In the era of Trump, and with the election just a few days away, the question on everybody’s mind.
Political and social conditions over the past few years have produced a number of articles, books, and Youtube videos about fascism. Most authors focus on the questions of “is fascism under the surface and ready to explode out into the open” or “has it already arrived?” Before one can support either assertion, an examination of the traits and features of fascism must be conducted first. Only after characteristics of fascism have been identified can we declare with certainty if it “has happened here”.
A bit of background is necessary. Human society from its inception has been ruled by authoritarian types of governments. The majority of citizens have always been ruled by a highly organized and powerful minority. Fascism is an outgrowth of modern capitalism which relies heavily on “the state” to create conditions for those who control the financial resources to exploit the masses of workers. Scholars can debate the origins of fascism in the United States but that is a discussion for another day. The task at hand is to define the features of fascism and to then see if they apply to the current situation in the United States today. And for that, we must turn to the field of political science.
All scientific disciplines rely on a system of classification to help distinguish and identify differences in the objects that they study. For example, in the field of biology, traits such as hair, feathers, scales, live birth, the laying of eggs, and being warm or cold blooded, are all used to distinguish between reptiles, birds, fish and mammals. In the field of political science, there exist traits that can be used to demarcate and classify different forms of governments.
In any functioning democracy there should be a continued attempt made to educate and inform the citizenry of why living under a democratic form of government is more preferable to living under any form of authoritarianism. Equally important is how to recognize the beginning birthing traits of fascism compared to how it appears in its later stages. A public informed on the traits and features of fascism will also be able to distinguish between how “name calling” someone a fascist is different from “calling something by its name”. It is in our nation’s interest that our dialogue avoid “Godwin’s Law”, where arguments progress until one side calls the other a Nazi. If we use the term “fascist” as a pejorative every time we disagree with someone or are opposed to a government policy, then it loses its political punch. But words have meaning- and if we are truly are experiencing fascism, then we need to call it out in the strongest terms.
Although fascism is typically found at the extreme right end of the political spectrum, it does not mean that more liberal elements in society have not contributed to its formation and continuance. President Truman’s creation of the Central Intelligence Agency following the end of World War II and the resettlement of top ranking Nazis in the United States to work in both the public and private sector under Operation Paperclip helped to firmly establish fascism on American soil. President Clinton pushed the country towards fascism through his tough on crime measures of the 1990’s, expanding the carceral state and putting the United States in the position of leading the world in the percentage of its citizens that it imprisons. President Obama moved the country towards fascism through increased spying on citizens by the security state, record level of prosecutions of whistleblowers, deporting two million undocumented workers, and secret “kill lists”. But the headwinds moving the country towards fascism have been strongest when Republicans have been in charge and have picked up speed with the rise to power of Donald Trump.
So what does the field of political science say about fascism? Historians, political scientists, and other scholars have engaged in long and furious debates concerning the exact nature of fascism and its core tenets. The short definition of fascism is a government marked by the centralization of authority under a dictator; the state merging with corporate interests; suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship; and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism. A longer definition has been developed by Laurence Britt who studied the fascist regimes of Hitler (Germany), Mussolini (Italy), Franco (Spain), as well as the protofascist (a political movement or regime tending toward or imitating Fascism) of Suharto (Indonesia), and Pinochet (Chile). He developed a fourteen point definition for a fascist/protofascist model of government in an article written for the Spring 2003 issue of Free Inquiry. Since the article was published, it has been used to determine if the Bush, Obama, and Trump presidencies have been fascist. It should be noted that despite all the countries studied by Britt having differing cultures and histories, there seems to be an undeniable similarity in how the various countries obtained, expanded and maintained power. With the understanding that the various regimes studied have unique qualities that make direct connections difficult, it is now possible to examine the similarities they shared.
The first fascist feature described by Laurence Britt is the Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism. From the emphasis on the public display of flags to the prominent wearing of lapel pins, the fervor to show patriotic nationalism, both on the part of the regime itself and of citizens caught up in its frenzy, is a feature of fascism. Pride in the military, and demands for unity, are common themes in expressing hyper nationalism. It is usually coupled with a suspicion of things foreign that often border on xenophobia. President Trump’s adoption of the slogan “Make America Great Again” , his desire to build a wall on the Mexican border, his public rallies where the crowd chants “U-S-A!”, surrounded by a forest of flags, seem eerily reminiscent to the Nazi rallies at Nuremburg.
The next feature Britt discusses is the Disdain for the importance of human rights. Fascist/protofascist regimes view human rights as of little value and a hindrance to realizing the objectives of the ruling elite. To achieve goals, leaders will look the other way when abuses occur, increase the incarceration of dissidents and citizens, and approve of torture and assassinations. The last three U.S. presidents have used drones for targeted killings. President Trump has reduced the admissions of refugees, been silent on human right abuses against the Rohingya, and continues to support the Saudi regime despite the killing of journalists and the continued killing of civilians in Yemen. Closer to home, Trump is being sued for his family separation policy and the horrifying conditions in the detention centers. There are current investigations underway of forced sterilizations and hysterectomies on female inmates in custody at Immigration and Custody Enforcement (ICE) facilities. In 2018, the Trump Administration withdrew the United States from the United Nations’ Human Rights Council.
The third trait highlighted by Britt was the Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause. One of the most significant common threads among fascist regimes is the use of scapegoating as a means to divert the people’s attention from other problems, to shift blame for failures, and to channel frustration in controlled direction. Liberals, socialists, and ethnic minority groups are scapegoated and singled out for discrimination. During President Trump’s time in office he has scapegoated a number of groups including immigrants, the Black Lives Matter Movement, members of Antifa, “far left extremists” and the media.
The next trait of fascism that Britt brings to our attention is The supremacy of the military/avid militarism. This is where the ruling elites identify closely with the military and the industrial infrastructure that supports it. Under fascist regimes, a disproportionate share of national resources are allocated to the military, even when domestic needs are acute. The military is seen as an expression of nationalism, and is used whenever possible to assert national goals, intimidate other nations, and increase the power and prestige of the ruling elite. All U.S. presidents since World War II have increased the importance of the military in American society. Military spending accounts for half of discretionary spending in the budget. The United States has an estimated 800 military bases around the world. American citizens are instructed to view members of the military as “heroes” and thank then for their service.
The fifth trait described by Britt is Rampant sexism. Because fascist nations are male-dominated, these regimes inevitably view women as second-class citizens. They are adamantly anti-abortion and also homophobic. Since Trump has been elected he has gotten confirmed pro-life Supreme Court justices, rolled back Obama-era protections banning discrimination against trans students, and banned trans people from serving in the military. The Trump administration issued a rule change in June 2020 to the Affordable Care Act’s LGBTQ non-discrimination protections which would allow doctors and insurance companies to refuse to provide care to LGBTQ people. This rule is currently on hold due to a stay order by a federal court. In 1938 the fascist leader of Italy, Mussolini, labeled homosexuals as “degenerate” and expelled them to the island of San Domino. It should also be remembered that the Nazis forced gay men in the concentration camps to wear a pink triangle on the shirts as a badge of shame. There is uncertainty within the LGBTQ community about the status of their rights under a second Trump administration, especially the right to get married.
The next trait is essential for the rise and continuance of fascism: a controlled mass media. Under some of the past fascist regimes, the mass media were under strict direct control and could be relied upon never to stray from the party line. Other regimes exercised more subtle power to ensure media compliance. Methods included the control of licensing and access to resources, economic pressure, appeals to patriotism, and implied threats. The leaders of the mass media often shared political ideology with the power elite. The result is the general public being mostly unaware of the regimes’ excesses. To control the media it must first be attacked as unpatriotic and engaged in promoting lewd behavior before it can become compliant. President Trump has been at war with the media since he announced his candidacy in 2016. He has effectively labeled them “fake media” to the point where many Americans no longer trust the media. A recent Gallup and Knight poll found a significant number of Americans do not see the media as providing factual and trustworthy information. Difference in views about the news media are heavily influenced by political party affiliation. 71% of Republicans have a “very” or a “somewhat” unfavorable view of the news media compared to 22% of Democrats. At Trump rallies, the media is regularly held up to ridicule and booed by the audience, who shout obscenities at members of the media. Fascist forms of government do not allow for criticism of the ruling regime. General Augusto Pinochet in September of 1973 closed all leftist media outlets and the military took over the television stations. Disloyal journalists were arrested, tortured, exiled and killed.
The seventh trait identified by Britt is the obsession with national security. Under the direction of the ruling elite, a national security apparatus is created to protect the “Homeland” or Fatherland” from enemies both foreign and domestic. In the United States today, there are debates among foreign policy experts over who our biggest threat is: Russia or China. But Americans are always reminded that we have a “threat”. As George Orwell demonstrated in his novel “1984”, every authoritarian state needs a “Goldstein” villain to be fearful of. Having a security “threat”, real or imagined, allows citizens to channel their allegiance to the state. In the United States, we are strongly encouraged to support the alphabet soup of security agencies, as well as local police departments, because they keep us safe from threats to the homeland. We are admonished to trust them and not question their actions. Fascist governments don’t just rely on official government agencies to maintain servitude to the state. Unofficial units can be used as well. In Italy, Mussolini used the Blackshirts to engage in street battles with socialists, communists, and anarchists. In Germany, Hitler had his Brownshirts to do the same. President Trump has given signals of support to violent, far right groups such as the Proud Boys and the Boogoloo movement which use threats of violence to intimidate citizens. Trump’s fixation on building a physical wall on the border of the United States and Mexico, along with his strong support of the Blue Lives Matter movement, speak to the authoritarian reliance on stoking fear to make citizens loyal to the state. A popular slogan of the Italian Fascists under Mussolini was “Tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato” (“everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”).
The next trait discussed by Britt is the binding together of religion and the ruling elite. Unlike communist regimes, fascist and protofascist regimes never proclaimed atheism as the official state religion. In fact, most of the regimes attached themselves to the predominant religion of the country and chose to portray themselves as militant defenders of that religion. The fact that the ruling elite’s behavior is incompatible with the precepts of the religion was generally swept under the rug. Propaganda kept up the illusion that the ruling elites were defenders of the faith and opponents of the “godless.” In Nazi Germany, the Wehrmacht, the armed forces of Nazi Germany, wore belt buckles emblazoned with the words “Gott mit Uns”, which translates to “God with Us” in English. Recently in the United States we have seen President Trump try to associate God and Christianity with the Republican Party. On June 1, 2020, during the protests for racial justice, President Trump held up a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House in an attempt to posture himself as the standard bearer of religious faith. He later claimed at a rally in Cleveland that if Biden is elected he will: “Take away your guns, take away your Second Amendment. No religion, no anything,” Trump said, standing behind a podium with the presidential seal. “Hurt the Bible. Hurt God. He’s against God.” These proclamations have been used by the Christian Right to make Trump appear as a defender of the faith. Many supporters, especially those who identify with Qanon, see him as a cult like figure. It should be noted that cult like figures do not bode well for democratic institutions.
Some may argue that Britt’s next trait, the power of corporations protected, is the most important. This trait gets to the core of fascism. Benito Mussolini said that fascism “should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power”. The ruling elite views the corporate structure as a way to regulate economic production, create a steady supply of military hardware, and as a form of social control to merge together the interests of unions and workers with the corporate leaders of the nation. The sociologist C. Wright Mills recognized the true source of power in the United States when he claimed that the power elite control the three major sectors of American society- the government, the military, and the business community. Many of these powerful people change from one sector to another. For example, many former generals in the military upon retirement, take important jobs at multinational corporations, many in the defense industry. For many political theorists, the most important ingredient in a fascist state remains corporate dominance. In the United States today, no credible political observer would fail to acknowledge that corporations rule the country.
The tenth trait of fascism is closely related to the power of corporations- suppressing or eliminating the power of labor. This is necessary to make labor subservient to the profits of corporations and to eliminate any potential political challenge to the power of the state. On May 2, 1933, Adolf Hitler’s storm troopers occupied all trade union headquarters across Germany, and union leaders were arrested and put in prison or concentration camps. Many were beaten and tortured. All of the unions’ funds — in other words, the workers’ money — were confiscated. In the United States, every presidential administration since Reagan, both Democratic and Republican, has worked to undermine and reduce the power of unions. President Trump’s appointees within the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) having been working hard to reduce the power of organized labor. Trump’s NLRB board have introduced rules to impose additional steps to electing union leaders to give employers more time to prevent organizing efforts: they have ruled that employers may discipline a worker just for mentioning a union drive to a fellow worker during work hours, and has worked to overturn an Oregon law that now allows employers to hold anti-union meetings and force workers to attend them.
The eleventh trait described by Britt is the disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts. Leaders in the state view academic freedom and intellectual curiosity to be a threat to national security. In Germany, universities were tightly controlled and faculty who were critical of the Nazi party were harassed, forced to flee the country, or eliminated. Any intellectual and artistic expression that did not promote Gleichshaltung (the coordination of the German population to do as the government wished so that citizens all thought in the same way) was crushed and silenced. Art and literature existed only to promote the national interest. President Trump has recently signed an executive order which created a “1776 Commission” to promote a “patriotic education” and to counter the 1619 Project that incorporates into school curriculums critical race theory, which examines the role of race in American history and society. He has tweeted and spoken out against liberal Hollywood films and has asked to bring back classics such as Gone With the Wind, which glorified the Antebellum South and slavery. He has publicly feuded with any comedian who has poked fun at him in a sketch. In 2019 he signed an executive order requiring US colleges to protect free speech on campus (translation: increase conservative voices) or lose federal research funding.
The next trait identified as necessary for the creation of fascism is obsession with crime and punishment. All authoritarian forms of government have a “justice” system which creates a huge prison population so fascism is not alone here. Police in a fascist system have unchecked power to arrest and apprehend anyone suspected of a crime. Political opponents fill up the prisons. The state uses propaganda to instill fear and hatred in the population towards criminals and traitors. From the Clinton Administration on to the Trump Administration, the prison population in the United States has exploded. Political dissenters are either imprisoned such as Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange, or forced into exile such as Edward Snowden. Immigrants and refugees seeking asylum from oppressive regimes who have entered the United States illegally, have been painted as criminals who deserve the inhumane treatment they receive from the prison officials in the ICE detention camps. President Trump has been condemned for displaying authoritarian behavior by sending non-uniformed federal agents to grab protesters off the streets in cities such as Portland.
The thirteenth trait of fascism described by Britt looks at the rampant corruption and cronyism surrounding a fascist or protofascist system. Corporate elites and party officials use their positions to enrich themselves. Those in power begin stealing the natural resources. Chilean dictator Pinochet never received a salary more than $40,000 a year, but his family stashed millions of dollars in US and offshore bank accounts. Whether it has been Trump himself, his family members, or his government appointees, the Trump administration has reached new heights with its corruption. The American Prospect has created an online interactive exhibit which outlines the corruption in each government agency under appointees by Trump. Appointees see their position as a way to pad their bank accounts. It will take decades for scholars to fully understand the level of corruption that the Trump administration has engaged in.
The final trait identified with the development of fascism is the reliance on fraudulent elections. Many people forget that Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power through elections. Once fascists achieve power, then the election process is delegitimized. When actual elections with candidates were held, they would usually be perverted by the power elite to get the desired result. Common methods included maintaining control of the election machinery, intimidating and disenfranchising opposition voters, destroying or disallowing legal votes, and, as a last resort, turning to a judiciary beholden to the power elite. Currently, the Trump Administration is engaging in widespread voter suppression and intimidation. He has publicly stated he will not trust any election outcome where he doesn’t win as fraudulent. He has campaigned against the use of mail-in ballots. He has asked his followers in white supremacist groups to “stand back, and stand by”. The country nervously awaits the possibility of election day intimidation and violence.
After reading the information above on the history of how fascism takes hold in a society and the mounting evidence of its existence in the United States today, where does the argument stand? Perhaps before a determination can be made about whether fascism exists in America in 2020, another question should be answered first: is the United States still a republic based on democratic principles?
The answer to this question is easier: the evidence points to a resounding no. A democratic republic no longer exists in the United States. Vast segments of American society recognize this, though it is considered impolite to state the obvious. Education institutions still indoctrinate students about how wonderful American democracy is and the media propagandizes its citizens that we have a special mission from God to spread the benefits and joys of democracy to every corner of the globe. But the charade is nearly impossible to maintain anymore. Both U.S. citizens at home and global citizens abroad can see the decaying corpse of American democracy on full display- with corruption festering within every social institution.
There are debates and conversations in academia, the news, and social media, as to what now exists. Sound, intellectual arguments are made that the United States is now an oligarchy, a kleptocracy, a plutocracy, a kakistocracy or experiencing a modern form of fascism called inverted totalitarianism. If we are fascist, are we experiencing the fascism of Italy in the 1920’s or Germany in the 1940’s? Perhaps scholars on fascism can create an updated working definition of fascism that includes levels or stages which would help citizens to better understand their government’s fall from democratic grace.
It is likely that a poll of experts on fascism would say that the United States is definitely not experiencing the fascism of Germany during the 1940’s. The United States still has opposition parties, a critical press, a military subservient to the Constitution, and elections that are still considered passably legitimate. But those experts would also suggest that we are either experiencing the beginning stages of fascism, or we are at the precipice of a quick transition to fascism in the event Trump wins the election.
In the early 1930’s as Germany began to experience the World Depression, both sides of the political spectrum- fascists and communists- began calling for the end of the faltering Weimar republic. In the United States today, we see a similar call from both the Right and Left to dismantle/reform our faltering republic. The widening polarization- especially pronounced in social media- is creating a situation where citizens perceive two different realities. A Biden victory may slow the advance of fascism, but it will only usher in a slightly less oppressive neoliberal form of government that existed during the Obama Administration. For those wishing for some sort of political nirvana in the future, it will take a rewrite of the Constitution or a revolution to move the United States back towards a democratic form of government.