The fascism debate is not a semantic debate. It’s not (just) about words. As a debate, it manages to touch on a series of fundamental questions about what drives political behavior. Why do we believe what we believe? Why do we insist on focusing on the things that we focus on? There are two primary reasons to care about something politically. The first is that it’s practical: it serves a purpose relating to power or electoral gain. The second is that it’s true. One might concern oneself with an obscure 17th century text about, say, pottery not because it particularly matters but because it adds to our repository of knowledge about the way things were.
Ideally, something would be both true and have practical import. The problem is when facts and one’s political desires diverge, thereby putting the well-meaning individual who wants to do good in a bit of a quandary. If there is a gap between truth (did Trump collude with the Russians in a manner that meets evidentiary standards of criminal activity) and goals (if only there was a way to get rid of Trump through legal means?), then what is one to do about that gap?
The odd thing about the use of the word “fascist” to describe, say, the Brothers of Italy, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), or the Trumpist wing of the Republican Party is that it somehow manages to fail on both counts: it’s not historically accurate or verifiably true in any meaningful sense. And it serves no obvious electoral or political purpose that couldn’t be served through less inflammatory means. That said, in some ways, it’s an instructive encapsulation of a particular way of doing and thinking about politics. It treats words as a substitute for action, and language as a substitute for politics.
Fighting over words is a way of policing the boundaries of belonging and identity. The purpose is to maintain cohesion within one’s own tribe. To believe that Trump, Trumpism, and Trumpists are fascist is to confirm that you are on the right side of history. For there to be a right side of history, there must also be a wrong side. And so it becomes important to know who qualifies and who doesn’t, particularly when there is so much at stake.
To maintain internal cohesion, clarity and conviction are essential. The introduction of nuance, on the other hand, doesn’t exactly do wonders for cohesion, because nuance introduces alternative conceptions of threat. Every American knows about Hitler and Mussolini and their association with not just badness but evil. These references to World War II-era fascism are evocative for precisely this reason: they are meant to end conversations before they start. There was a time when it was seen as a weakness of argumentation to fall back on historical cliché. There used to be something called Godwin’s Law. To quote Godwin himself: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one hundred percent.” Godwin’s Law, like most things on the internet, is eternal, but it’s been rendered passé, because people at least used to wait a bit before bringing up the specter of Hitler. Where Hitler used to end the conversation, now he might as well be right there at the beginning.
Fascism’s association with Hitler is powerful enough in the popular imagination that Hitler doesn’t even need to be explicitly evoked, which is a nifty trick. With or without him, the end result is similar. It functions as a conversational suppressant—the political equivalent of telling someone to “read the room.” It just so happens that, this time, the room is wrong.
The economic historian Adam Tooze and the political theorist (and Wisdom of Crowds contributor) David Polansky both have new pieces that dismantle the center-left’s obsession with “fascist” analogues to such a degree that I began to feel pity towards the targets. For Tooze, fascism, to be fascist, should meet three basic conditions, none of which obtain in the case of Trumpism. They are: (opposition to) Anglo-American hegemony; total war; and class war. The latter, to take one of the three conditions, seems particularly easy to observe: The ascendant populist right is marked by a relative disinterest in the question of class. If anything, the populist right is a victim (or beneficiary) of history’s end. There is nothing new under the sun. The right and far-right have moderated considerably on economic and class-related questions. It is this economic convergence that has paradoxically made the Biden era a relative high point for bipartisan cooperation and legislative productivity in the U.S. Congress, as James Sutton recently argued.
American gridlock, at least for the moment, is a myth. One reason we’ve failed to realize this is, well, that we simply don’t care. We’re not paying attention to bipartisan cooperation, in part because it’s boring. And it’s boring because it concerns things that most voters and politicians agree on. Agreement is quaint. Instead, the wars that matter today to the politically minded are culture wars. Our cultural divides feel so stark precisely because the other big questions have been largely resolved. Culture, identity, and religion are all we have left to draw sharp lines between “us” and “them,” between friends and enemies. As I recently argued in The Atlantic, the Middle East offered a dark preview of this world to come—a world where the fundamental political divides felt, and maybe even were, existential.
And so we return to “fascism” and how it serves a very particular purpose. It transforms adversaries into enemies, and once an adversary becomes an enemy, he must be defeated. In other words, once a mere word is introduced into the political lexicon, it primes us for a fight-or-flight response. We have decided on a political frame, and we must now twist reality to fit the frame, regardless of the truth of the matter. Language structures behavior. Words are reflections of beliefs, and once words are uttered with enough frequency, they strengthen and deepen what might have otherwise, at least initially, been mere flights of rhetorical fancy.
The use of the word “fascism” to describe one’s political opponents—one’s fellow American citizens—is, in my view, contrary to the democratic spirit. At an even more basic level, though, it is also an anti-pluralist move, even if we don’t intend it as such. As the political theorist William Connolly writes in the appropriately titled Pluralism:
When your faith is disturbed your being is rattled. You react bodily through the roiling of your gut, the hunching of your shoulders, the pursing of your lips, and the tightening of your skin. The visceral dimension of faith, moreover, bubbles into explicit belief, affecting the intensity with which you respond to debates about elemental questions.
This is the kind of intensity—bursting with feeling, fear, and resentment—that we must pay attention to and, when necessary, protect against. We must not hunch our shoulders or purse our lips. It is difficult to converse, after all, when one’s lips are pursed.
In our existential setting, the immoral can easily become moral. This is the story of political battle, after all. We are led into overreach, because we come to believe that exceptional measures are necessary to put down what we perceive to be an existential threat. So, let’s stop perceiving it as an existential threat. Unless, of course, it’s actually existential. Do we really think that about this political moment? If your answer to that question is “yes,” then it is not enough to merely say yes. You must also explain what saying yes actually entails. Either a word has practical import or it doesn’t.