There’s a Word for What Trumpism Is Becoming

The relentless messaging by Trump and his supporters has inflicted a measurable wound on American democracy.

A fill-in-the-blanks word puzzle almost spells out "fascism," with the first "s" and the letter "i" missing.
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

About the author: David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy (2020). In 2001 and 2002, he was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

“I became worse.” That’s how double impeachment changed him, Donald Trump told a conservative audience in Dallas last weekend, without a trace of a smile. This was not Trump the insult comic talking. This was the deepest Trump self. And this one time, he told the truth.

Something has changed for Trump and his movement since January 2021. You can measure the difference by looking back at the deadly events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Trump made three statements about those events over four days. He was visibly reluctant to speak negatively of the far-right groups. He praised “fine people on both sides” and spread the blame for “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.”

Trump’s evasions triggered a national uproar. As Joe Biden complained in an essay for The Atlantic at the time:

Today we have an American president who has publicly proclaimed a moral equivalency between neo-Nazis and Klansmen and those who would oppose their venom and hate.

But if Trump refused to single out the far-rightists for criticism, he also refrained from praising them. Whatever he felt in his heart, he was constrained by certain political and practical realities. His non-Twitter actions as president were filtered through bureaucracies. He had to work with Republican congressional allies who worried about losing seats in Congress in the next election. He himself was still basking in the illusion of his supposedly huge victory in 2016, and hoping for a repeat in 2020. Outright endorsement of lethal extremism? That was too much for Trump in 2017. But now look where we are.

In the first days after the January 6 attack on the Capitol, Trump supporters distanced themselves from its excesses. The attack had nothing to do with Trump, they argued. He had urged only a peaceful demonstration. If anybody did any harm, that person was a concealed agent of antifa. But in the months since, the mood has shifted. Once repudiated, the attacks are now accepted, condoned, and even endorsed.

In the past few days, leading pro-Trump figures and even non-Trump conservative figures have endorsed a startling Twitter thread by a previously boutique podcaster, Darryl Cooper. Tucker Carlson read the thread aloud on his show.

The thread argued that the January 6 protesters were right to believe that they had been cheated out of power they deserved. They were right to believe that the government and the law were conspiring against them. They were right to believe that their opponents were capable of anything, even assassinating Trump. The implication: They themselves were equally entitled to go just as far. It’s long, but I’ll quote two key passages.

The entrenched bureaucracy & security state subverted Trump from Day 1, b) The press is part of the operation, c) Election rules were changed, d) Big Tech censors opposition, e) Political violence is legitimized & encouraged, f) Trump is banned from social media. 34/x

They were led down some rabbit holes, but they are absolutely right that their gov’t is monopolized by a Regime that believes they are beneath representation, and will observe no limits to keep them getting it. Trump fans should be happy he lost; it might’ve kept him alive. /end

The tweet thread began by claiming that Donald Trump himself shared these beliefs. You might wonder how the podcaster would know. The answer arrived on Sunday morning, when Trump phoned into Maria Bartiromo’s Fox News show to deliver his most full-throated endorsement yet of the January 6 attack on Congress.

The ex-president praised Ashli Babbitt, the woman slain as she attempted to crash through the door that protected members of Congress from the mob that had invaded the Capitol: “innocent, wonderful, incredible woman.” He praised the insurrectionist throng: “great people.” He denounced their arrest and jailing as unjust. And he implied that Babbitt had been shot by the personal-security detail of a leading member of Congress. “I’ve heard also that it was the head of security for a certain high official. A Democrat. It’s gonna come out.”

The relentless messaging by Trump and his supporters has inflicted a measurable wound on American democracy. Before the 2020 election, about 60 percent of Democrats and Republicans expected the election to be fair. Since Trump began circulating his ever more radical complaints, Republican confidence in the election has tumbled by half, to barely more than 30 percent, according to polling supported by the Democracy Fund.

The Trump movement was always authoritarian and illiberal. It indulged periodically in the rhetoric of violence. Trump himself chafed against the restraints of law. But what the United States did not have before 2020 was a large national movement willing to justify mob violence to claim political power. Now it does.

Is there a precedent? Not in recent years. Since the era of Redemption after Reconstruction, anti-government violence in the United States has been the work of marginal sects and individual extremists. American Islamic State supporters were never going to seize the state, and neither were the Weather Underground, the Ku Klux Klan killers of the 1950s and ’60s, Puerto Rican nationalists, the German American Bund, nor the Communist Party USA.

But the postelection Trump movement is not tiny. It’s not anything like a national majority, but it’s a majority in some states—a plurality in more—and everywhere a significant minority, empowered by the inability of pro-legality Republicans to stand up to them. Once it might have been hoped that young Republicans with a future would somehow distance themselves from the violent lawlessness of the postpresidential Trump movement. But one by one, they are betting the other way. You might understand why those tainted by the January 6 attacks, such as Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, would find excuses for them. They have butts to cover. But Hawley is being outdone by other young politicians who weren’t in office and seemed to have every opportunity to build post-Trump identities—including even former Trump critics like the Ohio Senate aspirant J. D. Vance. Why do people sign up with the putschists after the putsch has failed? They’re betting that the failed putsch is not the past—it’s the future.

What shall we call this future? Through the Trump years, it seemed sensible to eschew comparisons to the worst passages of history. I repeated over and over again a warning against too-easy use of the F-word, fascism: “There are a lot of stops on the train line to bad before you get to Hitler Station.”

Two traits have historically marked off European-style fascism from more homegrown American traditions of illiberalism: contempt for legality and the cult of violence. Presidential-era Trumpism operated through at least the forms of law. Presidential-era Trumpism glorified military power, not mob attacks on government institutions. Postpresidentially, those past inhibitions are fast dissolving. The conversion of Ashli Babbitt into a martyr, a sort of American Horst Wessel, expresses the transformation. Through 2020, Trump had endorsed deadly force against lawbreakers: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he tweeted on May 29, 2020. Babbitt broke the law too, but not to steal a TV. She was killed as she tried to disrupt the constitutional order, to prevent the formalization of the results of a democratic election.

If a big-enough movement agrees with Trump that Babbitt was “wonderful”—if they repeat that the crowd of would-be Nancy Pelosi kidnappers and Mike Pence lynchers was “great”—then we are leaving behind the American system of democratic political competition for a new landscape in which power is determined by the gun.

That’s a landscape for which a lot of pro-Trump writers and thinkers seem to yearn.

You are living in territory controlled by enemy tribes. You, and all like you, must assume the innocence of anyone remotely like yourself who is charged in any confrontation with those tribes and with their authorities—until proven otherwise beyond a shadow of your doubt. Take his side. In other words, you must shield others like yourself by practicing and urging “jury nullification.”

Those words are not taken from The Turner Diaries or some other Aryan Nation tract. They were published by a leading pro-Trump site, the same site where Trump’s former in-house intellectual Michael Anton publishes. They were written by Angelo Codevilla, who wrote the books and articles that defined so much of the Trump creed in 2016. (Codevilla’s 2016 book, The Ruling Class, was introduced by Rush Limbaugh and heavily promoted on Limbaugh’s radio program.)

We are so accustomed to using the word fascist as an epithet that it feels awkward to adjust it for political analysis. We understand that there were and are many varieties of socialism. We forget that there were varieties of fascism as well, and not just those defeated in World War II. Peronism, in Argentina, offers a lot of insights into postpresidential Trumpism.

Juan Perón, a bungling and vacillating leader, attracted followers with a jumble of often conflicting and contradictory ideas. He had the good luck to take power in a major food-producing nation at a time when the world was hungry—and imagined that the brief flash of easy prosperity that followed was his own doing. The only thing he knew for certain was the target of his hatred: anybody who got in his way, anybody who questioned him, anybody who thought for himself or herself. An expatriate Argentine who grew up under Perón’s rule remembered the graffiti on the walls, the Twitter of its day: Build the Fatherland. Kill a student. As V. S. Naipaul astutely observed, “Even when the money ran out, Peronism could offer hate as hope.”

After Perón lost power, Peronism became a myth of a lost golden age—a fantasy of restoration and redemption—and always a rejection of the frustrations of normal politics, of the tedium of legality. Who needed policies when the solution to every problem was a magic name? Politicians who hoped for the old leader’s blessing trudged to his place of exile, were photographed with him, and then sabotaged by him. The only plan he followed was somehow to force himself again upon his country, one way or another.

It was pathetic and terrifying, a national catastrophe that produced a long-running international musical.

In the United States, the forces of legality still mobilize more strength than their Trumpist adversaries. But those who uphold the American constitutional order need to understand what they are facing. Trump incited his followers to try to thwart an election result, and to kill or threaten Trump’s own vice president if he would not or could not deliver on Trump’s crazy scheme to keep power.

We’re past the point of pretending it was antifa that did January 6, past the point of pretending that Trump didn’t want what he fomented and what he got. In his interview on July 11—as in the ever more explicit talk of his followers—the new line about the attack on the Capitol is guilty but justified. The election of 2020 was a fraud, and so those who lost it are entitled to overturn it.

I do not consider myself guilty. I admit all the factual aspects of the charge. But I cannot plead that I am guilty of high treason; for there can be no high treason against that treason committed in 1918.

Maybe you recognize those words. They come from Adolf Hitler’s plea of self-defense at his trial for his 1923 Munich putsch. He argued: You are not entitled to the power you hold, so I committed no crime when I tried to grab it back. You blame me for what I did; I blame you for who you are.

Trump’s no Hitler, obviously. But they share some ways of thinking. The past never repeats itself. But it offers warnings. It’s time to start using the F-word again, not to defame—but to diagnose.