Overview:

Fascism is an overused word that is dangerous and provocative. Let's be more careful with our language, while remaining vigilant in defense of democracy.

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There is a South Park episode in which the kids use an “f-word” to mock a bunch of obnoxious bikers. The word is obviously offensive, which is why the kids use it. A violent struggle erupts. In the end, the bikers embrace the epithet and admit that they are f@gs. But at that point, the word has lost its meaning.

Another f-word is undergoing a similar transformation: fascist. We call each other “fascists” to the point of absurdity and a loss of meaning. But the misuse can, and very well may, lead to violence.

Fascists everywhere

Fascism has a precise and useful definition: It describes a dictatorial, authoritarian government that stifles opposition by force and subordinates all individual and group identities to the identity of the state. It defines a pure in-group, often by race, while strategically labeling and demonizing out-groups to advance the agenda of the in-group.

While elements of this definition have arguably been in play in our recent history, nothing approaching the literal definition has occurred—and the use of the word itself to describe elements well short of the definition is as problematic as defining an opinion poll as “democracy.”

President Biden suggested recently that MAGA Republicans are “semi-fascists”. Some pundits were thrilled to see Biden use the f-word. Robert Reich and others have called for a more explicit condemnation of what they see as Republican fascism. Republicans were outraged, of course, despite the fact that they also use the “f-word.” Donald Trump accused the Democrats of being fascists back when he was president.  

And as if to round the circle, Republicans like Trump also accuse the FBI of being “a Fascist Bureau of Investigation” for searching Mar-a-Lago. A number of right-wingers piled on, including Florida Republican Rick Scott, former Trump official Steve Bannon, and Colorado’s Loren Boebert, each of whom said that the search was a “Gestapo” tactic.

All of this rhetoric is historically obtuse and offensive, as a recent LA Times article indicated. It is also polarizing, alienating, and dangerous. This is not Berlin or Rome in the 1920s and 30s, where street violence and weak constitutions combined with ethnonationalism to bring fascism to life. We live in a diverse and stable constitutional republic. And so far, that system is working.

Trumpism is not fascism

I do not offer my remarks here as a defense of Trump or Trumpism. I’ve written an extensive critique of Trump, who I see as a person with a tyrannical personality. But the good news is that in the United States, would-be tyrants cannot gain power, and the rule of law punishes violence.

The checks and balances of our system worked. Trump left power in 2021. There were dangerous moments (i.e., January 6). And we must remain vigilant. But our vigilance can become absurd if we see fascism everywhere we look.

Trump is not a virulent anti-Semite or ethno-nationalist. He is a narcissist and a liar. But he has no theory of the master race and no plan for extermination camps. He is a salesman and a billionaire in a diverse capitalist society. Trump is focused on his brand and his name, not on some myth of iron, soil, and blood.

Perhaps we need a different word to describe this particular amalgam, like trumpism. Trumpism is a movement with a loose agenda. It is primarily focused on whatever nonsense flows out of Mar-a-Lago at the moment. It is not even really a coherent political ideology but a cult of personality and wealth, more South Park than Munich. It is defined less by a guiding political philosophy than the utter lack of one.

All of the talk of “American carnage” and “making America great again” can sound like something out of the 1930s. But Trump’s vision is not about returning to the era of a Kaiser or creating a thousand-year Reich. He’d much rather lower taxes on the wealthy, say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” and keep himself out of jail.

Now some Trump supporters might harbor a more sinister ideology. But the real fascists are not found in the halls of Congress. They lurk on the margins, plotting violence, and despite delays and misinformation, they end up in prison when their plots are exposed.

Semi-fascism is not fascism

Now it may be that the f-word is changing its meaning and growing beyond its historical origin. Matt Ford in the New Republic suggested that fascism can be understood as a certain “vibe,” that is ultra-nationalist and opposed to racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities. I understand the vibe he’s describing. But no one in the Republican party has suggested a program of genocide.

Perhaps that’s why President Biden used the term “semi-fascism” to describe the MAGA Republicans. Semi-fascism is more like a vibe. But semi-fascism is not fascism. And a vibe is not a political program.

A related concern is the rise of Christian nationalism. Some have gone so far as to claim that Christian nationalism in America has morphed into “Christo-fascism.” That suggestion was made recently by Yale sociologist Phillip Gorski. In a Tweet, Gorski explained, “Christian fascism… plays upon fear, nationalism, and victimhood to maintain a mythological patriarchal past and squashes liberal democracy.”

I understand what he is worried about. There are undoubtedly some Christian extremists out there lurking in the shadows. But the mainstream of the Republican party seems more interested in using the Supreme Court to get its way than in resorting to violence. And they have been successful: Roe v. Wade is gone and coaches are allowed to pray at football games. These are important changes in Constitutional law. But they are not fascist.

The risk of violence

The history of fascism and anti-fascism is a history of violence. If your enemy is a Nazi, then violence can be justified in stopping him. Let’s avoid falling into the dialectical trap created by this overheated rhetoric. Violence breeds reactionary counter-violence. The risk of escalation holds on both sides of our polarized political tinderbox.

One part of the solution is to understand how and why our Constitutional system worked to prevent a would-be tyrant from consolidating power. We need to be vigilant about that system in order to prevent any party or person from subverting the rule of law. But we also need to be more careful with our language and how we use the f-word.

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Andrew Fiala is Professor of Philosophy and director of the Ethics Center at Cal State Fresno. His published work includes Tyranny from Plato to Trump (2022), Seeking Common Ground: An Atheist/Theist...