You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

If Trump looks like a fascist and acts like a fascist, then maybe he is one

The Guardian logo The Guardian 16/01/2021 Nick Cohen
a group of people wearing military uniforms: Photograph: Amy Harris/REX/Shutterstock © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Amy Harris/REX/Shutterstock

Assurances that “fascism couldn’t happen here” are always appealing in Anglo-Saxon countries that think themselves immune because “it” never did. The US and UK did not experience rule by Nazism or communism in the 20th century and the ignorance our lucky histories fostered has weakened our defences in the 21st.

Even after all that has happened in Washington, apparently serious voices insist we cannot compare Donald Trump to any variety of fascist. Conservatives habitually say that liberals call everything they don’t like fascist, forgetting that the moral of Aesop’s fable was that the boy who cried wolf was right in the end. They used to chortle about “Trump derangement syndrome” that spreads in stages like cancer until sufferers “cannot distinguish fantasy from reality”. They have bitten their tongues now that the reality of Trumpism is deranged mobs trying to overthrow democracy.

Their silence was broken last week by the historian of Nazism, Richard Evans, who with the effortless ability to miss every point a professorship at Cambridge bestows, decided now was the moment to denounce his colleagues, Timothy Snyder and Sarah Churchwell. They might compare the Trump and fascist movements but “few who have described Trump as a fascist can be called real experts in the field”, he wrote in the New Statesman with an audible sniff. “Genuine specialists”, such as, and since you asked, himself, “agree that whatever else he is, Trump is not a fascist”.

Before we get to why the argument matters, I should say the New Statesman needs to expand its fact-checking department. Snyder, whose work on how democracies turn into dictatorships is essential reading, does not say that the Trump movement is “fascist”. He writes that “post-truth is pre-fascism and Trump has been our post-truth president”. Churchwell’s astonishing studies of how German Nazis and American white supremacists fed off each other are a revelation. (And I come from the old left and thought I had learned about everything that was rotten with America at my mother’s knee.) When asked, she says she too is careful and characterises the Trump movement as “neo-fascist”.

The use of “fascism” in political debate is both a call to arms and a declaration of war. For once you say you are fighting fascism there can be no retreat. By talking of “pre-fascism” or “neo-fascism”, you acknowledge that the F-word is not a bomb you should detonate lightly; you also acknowledge the gravity of the times.

The alternatives look like the euphemisms of formerly safe societies that, like Caliban, cannot bear to see their face in the mirror. The Trump leadership cult, the attacks on any source of information the leader does not authorise, the racist conspiracy theories, the servile media that amplify the leader’s lies are not “conservative” in any understanding of the term. How about populist? If it means anything today, populism is supporting the people against the elite. But what could be more elitist than denying the result of the people’s vote with the big lie, the Joseph Goebbels lie, that Trump won the election he lost and then inciting brainwashed followers to storm democratic institutions? Followers, I should add, who included men dressed in “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirts and waving Confederate flags and wannabe stormtroopers crying “sieg heil!” and “total negro death”. “Far right” and “extreme right” are no help. They are just polite ways of saying neo-fascist.

a group of people wearing military uniforms: Trump supporters prepare to invade the Capitol as part of the ‘Stop The Steal’ rally on 6 January. © Photograph: Amy Harris/REX/Shutterstock Trump supporters prepare to invade the Capitol as part of the ‘Stop The Steal’ rally on 6 January.

In his The Anatomy of Fascism, Robert Paxton, the pre-eminent authority on its ideology, wrote that the Ku Klux Klan in 1867 rather than Mussolini’s squadristi in 1920 could be seen as the first fascist movement. As with the Nazi party, the embittered officers of a defeated army formed the Klan. They mourned the defeat of the Confederacy and did not accept the legitimacy of the US government. They had uniforms, white robes rather than leather jackets, the fantasies of racial supremacy and deployed terror to maintain the subjugation of African Americans. Last week, police sources told the Washington Post they were shocked to see “former law enforcement and military personnel as well as senior business executives” among the Washington mob. If they had known the history of military and bourgeois support for fascism, they would have been less surprised. It isn’t always powered by “the left behind”.

Paxton said last week that he had “resisted for a long time applying the fascist label to Donald J Trump”, but Trump’s incitement of the invasion of the Capitol “removes my objection to the fascist label”.

Republicans fear assassination if they vote to impeach Trump. Rupert Murdoch’s broadcasters are delivering barely veiled threats of violent insurrection if the Democrats pursue impeachment. “We see what’s happening around this country, how 50 state houses are being threatened on Inauguration Day,” warned one. “This is the last thing you want to do.”

I can see three objections to calling a large section of the Republican party pre-fascist. The first can be dismissed with a flick of the fingers as it comes from a self-interested right that has to pretend it is not in the grip of a deep sickness – and not only in the United States. The second is the old soothing “it can’t happen here” exceptionalism of the Anglo-Saxon west, which has yet to learn that the US and UK are exceptional in the 21st century for all the wrong reasons. The third sounds intelligent but is the dumbest of all. You should not call Trump or any other leader a pre- or neo-fascist or any kind of fascist until he has gone the whole hog and transformed his society into a totalitarian war machine.

The example of the stages of cancer, so beloved by believers in Trump derangement syndrome, explains the stupidity. Imagine you are a doctor looking at pre-cancerous cells or an early-stage cancer that has not grown deeply into tissue. The door bursts open and a chorus of Fox News presenters and Cambridge dons cry that “real experts in the field” agree that on no account should you call it cancer until it has metastasised and spread through the whole body. A competent doctor would insist on calling a fatal disease by its real name and not leave treatment until it was too late to stop it. So should you.

• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from The Guardian

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon