We are seeing the mainstreaming of allegations of “fascism” in American governance and especially in reference to the Donald Trump White House. The charge is false—but damaging to our common sense. That last phrase is offered in two ways: The charge of “fascism” makes little sense. And it is an awful replacement for the noble ideas in the essay on “Common Sense,” the pamphlet by Thomas Paine which our forefathers admired.
Citizens could step back and reconsider. It takes much more than occasional clownishness or bullying speech for the current president to qualify as a new Benito Mussolini. Trump may have erred in the way he cleared Lafayette Square, but our senior military officers criticized him for it, and openly. The president’s desire to stand at a podium over-flown by Air Force jets at Washington for a national holiday does not launch us into 1930s Nuremberg for a rally by uniformed thousands holding one party’s banners. People may—or may not—want a military parade in the capital (I did not). But debating how to celebrate the 4th of July by no means justifies the recent uses of the term “fascist.” Yet the word recurs: from people of our House of Representatives; in the sprawling essay in The Washington Post on how Trump aims at “fascist dictatorship;” and for the half-hour that National Public Radio’s “1 A” show devoted to this as a serious possibility. These things have occurred in just the last weeks.
Unless we dismiss language as babble, to earn the true appellation of “fascist,” a government would have to be all or most of these six things: despotism of a singular leader; suppression of representative legal processes in favor of centralized governmental dictates; erasure of an independent judiciary; merging of most of economic life with government purposes, i.e. “national socialism;” militarization of domestic life and public mass-mobilization in support of government, by coercion if needed; and a program of conquest abroad. Italy and Germany, by the late 1930s, had all those; today’s United States has none of them.
Not one of the above factors is a regnant characteristic of our country in August 2020.
In Germany, the “Fuhrer principle” mandated a hierarchy of authority, and leadership as the first and defining frame of politics and social activity—which is unknown in the U.S. today. The two major American parties share power—a reproof to the idea of a one-party government. Both parties are fractious and uneasy coalitions—showing the opposite of the unitary discipline of single-minded fascists. On the Republican side, the president has a few rivals and many critics. Republicans in Congress are sometimes so unhelpful to this president that news anchors on Fox News rail at them. Some eminent conservatives are publicly in opposition; George Will just endorsed Democrat Joe Biden. A scholar on the aforementioned NPR show, pushing back against the host’s prodding on the threat of “fascism,” said that even if Trump wants to be a fascist leader, he has no ideology—which was of course essential to national socialism. Our Democrats also grapple with self-definition. And beyond party range, we see tens of millions of Americans guarding their own views: proud moderate centrists, committed liberals, leftist combatants, philosophical libertarians. Most look proudly to named representatives in an elected Congress that Trump cannot control. The Nazi principle of Gleichshaltung—by which all is synchronized by a corporate state—is utterly missing today. What we have in America is the usual, refreshing, troublesome parliamentary mash-ups common with popularly-elected governments.
The judiciary is among the very first institutions to be “rolled” by totalitarians of right or left. This president strives to appoint conservative judges to the high courts and clearly hopes for lasting effects. But the nomination process for open seats is open—and equally open to the next president—of any party. Meanwhile, the high court often frustrates this president, and Democratic state attorneys general have frequently opposed him.
National socialist economics are little understood in America. Antifascist militants think fascist economics means big business in control of government, when the opposite was closer to the truth. Actual fascism stopped short of the entirely-command economy so insisted upon by communists as required in a certain revolutionary stage. Fascist economies captured and held in trace many but not all of the major elements of ownership, production, and distribution of goods and services. And here? Two weeks ago, Congress scrutinized and berated four titans of different industries; congressmen are visibly frustrated by how they cannot control these companies. Nor can Mr. Trump—whose son rails just now about being excluded from a massive social media platform whose powers rival or exceed those of the White House media room. This president, as a capitalist, does not seek to fuse big capital with government but to encourage independent business growth. He also prods and even punishes certain companies with administrative powers, but he favors independent capital, not state capitalism. This is no central-command economy.
Real Fascists were a combination of revolutionary and reactionary—not unlike Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. They often marshaled the masses into labor brigades, social displays of patriotism, and the like. Individuals learned to not decline such “opportunities” but to show enthusiasm. This came to be common in parts of Europe but could not be more absent here. In a year-2000 book on terrorism, I noted how, when neo-Nazis march here, they are invariably confronted with two, three, or ten times more citizens who loudly oppose them, which is what happened at Charlottesville, VA. The black demonstrator shot dead in Milwaukee on July 23rd, Bernell Trammell, was locally known for posters declaring in favor of Donald Trump. In Tacoma, Washington last year, the man who published a farewell letter, picked up his AR-15, and began setting vehicle fires at a government ICE facility (only to be shot by police) was a proud anarchist and “trans” activist. He wrote that he understood impending “fascism” here because he grew up in Europe and read about the 1930s. His performance art was eulogized in the next issue of Earth First!, the Oregon-based journal that has lauded other violent anarchists and eco-terrorists. All of which is to say: We Americans are not faced with a Hitlerian black-shirted SA, or even a president who wants one. No one wants one. We face small numbers of brawlers, racists, and ideologues of many a cause. We have a free-wheeling political mess; “fascism” is actually organized.
Only one thing is more classically fascist than organizing and militarizing the home front, and that is starting wars of expansion abroad. Italy coveted parts of Africa; Germany wanted space in the East and then took land in the South and the West too. This president has clashed with many Republicans because he works to withdraw from foreign wars. He did lead the coalition that finished the ISIS substate—something a League of Nations or a United Nations should do but cannot, and something for which the liberal international order should be grateful. But Trump has tried to leave behind the wars of the last two presidents, Democrat and Republican. Today, the worry for innumerable Afghans is not of U.S. drones but of U.S. drawdowns, as the totalitarian Taliban waits to take over. Today, the problem in Iraq is not the last of withdrawing American troops, but the violent proxies and personnel sent into the country by Iran. Some fear an American war with Iran, but we have not had one. Trump makes indignant those most worried about Iran’s nuclear weapons program—precisely because his anaconda-like sanctions program works slowly and shows that he is not bent on war, let alone occupying Iran.
My father, now 95, saw real fascism up close, in Europe, and he and his Army pals shot at it and defeated it. Later, in our family, and for the thousands of students he taught as a professor at Seattle University, this veteran-turned-historian made distinctions between fascists and any mainstream political party or movement. The post-1945 German federal republic he openly admired from its beginnings. His teaching on the distinctions was especially valuable when campuses of the late 1960s blossomed with “Fascist” epithets. The language of communist party posters on streets caught his attention by their adhesion to the “Fascist” slur. There was a further round, in the years of Ronald Reagan, who as governor of California used the National Guard to suppress some violent demonstrations and for years was pilloried as “fascist.” President Reagan is now understood as someone who did more than most to discredit totalitarianism and to deftly win the Cold War without starting a hot one.
“Republic” comes from res publica, the Latin expression for the public thing(s). Our republic these days is a troubled place. But the work to be done is not in ripping down political structure but in improving civil society, and that requires thoughtful discussions and sobriety in politics. Leaving out the mis-used appellation “fascist” would be a good start.
Dr. Christopher C. Harmon is Bren Chair of Great Power Competition, Marine Corps University. The author thanks Pat Brown, Ken Masugi, and Paul Guppy for their insights into these public things.
12 August 2020