A few weeks ago, as I was walking to the university where I teach, I noticed the phrase “Trump = Fascist” graffitied on a wall. I paused a moment, experiencing déjà vu. I had seen the phrase similarly plastered all over my Facebook feed, as well as in the news.
It seems that the “fascist” tag suddenly is back in vogue. All sorts of political commentators hearken back to the 1930s, wondering whether Trump is closer to a Hitler or “just” a Mussolini. Prior to the election, The New Republic warned its readers that “Yes, Donald Trump is a Fascist.” Salon joined in the chorus, publishing a piece informing readers that “Trump’s not Hitler, he’s Mussolini.” Even the New York Times ran a piece in December asking America, “Is Donald Trump a Fascist?” (the answer: “A little”).1 More particularly, academics of a certain ideological coloration across the country have leaned into the word, organizing students at universities from Cal State Long Beach to Harvard to “resist Fascism.” The latter recently established a “Resistance School” to “strengthen the skills they need to take collective action” against Trump.2
There is one problem, however. Few tossing around the word with such alacrity seem to know what it actually means. While that might be excusable for a graffiti artist, most of the rest ought to know better. Some do. Yet most choose silence over objection. The way of thinking that has engulfed the academy over the past few decades has made the field of history, in particular, vulnerable to this sort of hyperbole. And it does not suffer dissenters lightly.
The best way to understand Fascism is to look at the historical record. Four 20th-century regimes self-consciously identified as Fascist: Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, and Salazar’s Portugal. These were very different sorts of regimes, a fact that has made a strict definition of the word difficult, and sustained a rich historiographic debate, carried on over the last twenty years by scholars such as Stanley Payne, A.J. Gregor, Robert O. Paxton, and Roger Griffen. But that definitional problem has partially enabled its elastic overuse in recent times; history professor Jeffrey Blutinger not long ago publicly defined Fascism as any right-wing authoritarian movement that “demonizes those who are different.” Such a definition is vague enough to be useless.
All four leaders came to power through violence. For the racialist right in Germany, there were two coup attempts (the Kapp Putsch in 1920 and the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923) prior to Hitler’s chancellorship. Mussolini seized power through his “March on Rome,” which, while semi-legal, was backed by the threat of force by tens of thousands of black-shirted Fascist thugs. Franco came to power after a military coup turned into a bloody civil war. Salazar became Prime Minister for life via a military coup in 1926.
When they achieved power, each did precisely the same thing within months: They banned the political opposition, suspended or reshaped their national constitutions, established concentration camps for political opponents, nationalized or co-opted major national industries, and created massive social welfare programs. Their goal was the fundamental reshaping of national life. As Hitler said in 1937, the goal of his National Socialist Revolution was “To create a single people . . . and within this people to raise a new and higher social community.” This superior society would depend on the fundamental reshaping of its individual members and a rejection of individuality itself. Mussolini wrote in 1932 that, “anti-individualistic, the Fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State.” The greater the penetration of the state into society, the greater its control and the ability to reshape it to the ruling party’s will.
For all his bluster, Trump has done none of these things. His most controversial policy initiatives involve—mostly—enforcing existing immigration laws. Its most contentious element in that regard—the refugee ban—brought cries of outrage and comparisons with German anti-Semitism. Yet despite its fundamentally flawed nature, the differences are plain. Trump’s proposed ban was not directed inward toward American citizens or green card holders, but outward. It would have affected seven Muslim-majority countries (leaving untouched about two dozen others). Only one of the states in question fully controlled its national territory and has a reasonably functional central government. That country is Iran, a state that enforces its own travel ban on Jews and homosexuals. Perhaps that might remind intellectuals of something?
And of course when his Executive Order was struck down by the courts, President Trump accepted the legal decision and tried to revise the Order by dropping Iraq from the list and changing some language—unsuccessfully so far. This highlights another disparity: Despite his belligerent rhetoric, he has (thus far) used only existing tools of Executive Branch power, many of which were crafted during the past two post-9/11 administrations, to govern.
More generally, his appointments at the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and the EPA indicate a desire to dismantle much of the administrative state. Whatever one thinks of Trump’s program, his “philosophy” of government seems to point toward a smaller and less intrusive central government, which is the opposite of the Fascist ideal.3
All of this begs the question: Why do so many keep referring to this Administration as Fascist when its actions seem contrary to the very idea of Fascism? I would argue the origin of the word’s overuse and misuse lies in the greatest challenge to American postmodernism: the question of the Holocaust.
Since the linguistic turn—the philosophical reversal of the relationship between language and “fact” which underlies much of modern relativism—the humanities have increasingly shied away from any universal claims. The first to go were moral claims, such as the idea of evil and the language of sin, virtue, and truth. Later, the very idea of a “fact” became viewed as anachronistic. But, in the words of historian Berel Lang, the “moral enormity” of the Holocaust means that it is a “test case for historical representation.”
Denying the Holocaust is, rightly, the greatest sin a modern historian can commit, even in an era where the very concept of “facts” is challenged. But by drawing that line in the sand, intellectuals have been forced to acknowledge a fundamental flaw in their own postmodern reasoning: The Holocaust happened, and its denial is a crime against truth itself. But how can that be, when history is merely the product of hegemonic narratives?
Simultaneously, the postmodern conception of evil remains challenged by the existence of Nazi Germany. Two American academics, Cynthia McSwain and Orion White, once said of evil in the present age “that it is impossible and even dangerous to define it with any finitude.” But anyone looking at the Holocaust and Third Reich recognizes that it cannot be understood without its moral and ethical implications. Fundamentally, the Holocaust was evil.
In serving as the fundamental crux of this postmodern paradox, the perpetrators of the Holocaust have taken on new meaning. With relativism’s attitude to both “evil” and “fact,” debating any issue of practical consequence has become difficult. As a result, “Fascism” has become a catchall for whatever postmodernists oppose. It has become the only safe reference to evil or wrong that many postmodern scholars are willing to credit. Unwilling to seek a more nuanced analogy, and thus expand their moral universes beyond that of the Holocaust, postmodern intellectuals are forced to rely on a singular, hopelessly expansive word to describe all they detest. For them, “Fascist” is the only word that has any moral force. They in turn are echoed by other commentators, from journalists to graffiti artists.
This new postmodern consensus is one factor, among many, that has radicalized American political rhetoric. It represents an emotional reaction more than it does a rational argument. It impedes the sort of reasoned disagreement that leads to mutual understanding, and has alienated large segments of the general public. But to use the word “Fascist” accurately would destroy its utility as an evasion of postmodern illogic. In a way, the misuse of the “F” word reflects a moral crisis of its own, one perhaps as worrying as President Trump’s election.
1Jeffrey Herf came to a similar conclusion much earlier in an effort to debunk the fascist label: “Is Donald Trump a Fascist?” TAI Online, March 7, 2016.
2Masuma Ahuja, “Harvard Students Launch Course on Resisting ‘The Trump Agenda,’” CNN Online, April 3, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/04/03/us/harvard-resistance-school/ .
3A point made months ago by David Brooks: “The Internal Invasion,” New York Times, January 20, 2017.