On Tuesday, after television coverage of the Democratic National Convention drew to a close, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez expanded on her 97-second recorded convention message by taking to Instagram. The firebrand progressive, a favorite target of Republicans and an occasional thorn in the side of the Democratic establishment, had a message to deliver about party unity. “Let’s keep it real,” she said. “We need to win in November.” Then she dropped an f-bomb: The election, she said, was about “stopping fascism in the United States. That is what Donald Trump represents.”
Fascism. Ocasio-Cortez had used a word that other DNC luminaries had avoided during the first two days of the convention. Is its avoidance justified, or is Ocasio-Cortez right to use this term?
One reason it remains taboo in the mainstream to label Donald Trump a fascist is that Trump is uniquely American. It’s hard to imagine another culture that could produce the brash New York City mafia don/reality TV celebrity. Rapper Tupac Shakur famously pointed out Trump’s iconic and long-standing role in the American imagination back in 1992: “You’re taught that in school and in big business if you want to be successful, if you want to be like Trump, it’s ‘Gimme, gimme, gimme,’” Shakur told MTV. It’s therefore quite understandable when some intellectuals push back on the narrative that Trumpism should be viewed in relation to global movements and ideologies like fascism.
We, however, see the idea that Trumpism is uniquely American as another version of American exceptionalism. The failure to see Trumpism in a global context of far-right ethnonationalism—indeed, we would say, in the context of the long history of fascism—is a failure to understand that the United States is not special, not immune from global intellectual currents that affect countries from India to Brazil. Samuel Moyn, perhaps the most formidable European historian to challenge the term “fascism” in the present context, has warned that broader applicability of the concept of fascism—broader, say, than just early to mid-century Europe—entails the “disquieting possibility that fascist tendencies lurk everywhere in modern politics.” If this line of reasoning is right, Moyn cautions, “most of modern political history is fascist, latently or openly.”
This is, in fact, our position. It is rooted in the history of global fascism and its aftermath.
American exceptionalism comes in varieties. On the one hand, there is the view, present across the political spectrum, that our institutions will endure—as Moyn and David Priestland put it in The New York Times in 2017, “There is no real evidence that Mr. Trump wants to seize power unconstitutionally, and there is no reason to think he could succeed.” On this view, America’s institutions are uniquely resilient to the fascist threat. There is also another tendency, often latent, to think that fascism is a grand revolutionary ideology local to European intellectuals capable of such thinking. The U.S., on this account, is almost uniquely incapable of being gripped by anything like it. America’s histories of militarism, imperialism, and racism are rather the result of its unthinking ways, its improvisational pragmatism, and not of any underlying global ideological currents. On the former account, Americans are too good for fascism. On the latter, they are too dumb.
Another error is the wide assumption that some kind of brilliance is required to be a fascist leader. Some historians emphasize the intellectual prowess of fascist dictators to imply that Trump is a simpleton or a moron. In short, this view does not take Trump seriously, especially in terms of the real and present danger his regime poses to democracy and human rights. The fact that federal immigration agents and contractors in unmarked cars are kidnapping activists on the streets or that the November election’s integrity is being openly targeted is not a result of Trump’s idiocy but rather an outcome of fascist tendencies, which his administration’s policies and rhetoric are optimized to reinforce. Whether brilliance or just a capacity to be a skilled mob boss is required to master these tendencies is a matter of debate even in the historical literature on European fascism.
Others argue that Trump is just interested in personal power. This reveals a failure to ask whether it is necessary to personalize fascism in order to adequately describe movements like Trumpism or Bolsonarismo. Such a view unknowingly reproduces the fascist propaganda of the cult of the leader. As every historian of fascism knows, fascism could not have existed without the leader, but the converse is also true: Hitler and Nazism were tied together, and the same applies to Trump and Trumpism.
American intellectuals who have used the term “fascism” to describe the conditions around them have not personalized what they saw. In “Racism and Fascism,” her 1995 Howard University commencement speech, Toni Morrison worried not about individuals but “forces interested in fascist solutions to national problems.” In “The White Worker,” a chapter from his 1935 classic of U.S. history, Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois used the concept of fascism to shed light on America’s racial caste system. America offered modernity “a vision of democratic self-government: the domination of Political life by the intelligent decision of free and self-sustaining men,” he wrote. It was a promising project:
And then some unjust God leaned, laughing, over the ramparts of heaven and dropped a black man in the midst. It transformed the world. It turned democracy back to Roman Imperialism and Fascism; it restored caste and oligarchy; it replaced freedom with slavery and withdrew the name of humanity from the vast majority of human beings.
Morrison’s and DuBois’s reflections show that we do not need to consider Trump’s individual intellect or personal psychodynamics in order to illuminate the fascist forces his political movement represents.
What about Trump’s Americanness? Sarah Churchwell, a professor of U.S. literature, has argued that the very Americanism of Trump, far from being a reassuring sign of the impossibility of fascism, is in fact evidence for it. “Americans of the interwar period, though they could not predict what was to come in Europe, were nonetheless perfectly clear about one fact we have lost sight of today: all fascism is indigenous, by definition,” she wrote in June’s “American Fascism: It Has Happened Here,” an essay for the New York Review of Books. “‘Fascism must be home grown,’ admonished an American lecturer in 1937, repeating the words of Benito Mussolini that ‘fascism cannot be imported,’ but must be ‘particularly suited to our national life.’” Richard Steigmann-Gall has aptly written of “star-spangled fascism.”
If Trump were an American fascist, he would be quintessentially American. All fascisms are extreme forms of nationalist exceptionalism. The view that Trump is an anomaly, an exception in a process that started with independence, is to ignore that the United States—a model for Hitler’s “National State” in Mein Kampf—possesses an extreme nationalist tradition that manifests in cultural and, frequently, racial exceptionalism. Suffice to say Joe Biden was not correct when he described President Trump as “the first racist president.”
The implicit error behind those opinions is that U.S. history has followed its own path and that a comparison with other societies is irrelevant or misleading. This tendency discourages, for example, comparing the U.S. to countries with similar degrees of economic development in Western Europe that endured fascist regimes or had to fight bitterly to reject fascism as an external invader. Poorer countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are equally discarded for historical clues about fascism because they are considered essentially different from the U.S., never mind that the history of authoritarian regimes in those regions is often interlinked with American foreign policy and economic expansion. A complex and global view of history is simply lost in these views of an American Sonderweg, a special historical track that has nothing to do with the rest of the world.
Ironically, this stress on the uniqueness of America is not unique at all. Most societies dealing with dictators and fascists resorted to romantic notions of their unique past. In Germany and Italy, conservative historians detached the history of fascism from long-term national histories, explaining fascism with an asterisk, as a freak occurrence, or as a product of external forces in an otherwise healthy nation.
We can thank philosophers like Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno for helping recast the history of fascism as an ideological global rejection of reason and for reconnecting it with the politics of the present. But we should also move beyond their Euro-American-centered views, which offer a fascism litmus test that only includes two or three well-known European cases. Trump’s racism has other global historical precedents and so does its propaganda technique: its replacement of history with lies and myths as well as its attempts to cover up structural inequality by inverting, subverting, and misrepresenting the long efforts to address it.
These prior dictatorial experiences offer a wider perspective of fascist politics to help us understand how Trumpism works. Eurocentric theories of fascism, however, simply ignore the global history of fascist behavior in countries such as India, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Japan, and China, among so many others. They also ignore how fascism morphed into populism after 1945 as well as how it influenced, say, the generals of the junta in Argentina or Augusto Pinochet in Chile.
Some of the Trump government’s most important fascist continuities and similarities are not with the extremely genocidal regimes in 20th century Europe but with more recent dictatorships that repressed their citizenries as if opposition to the leaders was an act of war. In 1970s Argentina, these forms of repression—forms that we are now seeing in American streets—were labeled a “dirty war” by the ruling military elites that waged it in the same way that the Nazis called their genocide “the final solution of the Jewish problem”: Both were misleading metaphors used to describe violent ideological agendas. The Argentine junta justified its use of armed forces against its own citizens as a response to an existential national threat, even though neo-fascist paramilitary groups had been fueling violence for at least three years before the 1976 coup. The Nazi Sturmabteilung publicly beat communists and Jews in Germany, groups the Nazi Party saw as a danger to the nation; such SA hooliganism served the double purpose of recruiting for the Nazis and justifying the Party’s moves to ignore the rule of law in 1933.
By inflating the threat of antifa and deploying militarized forces from different government agencies to multiple American cities, the Trump government generates violent images that would justify its use of dictatorial means to control politics. Of course, just as there was no existential “problem” posed by non-Aryans in Europe and just as there was no true “war” in Argentina, there is not a terminal rupture in Portland or other American cities at the present moment. But the government-fueled street violence has created the “reality” that fascism was called to remedy.
Trump behaves as one could expect an aspiring fascist dictator to behave. He and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro represent the closest that 21st-century populism has ever been to fascism. There is a strong possibility that we are witnessing a fascist regime in the making, and it depends on us to defend democracy by voting, defending a free press, and protesting unequal policies and the demonization of others.
This is a global endeavor. Even if we identify elements of the fascist playbook in Trumpism, the key lesson remains that the American past and present are parts of a broader transnational history. American exceptionalist views ignore the serious threat to democracy that President Trump poses. Paradoxically, by insisting on its own singularity, America risks becoming just another country that was unable to stop dictatorship.
The practical alternative to this exceptionalism and the complacency it instills is the one that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez offered as the Democratic convention closed Tuesday night. “I think everyone understands the vast importance of reclaiming our democracy,” she said. “We can have debates on a whole swing and slew of other issues, but I think it’s extremely important to recognize the fascism, the very real fascism, that this president represents.” To blanch at the dropping of an “f”-bomb–to reserve “fascism” as a museum label for long-extinct foreign curiosities and dismiss the Trump government as too American or too dumb to be fascistic—is to abdicate our responsibilities as thinking citizens. The proper reaction when facing fascism is unity and coalition-building between conservatives, liberals, and leftists to confront the threat.
It is a daunting prospect, one that requires us to cast a far more critical eye on America’s long political history. But, as Ocasio-Cortez put it, “That is why they call it the struggle: Because it’s not easy.”