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Semantics, Fascism and Donald Trump

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Is Donald Trump a fascist?

A shocking number of mainstream commentators have said so lately. Of course, every sufficiently hated reactionary has been called a fascist at one time or another. Anyone who remembers the 2003 anti-war marches will recall Bush-as-Hitler signs. Veterans of older movements may remember excitable leftists screaming that Nixon was a fascist, or that Chicago’s Mayor Daley was a fascist, or in one particularly unhinged formulation, that the whole establishment was a “fascist insect preying on the life of the people.”

Historically, the word ‘fascism’ has a fairly specific meaning. It involves the supplementation and even partial replacement of the traditional mechanisms of state power with gangsterish street-fighting forces—think of the brownshirts and the blackshirts, the SS and the SA—in a scenario in which parliamentary democracy has been done away with and labor unions and anti-regime political parties have been wiped out. This is incredibly destabilizing stuff, which is why big business interests have only been willing to back fascism when they’ve thought it was the only way to stave off the imminent threat of revolution. Granted, in the decades since the defeat of classical European fascism, the f-word has been thrown around as a generic term of abuse for any particularly odious right-winger at least as much as it’s been used in the more precise sense, but it’s worth the effort to be precise.

So where does Trump fit into all of this? He’s not the leader of a fascist movement. He might not hate the idea of becoming the leader of such a movement, but all he’s the leader of at the moment is a not-very-well-organized primary campaign, one that’s polling well but which has yet to be tested by any actual caucuses or primaries. There are, praise Allah, no Trump Brigades marching down city streets. Nor does he advocate the replacement of America’s current political system with a fascist regime. (Even Republican primary voters would probably be against that.)

Does all this mean that the use of the f-word to refer to Trump is just silly hyperbole? Well…no. The Donald has gloated when his supporters beat people up at his rallies. He’s advocated that religious minorities be forced to carry special ID, and fantasized about creating a special “deportation force” to round up eleven million people from their homes and workplaces. If he’s not exactly a “fascist,” let’s at the very least say that he’s “fascism-curious.”

Ben Burgis is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Underwood International College, Yonsei University.

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