The Coup in Washington: Why is Anyone Surprised by Trump’s Fascist Politics?

Photograph Source: DrDannielle – CC BY-SA 4.0

As I write this, pro-Trump protesters have stormed the U.S. Capitol building seeking to impose Trump’s attempted coup on America. Trump’s hand in stoking the coup is apparent on multiple fronts. He’s been disseminating and mainstreaming baseless electoral fraud conspiracies for months – years really. He encouraged these protesters to head over to Capitol Hill. Once the attacks on and invasion of the Capitol began, he refused to condemn them. And then in his first address to the nation, he poured more fuel on the fire by continuing to traffic in electoral fraud conspiracies. To be perfectly clear, this is not only a coup effort, but one that is being directed by the President of the United States.

How did we get here? And why is any of this a surprise to the legions of fascism deniers in the U.S. who have long insisted that the U.S. is not falling into authoritarian politics? Nothing about what’s happened in the capital should be a surprise to those who have taken a sober look at the rising fascism that now characterizes American politics.

Trump told the nation that he would not accept the results of an election he lost before a single ballot was counted on election day. And he has been leading an effort on countless fronts to overturn the results for the last two months, in the states, in the judicial branch, in Congress, and now in the streets.

The President was caught trying to extort the Georgian Secretary of State by threatening criminal prosecution if he refused to manufacture 11,780 votes, thereby handing Donald Trump a “victory” in the state. This was the second time in a year and a half – the other being the Ukraine scandal – in which Trump tried to extort a political official for electoral gain. Trump’s coup also includes his demand that Congress and Vice President Mike Pence hand Trump the presidency, rather than certifying Biden’s win.

Trump’s dealings with Pence, Ukraine, and the Georgian Secretary of State reflect a fiefdom-style politics in which other political leaders are deemed little more than a means to an end for the President’s personal political aggrandizement. Trump views his interactions with others as an opportunity for personal profit and as instrumental to achieving his own ends. But with this attempted coup, Trump’s politics extend beyond simple corruption and clientelism. His attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election represent a fundamental threat to democracy itself. Because of his conspiratorial propaganda, more than three-quarters of Republicans believe that the election was marked by “widespread voter fraud.” And many are now taking to the streets and engaging in violence and terrorism to overturn the election. Considering recent events, there’s just no way to know how bad this is all going to get moving forward when it comes to the survival of the republic.

Sadly, this fascist threat has been consistently downplayed every step of the way. Being intimately familiar with the mainstream academic work on fascism and the professors who produce it, I can confidently say that there are few American scholars who are willing to openly call Trump a fascist, and even fewer scholars who are willing to publicly claim that the U.S. political system contains elements of fascism.

American journalists have also been squeamish about the “fascism” designation when it comes to their reporting on Trump. A review of the Nexis Uni academic database reveals that from Presidential election to election – from November 8, 2016 to November 3, 2020 – the terms “fascism” or “fascist” appeared in relation to “Trump” in a total of 627 articles in the “paper of record” – The New York Times. The terms “authoritarian” or “authoritarianism” were far more common, appearing in 1,807 articles, or roughly three times as often as discussions of fascism, in relation to Trump. The least offensive and less incendiary terms “populist” and “populism” were far and away the most common in relation to Trump, appearing in 3,422 articles, or nearly five-and-a-half times as often as the fascist/fascism labels [1]. To summarize, U.S. journalists have routinely avoided attacks from the right by avoiding calling Trump a fascist, while deterring discussions of fascism in American politics.

The U.S. has a long history of denialism when it comes to recognizing the dangers of fascistic politics, at home and abroad. We can look back nearly a century to the writings of Sinclair Lewis for a recognition of the “It Can’t Happen Here” willful denialism that has long characterized U.S. political culture.

U.S. discourse is defined by simplistic “fascism-not fascism” and “authoritarian-not authoritarian” binaries, which do a massive disservice to our understanding of the threats to republican governance and democratic electoralism. These dichotomies are not geared toward a good faith discourse on the fascism-authoritarianism question, because they are almost never followed by serious journalistic or scholarly engagements with the available evidence regarding whether the U.S. is slipping into fascistic or authoritarian politics. Rather, these binary frameworks are often used in derisory ways to reject out of hand the use of the fascist classification in U.S. politics. These binaries prohibit any coherent, nuanced, or thoughtful discussion of the matter, since these approaches, by design, cannot recognize that authoritarianism and fascism are real until they are fully consolidated and mature features of U.S. politics. And now that this seditious insurrection has spilled into the streets, the moral bankruptcy of fascist denialism is on display for all to see.

Henry Giroux deals thoughtfully with the authoritarian-fascism question by recognizing that the U.S. contains elements of both neoliberal and fascist politics. In other words, it’s not an either-or choice between the two. One can call our political system neoliberal fascist, neofascistic, creeping fascist, para/proto-fascist or whatever. Regardless of the qualifier that we choose, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the fascist politics that is embraced by this administration. Prior to the attempted coup at the Capitol, there was already an alarmingly long list of transgressions from the Trump administration:

+ Trump’s militant and ritualistic contempt for basic notions of truth, facts, and evidence-based scientific and medical reasoning, coupled with a blind and cultist public devotion to the president via the admission of nearly two-thirds of his supporters that there is nothing he could do to lose their support.

+ Trump’s white nationalist politics and blanket demonization of Mexican immigrants as “drug dealers, criminals, rapists,” and as a national security threat. This xenophobia is clearly racist in orientation, considering Trump’s contempt for darker skinned immigrants, alongside a preference for white immigrants – as evidenced by his marriage to a white first-generation European.

+ His (failed) attempt to use the military to put down Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters, which faced stiff opposition from military leadership. Trump’s interest in using security forces to suppress dissent was hardly abstract, considering his administration’s use of police state-style undercover federal officials and unmarked vans to abduct BLM protesters, and Trump’s own gassing of non-violent protesters in Lafayette Park outside the gates of the White House, which allowed the Bible-toting POTUS to clear away onlookers as he secured a photo op in front of St. John’s Church.

+ His circumventing of Congress and governing by executive order, via the illegal confiscation of taxpayer funds for his wall, coupled with the declaration of a “national emergency” to justify his illegal actions. This use of funds was never authorized by Congress and represented a blatant abuse of the constitutional principle of checks and balances.

+ Trump’s introduction of a needlessly punitive and destructive child-parent separation policy against unauthorized immigrants. This was coupled with his reliance on concentration camp-style mass detainment, which was characterized by dangerous overcrowding, children imprisoned in cages, and the denial of basic needs such as soap, toothpaste, and medical treatment to detainees.

+ His radical crackdown on legal immigration to the U.S., which was cut by a staggering 50 percent during Trump’s term, coupled with the growth in unauthorized immigrant arrests and detainments by 30 percent compared to Obama, and by more than 100 percent compared to George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, despite comparable levels of deportations under Obama and Trump.

+ Trump’s (failed) attempt(s) to have immigrants “gassed, electrified, and shot” in mass and to illegally shut down immigration in total at the Mexican border. These orders were ignored by horrified officials at the Department of Homeland Security, who he promised would be pardoned for their illegal acts if they were ever prosecuted.

+ His propagandistic and baseless demonization of the Democrats for “stealing” the 2020 election, coupled with his own (failed) judicial, state-based, and congressional efforts to pull off an electoral coup by repealing the outcome of the election. This strategy involved nearly 60 lawsuits attempting to overrule state electoral results, and meetings with more than 300 state legislators across nearly a half dozen battleground states in which Trump schemed to overrule popular votes that favored Biden.

+ Trump’s faux Social Darwinian disaster politics, which embrace a “herd immunity,” survival of the fittest philosophy that has actively sought to infect Americans in mass with a killer virus, despite Trump’s own access to cutting edge life-saving Covid drugs and treatments to which the vast majority of Americans have no access. This “let it be” approach, one recent Columbia University study concluded, may have resulted in an excess of deaths that is 60 percent higher than what would have been expected had the federal government and states seriously responded to the crisis.

+ The paranoid and delusional eliminationist rhetoric Trump has embraced against his political enemies, portraying them as a threat to national security that needs to be snuffed out, and as recently reflected in his demand that the Justice Department arrest and prosecute top Democrats including Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton based on false conspiratorial claims that they tried to undertake a coup against his administration. There is more than a bit of irony and projection at work here, considering Trump’s own relentless efforts over the last few months to initiate a coup against the incoming Biden administration.

Anyone who looks at this list and concludes that this was business as usual, or who is surprised about what happened in Washington D.C., is engaged in an act of delusion of epic proportions. Considering these developments, it is increasingly absurd to refer to Trump’s politics as anything less than fascist. The path forward is increasingly clear. This president needs to be impeached and removed from office as soon as possible. Trump needs to be charged with treason, for his role in orchestrating this attempted coup. Anything less sets a dangerous precedent for future attempts to overthrow what little is left of American democracy.

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.