As Americans weigh up the damage the Trump administration proposes to inflict with its Republican allies on civil liberties, the environment, economic security, social welfare, and general health and well-being, we are struggling to develop a vocabulary suited for describing the administration and its actions. A certain degree of controversy has developed around the use of “fascism” to describe the administration or its actions.
People who make this comparison point to Trump’s targeting of Muslims, attacks on migrants, slandering of Latinos, militaristic language, contempt for the press and the courts, ethnic nationalism, anti-internationalism, hostility to labor, and more.
Some object to the term in an effort to defend Trump. But others object out of an effort to maintain what they regard as historical rigor or integrity. After characterizing some of the objections, I’ll offer some thoughts as to why, in my mind, the vocabulary is both important and justified.
- Comparing Trump to the Nazis trivializes the violence of the Holocaust. Cheapening this extraordinarily horrific process by using it as a weapon to attack an American politician who has not created camps or gas chambers is offensive. Most commentators have been quite careful to use ‘fascism’ rather than ‘Nazism.’ We must remember that the embrace and practice of fascism was not restricted to Germany during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Fascists governed in Italy, formed a key part of the Conservative alliance in Spain, and had a presence in Hungary, Romania, and elsewhere in Europe. In fact, nearly every European country--and some countries outside of Europe--hosted fascist parties and sympathizers. This was a global ideology. Nazism was one national variant of fascism. But it is also worth remembering that Nazism didn’t begin with camps and gas chambers.
- Fascism was a unique product of the European interwar period. It is ahistorical to seek to identify fascism in the twenty-first century. Fascism as it emerged in the interwar years was clearly the product of specific developments and circumstances. But scholars have traced its origins and sources back into the nineteenth century, and have identified global as well as local influences on its emergence. Crucially, fascism is an ideology. Ideologies do not respect borders and they do not vanish when their state “hosts” cease to operate within their framework. They are carried across space and time by networks, publications, and advocates. We don’t make the same argument about liberalism, conservatism, communism, social democracy, etc. We embrace the effort to trace strands of thought, variation over time, and the bearers of this ideology. The same should be true of our treatment of fascism.
- Okay, so maybe there are some broad similarities. But Trump’s administration doesn’t look exactly like what we saw in Italy, Germany, etc. Because things aren’t developing in exactly the same way, doesn’t the parallel fall down? As mentioned above, fascism is an ideology. Its rise, implementation, and the extent of its success (“success” defined as its ability to exercise real power) varied considerably in each national context. Hitler’s bodyguards and enforcers aside, fascists in Italy were far more violent in their ascent to power. Anti-Semitism occupied a different role in each of these fascist states. Italy maintained closer and more deferential relations to “traditional” conservative institutions than did Germany, and in Spain the fascists were largely absorbed by conservatives. We also have to treat fascism after 1945 critically, with the knowledge that its proponents are aware that it became widely discredited. We can thus expect them to modify the way they propose applying the ideology, and to use obfuscatory language to avoid accusations of fascism.
- This is the United States. Our own history is full of malevolent influences and features. We should pay close attention to those. This European import is a silly distraction. The point is not to say that fascism is the only ideology or framework for understanding or talking about the rise of Trump, but rather that it is an important or useful one. A few points. Firstly, it is increasingly the case that historians recognize that nations and even continents are not hermetically sealed entities. Globalization--at the basic level of people and organizations and states communicating and influencing each other across borders and oceans--is nothing new, and historians have documented links between American racial thought and bureaucratic practices and the rise of fascism. This suggests that fascism and troubling features of our own nation’s past might have been mutually constitutive. Secondly, there are those in the Trump administration--Stephen Bannon most prominent among them--who draw on and are influenced by others (“Eurasianist” thinkers in Russia, for example) who theorize admiringly about fascism. If the individuals with whom we are drawing the comparison, and to whom we apply the label, are themselves making explicit comparisons with fascism, surely we refuse to contemplate the connections and associations at our peril. Thirdly, we shouldn’t let academics’ own version of “American exceptionalism” blind them to the mobility of ideologies across time and space, or well-established links in the past and present between the U.S. and other parts of the world.
- Wouldn’t it be more accurate to just refer to authoritarianism than fascism in describing Trump? There’s probably a case to be made for this. On the other hand, most scholars would argue that Soviet communism--to take one example--was authoritarian in similar ways to German and Italian fascism, but was built on very different lines. It did not make the same use of ethnic nationalism, gendered workplaces, and narrative of decline, and it aspired to create a very different kind of state and society, arguably closer to what the likes of Trump discuss. So authoritarian is probably an accurate term for describing the Trump administration’s broad tendencies, but it doesn’t capture its desire to redefine the nation in much more specific terms.
- Ever heard of Godwin’s Law? It suggests that bringing up Hitler/Fascism is a sure sign a conversation has gone on for too long or is descending into unhinged, personalized attacks. The expression, “if the shoe fits, wear it” springs to mind here.
- Are there other ways of thinking about fascism in relation to our current moment? I think that aside from thinking about comparisons, documenting influences, and identifying proponents, it is very important to think about the historical moment, and some parallels between the conditions that led to the rise of fascism in the interwar period, and our own conditions. In the 1920s and 1930s, the ideological framework of liberalism proved unable to satisfactorily meet many social and economic challenges faced by Europeans and others. Because liberalism--here defined as an ideology that believes in civil and political rights, and minimal state intervention in the economy--jealously guarded its status as the ideology of democracy, and slandered parties that sought to add economic and social rights to existing civil rights frameworks, liberals’ own failure was increasingly read as a failure of democracy. People turned to authoritarian regimes which they believed could guarantee them security. Some admired the speed with which authoritarian communists were able to modernize their economy without the “impediments” of constitutional democracy, while others turned to fascism, which was seen as a strong and robust ideology. While not necessarily guaranteeing citizens prosperity, fascism offered the prospect of appropriating rights and property from those portrayed as internal enemies of true citizens. Timothy Snyder has offered a different framework for thinking about authoritarianism, in his short but useful text, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by identifying how, under fascist and other authoritarian regimes, the behavior of individual citizens and their associations was critical for fascists’ rise to power. Snyder identifies a series of common moments and practices in the ascent of authoritarian regimes as things we should be alert to and act against.
Books that critically examine fascism as an ideology (including in some cases, its continuation into the present)
Kevin Passmore. Fascism: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Robert O. Paxton. The Anatomy of Fascism. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.*
Stanley G. Payne. A History of Fascism, 1914-1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.
Books that provide overviews and arguments about the rise of fascism in Europe
Gotz Aly. Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2005.
Richard Evans. The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
Robert G Moeller. The Nazi State and German Society: a brief history with documents. New York: Bedford St Martin’s, 2010.
Books that provide some broader, contextual history for the rise of fascism
Konrad Jarausch. Out of Ashes: a new history of Europe in the Twentieth Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.
Mark Mazower. Dark Continent: Europe’s twentieth century. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.
Books that are explicitly about our present political moment
Timothy Snyder. On Tyranny: twenty lessons from the twentieth century. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017.*
Books that document historical connections around racial theorizing and practice between the U.S. and Germany
James Q Whitman. Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.
Andrew Zimmerman. Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.