much winning that we'll get bored with it.
- "Disagreement is treason": journalists fear for the integrity of their industry (not to mention the Republic) on account of Trump's revulsion of media criticism
- "Fear of difference": watch any speech or rally featuring Trump or his Redhats.
- "Appeal to a frustrated middle class": banish the narrative that the poor voted for Trump. He lost "to Clinton soundly among those who make less than $50,000 a year, and defeated her among every tier of those above that mark. His message is one of "identity grievance," to borrow a phrase from Haroon Ullah, for the perception of lost hegemony.
- "Obsession with a plot": Hillary Clinton's emails, the conspiracy of globalist elites, anti-Semitic claims of Jewish cabals. Take your pick. Trump loves plots.
- "Enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak": Clinton lacked stamina and yet is a "fighter" worthy of praise. Not to mention the insidious influence of we effete liberal intellectuals.
- "Life is permanent warfare": Trump hopes to continue the rallies that propelled him to power. The campaign will never cease.
- "Popular elitism" and "contempt for the weak": celebrity, America First ideology, and deprecation of minorities makes for renewal of a white, male, straight, cisgender, abled hegemony.
- "Everybody is educated to become a hero": Trump's "tell it like it is" rhetorical style has inspired his Redhats to take discriminatory action into their own hands.
- "Machismo": Trump's sexism and hyper-masculinity are pervasive.
- "Against 'rotten' parliamentary governments": to Trump, Congress is a swamp that must be drained.
- "Newspeak": Twitter and the rise of lies as news make it difficult to think outside the Redhat.
Notably, it's incredibly easy to find Trumpist examples of all fourteen of Eco's list of fascist traits. Even if one weakens in resonance over the next four years (and if past is prologue, that is unlikely), the other thirteen will remain.
Likewise, it is not difficult to view these traits as manifestations of "evil." Isaiah Berlin rightly argued for a "common human horizon" of values capacious of intense diversity and pluralism, but beyond which lies only those values destructive of pluralism, of life itself. Any culture, any practice, any value that robs a human being of dignity is one against which we have a responsibility to act.
It is very difficult, however, to stand up to such evil. Wittingly in some cases and not in others, some of the most influential forces and structures within our society have nurtured American fascism for decades. The Republican Party employed postmodern conservatism and truthiness to construct counternarratives that whittle away the soundness of basic facts. The media enabled Trump for ratings and their bottom lines. Perhaps most powerfully, our friends and family--leveraging our deepest connections--seek, perhaps instinctively, to try to make us feel better, to tell us to "cheer up," to not focus on the negativity and horror of the election and the hate it has unleashed. Avoid the pain and it will go away.
Except it won't. We live with a fascist regime in America today in part because we have failed to pay attention. Millions of votes remain uncounted, but even with those included, overall turnout fell from its modern peak in 2008. We all complain about election coverage but not all of us vote. We bury ourselves in escapist flights of Netflix binges (myself very much included) to numb the pain.
We must act. Protest is a start, but organization, campaigns, fundraising, education, and mobilization matter. Leverage the pain and anger for positive social change. For all of its deep and tangled roots, fascism in America has as its stark counterpart the decades-old traditions of dissent, free thought, civil disobedience, and non-violent action that fueled our greatest movements.
The Republic demands our citizenship, now and forever. Either we answer the call of our citizenship, or we succumb to the evil of American fascism.