I doubt any president in my lifetime (almost a half century) has been more frequently accused of being a fascist than Trump. So it was no surprise to me to hear him condemning Antifa (the anti-fascist movement, which is literally short for “anti-fascism”) as a terrorist organization recently. What did surprise me (but shouldn’t have) was to hear Trump, while giving a speech in front of Mount Rushmore on July 3rd, declare that the U.S. is under siege from “far-left fascism”. I shouldn’t have been surprised, because Trump is a master of this kind of rhetorical game play. “You say I’m a fascist?! No, you’re a fascist!”
But what the heck is fascism anyway? Is there even such a things as Leftist fascism? For most of my life, the only thing I knew about fascism was that the Nazis were fascists and that hippies liked to call cops “fascist pigs”. But what does the word mean anyway? Given how increasingly common the term is, it seems like we should figure it out … especially now that we’ve got federal police scooping people up in major U.S. cities–surely a harbinger of fascism if ever there was one.
If It Quacks Like a Duck …
Let me begin by warning you that, there is no generally agreed upon definition of fascism, even among political theorists, and even among people who share a political orientation. I’m going to give you my definition, but there are others–to both the right and left of me–who have different definitions.
One way of defining fascism is to look at historical examples and try to discern similarities. Sort of a “quacks like a duck” method of defining fascism The commonly agreed examples of historical fascism are Germany under Hitler, Italy under Mussolini, and Spain under Franco. The problem with this method is that you have to agree on the historical examples in the first place, and how do you know what are historical examples of fascism, until you define what fascism is? Also, those historical examples share some similarities which are merely incidental to their fascism. (They’re all European, for example.)
I think the best way to define fascism is to define it against its opposite. And it want to propose that the opposite of fascism is anarchism. If that’s true, then I think it explains a lot of the confusion about fascism. Most people don’t know what anarchism is, so of course they don’t know what fascism is either. So I’m going to start by defining anarchism–or at least its two most salient characteristics–which I hope will illuminate the nature of fascism.
What is Anarchism?
Anarchism is a sophisticated political philosophy (philosophies, plural, actually), and I can’t do it justice here. I previously published a 4-part “Anarchism for Civilians” series which introduces some of the core concepts of anarchism. Here, I want to focus on two, which should help us, in turn, define fascism. Anarchism involves:
- A rejection of all forms of social hierarchy
- A rejection of the state
“Hierarchy” refers to structures of domination of one group of people by another group of people. This includes political authoritarianism of any stripe, classism (which capitalism is a form of), racism/White supremacy, xenophobia/nationalism, sexism/patriarchy, homo- & trans-phobia/hetero- & cis-normativity, and anthropocentrism/human supremacy. Anarchism opposes all these forms of hierarchy and recognizes them as interconnected. Most people tend to reject hierarchy instinctually in some parts of their lives (like government), while accepting it uncritically in others (like religion). Anarchists strive to eliminate all hierarchy, in every aspect of life, from government to religion, from work to family. This is called “total liberation”.
The “state” is another term which is contested. I mean it to refer to the consolidation of institutions which are created to govern (read control) people on a mass scale and which tends to take on a life of its own, independent of the will of the people being governed. This includes legislatures, bureaucracies, the police, the courts, and the military. The state is one of the means by which the social hierarchies described above are maintained. (Religion is another.) The state exploits the people at the bottom of the hierarchies for the benefit of those at the top of the hierarchies. In place of the state, anarchists want small-scale direct/participatory democracy.
What is Fascism?
Using this 2-part definition, I propose that fascism is the opposite of anarchism, and is characterized by:
- Rigid social hierarchies
- Maintained by a strong state apparatus (statism)
Under fascism, there may be the hierarchies may be racist, nationalistic, sexist, etc., or (most likely) a combination of multiple hierarchies. As Shane Burley explains, fascism requires
“[t]he belief that human beings are not equal for immutable reasons, such as intelligence, capacity, spiritual caste, etc. This inequality is not just fact, but it is a sacrament, meaning that society should be constructed with cleanly defined hierarchies, which are natural, and that society would then be healthier when those hierarchies are made explicit and enforced.”— Shane Burley, “No, That’s No What Fascism Is”
These hierarchies are reinforced and maintained by the state apparatus. The degree of statism under fascism may vary, but it tends toward the totalitarian end of the spectrum. When there’s a strong state reinforcing rigid social hierarchies, then you have fascism. Whether a government is fascist, therefore, is question of degree. The more rigid the hierarchies and the stronger the state apparatus, the more fascist the government is. If you have one without the other, then you don’t have fascism.
The historical examples of fascism–early 20th century Germany, Italy, and Spain–were characterized by both rigid social hierarchies and a strong state:
Examples of rigid hierarchies in historical fascism: nationalism, elitism, social Darwinism, racism (in Germany), classism (in Italy), sexism (traditional gender roles), homophobia, and ableism.
Examples of strong state power in historical fascism: a charismatic strong-man type leader, a centralized and authoritarian government, a religious-like devotion to the state, militarism, warmongering; an oppressive police force (police state), and large state propaganda apparatus.
What about Communism?
One of the challenges of defining fascism has been contrasting it with communism, fascism’s historical enemy. Communism shared some, but not all of the characteristics of fascism. Both are authoritarian and communitarian. However, they are often described by political theorists as as being on opposite ends of the “political spectrum”: communism on the left and fascism on the right. But this distinction doesn’t really help us understand what fascism is, in part because the single dimension political spectrum is practically useless as a descriptive tool, and also because fascism can be either socialist or capitalist. (Fascist Germany, for example, had elements of both.)
Part of the challenge of distinguishing communism from fascism is the discrepancy between the theory and practice of communism. In theory, communism strives to break down hierarchies, especially class (also gender), and is supposed to result in a stateless society. In these ways, theoretical communism is very clearly distinguishable from fascism.
In practice though, Soviet-style communism maintained certain hierarchies, including the party hierarchy (which was actually a kind of classism) as well as ethnic hierarchies (which led to numerous genocides). In reality, many communist governments are/were actually fascistic to the extent that they involve a strong state maintaining rigid social hierarchies. From the perspective of anarchists, the similarities between German fascism and Soviet-style communism are probably more important than their differences.
Is America Fascist?
So, is Donald Trump a fascist? Has America’s government become fascistic? The answer is: To a degree. In his rhetoric, Trump (and his various constituencies) are most definitely elitist, classist, sexist, racist, nationalistic, xenophobic, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. And the Trump administration has both used the state apparatus to reinforce these hierarchies in myriad ways. It has also taken steps to increase state power and weaken democratic controls over the state. America is obviously not as fascistic as Nazi Germany, but Trump’s America has many of the same characteristics and differs only in degree.