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Is America Going Fascist?

Given US President Donald Trump's propensity for racist, divisive rhetoric, it is easy to see why so many of his opponents would describe him as a modern-day Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler. But by implying that all Trump supporters are irredeemable extremists, such rhetoric merely plays into his hands.

CAMBRIDGE – White nationalism is on the rise in the United States. According to the Anti-Defamation League, there were 6,768 incidents of extremism and anti-Semitism (mostly from the right) in the US in 2018 and 2019. That figure is significantly higher than in previous years, leading many to conclude that President Donald Trump is to blame for the uptick in domestic extremism.

Since the launch of his presidential campaign in 2015, Trump has overtly and covertly encouraged violence by his supporters. After a white supremacist, James Alex Fields Jr., drove his car into counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one and injuring dozens, Trump infamously said that there were “some very fine people on both sides.” And he has not shied away from racist rhetoric when describing African countries and even non-white members of Congress.

Trump’s words have consequences. In addition to the Charlottesville killer, several other high-profile white nationalists who have carried out acts of violence or domestic terrorism have said that they were inspired by the president. These include Cesar Sayoc Jr., who mailed pipe bombs to prominent Democrats, including former President Barack Obama and Trump’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton; Robert Bowers, who killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue; and Patrick Crusius, who gunned down 22 people in El Paso. New research by economists Karsten Müller of Princeton University and Carlo Schwarz of Warwick University draws a direct causal link between Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets and anti-Muslim hate crimes.

Owing to Trump’s propensity to foment violence and distort the truth, many have concluded that he is a fascist. Most ominously, Trump seeks to delegitimize democratic institutions and impartial bureaucratic procedures, not only to insulate his and his family’s dubious business dealings, but as a strategy to increase his personal power and authority. Italian fascists and the Nazis routinely used similar strategies from the 1920s onward.

But it would be a mistake to exaggerate these similarities. For starters, interwar fascism cannot be understood without the foil of communism, which many middle-class Germans and Italians considered an existential threat. There is no such threat today. Obama’s election as America’s first black president did reinforce extremists’ fears that America’s white population is being “replaced.” But such conspiracy theories cannot be compared to the real-world threat posed by communism following Russia’s Bolshevik revolution in 1917.

Second, in the post-World War I era, traumatized, disillusioned, and battle-hardened young men comprised a significant share of many countries’ population. While many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered similar traumas (and some are staunch Trump supporters), they command neither the numbers nor the political influence that their interwar counterparts did.

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Third, despite his rhetoric and attempts to enlist the help of other countries in his re-election campaign, Trump has not yet tried to consolidate his power by non-electoral means. That could change if he loses to the Democratic challenger in November. But even then, it would be a far cry from past fascists’ systematic undermining of democratic processes.

Lastly, while the Republican Party’s unconditional support for Trump is eerily similar to the behavior of center-right politicians who backed Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, there is nothing uniquely fascist about unprincipled politicians behaving dishonorably.

This is important, because it really does matter whether one calls Trump a fascist, as opposed to applying some other label. To be sure, a second Trump term would represent an existential crisis for American institutions. The forces that have hampered his agenda – most critically, mobilized citizens – would become less powerful as his rule became further normalized. Political conventions would be even more radically undermined than in Trump’s first term. The administration’s ongoing effort to abolish impartial expertise from the bureaucracy would continue unabated. The political system, including the judiciary, could become irreparably polarized.

But partisan polarization and the decimation of any middle ground for compromise are key weapons in Trump’s own war against the institutions that are meant to keep him in check. Those who brand him and his supporters as fascists are merely deepening the divide, and delegitimizing the (often valid) grievances of millions of Americans, most of whom have nothing to do with white nationalism or extremism.

The most promising strategies for resisting and defeating Trump are nothing like those required to fight twentieth-century fascist movements. Once Mussolini and Hitler took power, there simply was no way to stop them by working within the system. By contrast, the most effective way to combat Trump is through the ballot box, as demonstrated by the 2018 midterm congressional elections, when Democrats trounced Republicans to retake the House of Representatives.

The best way forward, then, is with a two-pronged strategy. First, Democrats (and all other interested parties) need to find a better way to communicate with the millions who voted for Trump because they felt – and, in many cases, truly were – left behind economically and ignored politically. Any movement that turns its back on these Americans not only reduces its own chances of winning political power, but also deepens the polarization that has allowed Trump to act with near carte blanche. Yes, most Trump supporters will not readily switch to the Democratic nominee in 2020. But it is nonetheless critical that Democratic candidates recognize these constituents’ concerns and start building bridges to them.

Second, the Democrats must win decisively. Otherwise, Trump and his supporters will claim that the election was stolen from them. An overwhelming Democratic victory is needed to signal to the country that most Americans oppose Trump’s destructive agenda, disrespect for US political institutions, and polarizing rhetoric.

It is not too late to address Americans’ grievances and rebuild the country’s institutions. But that won’t be possible in a politically polarized environment, and charges of fascism will merely make that environment less hospitable to Trump’s opponents.

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