Liberals’ Heated Fascism Rhetoric Sidesteps Self-Reflection

In response to the threat of a second Donald Trump presidency, Democrats are dusting off apocalyptic rhetoric of looming fascism and total democratic collapse. It's a self-soothing deflection of responsibility more than anything else.

US president Joe Biden speaks to members of the media in Avoca, Pennsylvania, on April 17, 2024. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images)

With Donald Trump now having secured the Republican nomination, Democrats and the dwindling number of “never-Trump” Republicans are once again rolling out the type of apocalyptic rhetoric about democracy’s imminent demise that dominated US political discourse in the late 2010s. “We have eight months to save our republic,” warned Liz Cheney. Likewise, the neoconservative Robert Kagan has prophesied that “a Trump dictatorship is increasingly inevitable,” and “we should stop pretending” otherwise.

Despite Trump’s loss in the 2020 election, this doom-and-gloom narrative, which frames democracy as perilously teetering on the verge of collapse, never really went away. During the 2022 midterm electoral campaign, well before Trump’s return, President Joe Biden argued that the “extreme MAGA philosophy” was “like semifascism,” while the liberal media anxiously worried that a tsunami-like “Red Wave” would wash away the republic.

After these various prognostications proved incorrect, one might have expected politicians, analysts, and casual observers to temper their rhetoric. Instead, the opposite happened. Commentators like Tara Setmayer, for example, maintained that “the intangible, largely esoteric concept of defending democracy” had been the cause of the Democrats’ success. Specifically, she claimed that high turnout in Georgia and Michigan, as well as increased voter engagement from younger Americans throughout the United States, proved that “democracy emerged as the big winner of 2022.” Put another way, Setmayer suggested that the apocalyptic rhetoric of the midterm campaigns was effective and thus should remain de rigueur.

In truth, it’s unclear that warnings about a “Red Wave” toppling our democracy galvanized voter turnout. According to Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg, this rhetoric might have had the ironic effect of suppressing voter turnout by demoralizing voters.

Beyond these strategic concerns, there are costs to this Manichean framing that Setmayer and those who embrace it fail to consider. Constantly referring to a never-ending, always-urgent “crisis” does — indeed has done — little to improve the functioning of our democracy. Trump is not currently the president, yet inequality reigns. The United States sends arms around the world over its citizens’ objections. And Trump himself might very well win reelection. At the very least, all of this indicates that the language of acute crisis has not been an effective means to address US democracy’s pervasive problems.

This should be of concern because American democracy is fragile. Indeed, it’s unclear the degree to which this country is a democracy at all. Many leftists are well aware of how undemocratic prominent US organizations and institutions are, from the Senate to the Supreme Court to the Electoral College. And most probably know that money shapes our political system, often to the benefit of the wealthy. But our democratic deficit is even larger than that. Over the course of the twentieth century, the United States’ ruling class built an incredibly complex ecosystem of governmental and nongovernmental groups that effectively ensured ordinary Americans had very little say concerning several issue areas, including foreign policy and the macroeconomy. In fact, a 2014 study by the political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page found “that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”

It’s possible that frustration with this undemocratic state of affairs is a contributing factor to the rejection of the Democratic Party by a growing number of black, Latino, and Asian voters on whose loyalty the party has long relied. If the Democrats won’t help you, why not embrace the Joker-esque, fuck-‘em-all attitude of modern Republicanism?

All in all, the framework of fragile democracy versus looming authoritarianism has not done much to arrest, let alone reverse, our democratic decline. Yet apocalyptic rhetoric continues to permeate American political discourse. In addition to worrying about the end of American “democracy,” the question of whether Trump is a “fascist”— or “semifascist” or “protofascist” or “fascoid,” or whatever variation of fascism a particular analyst prefers — has preoccupied liberal elites since 2015.

From Biden to the historian Timothy Snyder to the talking head Rachel Maddow, liberals have repeatedly affirmed that the American body politic contains a fascist contaminant that needs to be identified and expelled. Much like the New Atheists before them, who after 9/11 scared the hell out of Americans with apocalyptic rhetoric warning about the spread of Islamist fanaticism, the output of the liberal “anti-fascists” occludes efforts at understanding and addressing actual sources of violent hatred. How does diagnosing “fascism,” which implicitly categorizes millions of Americans as a group to be expunged rather than won over, help us reform our undemocratic political system and attenuate economic inequality, racism, and gender and sexual discrimination? Simply put, it doesn’t.

There’s a reason why apocalyptic frameworks have in the last decade become so popular among the MSNBC set: they allow the cadre of liberal elites who at the very least helped the right wing make the world we live in today to maintain a basic innocence at odds with the actual history of liberal governance. For liberals, it is easier to blame “fascism” (or “white rural rage,” or “deplorables,” or “Christian nationalists”) for causing our country’s problems than the deregulatory, financialized, and militarist neoliberalism of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Those liberal priorities helped give rise to the modern right — but to admit that, liberal elites would have to reexamine the premises of their politics, and soul-searching is far less enjoyable than rallying against an unambiguous enemy.

To a significant degree, the “anti-fascist” liberal millenarianism that has emerged since 2015 is profoundly American. This country, after all, has been the site of several Great Awakenings that were in part defined by rhetorical apocalypticism. Those of us on the Left are probably most familiar with the millenarian outlook of American Evangelicals, who since the 1970s have become important right-wing actors in US politics. Ironically, secular liberals seem to have learned a great deal from the evangelicals; just as evangelicals discern in American ungodliness the telltale signs of the end times and the dreaded coming of the Antichrist, many liberals sense all around them sinister forces working to pave the way for a Trump dictatorship.

This encourages the so-called resistance to think of its members as the “children of light” (to borrow the language of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr) who believe they’re doing the Lord’s work to topple the “children of darkness.” Such a gnostic way of seeing the world makes self-reflection nearly impossible, as the problem is clearly with “them” and not “us.” Meanwhile, political authoritarians and nativists the world over continue to win election after election. And deeper, truer dichotomies — between, for example, the small minority of capitalists and the vast majority of workers — are mystified while their attendant exploitative dynamics remain unaltered.

To be sure, millenarianism has its comforts. As the historian Faisal Devji has noted, the projection of “fascism” — often poorly defined, more an affective trigger word than a grounded political diagnosis — onto some perceived evil group gives the illusion of an essentially unchanging world order beneath the confusion and paranoia that defines the day. While the discourse of liberal anti-fascism is far from calm, it is paradoxically calming to imagine that there is a clear enemy that could be identified and defeated to restore peace and stability. It’s more reassuring than the thornier notion that we must work toward a true political transformation that will trouble the assumptions and comfortable positions of elites across the political spectrum.

The fascism framework is inherently backward-facing, always either relying on historical comparisons to validate its analogy or fixating on a return to the alleged “norms” that existed before Trump’s presidency. In other words, the single-minded identification of fascism prevents liberals from developing an attractive vision for the United States’ future. Even if Biden defeats Trump in November, absent such a vision the Democratic Party will be stuck in the rut of cosplaying apocalyptic scenarios every time a Trump-esque candidate runs for office, with little extra energy to devote to hammering out a compelling political alternative.

None of this is to deny that Trump’s reelection poses real dangers. Anyone concerned with democracy must always take seriously those forces that are hostile to it. With the January 6 riot and their refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election, Trump and his supporters have demonstrated that they’re not especially concerned with heeding the people’s will. One imagines that in Trump’s ideal world, he would rule by fiat (though one also imagines that many, probably most, presidents felt similarly).

But seeing fascism everywhere prevents those who rightly despise Trump’s reactionary social and economic positions from crafting the bold alternatives we need for the new era that we’re so clearly entering. The time for stern warnings about our American (semi, proto, or fascoid) Adolf Hitler has long passed. If we really want to improve our democracy, we must lay the fascism debate to rest and turn to face our uncertain future.

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Daniel Bessner is an associate professor in International Studies at the University of Washington. He is a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and a contributing editor at Jacobin.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is an assistant professor in the College of Social Studies at Wesleyan University. He is the editor of the collection Did It Happen Here? Perspectives on Fascism and America.

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