Fear of Fascism

We’re hesitant to use the word, and for good reason.

Protesters in front of the U.S. Capitol Building, holding "Trump 2020" signs and American flags
Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021. (Brent Stirton / Getty)

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I’ve long resisted using the word fascism to describe Donald Trump and his Republican followers, but we have to overcome our reluctance to use strong language and admit that America is now beset by a dangerous antidemocratic movement masquerading as a party.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

A Pre-fascist Interlude

President Joe Biden has been getting a lot of static for referring to the ideology of Donald Trump and his followers as “semi-fascism.” It isn’t surprising that right-wing pundits, such as the Fox News contributor Mollie Hemingway, are practically having to take out loans to buy extra strings of pearls to clutch. But even John Avlon at CNN and Matt Lewis at The Daily Beast are trying to warn Biden off from insulting millions of voters.

It’s risky politics for the president to use words like semi-fascism, much as it was a needless fumble back in 2016 for Hillary Clinton to call people “deplorables.” For the rest of us, even to consider the word fascism feels like failure. It is a Rubicon we fear to cross, because it makes our fellow Americans into our civic enemies and implies that there is no road back for them, or for us.

We cannot, however, let our understandable fear of words such as fascism scare us out of talking about the reality staring us in the face. The GOP itself might not meet the full definition of a “fascist” party—not yet, anyway—but it’s not a normal party, and its base is not an ordinary political movement. It is, instead, a melding of the remnants of a once-great party with an authoritarian, violent, seditionist personality cult bent on capturing and exercising power solely to benefit its own members and punish its imagined enemies among other Americans.

Is that fascism? For most people, it’s close enough. A would-be strongman and a party of followers enveloped in racism, seized with nostalgia for an imagined glorious past, and drunk on mindless blood-and-soil nationalism all stinks of fascism. There’s a reason, however, that I still counsel against rushing toward the F-word: Things are poised to get worse, and we need to know what to watch for.

Fascism is more than a romance with a forceful right-wing leader. (And let’s remember: Trump is not a “strongman” in any way—he is one of the weakest and most cowardly men ever to serve as president.) A fascist takeover relies on a disciplined and organized mass party led by dedicated people who, once they gain the levers of government, will zero in on destroying the mechanisms—laws, courts, competing parties—that could dislodge them from power.

Violent, tiki-torch-wielding nincompoops are dangerous, but a rabble is not a disciplined party. Ivy League Republicans stumbling around and losing to Democrats in a 50–50 Senate are not the iron ladies and men of steel who can build a fascist state. Faux intellectuals such as Steve Bannon blathering about Leninism are not capable of inspiring the masses. And real fascist street fighters do not start blubbering and shedding tears when they’re arrested. (To paraphrase Jimmy Dugan, there’s no crying in fascism.)

This is why it’s a mistake to assume that every group of howling weirdos wearing “Trump 2024” capes and carrying bear spray is composed of  “fascists.” Some of these people are deluded, some are bored, and some are just idiots. If we build them into something more, we’re not only missing the chance to pull some of those people back into American democracy; we’re going to fail to spot the real fascists hiding among them. Glaring drivers jacked up on Fox News and talk radio flying “Fuck Joe Biden” flags on their cars aren’t fascists; they’re the raw material of fascism, the battering rams that actual fascists—cleverer and nimbler than the hapless overgrown adolescents who will end up in front of a judge—will use to knock down our institutions by goading them into violence.

This might seem like a distinction without a difference. And I suppose, like so many people, I am prone to “normalcy bias”—a kind of innate denial that life could ever change dramatically. For those of us who remember the Cold War, it is a special humiliation to think that we defeated the Soviet Union only to find Americans in Budapest cheering on the likes of Viktor Orbán.

But something has changed in American life. Trumpism, which has captured the base of the Republican Party, is authoritarian, antidemocratic, anti-constitutional, and anti-American. For now, Trump and the GOP activists are capable only of igniting scramble-brained jacqueries. But Trump’s most faithful followers are headed for fascism, and they will use the GOP as the vehicle to get there unless the rest of us remain true to a pro-democracy coalition.

It is also important not to be overly distracted by Trump himself. We are in a prefascist interlude, but Trump himself is too incompetent, too lazy and selfish, to lead an actual fascist movement. But avoiding the word won’t prevent it from happening. What should really scare us is realizing that smarter and tougher American fascist leaders are out there, waiting. Trump has paved the way for them by corroding the guardrails of the American system, normalizing the kinds of rhetoric and attacks on opponents used by actual fascists, and convincing ordinary American voters that mass violence is an alternative to the ballot box.

We can prove him wrong and stop this threat in its tracks. But time is growing short.


Today’s News

  1. Fighting in Baghdad broke out after the populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced his resignation from politics. Dozens of people have been killed in a violent escalation of Iraq’s political crisis.
  2. Mississippi has declared an emergency in Jackson; the main water-treatment facility is failing, and the water is not safe to drink. The city does not have enough water pressure for flushing toilets, firefighting, and other necessities.
  3. Donald Trump hired Christopher M. Kise, a former solicitor general for Florida, to join his legal team in the case about his handling of classified government materials.


Evening Read

Scenes From Ukrainian Summer Camp

By Andrea Stanley

Collage of photos from Strokatienoty, a summer camp in Ukraine
Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic; Strokatienoty Camp

Summer camp, at its purest, is like Never-Never-Land—a place that exists only in childhood or in memories of it: lake swimming, tree climbing, secret telling, frog catching, and youth everlasting. When I found myself recently on a train platform in Lviv, Ukraine, surrounded by teenagers heading to summer camp in the Carpathian Mountains, such wholesome pleasures seemed almost ridiculously out of reach.

The train was running late, for one thing. And shortly after we’d learned of the delay, an air-raid siren began to howl, starting an uncomfortable countdown that the locals knew too well.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton standing in a doorway in "Three Thousand Years of Longing"
MGM via Everett

Read. Sag Harbor, by Colson Whitehead, has a sense for the rhythms of teenage speech—and for details that pivot between goofy and gutting.

Watch. Three Thousand Years of Longing, in theaters, manages to make the genie-in-a-bottle story feel new.

Play our daily crossword.


I learned this evening that Mikhail Gorbachev has died. I was a graduate student in Soviet affairs when he came to power in early 1985, a time when it seemed that the United States and the Soviet Union were headed for war. No one would have predicted the demise of the U.S.S.R. only six years later.

You will read a lot of headlines over the next few days about how he was the man who ended the Cold War and allowed the Soviet Union to collapse. Take those with a grain of salt. He never intended to destroy the U.S.S.R., and right to the end, he was so intent on saving the Soviet Communist Party that one of his own advisers told him he was trying to “serve tea to a corpse.” And when the Soviet nucleus began to fission, he presided over bloodshed in the Baltic states and Georgia.

Nonetheless, he was serious about nuclear arms control and about living in peace with the rest of the world. He oversaw the Soviet withdrawal from what he called “the bleeding wound” of Afghanistan. And when the massive use of force might have been the only way to keep the U.S.S.R. intact, Gorbachev chose instead to be a human being. In the Soviet Union, such a choice was no small thing, and for that, at least, we should honor his memory. RIP.

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.