Op-Ed for the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy on the Capitol Insurrection

Title

"The March on Washington"

Article

A Sign at the Capitol Insurrection Depicting Trump as an Anti-Marxist “Braveheart” Freedom Fighter. Photo by Dave Weigel/The Washington Post.

The armed insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 surprised, and undoubtedly horrified, many Americans. For historians of twentieth century authoritarianism, however, the attempted violent overthrow of American democracy was merely an all-too-predictable outcome of the charismatic cult of personality and fascistic propaganda campaigns unleashed by Donald J. Trump over the past four years.

In spite of the relatively unified voice among scholars of authoritarianism in warning the American people about the dangers posed by the MAGA movement to the maintenance of democracy in the United States (US),[1] scholars of Fascism and Nazism specifically have remained largely divided on whether or not Trumpism constitutes a peculiarly American form of “generic fascism” (or the common ideological components shared by all fascistic movements).

One of the underlying problems with this lack of consensus, of course, stems from the fact that, unlike Communism and Capitalism, Fascism has no singular founding document, or even corpus of documents, which has greatly complicated the development of a working definition of what is and is not “fascist.” As a result, there are numerous competing interpretations of Fascism.

While some have adopted a Marxist, or “materialist,” perspective, choosing to view Fascism as a “terrorist dictatorship” consisting of “the most reactionary, most chauvinistic, most imperialist elements of finance capital,”[2] to quote Palmiro Togliatti, the second Chairman after Antonio Gramsci of the Communist Party of Italy, others have opted to interpret Fascism as a revolutionary expression of “palingenetic ultra-nationalism” whose “raw materials,” to quote Roger Griffin, were “militarism, racism, charismatic leadership, populist nationalism, fears that the nation or civilization as a whole was being undermined by the forces of decadence, … and longings for a new era to begin.”[3]

Robert O. Paxton, on the other hand, who has long since opposed labeling Trump a “fascist,” has adopted the interpretive position that “what fascists did tells us at least as much as what they said,”[4] urging scholars to look beyond these movements’ bombastic rhetoric and political symbolism and focus more closely on their paramilitary violence and their conspiracies against the democracies they undermined and, in many cases, toppled.

Putting these ongoing interpretive and methodological debates aside, however, a number of loose comparisons can indeed be made between historical fascisms and Trump’s MAGA movement.

Much like Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler before him, for instance, Trump has carefully cultivated a charismatic relationship with his followers by promising to put “America First”—a reference to the 1940s pro-Nazi, anti-interventionist movement in the US by the same name—and “Make America Great Again”—a plausibly deniable nod to notions of regenerative ultra-nationalism.

What’s more, he has cynically deployed his Leader cult relationship with his followers towards inflicting fascistic, purificatory violence against his “enemies”—a campaign which has included left-wingers, establishment politicians, the press, and now the country’s democratic institutions.

Having perpetrated a Hitlerian “Big Lie” with respect to the outcome of last year’s general election—an untruth so colossal in scope and scale, to quote directly from Mein Kampf, that “the broad masses of a nation” are “easily corrupted”—Trump has successfully established an alternative reality for his followers, in which he is the hero, the patriot, or the victim, and everyone else is a “traitor,” a “communist,” or a “tyrant.”

Highlighting these fascistic qualities of Trumpism and the MAGA movement, one Trumpist published the following remarks in a post-insurrection “parley” on Parler: “what needs to happen is leftist commie democrat traitor politician [sic] kids and grandkids need to be burned alive or thrown into wood chippers in front of them,” for only when “democrats see Americans murdering their wives kids parents grandparents etc.” will they realize that “[t]here’s 50 million fighting aged male Trump MAGA supporters” who are fully prepared to “do what is needed to save America from Marxist commie filth.”[5]

Taken together, all of this has deeply alarmed Americans and foreign observers alike.

Last November, just as Americans were going to the polls to vote in the 2020 general election, I along with over 200 other scholars of authoritarianism co-authored a letter of concern which explicitly warned that, given our (inter)national circumstances, “the temptation to take refuge in a figure of arrogant strength is now greater than ever.”[6]

Among the more prominent signatories was Paxton, who recently published an op-ed in Newsweek addressing the Capitol siege: “I’ve resisted for a long time applying the fascist label to Donald J. Trump,” Paxton explains, adding that: “Trump’s incitement of the invasion of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 removes my objection to the fascist label.”[7]

Closely resembling Mussolini’s March on Rome and Hitler’s (ultimately unsuccessful) Beer Hall Putsch, the January 6th attack against our country’s hallowed peaceful transfer of power between incumbent and incoming administrations places Trumpism and the MAGA movement squarely within what might be referred to as a fascistic political spectrum. Indeed, given everything we know about Trump, the insurrection at the Capitol might very well be referred to by future historians of twenty-first century America as our country’s March on Washington.

Notes

[1] See, for instance, the Twitter profiles of scholars such as Timothy Snyder (@TimothyDSnyder), Ruth Ben-Ghiat (@RuthBenGhiat), and Federico Finchelstein (@FinchelsteinF), among many others.

[2] Palmiro Togliatti, Lectures on Fascism (New York: International Publishers Co., Inc., 1976), p. 1.

[3] Roger Griffin, The Nature of Fascism (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 38.

[4] Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), p. 10.

[5] JuarezTX, Parler (January 9, 2021), a screenshot for which is available at: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/ErY6yY1XAAIm3u5?format=jpg&name=large.

[6] Editorial Board of the New Fascism Syllabus, “How to Keep the Lights on in Democracies: An Open Letter of Concern by Scholars of Authoritarianism,” The New Fascism Syllabus (October 31, 2020), available at: http://www.newfascismsyllabus.com/news-and-announcements/an-open-letter-of-concern-by-scholars-of-authoritarianism/.

[7] Robert O. Paxton, “I’ve Hesitated to Call Donald Trump a Fascist. Until Now,” Newsweek (January 11, 2021), available at: https://www.newsweek.com/robert-paxton-trump-fascist-1560652.

URL

Description

An opinion article for the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy's "Short Takes by UCLA Historians" weblog series on the parallels between Trumpism and interwar European fascisms.