For readers who’ve been living in a cave: for nearly half a century, the gold standard for presidential corruption was Watergate, for which Nixon was almost impeached (he resigned instead). Now it’s January 6, 2021, when Trump gave a speech urging his supporters to march on Congress, and they did– thousands of them bursting into the capitol and forcing the Senate and House to flee to safety. A handful of people died, including one policeman beaten to death by the mob. At least some of the rioters were attempting serious sedition, bringing weapons and restraints; they aimed to murder Congress members or take them hostage. Some threatened to kill not only Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker, but Mike Pence, Trump’s own VP.
It’s become clear that this was no protest or exuberant mob– it was a deliberate attack, and the ringleaders went right to various Members’ offices. They failed to get their hands on anyone; I’m sure there will be whole books written on why that was. But it was way closer than it should have been.
A question that’s become almost a joke over four years is “What would it take for Republicans to turn against Trump?” Personal corruption and a torrent of lies didn’t do it, nor did abuses of power, attempts to ruin America’s alliances, concentration camps for migrants, cozying up to Putin, unlabeled feds bundling dissenters into vans in the middle of the night, a pandemic on track to kill more Americans than World War II. But what did it for quite a few of them was their own president egging on a mob to kill them. Who knew?
It was an attempt at a violent coup to overthrow democracy. The “fascism” charge should be open-and-shut at this point. So why are the pundits so sure it’s not?
Before we get there, let’s look at one expert that’s willing to call Trump a fascist: Robert Paxton. He wrote, “I have been reluctant to use the F word for Trumpism, but yesterday’s use of violence against democratic institutions crosses the red line.”
This is significant for me, because he wrote the book that I reviewed back in the Bush administration. His definition is worth quoting:
Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
At the time I concluded that Bush wasn’t a fascist– largely because the use of violence wasn’t there. Trump’s coup attempt crosses that line.
One objection would be the clown-car aspect of Trump and Trump’s supporters. It wasn’t a successful coup attempt. But this misses the point.
- Trump is the president… the guy with the nuclear football. His incompetence may have saved us for now, but…
- Half the Republicans in Congress supported his attempts to overturn the election.
- Trump retains the support of a majority of Republicans (though his approval has declined since the attack).
- The extremists– the people with the guns and restraints– were emboldened by the attack, and plan to do more.
- Ever hear of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch? A failed coup attempt has historically led to more attempts.
- Hitler and Mussolini made far more use of violence. But both were put into power legally, by the conservatives of the day. They were contemptuous of democracy– but used its institutions to get into power, only dismantling them afterward.
Why are the fascism experts besides Paxton reluctant to call Trump a fascist? The objections mostly come down to one of these things:
- Worries that some “real” fascist will come down the pike, and we won’t know what to call them.
- Quibbles over the historical details of early-20C fascism.
- Wise-ass comments that Trumpism has American roots.
The first objection does make a point, just not a very good one. Suppose Trump had succeeded in denying the election results. Would it be comforting, or educational, or pedantically correct, to say that he wasn’t a “fascist”, but an “authoritarian”, or a “right-wing populist”, or a “nationalist”? Jesus, people, we’re talking about an illegal coup ending our 250-year American democracy. You don’t win a prize by denying it the word “fascism”. And you know, people who successfully execute a coup don’t end their criminal careers with that. The violence and vindictiveness would only ramp up.
The various quibbles are interesting to historians. E.g. the New Statesman article explains that Hitler and Mussolini were war-mongers intent on grabbing new territory. Yes, but there are historical reasons for that. Germany and Italy came late to the European imperialism party; one had just lost a World War and the other felt like it had. This was, if you remember, a time when Britain and France still had their colonial empires; the feeling was that that was what great nations do. Plus, they were small nations by US standards– their only way to feel like superpowers was to expand.
The US has a very different history and sense of itself. Though the rest of the world thinks it’s imperialist, it’s mostly via soft power; our actual colonial empire was not very important. American nationalists aren’t at root very interested in the world: they are consumed with the threats they see internally.
Finally, some historians are concerned that people over-emphasize 20C Germany and Italy, forgetting the long history of right-wing nationalism and white supremacy at home– everything from the Confederacy to Jim Crow to Joe McCarthy to the Klan. Again, there’s a point to this: there is no need to sync up events today and a hundred years ago, and think that Trumpism is a repeat of Hitler.
But the more general answer is: yes, Trumpism does recall some of the more lawless parts of American history, and that shouldn’t be news to anyone.
It’s worth noting that the real fascists, the people who really like Hitler, are already on board with Trumpism. A bunch of them participated in the attempted coup– proudly wearing their Nazi T-shirts. It’s undoubtedly true that they would turn on Trump on a dime if he isn’t nasty enough for them. But they’ve been made welcome in the GOP, and until that problem is solved, fascism will be a major factor in US politics.
Finally, the Jan 6. attempt– unlike the two months of legal shenanigans– created a real fissure in the Republican Party. For once we don’t have a few pursed lips expressing “concern” over Trump. We don’t know how meaningful that is, yet; we’ll get a much better idea during the impeachment trial.
Trumpism isn’t gone, and the large fraction of the GOP electorate that cheered him on won’t disappear. But things might start to look different in a week, when Trump is out of office and can’t post on Twitter– and a bunch of Senators start to realize that they have the power to keep him from running again.