Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

“Semi-Fascism”: The Shoe Fits

Republicans’ hypocritical reaction to President Biden’s use of the F-word.
September 1, 2022
“Semi-Fascism”: The Shoe Fits
(Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Republicans are furious over President Biden’s recent remarks linking Donald Trump and his supporters to “semi-fascism.” For days, they’ve been all over TV and social media, denouncing Biden’s use of the F-word. But Biden was right. Many of the ideas and tactics deployed by Trump and his apologists, including those who decry Biden’s comparison, fit the dictionary definition of fascism.

Consider Rep. Jim Jordan, who will chair the House Judiciary Committee if Republicans retake the House this fall. Jordan says Biden is dividing America by “calling Republicans ‘semi-fascists.’” But three years ago, when Trump committed an openly authoritarian act, Jordan endorsed it.

In January 2019, the House of Representatives, which had a new Democratic majority, refused to fund a border wall demanded by Trump. So the president declared a national emergency to build the wall, seizing from Congress its constitutional authority over appropriations. No president had ever claimed such emergency powers to override the will of Congress. But Jordan stood with Trump. “We tried for 35 days . . . to get the Democrats to do what everyone knows needs to happen,” said Jordan. “I support the national emergency declaration 100 percent.”

You could argue that confiscating money for the wall was only semi-authoritarian. To be fully authoritarian, you might say, a leader would have to use illegal means not just to exercise power, but to seize power or stay in power. But Trump and his henchmen meet that standard, too.

Take the case of Rep. Andy Biggs, who led the conservative House Freedom Caucus during Trump’s presidency. Biggs now accuses Biden of “demonizing people and making them villains” by invoking the F-word. But after the 2020 election, Biggs, Jordan, and several other congressional Republicans directly participated in Trump’s attempted coup.

In December 2020—more than a month after Biden had won the presidency, and several days after the Electoral College had certified the results—Biggs made an incendiary video for a “Stop the Steal” rally in Arizona. He urged Trump’s supporters to “keep fighting” so Trump could stay in power. Biggs also participated in a subsequent White House meeting in which Trump unsuccessfully pressured Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the election.

A stickler might say that an attempt to overturn an election isn’t really fascist unless it involves the use of state power or mob violence. But Trump and his allies tried to use both.

Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s right-hand man in several abuses of power, says it’s Biden, not Trump, who runs America like “a damned dictatorship.” But in December 2020, after the Electoral College had certified Biden’s election, Giuliani—at Trump’s direction—phoned the acting deputy secretary at the Department of Homeland Security to ask whether DHS could seize voting machines from states. Then, at Trump’s January 6th rally on the Ellipse, Giuliani exhorted the crowd: “Let’s have trial by combat!

Giuliani didn’t just help to incite the attack on the Capitol. To this day, he continues to whitewash it and excuse the perpetrators. On his radio show last weekend, Giuliani said of Rep. Adam Schiff: “He’s a damned liar when he starts calling January 6th an insurrection, a revolt.” Giuliani went on: “I’m not saying the people that did wrong and pushed around cops and did what they did shouldn’t be punished appropriately. I am saying that by putting them in jail for 14 months and leaving them there, you got a fascist state going on.”

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, another apologist for the January 6th perpetrators, says Biden’s talk of fascism is ridiculous because “Democrats are the fascists.” But in 2018 and 2019, Greene repeatedly endorsed calls for political violence. She “liked” Facebook posts saying that FBI agents “need to be hung for treason” and suggesting a “bullet to the head” of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Greene didn’t just hit the “like” button. When a commenter asked how long it would be before “we get to hang” Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Greene replied: “Stage is being set. Players are being put in place.” In videos, she said Pelosi was “guilty of treason,” a “crime punishable by death.” And this year, Greene spoke at an openly fascist—that is, pro-Hitler—political action conference.

The dictionary definition of fascism doesn’t just talk about autocracy. It also includes ethnic nationalism. But by this standard, too, Trump and many of his propagandists are semi-fascist. Kayleigh McEnany, who served as Trump’s White House press secretary, calls Biden’s reference to fascism a baseless “message of hatred.” But in the summer of 2016, Trump, the de facto Republican presidential nominee, declared a federal judge unfit to preside over a fraud case against Trump University because “he’s a Mexican.” And McEnany defended this attack.

Trump’s campaign against the judge, Gonzalo Curiel—who was born in America—was an overt play to target an ethnic minority, undermine faith in the judiciary, and shield Trump from legal accountability. But McEnany, who was then a CNN commentator, stood by the candidate. She said Trump’s rationale—that Curiel’s “Mexican heritage” presented “an inherent conflict of interest” because Trump was “very strong on the border”—was just an extrapolation from the common observation that Latinos opposed Trump’s hardline views on immigration.

You could argue that an out-and-out fascist would use nationalist bigotry to persecute a whole minority group, not just a single judge. That’s what Trump did in 2015, when he called for a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” McEnany, in her role as a commentator, excused this proposal, too. It was only a “temporary ban on non-U.S. citizen Muslims,” she reasoned.

McEnany had no direct role in Trump’s campaign against Muslims. But Stephen Miller, the chief architect of the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies, was centrally involved in the Muslim ban. In 2015, as a liaison from Sen. Jeff Sessions, Miller started working with Trump’s campaign on immigration policy. On Dec. 3, 2015, he wrote an email scorning “Muslim Resettlement” in the United States. Four days later, on Dec. 7, Trump proposed his ban on Muslim immigration. A month after that, the campaign officially brought Miller on board.

The timing of those events might be coincidental. But this we know: When Trump became president, Miller helped to craft his executive order suspending travel to the United States from several majority-Muslim countries. And when a judge blocked the travel ban, Miller asserted that Trump’s authority was virtually imperial. “We have a judiciary that has taken far too much power,” said Miller. “Our opponents, the media, and the whole world will soon see, as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”

Miller, without apparent irony, now says it’s preposterous that Democrats are “accusing their opponents of being fascist.”

Trump’s cult includes many other components common to previous fascist movements—paranoia, fantastic lies, anti-intellectualism, a mythologized national past, selective appeals to law and order, and propaganda about enemies of the state. When Sen. Lindsey Graham went on TV Sunday to warn that “there literally will be riots in the street” if Trump is prosecuted for breaking national security laws by hiding classified documents at Mar-a-Lago—Graham repeated the line twice, to make it clear that he was serious—that’s another page from the fascist playbook: invocation of mob violence to protect the movement’s leader.

But the clearest illustration of the MAGA elite’s descent into fascism might be its embrace of a like-minded leader from another country: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

As Cathy Young, Charles Sykes, David Baer, and other writers have explained in The Bulwark, Orbán is an increasingly authoritarian ethnonationalist. In a speech on July 23, he warned, “There is a world in which European peoples are mixed together with those arriving from outside Europe.” Orbán called this a “mixed-race world” and concluded, “We are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed-race.”

Orbán’s speech was so grotesque that one of his own advisers resigned, calling the speech “a purely Nazi diatribe worthy of Joseph Goebbels.” But a week later, Orbán was welcomed as the keynote speaker at a Dallas meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, which reveres Trump and is one of his favorite venues. Two days after that, Trump spoke to the same gathering. The two aspiring autocrats were warmly applauded.

This past Monday, CPAC chairman Matt Schlapp stoutly defended Orbán. “We support leaders who reject globalism, socialism, illegal migration and care about defending families, national sovereignty, and traditional values,” Schlapp tweeted.

Then, on Wednesday, Schlapp posted a video of himself rebuking Biden for using the F-word. “It’s the left that are the fascists,” he charged.

Say what you will about the American semi-fascists. They certainly have a sense of humor.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.