“F***in’ Fascist!” This was the immediate response of Jeff Bridges’ pacifist, stoned slacker character Jeffrey “the Dude” Lebowski in the 1998 cult classic film ‘The Big Lebowski’ as he was surprised and hit with an object thrown at him by an overly authoritative police chief. In late-August 2022, the political world was surprised when Biden, during a speech at a fundraiser, called his MAGA Repubican rivals “semi-fascists.” Trump, as we will see, has also used the word to describe the specific actions and tactics of certain groups in America. Do words mean anything anymore? While it is true that actual fascism has been notoriously difficult to define, and scholars have been arguing over the various features and requirements of fascist regimes since the World War II era, there has to be some sort of responsible, reasonable, use of the term, hasn’t there?
Biden’s remark was, “What we’re seeing now is the beginning or the death knell of an extreme MAGA philosophy. It’s not just Trump, it’s the entire philosophy that underpins the — I’m going to say something, it’s like semi-fascism.” By referring to underlying philosophy, Biden indicates he does not merely have a problem with some of the actions of his rivals that may be inappropriate and arguably similar to the actions of fascists in order to prop up their regimes, but that he thinks these people are irredeemable. Given the number of MAGA supporters in America, it is a good thing he is completely incorrect about their core beliefs. So much for the “unity” he called for in his inaugural address.
As discussed below, there are some key features and requirements everyone seems to agree are necessary to define an actual fascist regime and adherents to fascist ideology. As the term has been commonly used by the likes of Lebowski, Biden and an incalculable number of partisan individuals in between however, it seems the term “fascist” now has come to mean something completely different. This new definition of a “fascist” seems to be, “Anyone of a different political persuasion to which the speaker can apply any combination of real or perceived negative “isms,” or traits to express disapproval of their policies or practices.” More ad hominem than critique, use of the term in this manner seems more the mark of a lazy mind than a statement of substance.
With Lebowski’s comedic utterance of the term in the movie, the audience is meant to process it in the context of his character. He has no trust in the system, rejects the standard notions of virtue and duty, and, following with another theme in the film, seems disillusioned by America’s perceived militarism and blunders in Vietnam. He sees the police chief in this way, hence the “fascist” outburst. What about Biden? Aside from merely using the term politically to fire up his base, Biden’s use of the term applied to his Republican rivals reflects not only a profound misunderstanding of fascism, but also traditional American values, the general Republican position, and the impact his Democrat Party has had on the nation and the current divisiveness we are experiencing. If we were to generally apply the term as defined above, it could be argued that Biden and his Democrat Party have been, and continue to be, more “fascist” than any Republicans have been throughout our history. At least, they have set up the conditions for future fascism more so than Republicans. I don’t recommend the use of this label though, as it is more useful to address the various points and critiques head on, but just for the sake of argument, let’s explore some of the key tenets and requirements of fascism and match them up to the general positions of both the Democrat and Republican parties in America.
Whether you are reading Benito Mussolini’s 1932 “The Doctrine of Fascism,” or the works of scholars surveying the various studies and definitions of the concept since World War II, it is impossible to imagine fascism without an all-powerful state at its center. This one defining requirement alone makes the idea that Republicans in America are more “fascist” than Democrats laughable. It has long been the goal of the Democrat Party – from the early 20th Century Progressives to the modern “woke” political voting blocks – to grow government beyond Constitutional limits; to increase bureaucratic power at the expense of the People’s Representatives, to concentrate power at the top as much as possible at the expense of checks and balances and the rightful authority of lower jurisdictions, and to subject the individual to the will of the state contrary to fundamental rights “for the greater good.” Classical conceptions of liberalism have been largely disregarded and often demonized, as the Constitutional notion of “American Democracy” within the structure of our Republic has given way to appeals for more democracy (small “d”) along with the rise of a state-sanctioned, corporate-approved political correctness guiding the new cultural norms and nationalistic intersectional “in-group” “out-group” identity. The traditional notion of the state as a protector of fundamental rights (negative rights) has transitioned into a role of the state as a provider of positive “rights,” often at the expense of the free will of individuals and responsible, sustainable action. The merging of the massive state bureaucracy with corporate interests to guide domestic policy and programs and even dreams of one day expanding this system to a new order of global governance are completely in line with the Democrat mentality and contrary to that of traditional Republicans. To the extent Republicans have gone along with this regime, we can criticize them mainly for playing the Democrat’s game, or selling out their stated principles for pragmatic reasons at best, selfish reasons at worst. While modern Republican Party platforms have been compatible with the current machinations of government out of necessity, they are undeniably at heart closer to the limited, checked, individual rights-driven, Constitutional government of our Founders than that of the Democrats. Simply put, if properly followed, fascism could not survive under ideal Republican conditions, but it could emerge and thrive under ideal Democrat conditions. This is what motivates most Republicans, including most MAGA Republicans, and Biden’s cherry-picking and attacks on strawmen cannot replace this general positioning as the dominant narrative about their underlying beliefs.
We see an increase in the use of the “fascist” label being used by Democrats to describe Republicans, especially MAGA Republicans, because of their extreme obsession and hatred for Donald Trump. The White House, of course, backed up and doubled down on Biden’s “semit-fascist” claim. The talking heads in the mainstream media have largely followed suit, with some exceptions. In an article in The Atlantic regarding Biden’s use of the word to describe Trump-supporting members of the GOP, the author refers to them as, “a melding of the remnants of a once-great party with an authoritarian, violent, seditionist, personality cult bent on capturing and exercising power solely to benefit its own members and punish its imagined enemies among other Americans.” This nutty take can only be believed by those already primed to drink the koolaid. In standard fashion the author offers little support to back up his self-styled stereotypes, choosing instead to leave himself an out by half-way deriding his target (like Biden did by using “semi-fascist” instead of plain “fascist”) and making appeals to the high ground of offering a possibility of bringing them back into the fold. One wonders if they even believe their own nonsense or if they are just being deliberately hyperbolic. In any case, the charge may be equally leveled against Democrats. Trump becomes an attack point for Democrats so that they may avoid serious contemplation and criticism of their own poor policy. The talking point that fascist states require a strong leader, often accompanied by a cult of personality following, is a favorite attack for Democrats because of Trump’s larger-than-life personality. How much of Trump’s consistent buzz however has been created by the Democrat’s own obsessive coverage of him? Are MAGA followers really that into Trump, or is their fervent support for Trump merely a reflection of their disdain for the establishment that has grown wildly over the decades that Trump has so openly attacked? If the latter is true, Trump’s supporters are actually acting contrary to the requirements for a fascist base of support. Trump’s actual policies during his term were hardly extreme when assessed objectively. For comparison, Obama’s supporters were just as “cultish” as Trump’s during his first election and at the height of his popularity, yet the mainstream media did not resort to any accusations of fascism regarding Obama’s regime, even as he openly called for vast expansions of government domestically, expanded foreign interventions, and made calls to “fundamentally transform” America. In all this, it seems a more fair critique of Trump’s positioning, if one is warranted, would be along the lines of an anti-elitist, traditional patriotic nationalism centered around Founding ideals and individualism, not extreme statism, as would be required by fascism.
Extreme militarism is another stated general criteria of fascist regimes. While Trump supported the military during his term, he generally did not misuse it overseas to the extent of his predecessors, starting no new conflicts and ending a lot of covert actions and proxy wars favored by the Deep State warmongers. Biden himself certainly helped foster such militaristic activity over his long career in government, more so than any MAGA supporter. Domestic police forces had similarly been beefing up long before Trump, and any accusation of fascist tendencies in this expansion would have to transcend his Administration. The fascist labeling also pops up regarding Trump and MAGA supporters regarding their support for the “thin blue line” mentality, but again, this seems to be more of a reaction to the anti-cop rhetoric and proposed policy of leftist agitators than it is support for a growth of a police state. This, after all, would contradict the “don’t tread on me” mentality most MAGA supporters hold. The reasonable idea regarding police forces has always been for there to be a “law and order” justice system in place just big enough to do the job and not big enough to turn tyrannical. Confusion over this point emanates from both political “sides,” but it is more reflective of a misunderstanding of Constitutional foundations than it is of calls for a fascist state.
Fascists also require enterprise and economic activity to heavily bolster the state with heavy with state involvement in even private commerce. The US has no doubt been moving in this direction over the decades but hardly to the point one could reasonably call it proper fascism. State-corporate cooperation under Trump was also rather par for the course, as he (like any President these days) was largely powerless to stop it. As we saw during the COVID pandemic for example, the already-existing bureaucratic might and influence of Big Pharma/Medical-Industrial Complex was alive and well before, during, and after Trump. Ask yourself; is the stereotype of the Republican corporate “fat cat” really still the dominant image in the minds of Americans? When it comes to state-corporate merging of power, isn’t the “elite class” now comprised of Progressive technocrats and ideological Democratic donors at least as much as it is self-interested Republican businessmen and industrialists? The bureaucracy is overwhelmingly filled with Democrats and Progressives to be sure, and these people are meeting with lobbyists and making deals every single day. The growth of bureaucracy, corporate cooperation with the state, and regulations favorable to big business via lobbyist activity are aided, not hindered by, Democrat-favored policy.
Extreme nationalism and populism are also thought to be a major requirement of a fascist regime. Labeling Trump “racist,” “sexist,” and “xenophobic” became the distraction from serious discussion about socioeconomic problems, police reform, the border wall, etc. The idea Trump was instigating fascist, right-wing nationalistic tendencies on these fronts bypasses all the honest argument about them, instead assuming the truth of the opposition’s conclusion in the premises when addressing them. If anything, the way the mass media collaborated with Trump’s detractors and opponents to frame these issues during Trump’s time in the White House and beyond is much more indicative of media under a fascist regime than a free and fair press – a point Trump himself has made as indicated in an excerpt from one of his speeches below. Nationalism and populism in themselves are not inherently authoritarian as fascism is inherently authoritarian. There seems to be selective criticism and a lot of unwarranted accusations thrown around when discussing these points regarding Trump and his tendencies. The same is not done regarding Democrats such as Biden or Obama.
This brings us to the last of the main “fascist” talking points regarding Trump; the “attack on democracy” that was January 6th and the controversy over the 2020 election. MAGA supporters are “fascists,” this thinking goes, because fascists reject democracy and democratic elections just like Trump’s supporters question the legitimacy of the 2020 election and protested the transition of power to Biden on January 6th. This is again conflating two concepts. The questioning of the 2020 election and the events of January 6th cannot be extended to the accusation that those involved reject democracy outright or want to overrule the system of elections in the country. On the contrary, the protests were due to the idea that there were irregularities with the system and that the democratic process was compromised. Looking at it this way, the protestors were trying to defend democracy and its role in our Constitutional Republic rather than to upend or reject it. And remember, Democrats spent the entire Trump presidency denying its legitimacy on less reasonable suspicion (that has turned out to be false and actually somewhat self-incriminating) than that of the wide-ranging accusations of improper conduct nationwide in the 2020 election. One does not have to agree with their conclusions to understand the reasons the vast majority of them were actually protesting. It could be argued that the long-standing push by Democrats towards more direct democracy and populist messaging, often contrary to Constitutional norms and the Rule of Law, is more accommodating to future fascism than the balanced system created by our Founders and preferred by Republicans, including MAGA supporters.
Mussolini famously summarized his conception of a fascist totalitarian system as, “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.” In “The Doctrine of Fascism,” Mussolini describes the basis of Fascism as, “Anti-individualistic, the Fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State, which stands for the conscience and the universal, will of man as a historic entity. It is opposed to classical liberalism which arose as a reaction to absolutism and exhausted its historical function when the State became the expression of the conscience and will of the people. Liberalism denied the State in the name of the individual; Fascism reasserts the rights of the State as expressing the real essence of the individual.” Which political party in America does this seem to reflect more of today?
Trump, not exactly known for expressing big ideas, is primarily an agent of reaction and defender of tradition. His MAGA movement is the same and in his inaugural address he highlighted this point, “Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning, because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people. For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government, while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs, and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes, starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment — it belongs to you. It belongs to everyone gathered here today, and everyone watching, all across America. This is your day. This is your celebration, and this, the United States of America, is your country.” I think this populist sentiment summarizes MAGA and is reflected in the reality of what happened more so than some accusation of an attempt to build a future fascist entity.
The other aspect of MAGA is the return to bolstering traditional American values and beating back opposing forces that would weaken it – including collectivist ideologies and the growth of the state. In his speech in front of Mount Rushmore on Independence Day, 2020, Trump proclaimed, “Our Founders launched not only a revolution in government, but a revolution in the pursuit of justice, equality, liberty, and prosperity. No nation has done more to advance the human condition than the United States of America. And no people have done more to promote human progress than the citizens of our great nation. It was all made possible by the courage of 56 patriots who gathered in Philadelphia 244 years ago and signed the Declaration of Independence. They enshrined a divine truth that changed the world forever when they said: “…all men are created equal.” These immortal words set in motion the unstoppable march of freedom. Our Founders boldly declared that we are all endowed with the same divine rights – given [to] us by our Creator in Heaven. And that which God has given us, we will allow no one, ever, to take away – ever. Seventeen seventy-six represented the culmination of thousands of years of western civilization and the triumph not only of spirit, but of wisdom, philosophy, and reason. And yet, as we meet here tonight, there is a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for, struggled, they bled to secure. Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children. Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities. Many of these people have no idea why they are doing this, but some know exactly what they are doing. They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive. But no, the American people are strong and proud, and they will not allow our country, and all of its values, history, and culture, to be taken from them. One of their political weapons is “Cancel Culture” – driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America. This attack on our liberty, our magnificent liberty, must be stopped, and it will be stopped very quickly. We will expose this dangerous movement, protect our nation’s children, end this radical assault, and preserve our beloved American way of life. In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance. If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished. It’s not going to happen to us. Make no mistake: this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution. In so doing, they would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery, and progress.”
In this speech, Trump actually used the term “fascism” to describe the new Left’s use of academia, media, state and corporate power to mold a national identity and punish dissent. This melding of somewhat competing traditional concepts is actually quite accurate given what is occurring, although using the terms in this way and extrapolating them out to compare them to history’s most villianous regimes only invites confusion and instant disagreement. But the emphasis on the Founding American ideals is more than just mere rhetoric, it is what actually drives most Republicans and the MAGA crowd to oppose the degradation they see in the policies and actions of the Left and certain Democrats. Contrast this with Biden, who sometimes appeals to Founding principles in his rhetoric, but doesn’t actually believe in it, as evidenced by his bumbling of the words of the Declaration of Independence and is eventual reference of it as “the thing.” But his base doesn’t care.
While the Lebowski in us sometimes gets the best of us all and we blurt out insults and less-than-accurate labels to describe our dislike of various people and policies, when discussing such ideas professionally we ought to be more careful. Certainly, people occupying elected offices must do so, especially those that claim to be trying to unite the populace. But we also must be ready to call a spade a spade. Accurate terms do not need to be watered down. We must remember, if we overuse a term and misapply it enough, it loses its meaning. This seems to be the fate of the term “fascist.” I suppose we are all fascists now in someone’s mind.