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MAGA = Fascism?
What's really at stake in the fascism debate?
The debate about whether the MAGA movement is fascist has gone on for so long that it’s easy to have lost track of why it matters.
In a piece titled “The End of Fascism,” Shadi Hamid tries to get at what’s at stake in the use of the word “fascism.” I think this piece clarifies the stakes of the debate, but gets the conclusions completely backwards.
Hamid’s piece is useful because it gives us two criteria to judge a political term by:
“There are two primary reasons to care about something politically. The first is that it’s practical: it serves a purpose relating to power or electoral gain. The second is that it’s true.”
In Hamid’s argument, using the word “fascism” to describe the MAGA movement fails on both counts: it’s not true, and it’s not useful. I disagree with both of Hamid’s conclusions, but I think those are the right questions to help us get at the stakes of the debate.
The question of whether it’s true has gotten the most airtime, and I will return to it later. But, I want to start out by arguing that “fascism” (or semi-fascism) is a useful term to describe the MAGA movement because it aptly describes what the movement is trying to achieve, and what needs to be done to stop it. If we identify the MAGA movement as fascist, we will do a better job of predicting what steps current and future MAGA leaders will take. If we fail to identify the movement as fascist, we will likely fail to adequately prepare for the fights to come.
A useful illustration of the predictive power of identifying Trump as a fascist comes from the post-election transition period in late 2020/early 2021. Those of us who believe Trump is a fascist expected him to attempt a coup of some kind. We saw that he was making efforts in plain sight to bring necessary parts of the security, intelligence and justice systems under his control to that end. It was not a merely academic matter: in response, many of us were preparing legal and mobilizational responses to the possibility of post-election violence and a refusal to leave office. As the Jan 6th committee has shown in great detail, the Trump administration’s preparations for a coup were much more extensive than it even seemed at the time.
However, fascism skeptics like Hamid mocked those who warned of the threat of post election violence, and dismissed the potential for an attempted coup. If their advice was followed, none of the preparations taken in advance of the attempted coup would have been undertaken. If we take their advice in the future, we will be similarly ill-prepared to deal with the challenges which are surely to arise from the MAGA movement’s desired ends.
If Trump and the MAGA movement are fascists, we would expect them to organize paramilitary units to intimidate the political opposition, threaten their political opponents with violence and assassination, discredit and refuse to accept election results, and use the state to punish their political opponents outside the law.
In fact, they already are.
In the second term, they are outwardly saying they plan to purge civil servants who would follow the rule of law from the federal bureaucracy, try to end free and fair elections and violently attack members of the press. Their actions will very likely get much worse. If Hamid or others would like to strike up a wager as to whether any/all of these things will transpire, I would gladly take them up on it.
In the chaotic, privatized, federal American political system, the MAGA movement lacks many of the features of the classical fascist parties, which were mass parties of an industrial era in parliamentary systems. No one has the title of party theoretician, or party strategist, as such. But, figures like Curtis Yarvin and Steve Bannon are functionally in similar roles within a contemporary, post-modern, networked party. And in each of them, we can clearly see a form of fascist politics.
Yarvin lays out an explicitly anti-democratic vision for rebuilding American society that mirrors the total mobilization of resources in a fascist state. Bannon frequently calls for a total war against liberalism and socialism which includes parliamentary and extra-parliamentary means, and has zero recognition of the rule of law, or the legitimacy of elections. Yarvin and Bannon both believe in declaring a state of emergency to suspend the constitution. These guys might not be Carl Schmitt, but they share similar beliefs about the state. While neither is calling the shots, they’re both whispering directly into the ears of the men like Trump and Thiel who are. We should take their ideas seriously and assume there are many thousands of others –including at least a few billionaires – who are preparing to carry them out.
As with the terms “democracy” and “authoritarianism,” “fascism” exists on a spectrum, and it’s absolutely fair to say the MAGA movement is semi, rather than fully fascist. However, that difference is largely a result of circumstances, not intentions. Just as Bernie Sanders is personally a Debsian socialist who espouses Scandinavian-style social democracy because it’s the farthest the American political system can currently bear, Trump and some of his closest allies are admirers of classical fascists who go as far as the terrain currently allows. As the polycrisis of neoliberalism intensifies, we have every reason to expect the MAGA movement’s fascism will intensify along with it.
So, understanding the MAGA movement as a fascist movement can help us understand what they will try to do. Helpfully, it can also help us understand what must be done to stop it.
How to defeat American fascism
This is a subject I intend to spend much, much more time on in the future, but I will lay out the very broad overview of the argument here.
Fascist movements are born of the failure of democratic systems and liberalized economies. American fascism resembles classical European fascism of the 1930s in that it's the result of an increase in suffering amongst the working class, a stagnant and corrupt political system, fragile and poorly designed constitutions, and a series of crises which the public believes the elite clearly failed to manage.
Defeating the threat of fascism, therefore, cannot be achieved by returning to the status quo ante; to defeat Trumpism, we can’t return to the Reagan-Obama era. In fact, it was precisely the neoliberal hegemony of that era which produced the inequality, corruption and illegitimacy that made millions susceptible to the draw of a fascist politics in the first place. As in the 1930s, the way to defeat the contemporary fascist movement is to mobilize a broad, popular front in support of democracy against the concentrated power of capital, and the political order it depends upon.
The struggle against fascism will require a transformation of our political system, so that popularly elected governments can pass laws which enact the will of the majority. We will need a new party system - and a new constitutional order - that is more modern and less susceptible to capture by oligarchs. Ultimately, we can only crush the threat of fascism by delivering material benefits to the vast majority of working people. We will need to pass a suite of social democratic reforms – an economic bill of rights – which guarantees everyone in America a decent life. None of this will be possible without a militant labor movement which can mobilize millions dedicated to the struggle.
More concretely, understanding MAGA as a fascist movement points the Democratic Party in the direction of a politics which clearly links the struggle for political and economic democracy. Democrats are currently struggling to define a message for the midterm elections, as they toggle between warning about the threat of authoritarianism, and the problems of inflation and the economy. But, a more clear-eyed antifascist, social democratic politics sees those two struggles as sides of the same coin, and can articulate them as such:
“The Republican Party wants to end democracy in America so their corporate donors can jack up prices as high as they want. They want to end elections, so their billionaire friends can keep making record profits, no matter how much normal people struggle to put food on the table. But, the Democratic Party believes our economy and our government should belong to working people – not the billionaires who can pay to end elections. If you give us a majority, we will make sure your wages go up and prices go down.”
While all of this may currently sound implausible, it is precisely what was achieved, in part, during the last struggle against fascism in the 1930s. Roosevelt’s New Deal included price controls, militant labor struggles, a vastly expanded welfare state, a re-aligned party system, and a new constitutional order that radically redefined what was constitutional. And while Americans often take pains to pretend that the struggle against fascism in the 1930s was entirely against enemies from without, we should also remember that it very much took place within.
Which brings us, finally, to the question of whether it’s “true” that the MAGA movement is fascist.
American Fascism Isn’t New
I’ll be the first to admit I’m not suited to determine whether it’s completely historically accurate to describe the MAGA movement as classically fascist. I find John Ganz’s arguments on the subject to be very persuasive, but I’m not knowledgeable enough about the history of European fascism to really know. I am certainly not prepared to take on Adam Tooze on the subject (or, really, any subject).
But, I find the argument that only European fascisms of the 1930s are really fascism defines the term so narrowly as to lose most of its value. There were forms of proto-fascism which existed prior to that era, and others which have existed after it. As classical fascism was a response to the contradictions of industrial capitalism; post-fascism is a response to the contradictions of post-industrial capitalism.
More pointedly, there have always been connections between European and American fascism which, if recognized, make it easier to accept there is a uniquely American form of fascism. Some have made the case that the confederacy represented a form of proto-fascism. And Hitler’s appreciation for Jim Crow, and it’s use as the basis for aspects of the Nazi legal system is increasingly well documented.
In a direct connection with Trump’s movement, there were extensive links between the original America First Committee and paid agents of Hitler’s government. As with MAGA, in the 1930s the America First movement included fascist militia groups, Christian nationalists, and members of Congress coordinating with adversarial foreign regimes. A group called the Christian Front, supported directly by a paid agent of Hitler’s government, organized an attempt to violently overthrow the U.S. government. Leading America First members of Congress coordinated on strategy with senior Nazi officials.
It’s simply historically accurate to say the America First movement has always been, at least in part, a fascist movement. It should not be a leap to understand it still is.
Know Your Enemy
Hamid closes his piece with a riff on Schmitt, and warns about the dangers posed by allowing the word “fascism” to enter the public discourse. As with the rest of his piece, it clearly names the stakes, but gets the conclusion perfectly backwards.
And so we return to “fascism” and how it serves a very particular purpose. It transforms adversaries into enemies, and once an adversary becomes an enemy, he must be defeated.
Hamid argues that uttering the word “fascism” undermines pluralism by turning adversaries to be defeated into enemies to be destroyed. I agree, of course, that it’s always preferable to sublimate the friend-enemy distinction into a friend-foe distinction when possible, to preserve pluralist democracy.
But, the MAGA movement has openly declared itself to be an enemy of democracy. They consider antifa an enemy – a tell if I’ve ever seen one. When someone openly declares himself an enemy of democracy and says it's his intention to wage war until it's destroyed, history and common sense tells us it's probably best to take him at his word.
Ignoring the threat fascists pose to the existence of liberal democracy isn’t a defense of pluralism – it’s a capitulation. Sometimes, a defense of pluralism requires destroying those who openly seek to end it.
In future pieces, I hope to explain more about why this argument is important, and what is to be done. But, we have no hope of solving a problem which we pretend we cannot see.