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The Anatomy of Fascism Denial

26 Flavors of Anti-Antifascism, Part 1

Photo by Jon Tyson.

All hesitation to acknowledge that the United States had a serious brush with fascism under Donald Trump should have disappeared with the Trump-instigated Attack on the U.S. Capital last January 6th. “Donald Trump…is indeed a fascistan authoritarian willing to use violence to achieve his racial nationalist goals. So are many of his supporters. If you had any doubts,” Paul Krugman wrote one day after the coup attempt, the January 6th incident (sparked by the Big fascist Trump Lie that the 2020 election was stolen) “should have ended them.”

In truth, the doubts should never have existed in the first place. In May of 2016, seven months before Trump’s election, the liberal New Yorker commentator Adam Gopnik calmly observed the following:

“There is a simple formula for descriptions of Donald Trump: add together a qualification, a hyphen, and the word ‘fascist’ …his personality and his program belong exclusively to the same dark strain of modern politics: an incoherent program of national revenge led by a strongman; a contempt for parliamentary government and procedures; an insistence that the existing, democratically elected government…is in league with evil outsiders and has been secretly trying to undermine the nation; a hysterical militarism designed to no particular end other than the sheer spectacle of strength; an equally hysterical sense of beleaguerment and victimization; and a supposed suspicion of big capitalism entirely reconciled to the worship of wealth and ‘success.’”

(See my recent Counterpunch essay, “Thirty-One Flavors of Fascism,” for a longer list of the key characteristics of fascist politics and ideology that Trump exhibited before and during his presidency.)

This, other early warnings issued before the ascendancy of Trump (including my own), and the terrible record of the Trump administration made the retired historian Robert Paxton, author of the widely read volume The Anatomy of Fascism, look ridiculous for having suddenly decided to reverse his judgment that Trump was not a fascist with just a week remaining in the Trump administration – only after Trump sent his frothing mob into the U.S. Congress in a transparent last-ditch effort to achieve racial nationalist goals with mass violence. Paxton’s last-minute breakthrough on Trump’s fascist essence was like something out of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. “Trump’s incitement of the invasion of the Capitol,” Paxton told Newsweek after the assault, “removes my objection to the fascist label. His open encouragement of civic violence to overturn an election crosses a red line.” How absurd. As the terrorism expert Colin Clarke noted in The New York Times two weeks after the terrible event:

“Bolstered by conservative cable news networks and radio as well social media, Mr. Trump has been laying the groundwork for political violence for years. The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va, in August of 2017, should have been the alarm for this country to understand the sense of urgency required to address the threat from the emboldened far right. It wasn’t. Attacks in Pittsburgh in 2018 and El Paso in 2019, and the plot to kidnap Gov. Gretcham Whitner of Michigan last year, were all missed opportunities to take the threat seriously” (emphasis added).

Each one of the violent and fascistic incidents Clarke cited was inspired to no small extent by Trump. Trump encouraged “civic violence” as a presidential candidate in 2015 and 2016 and would not promise to tell his violent backers to honor the outcome of the 2016 election if Hillary Clinton prevailed.

Still, poor Paxton deserved some “better late than never” credit. It was darkly amusing to read the former Washington Post blogger and doggedly determined liberal fascism-denier Dylan Matthews’ January 14th VOX follow- up to the Attack on the Capitol, titled “The F-Word: The Debate Over Whether to Call Trump a Fascist, and Why it Matters” – an essay that included not a single “fascism expert” who thought the nasty word applied to Trump. Three of Matthews’ “fascism scholars” – retired Oxford historian Roger Griffin, retired University of Wisconsin historian Stanley Payne, and Barnard political scientist Sheri Berman – and one new “fascism expert” (Cambridge historian Richard Evans) told Matthews why they thought Paxton was wrong to conclude that Trump had crossed into fascist space by instigating a violent fascist assault on the U.S. Capitol, forcing Congresspersons to flee for their lives as they attempted to certify Trump’s clear defeat in the 2020 presidential election.

It was never complicated. As Max Berger wrote in a smart Daily Beast reflection two days before Trump pulled out his Andrew Johnson and boycotted Joe Biden’s inauguration, “The argument that Trump is a fascist has always been straightforward: it is that we should take his words seriously and literally. He has told us time and again that he opposes democracy and that only white people should be considered fully American” (and much more that fit the fascist political handbook).

But for COVID-19, Herr Donald would be settling in to a second disastrous term with a giant mass of white Amerikaners behind him after his many fans in the police and military had bloodily suppressed a national rebellion against his theft of an election much closer than the one that took place last fall. Think about that.

How strange it has been during and now (however briefly) after the Trump nightmare to hear an army of arrogant and dismissive liberal and avowedly left intellectuals and activists spend the last four-plus years denying the Trumpist variant of fascism and the danger it posed– and still poses. Paxton aside, the often snottily expressed denialism continued even after the January 6th attack, in accord with the theory of cognitive dissonance, which notes that contrary facts often deepen the hold of mistaken opinions.

Here below are 14 overlapping and intermingling flavors and narratives of anti-antifascist Trumpism-fascism denial I observed during and since the Trump reign. I follow each flippant flavor with a brief discussion of why it merits expectoration.

A second, follow-up essay (Part 2) will discuss an additional 13 interrelated limbs and organs in the anatomy of fascism-denial regarding Trump.

Let the taste-test begin with a spittoon handy:

+1. “America is inoculated against fascism because of its longstanding commitment to [so-called – P.S] constitutional democracy and rule of law, including free elections, freedom of speech, a free press and more.” Wrong. The nationally narcissistic belief here is that, to quote the mocking title of Sinclair Lewis’s popular dystopian 1935 novel depicting a fascist takeover of the U.S. (a novel with numerous remarkable parallels to the Trump experience), “it can’t happen here.” Nonsense. Of course “it” (fascism) can happen in the U.S., a nation that has inspired, appeased, and defended fascism in numerous placed and various forms abroad for more than a century. The United States is chock full of raw materials for a specifically U.S.-American version of the disease. See Carl Boggs’ brilliant book Fascism Old and New: American Politics at the Crossroads (2018) for a chilling primer on the many social, historical, institutional, and ideological ingredients of a new neoliberal-era fascism present in this “exceptional” and possibly pre-fascist nation (the doctrine of national exceptionalism is part of the mix, by the way).

+2. “Fascism is a purely 20th Century European phenomenon with no relevant application to the United States.” False. The Nazis were deeply inspired by U.S. history for good if terrible reasons: the long and horrific record of Black chattel slavery, Jim Crow racial terrorism, Native American genocide, brutal territorial conquest, and more. The United States has long hatched its own explicitly fascist movements, from the KKK, the German American Bund, the American Nazi Party, and the John Birch Society through the Aryan Nations, Patriot Front, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters and various and other paramilitary, white-supremacist, and neo-Nazi groups too numerous to list. The Jim Crow South was fascist, to no small degree. So is the contemporary “New Jim Crow” American criminal injustice and racist mass arrest and incarceration regime and the American military-industrial complex. As Berger notes, “American fascism is not a European import, but the current incarnation of a deeply American tradition.” The American tradition carries a heavy dose of evangelical Christianity along with the continuing desire to reverse the outcome of the American Civil War, seen in Trump’s repeated symbolic embraces of the slaveholders’ rebellion and the regular presence of Confederate banners at U.S. right-wing gatherings.

+3. “The fascism experts who journalists have been consulting about whether or not Trump is a fascist say ‘no.’” Okay, so what? Most of the so-called fascism experts that American reporters and pundits have asked this question are, like Paxton, European historians of classic historical fascist regimes in interwar 20th Century Italy and Germany. These academic historians are far out of their depth when it comes to assessing contemporary neo-fascism within and beyond the United States. Journalists have failed to tap the knowledge of more current and methodologically astute academic and research analysts of 21st century neoliberal era fascism – Carl Boggs, John Bellamy Foster, Henry Giroux, Anthony DiMaggio, Alexander Reid-Ross, David Neiwert, William Connally, Matthew MacWilliams, David Smith, Mark Hetherington, Jonathan Weiler, Pippa Norris, and Ronald Inglehart to mention some of the most prominent and relevant names. Not a single such political analyst was among the eight “fascism experts” that VOX’s Matthews interviewed on the question “Is Trump a Fascist?” last October. Five of Matthews’ officially designated “fascism experts” were European historians, three of whom were retired.

Matthews’ sample of “experts” was deliberately selected to match his advance assumption that, in his later words, “Fascism is an analogy to a specific moment in European history.” Matthews selection of European historians of classic historical 20th Century fascist regimes was a form of self-fulfilling “proof” for his belief that “the F-word” only applied to the classic, fully consolidated fascist regimes that arose in Europe between the two world wars of the last century.

+4. “Trump didn’t introduce a consolidated one-party fascist state with a single maximal dictator and no functioning free press on the model of Hitler’s Third Reich and Mussolini’s corporate state.” Yes, but who said he did? Trump was a “pre-fascist” (Yale historian Timothy Snyder) president symbolizing and leading (however badly) a fascistic movement practicing fascist politics, not an actual dictator atop a fascist government. Yes, the Democratic Party continued to function and so did the normal corporate media, most of which was critical of Trump. Liberal and left professors and writers were not rounded up and sent off to detention camps. But, as the Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley explained to Matthews last October, it is essential to identify and oppose fascist politics and movements before they hatch an actual fascist regime:

“you can legitimately call Trumpism a fascist social and political movement… Trumpism involves a cult of the leader, and Trump embodies that. I certainly think he’s using fascist political tactics. I think there’s no question about that. He is calling for national restoration in the face of humiliations brought on by immigrants, liberals, liberal minorities, and leftists. He’s certainly playing the fascist playbook…. My definition is of fascist politics, not of a fascist regime. I think most of the other [fascism scholars] are just talking about something else. They’re talking about regimes. …If you’re only worried about fascist regimes, you’re never going to catch fascist social and political movements. The goal is to catch fascist social and political movements, and fascist ideology, before it becomes a regime.”

Mid-way through the Trump years, it dawned on me that many of the older and upper-middle -class white former New Left (now “old new left”) fascism-denying thinkers I knew wouldn’t be willing to see fascism as a problem in the U.S. until paramilitaries came to their comfortable homes and dragged them off to detention camps. Among the affluent Caucasian males who predominate among Trumpism-fascism-deniers (this is no accident given how their race, class, and gender-privilege insulated them from the worst outcomes of the Trump regime), it has been common to advance an idiotic all-or-nothing black and white litmus test for fascism: either [A] a triumphant consolidated fascist regime on the maximal model of Mussolini’s Italy or Hitler’s Third Reich or [B] “no fascism.” Serious contemporary analysts of neofascism are working instead with a more reasonably nuanced attention to gray areas, “fascist creep” (“creeping fascism,” if one prefers), and fascist movements in the neoliberal era.

+5. “The world ‘fascism’ should be reserved only for true revolutionary movements that want to violently overthrow and remake the state entirely. Trump rose to power peacefully, through a lawful and constitutionally sanctioned election. Therefore, we must not call him a fascist.” This is an accurate paraphrase of political scientist Sheri Berman’s take on the matter. It is another version of the black and white Mussolini and Hitler or bust approach. And it is incorrect. There is no reason to think that a fascist movement could not gain state power gradually and through existing state and corporate mechanisms. Far-right politicians running with the “fascist playbook” have moved into head-of-state positions in recent years in Poland, Hungary, India, Brazil, Turkey, the Philippines, and the United States. At the same time, Trump and his most fervent backers would have loved to remake the state in very ugly ways.

This European history-obsessed all-or-nothing understanding of “the F-word” explains why the astute New York University historian Ruth ben-Ghiat told Salon’s consistently antifascist writer Chauncy de Vega last July that “it’s difficult for people to digest what [understanding Trump and Trumpism as fascist] would mean for a few reasons.” As ben-Ghiat explained:

“One is that we are still operating with an old-fashioned idea of what authoritarian countries are like. That is one of the reasons I use the word ‘fascistic’ as opposed to ‘fascism’ to describe Donald Trump. When we use the word ‘fascism’ most people think of an instant shutdown of democracy and brown shirts and other political thugs in the streets. Many people will also rebut the claim that Trump is fascist by using superficial examples such as ‘There’s still a free press. People can still speak out.’ The reality is that today’s authoritarianism works differently than it did in previous incarnations. Today’s version of fascism does not need one-party states, for example. In discussing Trump and fascism, it is more effective to talk about how it operates at present.”

Note the shift of phrase in the next-to-last sentence in this passage: “Today’s version of fascism.”

+6. “Fascism only happens when the state commands the economy, enforcing corporatist state capitalism with the single fascist party and maximal leader in charge. Under Trump the business class still ruled, as is clear with its pulling of the plug on Trump and Trumpism in the wake of the January 6th incident. That’s the opposite of fascism!”

This objection misses the point. It repeats the critical mistake of anti-antifascism flavor # 4: failing to see a Nazi/fascist problem short of a consolidated fascist regime. Hitler’s brown-shirts didn’t run around smashing heads and killing people chanting “Let’s Build a Corporate State with a State Command Capitalist Political Economy!” They went about beating up and murdering Marxists and Jews, two threats they merged in the phrase “judeo-bolshevism.” They were very much about white nationalism.

Those of us who saw and see Trump and Trumpism as fascist never posited or expected an exact replication of German Nazi or Italian fascism in the contemporary U.S. A 21st Century Neoliberal-era American fascist regime would be considerably less state-command-oriented than the classic historical European fascism of the last century.

It is absurd to call American neoliberal corporate and financial rule “the opposite of fascism.” The opposite of fascism, a brutal form of capitalism, is democratic socialism.

+7. “Trump isn’t/wasn’t smart enough be a ‘fascist’ leader. He’s incapable of doctrine He’s a buffoon and so are many of his followers, so please stop with all the blather about ‘fascism.’” This is a stupid narrative. What, so fascist movements are about smarts and rigorous doctrine? Seriously? Fascism has never exactly been strong on brainpower and reasoning. It has always promoted the supposed power of “will,” force, racial superiority, violence, hyper-masculinism, and supposedly great, cult leaders over rational thought and intellectual rigor.

At the same time, Trump was not without real political acumen when it came to rallying his base. He had enough stump skill and instinctual cleverness to have garnered a soul-chilling second term but for his (yes) idiotic response to the COVID-19 outbreak. He was advised by reasonably lucid fascists like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller. His evil but hardly moronic Attorney General William Barr channeled white nationalist-neofascist ethics in coherent, semi-erudite fashion. Leading Trump-enabling Senate Republifascists Josh Hawley (Yale Law), Ted Cruz (Harvard Law), and Tom Cotton (Harvard Law) are graduates of the nation’s top two law schools.

We got lucky that Trump is an undisciplined ignoramus. Thank God for that. Watch out for future Amerikaner Dear Leaders with more smarts and discipline than the tangerine-tinted cuck-master. Beware of fascist evil cloaked as clownishness on the model of Sinclair Lewis’ fictional fascist president Buzz Windrip and the supposedly funny Donald Trump.

+8. “President Trump had no ideology beyond venal selfishness and malignant narcissism.” Wrong. This is a critical error. Loretta Ross recently noted on Counterpunch that “Trump is a white supremacist; that he is also a deranged narcissist is really incidental.” Indeed. But we can say more: Trump is an at least instinctual fascist who devoured a volume of Hitler’s late 1930s speeches. He combined white supremacism, white nationalism, Social Darwinism, arch-authoritarianism, nativism, arch sexism, record-setting Orwellian truth-inversion, a belief in political violence, a faith in the power of Will, a readiness to break the law (in the name of law and order), and a hatred for democracy (along with other hallmark and classic fascist beliefs) with his malignant narcissism and venal corporate gangsterism. Corruption and kleptocracy (and narcissism were rife under classic fascism, for what that’s worth.

+9. “Trump is an authoritarian but not a fascist.” No, Trump checked off too many of fascism’s definitional boxes (see my “Thirty-One Flavors of Fascism” and the first chapter of my latest book Hollow Resistance: Trump, Obama, and the Politics of Appeasement) to be considered just another “authoritarian.”

+10. “Trump is a populist.” No. Populism properly understood is about popular and democratic opposition to the rule of the money power – to the reign of concentrated wealth. It emerged from radical U.S. farmers’ fight for social and economic justice and democracy against the new corporate plutocracy of the late 19th century. Populists worthy of the label are on the left, not the right. They back “human rights, social democracy, peace and ecological sanity” (Harvey Wasserman).  They support racial and ethnic equality in pursuit of popular solidarity. They want government to serve the working-class majority and the common good, not the wealthy corporate and financial Few. Donald Trump, whose main legislative accomplishment as president was a giant tax cut for the super-rich and their giant corporations and financial institutions, was no populist.  Like Hitler in the early middle 1930s, Trump used the scapegoating of demonized Others and foreigners – Muslims, Mexican immigrants, “China,” and other targets (Canadian timber exporters!)  – to divert attention away from the rich and powerful.

(Many American lefties like to call Trump a “right-wing populist” in part because they mistakenly think his base is largely working-class. See anti-antifascism flavor #XX below).

+11. “Fascism only happens when there’s a big revolutionary Left that the capitalist ruling class wants and needs fascists to smash. Since there is no such Left here, ‘fascism’ doesn’t apply in the U.S. today.” Wrong. Fascism isn’t only about crushing the socialist and communist Left in service to capital. It is very much about racial, ethnic, and cultural identity and nationalism – white nationalism today in the US as in 1930s Germany. And while there may not be a big revolutionary socialist Left to smash in the U.S. (a tragedy), much of the American right thinks there is. They hear it all the time from the paranoid-style-on-steroids neo-Bircher right-wing media, which calls conservative corporate Democrats like Joe Biden and Charles Schumer “radical left socialists.” The George Floyd Rebellion, a massive uprising against racist police brutality that Trump’s Christian fascist Attorney General William Barr described (to FOX News’ frothing fascist Mark Levin) as “Bolshevik,” helped fuel neo-McCarthyite Republifascist fantasies of incipient “radical Left” revolution. To deepen the pseudo-plausible paranoia, a semi-charismatic US Senator (Bernie Sanders) who calls himself (incorrectly) a socialist made strong runs for the Democratic presidential nomination in both of the last two quadrennial election cycles. If Sanders had been the Democrats’ nominee in 2020, you can be sure most of big capital would have been on board with the fascist Trump for a second term.

+12. “Unlike fascists, Trump was an anti-imperialist isolationist enemy of the war state.” Nonsense. As Anthony DiMaggio recently documented on Counterpunch+, murderous military U.S. imperialism remained very much alive and well under Donald Trump. As DiMaggio shows, Trump continued the heavily air-war-focused global militarism and giant military budgets of the second Obama administration while increasing the pace of lethal drone war, doubling down on the crucifixion of Yemen and Palestine, and terrorizing Iran and North Korea. DiMaggio might have added that Trump deployed a dangerous new tactical nuclear weapon and rolled back global nuclear weapons protections.

Trump projected aggressive military belligerence, complaining that the U.S. needed to get back to “winning wars.” As Berger notes, “Trump’s conflict with the military comes from the disgust of top brass with his personal and political conduct, not a lack of belligerence or willingness to stoke international conflict on his part.”

(It is truly bizarre to read the following remark from the U.S. foreign policy historian and critic Walter L. Dixson: “The warfare state is wearing down the American public—even Trump opposes it!” That is a jaw-dropping and eye-rolling comment for the ages.)

+13. “If Trump was a fascist, he would have run hard with top-down statist COVID-19 restrictions and measures.” Nonsense. Trump’s failure to go strong with masking, “lockdowns,” and invocation of the Defense Production Act (to order the mass manufacture of medical supplies) reflected not only his desire to keep the economy going (ironically enough since failure to undertake proper public health measures deepened the economic impact of the virus) for his re-election but also his rejection of science and his racist, Social Darwinian, and pre-genocidal approval of how COVID-19 especially killed the old, the infirm, the poor, and the nonwhite and how the virus initially targeted big multiracial urban and Democratic areas. It was all very neoliberal fascist.

+14. “Trump’s ‘fascism’ is/was mainly just silly and non-consequential rhetoric and essentially performative.” Listen to what the privileged white and comfortably retired fascism-denying University of Wisconsin historian Stanley Payne told Dylan Matthews when the VOX writer asked the professor if the fascist Trump was a fascist last October:

“This inquiry made a little sense four years ago, when Trump was still an unknown quantity, but now he has a record. Well — that’s pretty thin gruel. Nothing much to work with here. The Democrats won the first election under Trump [the 2018 midterms], and I’m not aware of anything negative happening. Straining at gnats doesn’t really get us anywhere. Mostly these are just silly public remarks. Hitler’s place in history is not based on his remarks, nor for any temporary detention cages. Please do not trivialize.”

How revolting – and revealing. Right, “just silly public remarks,” just “straining at gnats.” These were insights Herr Payne needed to share with the immigrants penned up in Trump’s concentration camps, the parents whose children were stolen from them at the southern U.S. border, and the survivors of the 400,000-plus Americans who have died from the pandemic Trump fanned across the nation (Trump’s not-so benign neglect and violation of epidemiological public health is responsible for at least three-fourths of the nation’s coronavirus body count), dismissing its significance (he said it “affects virtually no one” even after he survived it with the help of the best taxpayer-funded socialist medicine and treatment available).Tell it to the survivors of people murdered by white-nationalist killers triggered by Trump’s hateful rhetoric (e.g., Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, the victims of the El Paso Wal-Mart massacre, and the Tree of Life killings in Pittsburgh), and the people of Puerto Rico, who Trump left to suffer without adequate federal (while downplaying the extent of death and destruction) in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Tell it to the people of Iran. Tell it to the Muslims and others from Muslim countries who were unable to visit loved ones because of Trump’s racist travel ban. (I wonder how long professor Payne would survive in one of U.S. Border Patrol’s “temporary detention cages.”) Tell it to the survivors of the hundreds of prospective migrants who have died in the southwestern U.S. desert (including 227 people whose remains were found along the U.S,-Mexico border last year) thanks to Trump’s intensified border enforcement and partial wall construction

Same to all those who saw Trump’s fascism as merely “performative,” as in this disappointing statement from Jason Stanley to Business Insider last summer:

“I’m not saying that Trump is a fascist. Trump is certainly performing fascismit’s performative fascism that we’re seeing. It’s the tropes of fascism, and I think that’s worrisome enough. What’s to stop him from escalating? What’s to stop a future person, a future president from escalating, whether Democrat or Republican?… He might be doing it merely performatively — we don’t know. But you want to stop it early, so you don’t allow this performative fascism to be something that could be turned non-performative and degrade our democratic norms” (emphasis added. See also Masha Gessen, “Trump’s Fascist Performance,” The New Yorker, June 3, 2020)

Presidential rhetoric and “theater” matter a great deal, it turns out. Trump’s hate speech and hate tweets were off the U.S. presidency’s historical charts (we’ve never seen a racist and hate-rhetoric machine like Donald Trump in the executive branch of the world’s most powerful office.) When the occupant of the White House regularly channels far-right conspiracy theories, violent white nationalism, and vile malignant narcissism on so-called social media and in ugly hate rallies and other venues, great harm results. Only time will tell how many more people will die because of Trump’s biggest and classically fascistic lie of all – the insane claim, believed by millions of his deluded backers, that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. There can be little doubt, that Trump’s rhetoric (as well as his actions) significantly “degrad[ed]…democratic norms.”

Classic historical fascism was highly performative and theatrical, by the way.

Part 2 will take up numerous related “Trumpenleft” objections to seeing Trump and Trumpism as fascist, the related claim that the January 6th Attack on the Capitol “wasn’t a big deal,” and the claim that Trump’s removal means that it’s time for antifascists to shut up.

Paul Street’s new book is The Hollow Resistance: Obama, Trump, and Politics of Appeasement.

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