Back in September, I published a book Fascism: History and Theory, which tried to bring together in a single place my summary of the most revealing left-wing theories of fascism of the 1930s, and what I thought united them. I did not write it to reflect on the politics of the world crisis since 2016, or Trump. (I had only just published another book on that subject). I wanted to understand the past on its own terms.
But, last week’s autogolpe has changed the politics of the debate. Suddenly, it feels as if every historian of fascism is being asked their opinion as to whether Donald Trump is a fascist. Robert Paxton argues he is, Richard Evan insists he is not. Without covering the same ground as either of them, I thought I would set out my own approach.
If all that was at stake in this argument was how much to be worried about Trump, then my sympathies would be with the people insisting on his threat, not those diminishing it. The effect of four years of Trump’s Presidency has been to increase the size and popularity of the right. Thousands of people who four years ago were mere isolated individuals without any meaningful audience, have been able to use Trump’s support so that now they have Youtube channels or twitter or facebook accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers. When those activists returned from the Capitol, they came home with the applause of their friends and relatives ringing in their ears. They are not chastened, they are eager for more.
All that acknowledged, I distrust the idea that we make sense of the present but attaching to it the labels of the past. After all, there was more than one way in which the model of the 1930s swept people behind Trump. In the most obvious example, people were fascinated by the evil of fascism, wanted themselves to appear large and cruel and monstrous, like Hitler’s followers. That’s why they wore tshirts saying “Camp Auschwitz” or saying 6 million wasn’t enough. But weren’t there also Trump followers role-playing their support for Churchill? I mean the people waving their Israeli flags, that part of the demonstrators who admire Trump because the outgoing American President Israel’s best friend. For 70 years, American has been telling itself a story in which the best thing that country ever did was join in with the war against Hitler. Repeating that narrative puts no barriers in the way of Trump’s ascendancy – it’s the same story that Trump himself tells.
More to the point, while this week it feels like the important use to which we can put the word “fascism” is as a measure against which to the hatefulness of Trump’s regime, the reality is that next month a different enemy will be checked against the same test, and the month after that it will be someone else’s turn. I’ve watched over the past 20 years as the following have been compared to fascism: Saddam Hussein, Colonel Gaddafi, the 9/11 hijackers, ISIS, the Israeli state, its Palestinian opponents, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, the Brexit-era Conservatives, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. If I asked whether any of them deserved the name, I’d be choosing between “very few, if any” and “actually none”.
In my book, I point out that the first generation of anti-fascists were principally concerned to distinguish fascism from two movements to which it was often compared. The first was ordinary conservatism. Compared to that, they argued, fascism was different. It was a counter-revolutionary threat, which gave itself the mission of smashing the existing state, and disturbing the balance of class forces which underpinned it.
A closer proximate were the many reactionary regimes which dominated in Europe once the revolutionary tide of 1917-23 had ebbed. By 1939, such states included Portugal and Spain and every state north and east of Italy – as far as Poland’s border with the USSR. Most of these had been formed from coups, but none (the likes of Gramsci, Zetkin or Trotsky argued) were fascist.
The difference, essentially, was this. Their military rulers had wanted to crush their insurgent opponents – trade unionists, anarchists and Communists – but they had not wanted to alter the composition of existing ruling elites (the Church, the army, business). Therefore, although their regimes began with spasms of violence, it petered out. After that, the regimes settled down into a military, authoritarian form of ordinary capitalist rule.
If you want to think of a single society which marks the border between “ordinary military” and “fascist” rule, it was Franco’s Spain. Formed out of a counter-revolutionary war, but characterise by a desire to maintain pre-fascist elites, the birth of the regime was marked by an extraordinary period of killings in which the state killed tens of thousands of people From that point onwards, however, Francoism ruled like a conventional military regime. Such genuine fascists as Ramón Serrano Suñer were marginalised and forced into a form of political retirement. A regime was established after 1945 which save for the absence of fair parliamentary elections was in many respects akin to the other Christian Democratic societies of postwar Europe.
The difference, I argue in my book, between fascism and these military regimes was that the former kept the reactionary and mass elements of right-wing politics in relative balance for much longer: there were still mass organisations, there were still mass realities, there was still an effort to disturb the balance of society and for the regime to be ever radicalised.
From this perspective, what sort of politician was Donald Trump? As President, he did not jail the majority of his opponents, he did not annul elections. If you were to come up with a single scale with “conservative” at 1, “non-fascist military dictatorship” at 5, and “open fascist rule” at 9 or 10, then on the things that matter you might give him a 2 or 3 out of ten.
If even Franco with his 100,000 deaths after the end of the Civil War is on the borderline of dictatorship and fascism, then Trump with his single extra-judicial killing, is so far below him that you have to start wondering, why are we even counting?
The answer to that is not just that Trump summoned an army into the street, but that he chafed at the limits of his politics, looked over the edge of ordinary electoralism, and was willing to consider the possibility of a future in which he was in power not as a result of winning an election but because of the armed support of his followers.
There’s a point to be grasped here about how fascist parties are formed. What is true of far-right activists is also true of the people who lead them. Think for example of Ashli Babbitt. At one point she was an Obama voter, next an anti-Clinton Republican, then a libertarian. Only in the last year does she appear to have taken Q seriously, and become the sort of person willing to put her life in the hands of her beloved President. We can see these as a series of incremental steps in one direction, with each seemingly making the next move inevitable.
Had the 2020 election been closer, had it been like Florida in 2000 the matter of a single state with a plausible argument that the results were genuinely unclear, Trump might have faced the much more serious possibility of staging a coup. Had he settled on that option as a serious possibility, rather than a desperate last-minute attempt to forestall an inevitable decision to accept the election result, we might be talking about a situation in which even more Republicans had supported him, and the armed forces might possibly have been split.
In those circumstances, the decision to take power primarily through a coup, would be the recognisable act of either a military dictator or a fascist. And, undoubtedly, it would have changed Trump. He would have given a pledge to his supporters, and would now have a debt to them. He would be the same person, with the same past history, the same personal style, but the logic of his decision to take power outside elections would have changed him.
We might still be talking about a “5” rather than a “9”, a civilian figure brought to power in a coup, rather than an ideological fascist. He would be something different however from what he was a year ago, or what he is now.
After all, at one point in history, even Hitler was not a fascist. He was merely an unemployed soldier and a gun to hire. The coming force in Bavarian politics was a local soviet led by Jewish anarchists, and Hitler was seriously considering siding with them. Hitler became a fascist through a series of choices, above all, through joining the forerunner of the Nazi Party.
Trump could have taken similar steps – choosing the armed path – if history had offered him a better hand. But it didn’t.
None of this is to argue that America is a healthy society, that the world is immune to fascism, or that the left needs to be standing down its online armies. That last’s a metaphor, of course. It is a good thing that millions of people are looking on in shock, that tens of thousands have been identifying and exposing the people that took part in the coup. We don’t need less outrage, we need more of it – we need people in the streets rather than watching mutely through their screens.
But the monster of our lifetimes belong to the future, not the past. Right now, all my instincts are to say that the people who need watching are the ones who marched on the Capitol – the Patriots, the Proud Boys – and not the people who sent them into battle.
As for Trump himself: he has had, and has wasted, his chance.