Can someone be a semi-liberal? Or a semi-Islamist? Or a semi-populist? There’s a reason you haven’t heard anyone use such terms. They are nonsensical. Which brings me to President Biden’s recent, controversial remarks that the philosophy of Trumpism and MAGA-ism is akin to “semi-fascism.”
Once you introduce the word “fascism” into a conversation, you can comfortably assume that it will cease being productive. I, however, made the mistake of wading into this controversy, with a tweet that took issue with Biden’s characterization. I said it “wasn’t a good look.” As the kids say, I got ratio-ed. According to custom, when you get ratio-ed, you’re supposed to “take the L” (“L” apparently means loss).
In all of this, I was reminded that the fascism debate is as old as, well, fascism. George Orwell might have put it best, in his dry, biting fashion:
It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.
“Semi-fascism” grates on me because it doesn’t actually have any substantive content. If by "semi-Communism," you simply mean a little bit Communist or somewhat Communist, then what are you really even saying? If something is just a little bit Communist, then it's not in fact Communist. In short, once you start using the qualifier "semi-" for an ideology, it is no longer the ideology in question. Yes, yes. Maybe I’m being pedantic. I should get with the times. It is no longer fashionable to associate words with a distinct, intelligible meaning. With enough devotion, we can will words to be something other than what they are. We are all post-modernists, the bastard children of Derrida and Foucault.
Okay, now that’s out of the way, I can get to more substantive preoccupations. My main objection is straightforward. When you say the sort of thing that Biden said, you are effectively saying that tens of millions of Trump supporters are fascists (or, more precisely, semi-fascists.) Sometimes, I know that something I'm about to say will be controversial, but for whatever reason I decide that it’s worth saying.
But this time, that thought didn’t even occur to me. I thought what I was saying was relatively banal and innocuous, especially after the disaster of Hillary Clinton calling a big chunk of Trump supporters “deplorables” in the Before Trump Was President Era (BTWP.E.). Wasn’t this similar enough to elicit some amount of displeasure, caution, or worry? Or were the lessons of Hillary’s misstep no longer applicable because while we couldn’t be sure that they were deplorables then, there are no such doubts today?
My brother texted me after he saw my tweets and basically said, “Shadi, why?” I sympathize with this. I, too, asked myself “why.” Why does the use of the word fascism bother me so much on substantive grounds? I soon found out, and what I found frightened me. At least Biden unwittingly qualified an otherwise categorical statement, introducing some doubt as to his true meaning. Most of the thousands of replies I received did not try to further qualify Biden’s statement, which would have been the obvious argumentative gambit. They could have said I was creating a straw man in order to destroy it. But, no. Most people, including various journalists at leading publications, adopted the position that tens of millions of Americans—perhaps as many as 50 million, or even more—were, in fact, fascists or at least supporters of a fascist ideology (which raises the question of what the difference actually is between a fascist and a supporter of fascism).
This strikes me as a ridiculous argument. (And to clarify, since there appeared to be some confusion on the matter, I’m not doubting that tens of millions of Republicans wouldn’t mind an authoritarian outcome in 2024, or for that matter 2022, but authoritarianism is not the same as fascism). But ridiculousness, like beauty or terrorism, is in the eye of the beholder, so I will put it aside for a moment. My issue is this, and it colors much of my work in ways that may not seem immediately obvious: If words are meant to have meaning, then to say that tens of millions of supporters of the other party—the only other party—are fascists, fascistic, or semi-fascistic is to use the language of national emergency. To believe that your opponents are an existential threat to everything you hold dear is to transform them from adversaries into enemies. Once you start employing the language of existential threat, it becomes all the more easy to justify taking extraordinary action to suppress the threat.
But maybe I’m taking this all too seriously. Maybe I should just chill. This is only Twitter, after all. It’s not real life, or anything.