Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and his “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) platform, there has been much discussion in the media about fascism, authoritarianism and right-wing political movements. This discussion is not limited to the U.S, as extreme right-wing politics are ascendant in Europe, Brazil, and the Philippines. An authoritarian nationalist regime has consolidated power in Hungary. A right-wing anti-immigrant party with fascist roots is forming a government after recent elections in Sweden. Moreover, in Italy, the country that coined the term fascism one hundred years ago, has elected a new government rooted in Mussolini’s fascist party. All of these aforementioned developments are alarming to many governments and people all over the world.
The late Madeline Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State, did much to enhance the current discussion in her 2018 book: Fascism: A Warning. Speaking as a survivor of European fascism, her book is a warning; in it she said fascism could happen again, right here in the U.S. In recent weeks Joe Biden has joined the discussion, describing Trump’s MAGA Republicans as “semi-fascists.” Those MAGA Republicans, now the largest cohort of their party and in Congress, are pushing back against Mr. Biden’s choice of words. But should we be concerned? Is fascism really a threat? After all, fascism was soundly defeated and buried with the wreckage of World War II.
Fascist movements originated in the 1920s and 1930s in response to a very deep economic, social and political crisis. Throughout Europe, millions of people were unemployed, people were hungry, cities lay in ruin, unhappy workers were ascendant, and instability was the order of the day. Moreover, weak governments were not able to meet the challenges presented. On the other hand, the Soviet Union was addressing the crisis with revolutionary power, building socialism, and serving as a model for much of the working class. There was no unemployment in the USSR, yet the Soviet model was rejected, attacked by the armies of the West and feared by the center and the right.
The European fascist movements were led by charismatic leaders, Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy. Both men promised their respective people a resolution to the problems of the times. And, those promises were cast in broad nationalist and racial terms, almost mystical in their accounting. Mussolini promised the Italian people that the Mediterranean would again be a “Roman lake.” Hitler promised Germans that as “one empire, one people, one leader” they would build the Third Reich. Both leaders rejected liberal democracy and socialism as solutions to the problems they faced. Instead, they called for building strong militarized states to aggressively make their homelands great.
Fascists relied upon the shock troops (paramilitaries) of the masses, namely Hitler’s Brown Shirts and Mussolini’s Black Shirts, to intimidate their opponents, mobilize the masses, and build the institutions of the state. When necessary, they used violence against their political enemies. So, are Trump’s MAGA Republicans fascists? Is his movement fascist? How does it match the fascist metric outlined above that emerged in the 1920s and 1930s? Well, Trump’s MAGA movement is racist, anti-democratic, and authoritarian in character, led by a charismatic leader who is manipulating and degrading the democratic process in order to obtain state power. He has used violence or the the threat of violence to achieve his anti-democratic objectives, particularly the January 6th coup attempt, where MAGA Republicans were flanked by Trump’s shock troops, including the Proud Boys, QAnon, the Oath Keepers and others, just as the Black Shirts and Brown Shirts had aided both Mussolini and Hitler in their quest for power. MAGA Republicans have passed the test. Collectively they are the fascist base of Trump’s Republican Party.
What will MAGA Republicans do if they obtain and build a fascist state? They will probably not launch mass executions of the Jews or other ethnic minorities, but they will eliminate laws and rules that support a pluralistic and democratic society, strengthening white supremacy and corporate capitalism while they do so. We do not have to wait for a genocide to declare that fascism has arrived. Fascism is here; it has a different face than it did in the 1930s. If it continues to be enabled, democracy as we know it will disappear. The rights of people embraced by the state and the responsibilities of the state towards the people will diminish. Fascists will restrict voting rights, limit the specific freedoms of the people (abortion for example), repress unions, deny free speech, expand the military, withdraw from NATO, and bring non-white immigration to a halt. Moreover, a consolidated fascist state will use violence to maintain social and political control.
Fascism in the U.S. will be different than it was in Italy or Germany. It will be “kinder and gentler.” We won't have death camps for our declared enemies or social outcasts, but we will have compounds for the homeless, and libraries that have been purified.
So, who is a fascist these days? Trump may be a fascist, Marjorie Taylor Greene may be a fascist., and on and on. Ultimately though, it's not the individuals that we should measure. It is the overall movement we should evaluate. Right now, the MAGA Republicans, in fits, starts and pieces is dismantling the democratic state. And it is all those fits and starts over time that will lead to fascist control. Will MAGA Republicans continue to embrace violence? Will MAGA Republicans continue to use the state to restrict democracy and freedom? Will MAGA Republicans continue to support the use of violence? The answer to these questions will unfold in the months ahead. The answers will reveal where this country is going and whether fascist power will reign. If the answers are in the affirmative keep you seat belts on.
Kraig Schwartz Ph.D is a retired teacher of political science and history, having spent 30 years teaching in the community colleges of Seattle