Is Fascism Back? Is Trump a Fascist?
Welcome back to Lucid, and a special welcome to new subscribers. I appreciate your feedback and your questions and comments during our regular live chats. Today's offering acknowledges those contributions. It's the first installment of an occasional feature in which I address questions I am frequently asked by interviewers, Lucid subscribers who write to me, and readers of my work.
People are often disappointed that I don’t call Trump (or any living head of state) a Fascist. I prefer to leave that term for the interwar dictatorships because I believe that its use can perpetuate outdated ideas about how authoritarianism works.
When we say the word Fascism, most people think of Hitler, who capitalized on the Reichstag Fire to declare a state of emergency and suspend all freedoms soon after getting into office. Mussolini followed a different route. He degraded democracy bit by bit over 3 years, but once he declared dictatorship in Jan. 1925, the shutdown of elections and opposition parties and media came quickly.
So, calling today's governments, and leaders, Fascists can be misleading, since that's not how things work today. Although military coups and other forms of rapid authoritarian takeover still happen (coups in 2021 Myanmar and Guinea succeeded, coups in 2016 Turkey and 2021 America did not), today authoritarianism develops mostly through evolution, not revolution.
21st century strongmen come into office mostly through elections and then manipulate the electoral process to stay there. Today's leaders may stay in office almost as long as some old-school dictators, but they take years to advance the process of what we call autocratic capture -- when the election machinery, judiciary, media, and more have been cleansed of non-loyalists by the state-- far enough to extinguish democracy.
It took Putin 20 years to get to a position where Parliament approved his quest in 2020 to stay in power until 2036, and Orbán needed 10 years to amass power sufficient to institute rule by decree.
Where democracy still exists, but is endangered, as in America, it may seem necessary to call out the threat in terms that are most familiar to people, to help them to understand the gravity of the situation. The Fascist label would seem to do that.
However, it can be counter-productive, because people may see the fact that democratic parties still operate --or, indeed, are in power, as in the US-- as proof that using the term Fascism is unwarranted. As Kim Scheppele Lane argues in her essay on "autocratic legalism," our "reliance on stick-figure stereotypes about illiberalism" and tendency to use the examples of "catastrophic twentieth-century authoritarianisms" as a measure of what counts as danger can blind us to what is unfolding in front of us.
If we don't see troops marching on the streets, even a violent assault on the US equivalent of the Reichstag can be minimized by many, and its instigators left to circulate, unpunished, in society. The recall to Fascism means that the "standard" for calling out the demise of democracy is impossibly high.
Leaders like Orbán and Erdogan encourage this blindness by claiming that their states are “illiberal democracies” (Orbán's term). “Here we have a ballot box…the democracy gets its power from the people," claimed Erdogan in 2017, during his post-coup attempt crackdown, to refute charges that he was acting like a dictator. "It’s what we call national will.” The hundred thousand-plus Turks who have been detained, imprisoned, kidnapped, fired, or had their assets seized because they have been labeled as state enemies would likely disagree.
All of this is why I use the word authoritarian rather than Fascist to describe today's strongmen. Fascism, after all, was the first stage (along with early Communism) of a larger history of unfreedom that looks different in every place and time.
That said, the premise of my 2020 book, Strongmen, is that there are continuities in the authoritarian playbook first sketched out by Mussolini and his Communist counterparts in the 1920s. To give one example from the area of propaganda, some things have changed, like the addition of social media, but the rules of the personality cults maintained by that media are the same as a century ago.
And it's easy to see Fascism in autocrats' embraces of pro-natalist policies and in their persecution of some of the same enemies targeted for mass imprisonment or death years ago. They include nomadic peoples, LGBTQ+ individuals, non-whites and non-Christians, and migrants. Yet Communists targeted many of these same groups. Putin and Orbán come out of Communism, not Fascism. Nor do Erdogan or Modi bring forth a strictly Fascist lineage. It is something more than Fascism that prevails today.
And so it is with Trump. I started writing about Trump in 2015 because everything about him seemed familiar to me as someone who studies Fascism: the rallies, the lying, the loyalty oaths, the declarations of violent intent, the need to dominate and humiliate. My familiarity with Fascism is what allowed me to predict from 2016 on what Trump would do and how he and his GOP enablers would behave, down to my November 2020 forecast that he would not leave office quietly.
Yet Fascism is too narrow a frame to describe the actions of Trump, who started a process of autocratic capture that resembled those of other autocrats. He created a cabinet of rich cronies; domesticated the GOP; made the press a hate object; gutted the State Department and other federal agencies; appointed more than 300 judges, and much more. He was voted out before he could finish the job.
Nor does Fascism capture the nature of Trump's criminality and his enmeshment in 21st century flows of illicit capital (his real estate business puts him on the supply side of "pro-kleptocratic services," as Casey Michel calls them).
In truth, Trump and Trumpism draw on all periods of illiberal history, from Fascism to the age of military coups to 21st century combinations of plunder, targeted violence, and information warfare. He provided a model for what authoritarianism could look like in America today, one that the GOP is now busy realizing at the state level. Whether or not he returns to office, that will be his place in history.