“The concept of progress acts as a protective mechanism to shield us from the terrors of the future.”
— Frank Herbert, Dune
In 1930s Europe, the fascists were anxious. Out of power and decidedly unpopular, far-right circles had to regroup and revise their strategy to maintain an ideology quickly falling out of fashion. It paid off when fascists and their ideological cousins came to power decades later — in America in 2016.
The United States has a new administration now. But the return of a fascist-esque administration can happen again. But how?
DEFINING THE THREAT
Fascism is a tricky thing to define, so it’s best to think of it as a checklist, and Diethelm Prowe provides a handy one in Contemporary European History by labeling it as: “exclusivist, racist, violent, masculine, elite and warrior elite, myths, fear, resenting modernity, conspiracy, tradition.”
Fascism has varied over time. Benito Mussolini, the father of Italian fascism, relied on imperial imagery (romanità) to evoke a grand past, to appeal to a country reeling from the broken promises at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. In early speeches Mussolini referenced Roman architecture’s usage throughout Europe as proof of the “genius” and “eternal” Italian nature. Jan Nelis, a researcher with the Université libre de Bruxelles, wrote about Mussolini’s mythological construction, saying: “Fascism placed itself ideologically in history as the fulfilment of Italy’s destiny, a fulfilment which started with the Risorgimento and culminated in the March of Rome.”
Fascism relies on a shared, mythologized history: the glory of a since-crumbled empire, the prosperity of the antebellum era, even the dominance of plundering tribes and their symbols. Far-right politicians in the United States have a comparatively smaller history from which to evoke their glories. American exceptionalism could be considered a substitute for such a past. (Mussolini himself is said to have “thought of history in largely mythical terms.”)
The fascism of postwar Europe appears alien to those looking for parallels in America today — and that’s the point. Fascism will almost always emerge from a local context.
The Trump administration’s policies and rhetoric checked a lot of these boxes. By stoking the fear of otherness in immigrants, people of color, and the LGBTQI community, the administration was able to gather public support for policies that actively harmed those historically on the margins of American society. The travel ban, first issued in early 2017, aimed to target people from Muslim-majority countries by linking them to terrorist activities. Women (particularly those of the white and cis variety) were as accessible as far as he could “grab ‘em,” as useful as he could justify anti-immigration rhetoric to protect them.
The United States started this year with a new administration. But the transition was far from smooth and consisted of misinformation about the general election and an insurrection on Jan. 6 led by Trump loyalists. This begs the question: Is the United States no longer immune to fascism?
JUST CALL IT THE “F” WORD
The fascism of postwar Europe appears alien to those looking for parallels in America today — and that’s the point. Fascism will almost always emerge from a local context. “To believe that a nationalist movement isn’t fascist because it’s native is to miss the point entirely,” argues the University of London’s Sarah Churchwell.
“Make America Great Again.”
These are frustratingly unspecific banners for researchers, but vague enough for supporters to fill in the blanks with their own version of Americanism. Writing in 1994, Diethelm Prowe identified key traits of fascism as exclusionist, violent, masculine, and anti-modernity. In the absence of a specified doctrine, we can look back on four years of Trump and find clear signs of fascist rhetoric and behavior, namely: the demonization of the other, appeals to traditional masculinity and gender norms, and the threat of violence.
For example: Trump’s anti-immigration policies relied more on ethnic stereotypes than data. When he kicked off his campaign from Trump Tower in 2015, he described Mexicans seeking to enter the United States as “rapists” bringing drugs and crime into the country. Two years later, he signed an executive order banning Syrian refugees from entering the United States (on Holocaust Remembrance Day, no less).
His preferred brand of violence seemed to reflect his own warped view of masculinity, including his missile-measuring contest with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un. On a personal level, Trump’s aggressive behavior toward women is well-documented: “I just start kissing them…I don’t even wait,” he said in a now-famous recording.
As both an individual and commander in chief, Trump employed violent rhetoric to demonstrate status. During a presidential debate against then-candidate Joe Biden, Trump advised right-wing group the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” And, in case you forgot, he also openly advocated for violence to his supporters, directly enabling the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6: “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.”
CHANGING THE LANGUAGE
Christopher DeMuth, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, agreed that Trumpism was defined by nationalism, an idea that “is certain to outlast the drama and fate of his tenure in office.” Another one of Trump’s legacies — though not one he can exclusively claim credit for — is the proliferation of shortchange phrases into the American conversation.
In short: Change the language, not the ideology.
Phrases like “America First” or “Make America Great Again” are nationalistic and vague enough for any Trump supporter to fill in the blanks of what exactly makes America so great. For four years Trump repeatedly invoked the phrase “fake news.” By 2020, a study from the Pew Research Center found that 63% of American adults felt it was “better if the public is skeptical” of news media. DeMuth gives Trump credit in this regard, arguing that the former president’s “articulation of nationalism follows the classical formulation precisely.” For the conservative academic circles to which DeMuth belongs, patriotism is strongly linked with moral values. But it’s “America First” that gets printed on t-shirts.
This method adapts well to social media and the digital news ecosystem, where short video clips and character-limited posts can spread rapidly. In lieu of manifestos, politicians and political leaders may use popularized phrases or even imagery to communicate with the public. In 2009, researchers studying the extremism and Euroscepticism called this practice “partisan cueing,” a means of distilling a complex platform or belief for a broader audience. In other words, these are “cognitive shortcuts.” In his post-2016 election book On Tyranny, Yale historian Timothy Snyder warns: “When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework.”
SUSTAINING THE NETWORKS
Sometimes history and its evils are funny. For fascism to survive in the 1930s as it must now, its supporters looked beyond their own borders and nationalistic traditions. During the European interwar period, fascism went underground but managed to thrive in academic circles across Italy, Germany, and France.Fascism had to evolve again in the 1990s, when western states promoted the idea of globalization and interconnectivity as the new world order. Immigrants became the very visible other, fueling much of the anti-immigration rhetoric we find today in far-right party platforms.
In today’s world, former Trump advisor Steve Bannon has been cozying up to Europe’s far-right, including Hungary’s Viktor Orban. France’s far-right leader Marine le Pen was seen in Trump Tower in 2017, where she met with a man identified as Guido “George” Lombardi. Lombardi, a real estate investor, was known at the time as “Trump’s European fixer” — his point of contact for the far-right leaders across the pond. Just recently the courts denied Bannon’s attempt to build a right-wing Catholic academy in, you guessed it: Italy.
Outside of government circles, plenty of organizations and academic institutions exist to parrot Trumpist ideology. Peter Beinart argues that Trump appeals to academic circles because he offers a wide platform for their ideas: “Trump offers intellectuals the chance to speak for the energized masses and thus to make themselves relevant beyond their salons.” Among these “salons” are the California-based Claremont Institute, and Washington, DC conservative strongholds like the Hudson Institute and the Federalist Society.
Voted out of power, Trump retreated to Florida. There were rumors that he was looking to start his own political party. No one knows what he’ll do next, or if the next phase of the far-right emergence in the United States will include him.
For now, his last act in Washington, DC took place on Jan. 6 when his supporters inflicted violence in the riots that took Capitol Hill. They’re still angry. Even still, Conservative institutions in Washington condemned these events while defending Trump’s rally in the same breath.
When addressing the mob that would go on to attack the Capitol, Trump told them: “I want to thank you for the extraordinary love. That’s what it is. There’s never been a movement like this, ever.”
He is wrong. There could be again if we don’t clearly define the threat, change the language by which we address it, and invest in a more equitable and equal society.
Tabitha Sanders is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.