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The Trouble with the ‘It’s Not Real Fascism’ Argument

Minimizing the threat of Trumpism ignores the lessons of Trump’s disastrous rise, and belittles the hard on-the-ground work going into Trump’s potential defeat.
October 31, 2020
The Trouble with the ‘It’s Not Real Fascism’ Argument
A US flag hangs behind US President Donald Trump as he speaks during a "Great American Comeback" rally at Bemidji Regional Airport in Bemidji, Minnesota, on September 18, 2020. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

In recent weeks, the president of the United States has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, has repeatedly claimed that the election outcome will be illegitimate because of massive voter fraud, and has encouraged his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully.” By a wide margin, most voters expect there will be intimidation at the polls—and indeed, it is already happening. Given everything that President Trump has done in office to undermine norms, it seems irresponsible not to game out how he might try to take advantage of the system’s weaknesses in the event of an uncertain outcome, or a losing one for him. Over the course of the last four years, after all, our institutions have been under a daily stress test, and they have not all held strong. The attorney general has repeatedly undermined the integrity of the Department of Justice. Congressional subpoenas have gone ignored. Whether or not Trump wins re-election, the country will be reckoning with the fallout from Trumpism for years to come.

Yet some writers insist in arguing that there is no cause for real alarm. From Ross Douthat in the New York Times, to the Atlantic’s Shadi Hamid, to Walter Shapiro writing for the New Republic, the message is pretty simple. Tut-tut, there-there, trust us: Trump is too incompetent to overturn the election or put democracy in peril, the institutions have held up, and much of the hysteria of recent years has been overblown. If the president had really wanted to, he could have used the pandemic to seize power. “There will be,” Douthat writes, “no Trump coup.”

This is a soothing message for an exhausted national psyche, and I certainly hope that they are right about what’s in store for us in the days ahead. But their confident insistence that the worst has passed suggests that even these very thoughtful people have failed to internalize the dangers inherent to Trumpism. It also amounts to an implicit denial of the work that has gone into attempting to defeat Trump.

The debate about a potential Trump coup maps loosely onto another public conversation of the Trump era: the question of how to classify Trump and his administration. Judging by their actions and their aspirations, do these people count as authoritarians, wannabe tyrants, fascists, quasi-fascists, proto-fascists, or what? Here—as with discussions surrounding racism—a lot depends on how we understand the terms at hand, but the basic question is the same: How dangerous is Trump to American democracy? You can read all about it in nuanced pieces by scholars like Samuel Moyn and Sarah Churchwell in the New York Review of Books.

Douthat has consistently challenged the idea that Trump poses an existential threat to American liberal democracy. As he put it in his recent no-coup column, “Our weak, ranting, infected-by-Covid chief executive is not plotting a coup, because a term like ‘plotting’ implies capabilities that he conspicuously lacks.” Douthat has been making some version of this argument since at least December 2015, when he wrote a column entitled “Is Donald Trump a Fascist?” and made a plausible case for “no.” The problem is that circumstances have dramatically changed since then, and Douthat’s basic position has not.

In the 2015 piece, Douthat argued that Trump should not be deemed a fascist, for three reasons. First off, Trump just wasn’t very serious:

He isn’t actually building a fascist mass movement (he hasn’t won a primary yet!) or rallying a movement of far-right intellectuals (Ann Coulter notwithstanding). His suggestion that a Black Lives Matter protester at one of his rallies might have deserved to be roughed up was pretty ugly, but still several degrees of ugly away from the actual fascist move, which would require organizing a paramilitary force to take to the streets to brawl with the decadent supporters of our rotten legislative government.

Second, Douthat argued, Trump was too unhinged to appeal to the GOP: “It’s still quite likely that the Republican Party is inoculated against him.” (Douthat cites conservative religious commitments and libertarianism as bulwarks against Trump.) Finally, a national freakout over “Trump-the-fascist” would, Douthat argued, be a distraction from the root causes of widespread civic disaffection.

I bring up this old column not to dunk on Douthat, who is very thoughtful, but because it is important to keep in mind just how astonishing the events of the last four years have been. Almost all the things that Douthat mused in 2015 would be tell-tale signs of fascism have come to be. Trump has rallied a movement of far-right intellectuals. He has mobilized paramilitary forces to take to the streets. And, of course, Trump did win the primary. I don’t blame Douthat for not anticipating the speed and depth of the GOP’s submission. But submit they did. And today, the GOP is a hollow cult of personality beholden to Trump. The party literally has no other platform.

All of this was and should remain alarming regardless of the election outcome. Indeed, my greatest worry is that the message of Douthat and the other quietists prefigures a post-election denialism on the part of conservatives that will paper over not only the worst threats posed by Trump (which Douthat can articulate), but also the serious problems that Trumpism conceals.

It is fair to warn, as Douthat and Moyn both have, that loaded language and alarmism can lead to serial distraction and evasion of real problems. But minimizing the threat can create confusion, too. Walter Shapiro writes that “if the polls hold up on election night, Democrats can say with confidence and joy, ‘Our long national nightmare is over.’” This strikes me as awfully blithe. Is everything troubling that brought us Trump—and everything troubling that flowed from Trump—simply going to disappear if Biden wins? Will QAnon just fade away? Douthat concludes his recent column with a classic both-sides warning about dangers coming from the illiberal left (“a zealous progressive vanguard and a monopoly in the commanding heights of culture”), and concludes that for liberals not to “seed another backlash” they will need “both vision and restraint.” It strikes me as odd when conservatives speak like this given that Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee, but setting that aside: How is legislative restraint on the part of Biden Democrats going to do anything to heal the country’s deep discontent? Won’t anyone be expected to deal with the country’s actual woes?

Minimizations of the threat posed by Trumpism, and exaggerations of the leftist threat, also discount all the hard work and solidarity that have gone into fighting Trump. The idea that Trump is not a fascist (or is too incompetent to become one) implies a counterfactual world in which he did not come up against serious pushback from regular Americans across the political spectrum, time and time again. Trump’s failures—and, again, his defeat is not yet accomplished—have not simply been a matter of splendid-incompetence-meets-sound-institutions. They have also been a result of unprecedented mass activism on the part of ordinary liberals and progressives, as well as independents and Never Trump conservatives. From the women’s marches to ACA phone-banking to outrage over the child separation policy, Trump’s worst excesses have often been kept in check by the country’s citizens—often in the face of institutional failures, and certainly with very little help from the spineless GOP.

But still these writers cannot resist poking a bit of fun at the left’s excesses. Douthat writes dismissively in his recent column of how “many liberals have spent the last four years persuading themselves that their position might soon be as beleaguered as the opposition under Putin, or German liberals late in Weimar.” Walter Shapiro speaks of Democrats’ “dystopianism” and their “phantasmagoria of fears.” And Shadi Hamid quips about the entire “grift of books” that “told Americans to prepare for incoming dictatorship and permitted rich suburbanites to fantasize being French resistance fighters in World War II without any of the danger.” It’s easy enough to get caught up in this kind of mockery. But reading up on fascism and autocracy while engaging in political activism isn’t as silly as these writers make it sound. Such comments strike me as especially out-of-tune in light of how much activism since 2016 has been powered by American women.

Douthat is right when he says that reality is about to intrude on us. Soon we will have a better sense of what is in store for our democracy. But regardless of the election outcome, Trump is a symptom of much deeper civic ills—problems that aren’t about to just disappear, and that could be the precursor to something worse. As Jonathan Chait writes in his response to Douthat, Trump may be more feckless than autocratic, but he has the full support of a major party. No one should be sweeping all that under the “it wasn’t real fascism” rug.

Furthermore, the fact that millions of Americans have fought this administration is a valuable sign of civic strength, and it should be recognized as such. If Trump is defeated in November it will be thanks in no small part to progressives who were willing to compromise, to “liberal hysteria,” to Black Lives Matter organizers, and to the so-called Resistance. The people involved in those efforts deserve gratitude and respect, not dismissive call-outs and belittling Tweets.

Reality is about to intrude, it’s true, but political realities don’t just happen on their own. They are the products of action and inaction, of choice and ineptitude, of chance and of vigilance and of freedom. If the Trump era has meant anything, it’s that nothing in politics should be taken for granted anytime soon.

Laura K. Field

Laura K. Field is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and a scholar in residence at American University. Twitter: @lkatfield.