Over the last few days, as we learned more about what happened at the United States Capitol on January 6 and about what fresh horrors await us, I’ve been mulling Richard Evans’s essay in the New Statesman, ‘Why Trump isn’t a fascist’. I, like many, have used this label these last four years to mark out Trump and his cult as being beyond the democratic pale. However, according to Evans, Trump is something novel, not to be confused with Nazis.
Evans’s article makes a number of learned points that insist upon the historical uniqueness of European fascism. Fair enough, Evans is an expert in this field and I am not. I concluded that from an historical perspective Evans’s thesis is accurate. After all, as an historian, it is incumbent on him to be precise in his use of language.
Evans admits Trump’s actions “carry strong echoes of fascism” but goes on to explain how, in his view, these ‘echoes’ are deceptive. I wasn’t entirely convinced by this argument.
For example, Evans states that Trump’s supporters bear “no comparison to the hundreds of thousands of armed and uniformed stormtroopers and Squadristi” that the fascists used to seize and maintain power. “No comparison” seems a bit strong to me. The many violent attacks on Trump’s opponents by the various rightwing gangs, to say nothing of the Trumpistas’ recent assault on Congress, strike me as being perfectly comparable with the activities of the Blackshirts and Brownshirts of the 1920s. Trump’s shock troops might be more informal than Hitler’s but they are nevertheless extremely dangerous.
Evans claims that a successor to Trump would be unlikely to “match Trump’s crowd appeal”. I’m not so sure. One of the most alarming things about the Trump phenomenon is that he only failed to ‘close the deal’ (as he might put it) because of his own incompetence. Hitler built the autobahns which still stand today. Donald built a few miles of a border wall which falls over when the wind blows. I’m convinced Trump only lost the election because of his woeful indifference to the Covid pandemic. Had Trump been capable of thinking about more than golf and cheeseburgers he’d have realized that he could’ve used this public-health disaster to his political advantage. I won’t be surprised if the next iteration of ‘Trumpism’ is led by a young, smart and charismatic individual with nice manners who has learned from Trump’s mistakes.
Evans is correct to say there’s no Trumpian equivalent of the “state organisation” of fascism in America in the way there was in Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, this seems to ignore the fact that Trump never fulfilled his dream. He made every effort to bend the institutions of government to his will but was only partially successful. The role of Trump consigliere Bill Barr alone should be proof positive that Trump intended to bring the full power of the state to bear on those who dared oppose him. As I write, he’s still trying to find ways to use what state power is left to him to avoid his own personal Götterdämmerung.
I was rather surprised by Evans’s closing comments where he said the “new demons” were “disinformation, conspiracy theories and the blurring of fact and falsehood.” Surely there’s nothing new about these demons? Evans gives Goebbels short shrift, claiming Trump made that old demon look like George Washington. Really? I’d always understood that Goebbels was the benchmark in the propaganda of hate and that we’d do well to remember what he achieved.
With due acknowledgement of Evans’s use of the term ‘fascism’ as a precise historical label, I believe there can also be a role for this word in demotic political discourse in describing America’s hard right. I would argue that while we can accept that the original virus of fascism was a product of its time, with its own particular characteristics, it can also be the case that, like many a virus, it has proved capable of adapting to different environments. How else to explain the presence of actual swastikas at Trump rallies?
While “fascism and Nazism were the creation of the First World War”, as Evans says, they had their roots in ideas that long predated the war. Racism, anti-semitism, eugenicism, imperialism, militarism and revanchism were all to be found in Western societies before Hitler and Mussolini developed their creeds. It seems to me that today’s version of fascism still draws its inspiration from the same cesspool.
Professor Evans concludes by saying, “You can’t win the political battles of the present if you’re always stuck in the past.” But why should referencing the examples of 20th century fascism and Nazism be the equivalent of being ‘stuck in the past’? Even if the new demons aren’t precisely the same as the old ones they are close enough in spirit and behaviour to cause legitimate alarm. In an ivory tower one can afford to be rigorously academic but in the street ‘Down with disinformation, conspiracy theories and the blurring of fact and falsehood’ isn’t going to fit on a placard.
Despite the legend, Sinclair Lewis never actually said, “If fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross” but this misquote nonetheless remains a reasonable description of what is presently happening.
The ‘British’ variant of Covid-19 now being spread by some maskless moron in the supermarket is still related to the original bug that came out of the Wuhan wet market. Similarly, Fascism-21 remains a variant of the original political virus that was born in the 1920s. Lest we forget.