It borders on cliché the number of times historians lament how “fascism” is an over-used term. But Sinclair Lewis, writing about the specter of fascism a century ago, understood something most historians don’t – that U.S. intellectual culture is loathe to acknowledge fascist undercurrents in this country. I attribute this hostility to intellectuals’ belief that their nation is an exceptionalist democracy – hence fascism “can’t happen here.”
Historian Bruce Kuklick’s Fascism Comes to America is a great example of an academic bemoaning the abuse of “fascism” in U.S. discourse, despite the book refusing to engage with evidence that suggests the opposite. One should read this review, not so much as an indictment of his book, but as an indictment of a larger intellectual culture that’s elevating this book to the status of a serious work of scholarship, while ignoring critical scholarship that’s already been published on fascism in America.
Kuklick writes that he’s interested in “the spectacle of fascism in the United States.” Which is to say he thinks it should be understood as a concept that political thinkers and practitioners use time and time again to further their own personal political agendas. He talks of fascism as something that exists in “the imagination” of Americans – leaving his readers with the distinct impression that there’s little substantive meaning to the term outside of it being wielded as a weapon against one’s opponents. Kuklick says as much multiple times in his book, writing that fascism is one of those “political swear words” that people use to malign others. Throughout our history, he argues, “people who did not like someone else’s politics could always find in that politics enough to label the other fellow a fascist.”
For Kuklick, fascism discourse is “a growth industry.” He cites examples throughout modern history in film and other popular culture mediums, including Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, and Philip Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Kuklick believes that discourses on fascism are an American “obsession” – which would suggest a lack of rationality in our political culture. He elaborates by saying about U.S. discourse that “political talk” in America “is puzzling, artful distortion. Much of politics is linguistic theater, the showy and indiscriminate ejaculation of words. The evaluations of officials, entertainers, and pundits have a crooked relation to reality, and the scholarly analysis of politics is conducted with these evaluations.” This is not the sort of language used by someone who thinks the U.S. is suffering from a threat of rising fascism today.
There are at least three major problems with this book. First, the available evidence pertaining to contemporary political discourse suggests the author is far off base when he claims that fascism is an abused term and that it’s a massive growth industry. Second, there’s little to no effort in this book to seriously engage with recent scholars who argue, contrary to Kuklick, that fascist politics are ascending in the era of Trump. By refusing to adequately address these competing works (or address them at all), Kuklick fails to demonstrate why warnings about fascism should classified as imagined, embellished, paranoid, or wrong. Third, the author’s dismissal of a fascist threat speaks to his, and other privileged academics’ disconnect from the struggles that repressed people face, as related to white nationalism, rightwing demagoguery, and patriarchal-authoritarian politics.
First, there’s the issue of the author’s weak research methods and evidence. Saying that people throughout history have warned about fascism in America or elements of fascism says nothing about how frequent those warnings are, or how seriously they’re taken by officialdom and in political discourse. The book draws on various examples from popular culture and politics, referencing various people talking about fascism. There’s nothing systematic here – from a social scientific perspective – to suggest that fascism-discourse has become a national “obsession,” as the author claims. Certainly, one can find evidence of people warning about fascism when surveying American politics over a long period of time. As Kuklick writes, critics of the FDR administration called it fascist. Fascism and totalitarianism as concepts were used throughout the Cold War to refer to the Soviet Union, Cuba, and the much hated specter of communism. More recently, scholars such as Jason Stanley, who the author briefly mentions, warns of a rising fascist politics today. Joe Biden also talked about Trump as embracing “semi-fascism.”
But simply noting various anecdotes over the last century doesn’t educate us about the frequency of the warnings, which we need to examine to get a better sense of whether fascism has truly become a national obsession. To do this, we need a more focused, deeper, systematic analysis that transcends a broad survey of the last 100 years of mass political commentary. It may be that such warnings appear from time to time but are the exception to the rule of a largescale refusal to consider that the U.S. is characterized by fascist politics. If that’s the case, cherry-picked anecdotes are not evidence of a nation’s fixation on fascism, so much as they’re an indication of a superficial academic analysis.
Because Kuklick doesn’t look at any of the available empirical evidence in contemporary discourse, we’re left to take on faith that his description of U.S. politics is accurate. But looking at the previous work that’s been done, we see that, quite the opposite of fetishizing fascism discourse, U.S. political leaders, journalists, and academics overwhelmingly downplay references to fascism – particularly as related to the question of whether Donald Trump and the Republican Party embrace it. I feel confident talking about this research as someone who’s been at the forefront of this work for the last decade.
Here’s what we know. First, U.S. officials are incredibly reluctant to suggest that Trumpism is a fascist phenomenon. My examination of the Congressional Record database, which looks at all House and Senate floor debates and statements from members of both parties during Trump’s term, finds that there was not a single reference to Trump and “fascism” or “fascist” politics during his time in office (early 2017 to early 2021). Second, my review of presidential discussions of fascism under the Obama and Biden presidencies reveals officials who are quite reluctant to acknowledge a fascist threat. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Clinton’s Vice-Presidential candidate Tim Kaine privately acknowledged that they believed Trump was a fascist – a point that they never shared with the public. Biden has referred to “semi-fascism” in America in the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections, but he’s the only one of these four who’s been willing to publicly associate Trump and Republican politics with fascism.
How common is presidential rhetoric on fascism under the Biden administration? Reviewing the University of California Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project database, I looked at presidential declarations, interviews, news conferences, Biden’s 2021 inaugural address, press and other media engagements, Biden’s State of the Union addresses, various public remarks by administration officials, and various speeches from the president. I find that the words “fascism” or “fascist” appeared just 8 times in presidential communications from January 2021 through March 2023. Of those 8, two were made in relation to the allied powers fighting fascism in World War II, and six were related to discussions between reporters and members of the administration about Biden’s single reference to Trump as embracing “semi-fascism.” Eight references in more than 26 months is hardly evidence that the Biden administration is obsessively fixated on the rhetoric of fascism. And in the case of Kaine, Obama, and Clinton, they’ve gone out of their way to avoid using the term in public as related to Trump and the GOP, while Biden clearly hasn’t engaged in such language routinely.
What about other metrics for U.S. political discourse? In Rising Fascism in America, I draw on the Nexis Uni academic database, documenting how U.S. journalists at the nation’s most prominent newspaper – The New York Times – routinely and ritualistically avoided discussions of the Trump administration and fascism during his time in office. Discussions of authoritarianism were relatively more common, and reports that talked about Trump and populism were far and away the most frequent of all. There’s little here to suggest that “fascism” was a normal part of U.S. discourse during Trump’s presidency.
Finally, what about academics? Rising Fascism in America looks at the op-ed page of The New York Times. This is the place where we’d expect to find discussions from academics about fascism, considering how their warnings have been ignored in news reports. Outside of a couple scattered references from Paul Krugman and Jason Stanley, there’s virtually no evidence that discussions of Trump and fascism appear in op-eds from the paper of record. An alternative metric of academic discourse might look at the most elite presses – ivy league and other elite university book publishers – to see how they’ve treated the fascism question. But having followed these publishers closely over the years, I’m aware of not a single book from Yale, Oxford, Harvard, Columbia, University of Chicago, or Stanford University Press that focus primarily on the claim that rising fascism in America is occurring. The only book that’s made this its central focus is Kuklick’s, and that book’s clearly denialist, downplaying a fascist threat.
Ignoring Competing Accounts
A second problem with this book is that there’s virtually no substantive effort to engage with contemporary scholars who’ve warned of rising fascism in the era of Trump. There are various progressive scholars working in this area, including Paul Street, Henry Giroux, William Connolly, myself, and Jason Stanley, among others, and various scholars of historical fascism including Ruth Ben Ghiat, Timothy Snyder, James Whitman, Stefan Kuhl, and Robert Paxton, who have talked about historic U.S. ties to fascist politics or warned of a rising fascistic politics in the U.S. today. Kuklick mentions some of these scholars, such as Snyder, Paxton and Stanley, but there’s very little engagement in the substance of the claims they offer. Other scholars I’ve referenced are ignored entirely, despite writing book level treatments about rising fascism. When Kuklick does engage with critical scholars, it’s not to contest their arguments, but to provide superficial summaries. In his chapter on academics and fascism, he references Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model, but fails to engage the substantive findings of how the Nazis drew inspiration from U.S. Jim Crow politics, white supremacy, and anti-miscegenation laws. In that chapter, Kuklick also mentions Stanley’s book, How Fascism Works, providing a single sentence summary referring to the author as discussing “the roots of fascist thought” in America. These are not serious engagements in the academic evidence that’s been put forward of fascism in America.
Whatever position one takes, the question of rising fascism is a serious one. It requires a substantive engagement with the work that’s already been done. To gloss over or ignore this work speaks to the superficiality of Kuklick’s book, which operates in service of American exceptionalism and fascism denial. Notably, the book has only a single chapter covering fascism in America over the last half century, from 1970-2020. That chapter is just 12 pages long and devotes only a single paragraph to the fascist question in the Trumpian era. When the chapter finally gets to this issue near its end, the analysis is limited to a single reference to rightwing ideologue and ex-felon Dinesh D’Souza who argues in a non-scholarly book that the Democrats, not Trump or Republicans, are fascist.
Entirely ignored here is Trump’s own rhetoric and policies, which critical scholars argue are symptomatic of rising fascism. This includes his white nationalist politics, such as his efforts to shut down immigration from Muslim-majority countries, and his demonizing of Mexican immigrants, alongside his romanticizing on numerous occasions of Confederate iconography (see here and here), and his idealizing of immigration from northern Europe. It includes his eugenics-style embrace of an overwhelmingly white crowd of Trump supporters for their “good genes,” and his demands that U.S. soldiers shoot Mexican immigrants at the border and Black Lives Matter activists in the streets. It includes his authoritarian efforts to overturn the 2020 election, which culminated in his stoking of violent insurrectionists at the U.S. Capitol and his effort to get national and state Republicans to overturn election results that favored Biden. It includes the cult of Trumpian personality, in which nearly two-thirds of his supporters indicated that there was nothing he could do when in power to make them reconsider their support and adoration for him. It includes his demand that the Department of Justice throw his political detractors in prison, including Obama, Clinton, and Biden, based on fallacious claims that they were spying on him and trying to overthrow him in a coup. It includes a president who identifies with QAnon – a movement that indulges in neo-Nazi antisemitic messaging, and endorses an authoritarian and eliminationist politics calling for Democrats to be executed in public alongside the establishment of a de facto Trumpian dictatorship. And it includes Trump’s own bragging about sexually assaulting women, which he did with impunity in the run-up to the 2016 election. One might try to account for all these developments in a way that denies Trump is a fascist, or that his party is fascist for embracing him. More commonly though, as Kuklick does, fascism denialists simply ignore all these points. By doing so, they avoid dealing with the fascism question and the evidence for it. It’s difficult to defend this silence in a book that purports to be a serious examination of fascism in America.
“It Can’t Happen Here” as Academic Elitism
Finally, Fascism Comes to America is problematic in the ways that it reveals the elitism of an ivory tower that’s so privileged and disconnected from practical politics that academics feel they can avoid serious, substantive discussions of the fascism question. Kuklick seems to indulge in a sort of post-modernism that rejects the position that one can talk about essential truths related to what fascism is and isn’t. He writes: “there is no elemental fascism, or much empirical content” behind the discourses of fascism. “Every political posture has been christened as fascist. Unable to associate fascism with any stable observables over one hundred years, I am unconvinced that they exist.” He also denies notions that entire groups of people exist, callously and cynically referring to Antifa as a “supposed” group of “anti-Trump activists” who claim to “fight against American fascism,” and dismissively referencing “something called the LGBTQ community” – as if to suggest that there’s little to connect individuals in these groups by way of their identities and experiences.
To deny that there’s such a thing as a group of people who collectively identify as part of an LGBTQ+ movement is the sort of empty contrarianism that one sees from privileged people who’re divorced from the real-world struggles of minority groups. All of this reeks of extreme privilege and a disconnect from reality that’s become all too common among ivy league academics and institutions – and in the academy more broadly.
I’m a firm believer in what sociologists call positionality – the view that all people have their own personal biases that impact how they think, see the world, and behave. Applying positionality to this case, it’s difficult to divorce ivy league privilege from the ways that elite academics engage in denialist discourse on fascism – if they talk about it at all. Kuklick himself is a while male, highly educated, and an emeritus professor at one of these ivy league schools – the University of Pennsylvania. He’s published his book with another elite venue – the University of Chicago Press. Considering the various facets of his personal privilege, one can see how scholars like Kuklick feel empowered to disconnect from the struggles of anti-fascist activists, LGBTQ+ people, and other repressed groups.
What’s so disturbing about the academic disconnect from real people is that it demonstrates the ways that privilege in higher education shapes discourses to remove injustice from discussion. This means that scholars serve power by failing to stand against fascist political developments such as the rise of white supremacy, authoritarianism, and the ascension of the men’s rights movement. The struggles against these developments are very real and are playing out in deadly ways in the political world, even as academics feel empowered to ignore them. Fascism itself is a very real ideology, with incredibly dangerous beliefs that’re being normalized in contemporary politics. To ignore all of this by claiming that fascism can never really be understood as a real phenomenon speaks to the total abdication and complicity of elite academics.
To conclude, I would draw attention to how perverse it is that the entire political context surrounding the publication of Fascism Comes to America undermines its very thesis. This is an author who would have us believe that U.S. intellectual culture, including the academy, is fixated on the specter of fascism in America, at a time when the ivy league presses have refused to publish a single book offering such a warning, and when the books that’re being published by non-elite presses that make this claim are almost entirely ignored by mainstream media publications. This, as Kuklick’s book and his denialism receive high praise from mainstream media venues, including The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal, and New York Magazine. A more sober reading of this political environment suggests the opposite of Kuklick’s thesis. Rather than the country and mainstream political culture being obsessed with fascism – U.S. intellectuals have spared no effort to suppress discussions of fascism as applied to the Republican Party. In the process denialist accounts like Kuklick’s are privileged, despite its superficial engagement with the contemporary fascism question.
Why spend so much time on a single book? The simple answer is that this review isn’t really about a single book. It’s about a larger political culture where the media, officials, and academics overwhelmingly ignore the fascism question, and in which elite scholarly book publishers circumscribe the boundaries of thought by avoiding publication of works that warn of a fascist threat, while elevating denialist discourse as the only legitimate position one can adopt. We should all be concerned about the toxic effects of this sort of denialism at a time when rightwing extremism is being mainstreamed at every turn.