What Was the Fascism Debate?

What Was the Fascism Debate?

The clash over whether the Trump era represented the rebirth of fascism represents a disagreement about the role of language and history in shaping contemporary political agendas.

Protester at a Donald Trump campaign rally in San Jose, California, in 2016 (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Writing from prison in the early 1930s, Antonio Gramsci lamented Europe’s fall into what he called “Caesarism.” Social upheavals across the continent had empowered ambitious autocrats who, like Julius Caesar, claimed to represent their nation’s popular will while destroying its democratic institutions. Even though the concept was coined in the nineteenth century to describe figures like Napoleon III, many thought it aptly depicted the nascent dictatorships of the interwar era. Gramsci invoked it to analyze Mussolini’s fascist state, and journalist Jay Franklin expanded it to depict Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes. Caesarism, however, also proved controversial, and other thinkers dismissed the term as inadequate. Political theorist Karl Loewenstein, for example, believed that analogies to Roman times obscured the new regimes’ unprecedented ambitions to remake human nature. Only a novel term, like “totalitarianism,” could really capture their extreme terror, utilization of new technologies, and desire to colonize citizens’ minds. The latter camp ultimately emerged victorious, and the totalitarian label proliferated in speeches and publications. Even though caesarism remained in scholarly circulation in the 1940s and 1950s, totalitarianism became the basic term to describe the dangers of modern politics.

In retrospect, the debate’s most noteworthy aspect was not whether caesarism or totalitarianism better defined the era’s evils. Both Gramsci and Loewenstein had a point: interwar dictators built on previous historical models, but also broke with them. Instead, the disagreement over terminology merits attention because it illuminates the anxieties, hopes, and self-conceptions of the time. It helps us grasp how past thinkers understood their place in history, how they sought to articulate what was familiar and what was uncanny, and how they struggled to develop a response to the era’s frightening realities. Their countless books and essays were not a pedantic exercise in historical accuracy, but an effort to isolate the defining features of modern dictatorships with the hope of arresting their spread.

In recent years, the controversy over the fascist analogy has generated similar heat. In an avalanche of books and essays, scholars have endlessly debated whether we are facing the rebirth of Mussolini and Hitler’s violent ideology or are witnessing a profoundly different beast, for which new terminology is needed. And even though the radical right has flourished across continents and countries, this theoretical dispute has raged most intensely in the United States. From its imposition of xenophobic travel restrictions in 2017 to its incitement of violence against Congress in 2021, the Trump administration made the issue of permanent interest.

With the Trump years now in the rearview mirror, the fascism debate is losing some of its urgency. Perhaps this means that it can now offer new insights about contemporary political thinking. Instead of litigating the contemporary use of the term fascism, we can ask why doing so was so important. What was at stake in getting the definition right?

After all, many of the participants in this debate did not differ all that much from one another politically. They all condemned the right’s racism, sexism, and plutocracy and hoped instead for bold egalitarian policies. They even echoed each other in their reasoning for drawing historical comparisons to fascism: to expose evils that have long plagued liberal democracy, especially in the United States. The greatest difference between the two camps was not so much their take on contemporary affairs, but their approach to polemic and its value for both intellectual exploration and political mobilization. The clash over definitions was also a disagreement about the role of language and history in shaping political agendas.

 

Condemning opponents as fascist has long been part of our political discourse, but the last decade witnessed a surge in the popularity of the term. Critics increasingly invoked fascism to lambast the xenophobia, embrace of violence, and sexism of the radical right around the world. This was the case in France, for example, where the far-right Front National (renamed Rassemblement National in 2018) harnessed voters’ discontent to become the country’s second largest political force. Even after its new leader Marine Le Pen sought to break with the party’s historical ties to Nazi sympathizers (she even expelled her own father, Jean-Marie, for his notorious Holocaust denialism), her followers’ racism and antics against “cosmopolitan elites” led scholars like Ugo Palheta to designate it “fascism by another name.” The triumph of Narendra Modi in India and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil generated the same anxious rhetoric. The fascist label seemed to capture these figures’ departure from a standard conservative agenda: their all-out assault on legal equality, the independent media, and political pluralism.

Perhaps less expected was the term’s rising popularity in the United States. Under Trump, it became not only part of popular political discourse (figures ranging from Madeleine Albright to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used it) but a category of scholarly analysis. Trump’s racism and sexism clearly had roots in recent U.S. politics, but many also saw in his boorish style, open threats to punish political opponents (“lock her up!”), and relentless lies an alarming departure. Could fascism be making headway in the country that once defeated it?

The most resounding “yes” to this question came from historian Timothy Snyder, who in a flurry of publications compared Trump’s administration to the Nazi propaganda machine. Both regimes, he wrote in On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017), sought to psychologically isolate opponents and mold them into submissive sheep, a first step toward the complete destruction of democratic institutions. A less crude though no less urgent comparison appeared in philosopher Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works (2018), which used the fascist label to describe a broad assembly of political movements, from the anti-black terror in the post-Reconstruction U.S. South to Nazi Germany and the Bharatiya Janata Party in today’s India. The Republicans under Trump in this narrative were just the latest party to combine nostalgia for a mythic past, attacks on intellectuals and universities, insistence on hierarchies of ethnicity and gender, and a fixation on “order.” To Stanley, fascism’s different incarnations across time and space demonstrated its ability to spread even in societies with strong liberal institutions. Rather than destroying them outright, as happened in Germany, fascist movements can inject their poison into existing public life, weakening democratic cultures from within.

While Stanley insisted that fascism is a globe-spanning phenomenon, most of those who found it a useful analytical tool focused on the Italian and German examples. This was not typically because they viewed Trump as Mussolini or Hitler redux, but because comparisons to the interwar years brought to light key vulnerabilities in contemporary U.S. society. The economist Raphaële Chappe and sociologist Ajay Singh Chaudhary likened the U.S. economy to the Third Reich’s monopolistic and oligarchic system. They argued that Trump’s success, like Hitler’s before him, was made possible by the disintegration of regulatory mechanisms and the replacement of functioning state institutions with a corrupt alliance between business leaders and state bureaucrats. In Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (2020), historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat compared the Italian fascist leader’s repertoire of mass rallies, inflated masculinity, and attacks on the press to Trump’s, revealing just how frayed civic ties and trust in authority have become in our own times. Perhaps the most original effort to use the 1930s to explain Trump’s hypnotic presence was made by historian Peter Gordon, who claimed that Trump fulfilled a function that Theodor Adorno attributed to Mussolini and Hitler: providing the masses with a fantasy of transgression (through violent rhetoric and never-ending spectacle) while sustaining the oppressive hierarchies of bourgeois-capitalist society.

Linking today’s radical U.S. right to Europe’s darkest historical moment proved controversial. Trump and his minions shared some similarities with fascists, several commentators claimed, but those were no deeper than their ideological overlap with monarchists; ultimately, the differences were far more important. Victoria de Grazia, among the leading historians of Italian fascism, pointed to a profound divergence: while interwar fascism was born in the trenches of the First World War and always defined itself as a project of imperial mobilization, the U.S. right was led by a draft dodger who called for reducing the country’s endless military entanglements. Historian Helmut Walser Smith similarly insisted in the Washington Post that violence has an overwhelmingly different function for nationalists in the past and present. The Nazis used mob violence and secret police to swiftly crush Germany’s entire political and legal system, while the Trump administration, for all the president’s hyperbolic threats, left the country’s institutions standing. And its cruelty toward immigrants, sexual minorities, and other groups was not radically different from its predecessors’. Others added that the analogies obscured the distinctive social groupings that fed the fascists and the Republican Party. Fascism’s most enthusiastic agents were the impoverished youth who were the main casualties of the modern economy, while the backbone of today’s right is the propertied old, who are now trying to guard their privileges. As political scientist Sheri Berman noted in Vox, not all social upheavals are the same, and what weakened democracies in the interwar years was not what eroded them today.

 

For all its intensity, the debate’s most striking feature was the conceptual and rhetorical overlap between the two sides. Philosopher Alberto Toscano, for example, insisted on the term’s value by pointing to African-American thinkers’ history of using the fascist label to describe the country’s racist carceral system. When Angela Davis decried the United States as “fascist,” Toscano explained, she correctly illuminated how superficial the notion of America’s democratic genius was. Peter Gordon, in an impassioned defense of the fascist analogy, similarly insisted that those who opposed it “have merely inverted the idea of American exceptionalism.” Their dismissal of the country’s similarity to the regimes it once fought was “a convenient trick” that absolved the United States from its persistent injustices. Yet the exact same logic informed those who were skeptical of the label’s value. They warned that labeling Trump fascist was akin to blaming his victory on Russian internet bots: it painted him as a foreign imposition or aberration, diverting attention from his deep American roots. This was the main complaint fielded by historian Samuel Moyn, who lamented that “abnormalizing Trump disguises that he is quintessentially American, the expression of enduring and indigenous syndromes.” It distracted Americans from exploring “how we made Trump over decades,” and how his rise was conditioned by the country’s “long histories of killing, subjugation, and terror,” most recently in the form of mass incarceration and endless foreign wars.

The same was the case with warnings of complacency. Stanley attributed to the fascist label a unique mobilizing power. As he put it in a piece co-authored with two other historians in the New Republic, if supporters of democracy recognize the “possibility that we are witnessing a fascist regime in the making,” they would be more likely to shake off their inaction and address the sources of democracy’s weakness. Gordon took a sharper tone, and admonished the refusal to call Trump fascist as an elitist detachment from democracy’s fate. It was “a game of privilege,” he scoffed, “those who would burn the whole house are not the ones who will feel the flames.” Skeptics responded that it was the fascist label itself that fostered uncritical lethargy. It was politically useless, as historian David Bell suggested, since for most voters, it sounded like hysterical hyperbole that undermined its speakers’ message. It also made it seem like defeating Trump was enough, instead of recognizing the policies that made him, and for which both conservatives and liberals were responsible. Moyn remarked that comparisons to Hitler implied that U.S. cruelty and violence before Trump’s ascent were “somehow less worth the alarm and opprobrium.”

Commentators’ stances in this debate did not map onto a center/left political divide; writers of different political inclinations were found on both sides. Despite Moyn’s warning that the fascist label’s main function was to bolster centrism and repress more progressive alternatives (by blaming their backers for sabotaging the immediate task of defeating Trump), reality was much messier. Some of the fascist analogy’s most forceful advocates, such as Stanley, included pleas for bold progressive reforms, from bolstering unions and ending mass incarceration to combating militarism, while more centrist commentators, like Jan-Werner Müller, rejected the epithet. And almost everyone agreed that overcoming the right’s ugly challenge would require ambitious reforms to tackle soaring inequalities across gender, economic, racial, and religious divides.

If its opponents shared so much, then what was the source of the debate’s persistence?

 

Proponents of the “caesarist” analogy in the interwar decades argued that it was analytically clarifying. But they also insisted on its polemical value. By invoking the specter of the Roman tyrant (at the time a foundational reference point in the North Atlantic political imagination), they hoped to foster discomfort and spark rage. Like most works in the polemical genre, their purpose was not to open the eyes of autocracy’s supporters to their alleged folly, but to enrage the already persuaded and deepen existing fault lines. Ironically, this was also one of the causes of caesarism’s ultimate decline: after the twentieth century’s mass atrocities, polemical invocations of Stalin and Hitler held more visceral appeal than references to Julius Caesar.

Polemical writers of the last two centuries have often launched attacks on new movements, ideologies, or regimes by utilizing familiar historical precedents. Nineteenth-century Catholics, for example, who lambasted the spread of new liberal ideas and institutions, often characterized them as the rebirth of the Protestant Reformation. In Protestantism and Catholicism Compared in Their Effect on the Civilization of Europe (1842), one of the era’s most popular and translated polemical texts, Jaime Balmes argues that Luther’s assault on the Church’s mediating role demolished Europeans’ respect for authority, which directly led to the French Revolution and all subsequent political upheavals. A century later, when liberal writers began their campaign against communism, they often instead compared it to Catholicism, which had long been their enemy: they claimed it was not merely an alternative economic system, but an all-encompassing value system that required total submission, not only of body but also of mind. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. put it in The Vital Center in 1949, both systems make their followers “so dependent emotionally on discipline” that they lack any capacity for independent thinking.

Fascism was also entangled in the work of polemical mobilization. And though this fact was only rarely mentioned in the debates after 2016, among its most consequential uses as historical analogy was not the campaign against the far right, but against Muslims. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, journalists and thinkers warned of fascism’s rebirth among radical Muslim groups, a phenomenon they dubbed “Islamo-fascism.” Christopher Hitchens, Norman Podhoretz, and others mused that Osama bin Laden’s followers embodied the Nazis’ blind fanaticism, glorification of violence, hatred of feminism, and opposition to “Western freedoms.” Such claims infused not only trivial slogans but also considerable scholarly production. Jeffrey Herf, a prominent historian of Nazi thought and propaganda, warned in the American Interest in 2009 that “radical Islam’s” anti-Semitism and hatred of the Enlightenment made it a “variant of totalitarian ideology politics.” For Herf, as for most who utilized the epithet, the historical analogy clarified why Al Qaeda and similar organizations should not be understood as fringe groups whose terrorism was an expression of weakness. Rather, they were an existential threat to democracy, and as such had to be preemptively bombed into oblivion.

Proponents of the fascist analogy over the last few years, then, have built on a long tradition. This is not because they share any of their predecessors’ political or intellectual agendas (they do not), but because of their mutual belief in the use of history to mobilize. And fascism, they believed, captured our present so much more powerfully than authoritarianism or ethno-nationalism because of its unique place in our society’s historical memory. The best articulation of this logic appeared in Stanley’s How Fascism Works, which concluded with a statement about the term’s potential for foiling the normalization of evil. Whether through their actions or lethargic apathy, nationalist leaders have made mass shootings, mass incarceration, or anti-immigrant persecution a recurring fact of life and have aimed to numb their opposition into submission. Recognizing these policies as part of the fascist repertoire could remind us of their truly horrific nature. “The charge of fascism will always seem extreme,” Stanley noted, but this is only because “the goalposts for the legitimate use of ‘extreme’ terminology continually move.”

For all its popularity, this rhetorical tradition has always faced some skeptics. Even those who sympathized with the polemicists’ agenda sometimes worried that the price of successful mobilization could alienate political allies and distract from necessary self-examination. In the nineteenth century, for example, Catholic theologian Ignaz von Döllinger admonished those who, like Balmes, blamed the world’s evils on lurking Protestantism. If the Church’s opponents were to see the light and return to its fold, he proclaimed in a major 1871 address, “the narrow polemic spirit must give way to one of compromise and reconciliation,” in which Catholics highlighted their similarities to other groups. The same logic informed the Swiss thinker Emil Brunner’s skepticism about some Cold warriors’ anticommunist rhetoric. While he was hardly fond of communism himself, he warned that combative denunciations forestalled potential engagement, which was the only path out of anti-Christian persecutions. And after 2001, even warmongers like the conservative historian Niall Ferguson complained that the “Islamo-fascist” label was deeply misleading. The analogy to the Second World War, he sneered, “is being used mendaciously” to dismiss legitimate objections to the War on Terror as “appeasement” and had an infantilizing effect on public discourse.

The skeptics’ hesitancy today, then, is not a proxy for other disagreements, but an expression of their judgment of the term’s usefulness: they doubt that it in fact fosters the mobilization and self-reflection its proponents promise. A telling example is Moyn’s objection to the analogy. “If you say the world is about to end,” he wrote, “either it will grimly confirm your prophecies or you will say your warning saved it.” But more important was the political impotence of the analogy. It may have sparked financial contributions by liberal donors, but it hardly peeled support from the right or helped build new coalitions. “What we have learned,” Moyn concluded, “is that our politics of comparison doesn’t do the work we hoped it would.” Theologian Adam Kotsko took a similar stance in the Bias Magazine (an organ of the Christian left), when he warned that talk of fascism was the opposite of soul-searching. Democrats, he wrote, used it to deflect their own responsibility for the economic carnage that made Trump’s rise possible in the first place.

 

Elections are an imperfect tool to measure the value of political rhetoric, and last November was no exception. Years of relentless warnings about looming tyranny were followed by the rare defeat of a sitting president. If and how the two were related is anyone’s guess: exit polls don’t provide “fear of fascism” as an option to mark voters’ top concerns. Moreover, the results were so ambiguous that they do not lend themselves to clear conclusions. Democrats won both the White House and Congress on painfully slim margins and could not slow down the Republican Party’s continuing radicalization. This haziness means that events have done little to resolve the fascism debate. Some, like New York Magazine journalist Eric Levitz, claimed that Joe Biden’s triumph vindicated those who used the epithet. Not only did they help convince CNN and other media organs to take a stern anti-Trump stance (Stanley is a frequent talking head), but they did so while pushing the Democratic Party left on economic issues. Skeptics similarly did not change their mind. Political scientist Corey Robin argued after the election that Trump’s underperformance compared to other Republicans exposed him as weak and ineffective, “almost the complete opposite of fascism.”

But if there is a lesson to be drawn from the last elections, it may be that correctly naming our most radical opponents is not the key to political triumph. Both during and after his campaign, Biden persistently avoided talking about his opponent. The rare occasions he did so, like when he commented on Trump being “an aberration” or “one of the most racist presidents we’ve had,” were the exceptions that proved the rule; he remained focused on specific policies. Similarly, Biden’s rhetoric was thin on historical analogies. Unlike his predecessor, whose “Make America Great Again” and “America First” slogans were clear references to nativist and racist historical movements, Biden hardly invoked the past. His inaugural address is a telling example: it zoomed through the Civil War, the Great Depression, the two World Wars, and September 11 in half a sentence, mentioning them as a testament to the nation’s resilience before focusing on the themes of unity and healing. Progressive commentators spend little time reflecting on such rhetoric, bland and uninspiring as it seems. Perhaps correctly naming the enemy isn’t as important to mobilization on the left as the fascism debate suggested.


Udi Greenberg is an associate professor of European history at Dartmouth College.


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