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 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,” Mr Reich tweeted. “Trump is a fascist, and he is promoting fascism in America.”
Mr Reich wasn’t alone. Until last week, journalist Masha Gessen was also a sceptic. Mr Gessen had just published Surviving Autocracy, a book 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, Mr 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,” Mr 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 Mr 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.
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. Mr 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 Mr Stanley compared to concentration camps in Germany in the 1930s.
“The word ‘fascist’ has acquired a feeling of the extreme, like crying wolf,” Mr Stanley writes — not because Americans are so unfamiliar with fascist tactics but because we are becoming inured to them. “Normalisation 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,” Mr Stanley writes, “but rather a permanent temptation.”
Writing in The New York Review of Books last month, the historian Samuel Moyn took issue with Mr Stanley’s book, and with fascism analogies in general. Mr 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,” Mr Moyn writes, “he appears set in the current pandemic to go down in history for a worse sin of inaction.”
But the critique of fascism analogies runs deeper than whatever it is the president says or does. Mr Moyn suggests that crying fascism obscures the extent to which Mr 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 Mr Robin and Mr 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.
Mr 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 Mr Trump. But one of the most striking aspects of Mr 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.
Mr Paxton was not 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 is 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. Mr 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, Mr Early writes. “He knew, as any aware American must, that it already had.”
The New York Times
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies