Power  /  Book Review

Why We Can’t Stop Arguing About Whether Trump Is a Fascist

In a new book, “Did it Happen Here?,” scholars debate what the F-word conceals and what it reveals.

If Fascism is a distinctly historical phenomenon, something that took place only in Western Europe in the middle of the twentieth century, then it can’t happen here, by definition. (As the old Internet joke goes, it’s only true fascism if it comes from Italy; otherwise, it’s just sparkling authoritarianism.) As soon as you allow for a broader definition, though, the debate becomes more subjective. In the nineteen-teens, Benito Mussolini adopted the fasces, a bundle of sticks with an axe at its center, as a symbol of military might and unity of purpose. Even in its original form, fascism represented a bunch of conflicting impulses bound together—“a beehive of contradictions,” in Eco’s words. (Some have claimed that Trumpism is too devoid of consistent ideological content to be mapped onto any previous movement; others have countered that its fluidity makes it more like fascism, not less.) The sociologist Dylan Riley, in the New Left Review, writes that “the interwar fascist regimes were a product of inter-imperial warfare and capitalist crisis, combined with a revolutionary threat from the left.” He argues that the structural conditions in the contemporary U.S.—no military draft, a “smaller, weaker” left, and a relatively stable two-party system—do not justify the comparison. “Preparing for war,” Evans points out, “defined fascist theory and praxis.” Trump does enjoy a military parade, but, Evans continues, “there is no indication . . . that he has been consumed by a desire for foreign conquest.”

Paxton, in his canonical 2004 book, “The Anatomy of Fascism,” attempts to define fascism in one overbrimming sentence: “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline . . . in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues . . . internal cleansing and external expansion.” A nation in decline, which only one man can make great again? Trumpism clearly checks that box. Most of the others are more ambiguous. Death camps and Lebensraum—that’s internal cleansing and external expansion, of the prototypical fascist variety. But Manifest Destiny and forever wars? Is that fascism, or just America? When Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” was he trying to collaborate with committed nationalist militants, or just mouthing off? Was Trump’s brutal approach to the southern border a step toward “internal cleansing,” or a more callous version of politics as usual?