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Calling Trump the F-Word

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Calling Trump the F-Word

There are achievements for which one would want to claim credit only reluctantly—the return of the infield shift might be one, Twitter battles, perhaps, another—but, if forced, I will lay claim to having been among the first to use the F-word about Donald Trump. This was in early 2016, before he was taken seriously as a candidate and long before it was thought that he could win, and a full six years before Joe Biden finally came out with it in August, describing Trump and his movement as “semi-fascism,” a formulation that brings to mind George Carlin’s old joke about “semi-boneless ham”—either the ham has a bone, or it doesn’t. This one does. I wrote:

There is a simple formula for descriptions of Donald Trump: add
together a qualification, a hyphen, and the word “fascist.” The sum
may be crypto-fascist, neo-fascist, latent
fascist, proto-fascist,
or American-variety fascist—one of that kind, all the same. Future
political scientists will analyze (let us hope in amused retrospect,
rather than in exile in New Zealand or Alberta) the precise elements
of Poujadisme, Peronism, and Huck Finn’s Pap that compound in Trump’s
“ideology.” But his personality and his program belong exclusively to
the same dark strain of modern politics: an incoherent program of
national revenge led by a strongman; a contempt for parliamentary
government and procedures; an insistence that the existing,
democratically elected government, whether Léon Blum’s or Barack
Obama’s, is in league with evil outsiders and has been secretly trying
to undermine the nation; a hysterical militarism designed to no
particular end than the sheer spectacle of strength; an equally
hysterical sense of beleaguerment and victimization; and a supposed
suspicion of big capitalism entirely reconciled to the worship of
wealth and “success.” It is always alike, and always leads inexorably
to the same place: failure, met not by self-correction but by an
inflation of the original program of grievances, and so then on to
catastrophe. The idea that it can be bounded in by honest
conservatives in a Cabinet or restrained by normal constitutional
limits is, to put it mildly, unsupported by history.

I claim no gift for prescience—I am one who insisted that Mark Sanchez’s talents only had to be unleashed to begin a dynasty for the Jets, and tipped America to the likelihood of Michael Ignatieff becoming Prime Minister of Canada—but I do claim a modest sum here, precisely because anyone who had read some history could see what Trumpism was. At the time, the media was more inclined to “analyze” appeal and motives (“Why’d he takes those documents?”) than to outline potential crimes. It’s part of the fascist inheritance to create such a fire-hose blast of corruption and lies that trying to focus on any one drop becomes impossible—that blast has the uncanny effect not of washing away the truth but of drowning your attention. You just want to get out of its way. Who now recalls that Trump was found to have confessed, in the testimony of his chief of staff, as reported by Susan B. Glasser and Peter Baker, how much, if how ignorantly, he admired Hitler’s dictation to his generals? That news appeared in this magazine’s pages four weeks ago, and it already seems part of the distant past.

Early Newspaper

The point to be made, then and now, is that fascism is a specific style and practice of authoritarian politics, which Trump then, and Trumpism now, re-creates—one that has specific character traits without having any axiomatic ideology, taking on new aspects in each new nation that it afflicts. Fascism is, by its nature, chaotic and incoherent and chameleonic—that’s why it needs a strongman to organize around. The confusion and the lack of ideological rigor in Trumpism, which some point to as proof of its ultimate impotence, is part of fascism’s nature. As Umberto Eco wrote, in his great essay “Ur-Fascism,” from 1995:

Fascism became an all-purpose term because one can eliminate from a
fascist regime one or more features, and it will still be recognizable
as fascist. Take away imperialism from fascism and you still have
Franco and Salazar. Take away colonialism and you still have the
Balkan fascism of the Ustashes. Add to the Italian fascism a radical
anti-capitalism (which never much fascinated Mussolini) and you have
Ezra Pound.

Indeed, anyone wanting a guide to fascism’s chameleonlike nature (and its inevitably violent disposition) should consult that essay, in which Eco writes that fascism must be chaotic because it “depends on the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”

What matters about identifying the Trumpist line as fascist is not that it allows for some kind of victory in name-calling. It’s that it is diagnostic. When we have a spot on our skin, we want to know if it’s just a mole or a melanoma. When the doctor says, from his experience of other patients, that it’s recognizably cancer, we know that we need to take it seriously and treat it differently. The objection to Biden’s call-out speech earlier this month, in which, while cataloguing “MAGA Republican” crimes against democracy, he significantly did not repeat the F-word, is that it further “polarizes” the country: you call them semi-fascists, they call you Communist-Marxists, and we are ever more divided. A small concept intrudes here, called the truth: there is no way that any member of the Biden Administration, or, for that matter, of the current Democratic Party, can be accurately described as a communist, or even a Marxist. There is, for the first time in a long time, a socialist wing to the Party, though it is of the most impeccably democratic kind: Bernie Sanders, its leader, would be on the center-left in England; in the dead center in Scandinavia; and on the center-right in France (where a real far left does exist). The story of polarization is simply not symmetrical. Antifa, to the degree it exists at all, loathes Biden and other liberal Democrats, and has been denounced by them. By contrast, as the January 6th committee has shown, when, during the first 2020 Presidential debate, Trump called on the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” he was calling on an actual organized paramilitary group—one of several that backed him, and continues to back him, to the hilt.

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Calling Trump the F-Word