You Can Use That Word
I haven’t written about the “fascism question” in a while now. This is because there are a lot of other issues in the world, and frankly, I’ve grown a little tired of the discussion: I’ve said what I’ve had to say on the matter. Also, a lot of people with bigger platforms have more or less come around to the position that even if Trump is not strictly speaking a fascist, his authoritarian tendencies are at least very pronounced and troubling, so it seems less pressing for me to keep beating that drum. If you don’t believe it now, no amount of evidence to the contrary will convince you. But recent developments make it so I think we can now safely say, without equivocation or doubt, that Tom Nichols of The Atlantic Monthly is a dipshit.
After years of eye-rolling at the proposition that there was something fascist of Trump, Nichols has now made an about face, writing in his daily newsletter on The Atlantic website that Trump has finally “crossed the line” into fascism. The decisive piece of evidence was a part of Trump’s speech in Claremont, New Hampshire:
We will drive out the globalists, we will cast out the communists, Marxists, fascists. We will throw off the sick political class that hates our country … On Veterans Day, we pledge to you that we will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country, that lie and steal and cheat on elections and will do anything possible … legally or illegally to destroy America and to destroy the American dream.
A lot of people have reacted quite strongly to this rhetoric, and for good reason, but if you’ve been following Trump for the last few years this doesn’t even sound that crazy. I guess “vermin” is new, but this all feels like a natural development not some radical departure from the norm. Now you might say, “Alright now John, he may have been a little late, but in the spirit of generosity shouldn’t you just accept that he now agrees with you and not say, ‘I told you so.’” Well, because Nichols cannot for a moment adopt an attitude of intellectual humility in this reverse course. In fact, he immediately blames people who were willing to label a fascist before as the reason that the label now has no effect:
Unfortunately, the overuse of fascist (among other charges) quickly wore out the part of the public’s eardrums that could process such words. Trump seized on this strategic error by his opponents and used it as a kind of political cover. Over the years, he has become more extreme and more dangerous, and now he waves away any additional criticisms as indistinguishable from the over-the-top objections he faced when he entered politics, in 2015.
Today, the mistake of early overreaction and the subsequent complacency it engendered has aided Trump in his efforts to subvert American democracy. His presence in our public life has become normalized, and he continues to be treated as just another major-party candidate by a hesitant media, an inattentive public, and terrified GOP officials. This is the path to disaster: The original fascists and other right-wing dictators of Europe succeeded by allying with scared elites in the face of public disorder and then, once they had seized the levers of government, driving those elites from power (and in many cases from existence on this planet).
Gimme a fucking break. So, we were all were overreacting, but you always come to sound and reasoned conclusions.
The fact is there were very good reasons to bring fascism into the discussion of Trump from the very start. Nichols writes what made Trump’s remarks particularly egregious that his menaces were directed not that “Trump melded religious and political rhetoric to aim not at foreign nations or immigrants, but at his fellow citizens.” But from the very beginning of Trump’s emergence as a political phenomenon, the burning hot core of the appeal was his rejection of the citizenship of Americans that either looked or acted wrong. He began with Birtherism and this remains the central symbol of his movement even if he doesn’t harp on it so much anymore. He made, and still makes, a number of menacing remarks about birthright citizenship as enshrined in the 14th amendment and even took practical steps to amp up denaturalizations. Then he attempted to negate the citizenship rights of millions of Americans through his insistence that the election was “rigged” and efforts to overturn it. Again, this just is a mythical representation of the central idea of Trump’s politics: some Americans are not really Americans. Or, what about the fact, that since the beginning, those who don’t mind being identified as fascists and Nazis have always said, “Yeah, Trump is very much the type of thing we’d like to see more of.” So maybe, Tom, the people who said there was something fascist about Trump from the jump were simply on to something?
Even if you were not really attentive to all this, at least by January 6, when paramilitaries and a mob egged on by Trump tried to storm congress and overturn an election. And it was not just those hysterical propagandists on MSNBC making the claim this whole time either. Respected scholars like Robert Paxton and Geoff Eley were also willing to adopt the term.
The fact is Nichols, like many people, doesn’t really know what he’s talking about but thinks he does. A lot of people have a very cartoonish image of fascism in their head, some of it actually constructed by fascist propaganda itself, and if what they are seeing doesn’t accord completely with that image, they reject the possibility. For instance, this is what he wrote in April:
Did fascist regimes have “articulated ideologies”? If he had been familiar with his Paxton, he might know that the ideological content of fascist parties was highly flexible and fluid, amenable to frequent change due to the needs of political expediency and the leader’s role as emanation of the volk. “Highly disciplined cadres?” Well, how do you explain Hitler’s need to violently put down some of his principle lieutenants or Mussolini’s struggles with his blackshirt chieftains, and who even threatened him with a coup at one point? “Bureaucratized chains of command?” There are reams of literature on the overlapping and competing remits of bureaucracies in the Third Reich and the sclerotic civil service under the supposedly dynamic regime of Mussolini.
Here’s another howler:
In point of fact, they did run for office, repeatedly and with mixed success, but electoral politics were a large part of fascist strategy to get into power. Hitler explicitly chose a “legal” path after the failure of the Beerhall Putsch. Mussolini worked, for the first few years at least, largely within the constitutional system and governed in a coalition framework that was not just about strong arming people. The idea that fascist regimes rose to power largely through coups and revolutions is propagandistic, they were largely “normalized” by parliamentary allies. And any serious scholar would tell you that consent, both on a mass and elite level, was as much a part of the story of fascist rise to power as terror. Where is Nichols getting his image of fascism? It seems like from 1930s newsreels or Hollywood movies where dramatic music plays and the shadow of the Swastika falls over a map of Europe. Again, he quite simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Who does? Well, in recent articles, I’ve liked Damon Linker’s piece in the Times on the authoritarian right family of intellectuals now present in the United States. Also very much worth your while is Jamelle Bouie’s November 14 piece in the same paper:
Americans are obsessed with hidden meanings and secret revelations. This is why many of us are taken with the tell-all memoirs of political operatives or historical materials like the Nixon tapes. We often pay the most attention to those things that have been hidden from view. But the mundane truth of American politics is that much of what we want to know is in plain view. You don’t have to search hard or seek it out; you just have to listen.
And Donald Trump is telling us, loud and clear, that he wants to end American democracy as we know it.
I will just add: he has been saying it for a while and certain people have either not been listening or have been putting their fingers in their ears.