Trump Is a Threat to Democracy. But That Doesn’t Mean He’s Winning.

The violent attempt to stop the certification of the electoral vote shouldn’t be ignored. But fascism isn’t on the brink in America. Pretending we’re on the precipice of losing our democracy plays into the hands of those who want to give new, repressive powers to the security state.

Donald Trump speaks at a rally on October 31, 2020 in Reading, Pennsylvania. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Since Donald Trump came down his escalator in 2015, a debate has raged on the left about whether Trump is a “fascist” who threatened the existence of political democracy in the United States. Since Joe Biden decisively won the 2020 presidential election, a closely related debate has broken out about whether Trump’s many efforts to hold on to the presidency could reasonably be considered a “coup.”

Last week’s storming of the US Capitol, which appears to have been undertaken by a loose mob of ragtag QAnon conspiracy theorists, has sparked another round in this great, endless debate. Those who argued that Trumpism is a form of fascism saw in this “insurrection” a genuine threat to the United States’ democratic institutions.

But for those who, like us, considered Trumpism a manifestation of extant American trends, and Trump himself to be an ineffectual leader, the events of January 6 — while a disturbing escalation in the violent and erratic tendencies of Trump and his most hard-core supporters — were ultimately important because they demonstrated the weakness of Trump’s position.

It was the last and strangest episode in a series of increasingly desperate attempts to somehow reverse the results of the election. When Republican state legislatures, Trump’s own appointees to the Supreme Court, and even Vice President Mike Pence had all refused to follow the president off that cliff, the only card he had left to play was encouraging a violent mob that seems to consist primarily of online conspiracy theorists and insurrectionary fantasists.

Even if the QAnon-ers at the Capitol thought they could overthrow the government and ensure Trump remained in power, a deranged action that had no chance of succeeding cannot reasonably be called a coup. Otherwise, any bizarre event, from Charles Manson’s attempt to foment a race war that would transform the United States, to the bombings carried out by the many tiny organizations in the 1970s that considered themselves to be carrying out a revolutionary war against the government, could be classified as a “coup.”

This becomes especially clear when one compares what happened on January 6 to genuine coups, like the United States’ overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 or Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala in 1954, or what happened in Venezuela in 2002, when military generals tried and failed to remove the elected government.

What happened in Washington, DC, last week was a violent spasm of impotent rage by a mob mostly made up of civilians and a president who egged them on and talked out of both sides of his mouth about whether he supported what they were doing, but who also made no real attempt to mobilize the power of the state to back them up.

To point this out is not to minimize the horrors of an attempted mob action designed to intimidate Congress. But the good news is we don’t need to choose between taking these events seriously and being accurate and careful about what kind of danger the mob represented.

To many, these might appear as semantic questions: If everyone on the Left agrees that what happened on January 6 was horrifying, who cares what we call it? If Trump is a deranged reactionary demagogue, does it matter what we label him?

This debate is further complicated by the fact that there’s a long history of leftists either casually using “fascist” as an expressive way of insulting particularly appalling politicians or calling attention, as many black radicals have done, to oppressive features of the American system, especially the police and carceral state. Suffice to say that we have no quarrel with anyone who uses the term in either of these ways, or who affirms that “this is a coup!” in order to viscerally object to the anti-democratic nature of Trump’s many ineffectual attempts to stay in power. The latter are real, and, though quixotic, shouldn’t be ignored.

Our point is that there is the potential for very real, and very negative, political consequences if the fascism and coup narratives become the dominant frameworks through which leftists and liberals understand the threat posed by Trump and QAnon. In our opinion, these narratives distort how many of our friends and comrades on the Left think about the Democratic Party, tech censorship, and police power, while also providing a sop to those who would like the incoming Biden administration to increase the authority of an already far too powerful national security state.

Classical European Fascism

Before getting to these larger concerns, let’s talk about the merits of the case. Is Trump a fascist? And what does that mean?

Since World War II’s end in 1945, political thinkers and critics alike have deployed the term “fascism” to describe right-wing authoritarian regimes like Augusto Pinochet’s in Chile or the apartheid government in South Africa. More dubiously, the term fascism was also widely applied, on the Left, to the administrations of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush, and, on the Right, to the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (the latter of whom was regularly portrayed at right-wing protests sporting a Hitler moustache).

In all of these cases, the political point was to draw an analogy with Classical European Fascism (CEF). The core examples of CEF were the movements and then governments led by Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, though in the American context — where Nazi Germany became the existential enemy whose defeat justified the existence of the US empire — most of the time, the implicit analogy was to the Nazis and not the Italians.

What anyone makes of any particular diagnosis that a post–World War II movement or government is “fascist” depends on what they take to be the most important and distinctive features of CEF. If one wants to focus on how right-wing governments suppressed freedoms and democratic institutions, Pinochet was most certainly a fascist (although Nixon was not). If one wants to emphasize that right-wing movements lacked a commitment to democracy, then the Watergate break-in and Bush v. Gore suggest that both Nixon and Bush were fascists. If one wants to emphasize the commonalities between certain conservative tropes and the rhetoric of CEF, then not only Nixon and Bush but Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower, and for that matter Clinton, might also count as fascists.

A Vietnam War protest in the 1970s. (Flickr)

Since Trump’s election in 2016, a variety of thinkers across the political spectrum, from Timothy Snyder to Jason Stanley to Madeleine Albright, have argued that the Trump administration was either fascist itself or embodied elements of fascist philosophy. Many of these thinkers pointed to Trump’s rhetoric, his authoritarian style, and policies like the grotesque “Muslim ban” to justify their claims.

In contrast to these thinkers, we insist that what made CEF unique was not the presence of rhetorical tropes common to many right-wing movements before and after, but its ability to dominate many of the most important institutions of a society.

When Hitler was appointed chancellor, for example, he set about destroying democracy, outlawing opposition parties and independent labor unions, murdering and incarcerating political enemies, and legally stripping Jews of their rights. Hitler and Mussolini also both came to power at the head of street-fighting mass movements that were filled with combat veterans and that cut their teeth terrorizing Jews, socialists, communists, and trade unionists. Once in power, both fascist leaders proceeded to abolish the normal institutions of capitalist democracy.

While parts of the American state — particularly its security forces, from the police to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to the US military — embody some fascistic elements, neither Trump, nor any other modern American president, has tried to initiate a process of Gleichschaltung (coordination) in which the US state and society were reoriented along fascist lines. Nothing in the recent American experience approaches what happened in Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, although there certainly are precedents in slavery and Jim Crow.

Moreover, as people writing in the United States in 2021, we must also be aware of how the fascist analogy has been historically deployed, and where it has been most effective and resonant. While there is a long and noble tradition of left-wing anti-fascism, it was liberal anti-fascism that has had the most consequential impact on US history. And liberal anti-fascism, from its beginnings, has been defined by a skepticism of mass politics, a skepticism that directly led to the creation of a post–World War II American state defined far more by technocratic than representative governance.

Indeed, the most important institutions of this state — the National Security Council, the Council of Economic Advisers, the Central Intelligence Agency, the modern Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Defense — were designed, at least partially, to limit ordinary Americans’ impact on public and foreign policy.

Thus, while all leftists must be anti-fascist, and while important critics of the US state have used the fascist analogy in the past, our argument that the analogy is not only inaccurate but politically counterproductive for the Left rests on our belief that liberal anti-fascism has been of far more consequence than left-wing anti-fascism, and, given that Biden is about to become president, will likely be of more consequence in the coming years.

For us, the most salient issue is not how strongly we should condemn right-wing leaders. Whether you think that Trump counts as a “fascist” or not, there’s no denying that, by any reasonable metric, George W. Bush inflicted far more damage on the world. The Patriot Act, the drone program, the widespread use of “extraordinary rendition,” the global torture program implemented from Guantanamo Bay to “black sites” in Eastern Europe, and the assertion of a wildly lawless right to “indefinitely detain” anyone, including American citizens like José Padilla, were monstrous assaults on the rights of criminal defendants and terrifying extensions of state power.

The wars Bush started in Afghanistan and Iraq spilled oceans of blood, engendered decades of chaos, and strengthened a military establishment that destroys the lives of Americans and foreigners alike. Any minimally decent society would have long since extradited Bush to the Hague. And while Trump hasn’t matched that record, his handling of the COVID crisis certainly counts as “monstrous” in its own way.

As such, our question isn’t whether any of these figures deserve the harshest labels we can throw at them, but whether applying these labels is, first, accurate, and second, politically useful. We have doubts on both counts.

Trump and the Fascism Analogy

That the small number of genuine fascists in the United States mostly support Trump, and that he’s often shown a disturbing eagerness to welcome their support, is not in dispute. During the 2016 election, he initially pretended not to know who David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan were in order to dodge a question about repudiating their endorsement. In 2017, Trump also infamously remarked that there were “very fine people” on both sides of a confrontation between neo-Nazis and Antifa in Charlottesville, Virginia. Furthermore, during the 2020 election, he told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” And, of course, Trump encouraged the storming of the Capitol on January 6.

Frightening as these events are, it’s important to put them in their proper perspective. The highest estimates of the attendance at the nationwide gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville was a few hundred people. The total nationwide membership of all such organizations, plus the multiracial but fascist-like Proud Boys, is likely a tiny fraction of the total membership of, for example, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — and the DSA is still (unfortunately) an extremely small organization on the periphery of American politics. Moreover, many of those who stormed the Capitol appear to have been members of QAnon, a cult-like movement motivated by conspiracy theories as opposed to any genuine political program.

Hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the “alt-right” march down East Market Street toward Emancipation Park during the “Unite the Right” rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Chip Somodevilla / Getty

As such, when people talk about Trump as a fascist threat to American democracy, they can’t really be talking about the forces discussed above. That Trump and his coterie tolerated them as much as they did is certainly a profound moral indictment of Trumpist politics, but it’s not as if Trump governed especially differently from a “normal” GOP president. The issue in dispute in the “fascism” debate therefore isn’t primarily about Trump’s willingness to accept the support of cosplaying CEF supporters. It’s about Trump himself and the movement he leads.

Which brings us to one of our major questions: Is it accurate to label Trump a fascist? We don’t think so. Trump didn’t ride to power at the head of some street-fighting mass organization like Mussolini’s Blackshirts or Hitler’s Brownshirts. He stumbled into the Republican nomination for president because the GOP establishment was unable to consolidate against him in the way the Democratic establishment successfully consolidated against Bernie Sanders. Trump admittedly encouraged supporters to assault hecklers at rallies, though he backed off when he started to worry about his personal legal liability — a pattern of bluster and retreat that defined his presidency.

When the peculiarities of the Electoral College and the deep incompetence of the Democratic nominee allowed him to slip into office, Trump didn’t proceed to unleash an army of paramilitary supporters in an American Kristallnacht or take dramatic action to remake the American state in his image. In fact, as Corey Robin has repeatedly and helpfully emphasized, Trump was a weak president.

The Muslim Ban and his many attempts to escalate the war of ICE (an organization founded by Bush and used by Obama) on undocumented immigrants were disgusting and led to a great deal of avoidable human misery, but it’s also striking that, despite his best efforts to ramp up that machinery of repression, the overall number of deportations declined during Trump’s presidency. To the extent that Trump succeeded in governing at all, he mostly governed in the way that Mitt Romney or John McCain probably would have: cutting taxes, appointing union-busters to the National Labor Relations Board and social conservatives to the Supreme Court, and generally acting like a standard-issue Reaganite Republican.

For its part, Trump’s foreign policy was neither that of a “right-wing isolationist” in the mold of Charles Lindbergh or Pat Buchanan or a hypermilitaristic conqueror in the mold of Hitler or Mussolini. Instead, he erratically zigzagged between escalating preexisting tensions with countries like North Korea and Iran and making occasional, unpredictable, and half-hearted attempts to de-escalate the use of US force abroad. He appointed generals like H. R. McMaster and James Mattis before falling out with them. He also appointed neocons like John Bolton before falling out with them.

And Trump’s rhetoric was strikingly free of the constant invocations of the glory of war that were central to the rhetoric of CEF (possibly because Trump himself never served in the military), and he certainly never made any grand attempts at conquest on the CEF model. Instead, Trump continued in the mold of Obama, pursuing “clean,” drone-centered warfare in places like Yemen, where he doubled the rate of drone strikes. If Marco Rubio had won the Republican nomination and then the presidency, it’s likely that quite a few of the same moves would have been made, if without Trump’s characteristic unpredictability.

To say all of this isn’t to minimize the dangers that Republicans like Trump actually represent. As distant as it may be from CEF, mainstream Republicanism has done profound damage to the United States, and the rest of the world, in the last forty years. Democrats and Republicans are not exactly the same. One of us lives in a swing state and reluctantly voted for Biden on the grounds that NRLB appointments, for example, are important to the socialist left. But hyperbolic talk that identifies Trump as a “fascist” who represents a unique threat to the core institutions of American democracy does not help the Left. Instead, it creates a constant pressure on socialists to deemphasize our own program, and our own profound conflict with the neoliberal center, in order to force us to unite with that center as well as neoconservative Never Trump Republicans, big tech companies, and even “the intelligence community” in a grand reenactment of the Popular Front against fascism assembled in the 1930s and 1940s. After all, if a rising tide of fascism poses an imminent threat to democracy itself, shouldn’t we put everything else aside to defeat that threat?

Never has this pressure been as intense as in the aftermath of January 6.

What’s a “Coup” and Why Does It Matter?

An “attempted coup,” in the usual way that phrase is used, refers to a coup attempt that might have succeeded. Without this criterion of demarcation, any bizarre, radical action that has as its goal the overthrowing of the government can be defined as a coup. If this were the case, then we in this (or any other) country would be under constant threat of coups.

Given what we know now, it was simply impossible for the bizarre group that gathered in Washington, DC, on January 6 to have achieved its goal of ensuring that Trump remained president. Most important, the group didn’t have the support of the uniformed military, the sine qua non of most successful coup attempts.

But, again, does it really matter what we call the storming of the Capitol, especially given that we agree it was a bad thing? Why not, in fact, call it a coup to highlight the dangers posed by QAnon and the ever more radicalized American right?

Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the US Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Jon Cherry / Getty Images)

There are three answers to these questions. First, we do not believe that the Trump far right has any real chance of overthrowing the US government. While this loose coalition of forces is no doubt capable of spectacular acts of grotesque violence, this does not mean that they pose a genuine structural threat to American democracy. Indeed, the riots were put down within hours, and Congress successfully certified the presidential election soon after the Capitol was secured. The events of January 6 thus do not approach Mussolini marching on Rome or Hitler effectively abolishing the Reichstag.

Second, while we believe that the far right must be taken seriously, the most dangerous potential consequence of the Capitol storming is the overreaction of an emboldened security state.

Two decades ago, the American state and society responded to another singular act of violence by trampling on civil liberties and invading two countries. There’s serious reason to fear that a new focus on “domestic terrorist groups” will provide succor to the politicians and security bureaucrats who see monsters everywhere. Put simply, identifying the events of January 6 as a coup does little but play into the hands of an already too powerful security state.

There have already been calls for new domestic terrorism legislation. There’s a great danger that any such laws will be used against the Left. Just as Israeli laws against “incitement” passed in the wake of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination were later deployed against pro-Palestinian, anti-occupation activists, it’s all too easy to imagine any new anti-terror legislation being used to crack down on left-wing radicals.

Third, as the historian Samuel Moyn has pointed out, some Republicans have begun to distance themselves from Trump and the “insurrectionists” in an attempt to “Trumpwash” themselves and reenter a reconsolidating American center. Exaggerating fears of a coup will only aid in this twisted effort.

The most shocking aspect of January 6 was that the rioters were able to enter the Capitol. Though we’re still finding out what, exactly, happened, judging by the outrageous image of a Capitol cop taking a selfie with rioters, it’s likely that at least some elements of the Capitol police were initially reluctant to crack down on protestors they instinctively considered comrades. This is a major problem upon which leftists must focus.

But it’s simultaneously crucial that we refuse to give in to the temptation to exaggerate the riot by identifying it as a potentially successful “coup” that could have replaced capitalist democracy with fascism. It’s just not true, and pretending that it is plays into the hands of our enemies.

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Daniel Bessner is the Joff Hanauer Honors Associate Professor in Western Civilization in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He is also a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and a contributing editor at Jacobin.

Ben Burgis is a philosophy professor and the author of Give Them An Argument: Logic for the Left. He is host of the podcast Give Them An Argument.

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