As a matter of course, pundits and academics quarrel about political descriptors. Someone’s neoliberal is another’s conservative; someone’s democratic socialist is another’s Marxist. Within this realm, Donald Trump’s presidency and his continued power within the Republican Party have given rise to a passionate disagreement over the use of the term fascist. As Trump prepares his 2024 run, the debate has grown even more heated. On episode 64 of The Politics of Everything, hosts Laura Marsh and Alex Pareene talk to scholars Ruth Ben-Ghiat and Daniel Bessner about the meaning of fascism itself, and how—or even if—it applies to today’s GOP.
Alex Pareene: Since the earliest days of the 2016 presidential campaign, people online, on television, and in academia have compared Donald Trump to historical fascists like the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
Alex: But all along, others have pushed back, sometimes forcefully, against the comparison.
Laura: On the one side are historians and pundits who believe the parallels with Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy are too prominent to dismiss, and on the other are those who argue the comparison is stretched and the label is overused.
Alex: The debate has only intensified since Trump refused to concede the 2020 election and announced his intention to run for president again in 2024.
Laura: Today on the show, we’re talking to Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor at New York University, about the case for calling the GOP fascist.
Alex: We’re also talking to Daniel Bessner, a professor at the University of Washington, who argues that the term is meaningless in today’s politics. I’m Alex Pareene.
Laura: And I’m Laura Marsh.
Alex: This is The Politics of Everything.
Alex: Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history at New York University, has written extensively on authoritarianism and threats to democracy. For years, she resisted ascribing the term fascist to Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party. Recently, however, she’s begun to revise that opinion. “Trump offers Americans no policy ideas,” she writes, “but rather a classic fascist cocktail of negative emotions, satisfying promises of revenge, and a sense of heroism and power.” Ruth, welcome to the show. Thank you for joining us.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Delighted to be here.
Alex: To get really basic here, where does fascism come from, and what distinguishes fascism from other forms of authoritarianism?
Ruth: Fascism is the original phase of authoritarianism, along with early communism, when a population has undergone huge dislocations or they perceive that there’s been changes in society that are very rapid, too rapid for their taste. These are moments when demagogues appeal. Mussolini was the first to come up after the war, and he promised this enticing mixture of hypernationalism and imperialism, like, “We’re gonna revive the Roman Empire.” Mussolini defined fascism in 1922 as a revolution of reaction, and that’s a very good definition, actually.
Alex: Is one of the distinguishing features of fascism that “turn back the clock” element?
Ruth: It’s a double thing, because there’s a whole strand of fascism that is very technocratic, where it’s always infrastructure week, and Hitler built the Autobahn, and Mussolini supposedly made the trains run on time. This is very important up to today’s authoritarians, and yet, as Trump recognized, you also have to channel nostalgia. These things go together. They might seem contradictory, but in the fascist mind, they’re not. So it’s not “Make America great,” it’s “Make America great again.”
Laura: One of the things that we’re trying to get to the bottom of, or to sort out, is how important it is to use this label with reference to today’s Republican Party, to Donald Trump and his potential successors. You have held off on using the term fascist to describe Trump for a long time. Can you talk us through your thought process about that label and when it makes sense to apply it to a leader in the U.S.?
Ruth: Yeah, I didn’t at the beginning. I thought it was going to be counterproductive to start calling Trump a fascist. A lot of what I’ve been doing since 2016 is devoting my time to educating the public, also educating journalists, who perhaps were not familiar with authoritarianism and what fascism can look like today. Classic fascism wasn’t just the one party state and no opposition allowed at all, but these were also expansionist regimes. Trump is a different kind of creature. His way of having influence is different. So I felt it would be misleading, in a nutshell. But now, if you compare platforms, especially on demographic and racial issues and immigrants, with classic fascism, they match up extremely well. Now, especially since January 6, I will label Trump and also Ron DeSantis—I call him the Florida fascist. I think there’s a case to be made for that.
Laura: What is it about January 6 that stands out to you as justifying the use of the term fascism?
Ruth: What justifies the use of the term fascism is that Trump and Co. and the GOP tried to stage a violent coup. The other reason to use the fascist label is that the GOP are trying to say they’re conservatives, and they’re acting out of desire to preserve tradition and their patriots. Well, conservatives do not try and have violent coups, whereas Trump was, as Bill Barr said, a wrecking ball. And fascists are wrecking balls.
Laura: One thing that you’re pretty careful to point out is that there are stages in a fascist regime. I’m wondering how you recommend people keep track of these various stages and understand that there may not be all the elements of fascism in place during a campaign—but you don’t wanna get to the second term in office with full-blown fascism.
Ruth: Nobody knows or hardly cares about Mussolini, but he’s extremely important for understanding today because he was a prime minister of a democracy for three years. Then he declared dictatorship because he needed to escape an investigation that was for corruption and murder that was gonna bring him down—also very relevant today. So there are evolutions in these things. What January 6 did was radicalize the party. Today, they’re consumed with a cover-up of their crimes; everything they’re doing is meant to cover up their crimes. It also showed them the possibilities of violence. The last point I want to make here is when a party is morphing into a party that’s going to support autocracy, you can look at who is leaving the party or forced to leave and who’s coming in. You have Oath Keepers and Proud Boys; you have George Santos; you have, again, people who participated in January 6 who are being encouraged to run for office. So that’s what January 6 did: It catapulted the GOP into this next phase.
Laura: The other thing I wanted to ask you about is the base itself. You talked about having a charismatic leader and also the cadre around him. How important is the nature of the base to defining a fascist regime?
Ruth: It’s very important. We’re seeing something extremely distressing/interesting now. Fox News is an extraordinary vehicle of indoctrination. So both Fox and autocratic wannabes like Ron DeSantis are actually basing their platforms and what they’re doing on the most extreme part of the voter base. The radicalized base is actually being allowed to set the agenda, and that’s why people like Marjorie Taylor Greene have such prominence and power right now.
Laura: If we’re comparing today’s circumstances with the 1930s, the type of media that’s available, I would imagine, suggests that the base has more of a voice, and there’s more of a dynamic between the base and the leaders. I’m curious what you think of that, because one critique that I’ve heard of on the other side of this fascism debate is that you don’t have organizations like the Hitler Youth or Brownshirts. But I’m wondering if maybe, in this historical moment, it’s going to take a different form.
Ruth: That’s a super interesting point. Two things: One, both in the U.S. and in Brazil, they were not able to get the military’s help for their coups. So what did they do? This is the new thing you do; you construct what I call a private army of thugs, a bespoke army of thugs. That’s a new thing, but there is more of a dynamic and a feedback loop among the leader and the right-wing media ecosystem. Part of this is the nature of social media. In the ’30s, you were largely a consumer of propaganda because you read the paper, you listened passively to the radio.
Laura: You go to the rally, and you can cheer, but that’s about as much input as you’re going to have.
Ruth: That’s it. Now you consume, but you also are a producer. Propaganda works through repetition with tiny variants. It’s ideal that you add a meme, you retweet, you add emojis so you’re actually producing and circulating in your own right. There are so many content creators who are able to do what the Nazis called “synchronization.” And we’ve seen this coming together in an extraordinary way among the right-wing media/politics system, these talking points.
Alex: That discussion of this current moment gets at one of the core issues of what we can call the fascism debate. You have one rhetorical or political definition of fascism, and then you have one more strictly historical definition, which says, “Well, fascism was a European political movement that came out of the post–World War I era” or something like that. We don’t have those conditions here. We don’t have the European political tradition here. We have a global far right, but fascism is maybe not the best term to use. I’m wondering if we need a new term for this international far right.
Ruth: I think that fascism is a very effective term to use. And many people were very impatient with me or irritated—
Alex: For not using it?
Ruth: Yes, because it’s super satisfying to say, “This guy’s a fascist.” But the key is, and this is why I wrote Strongmen, to educate people that it’s not gonna look like it did in the ’30s. These things don’t work that way. That’s why you have to educate people on keeping elections going, on how corruption—even violence— look different. What’s very interesting is the same groups are targeted over and over again. There are all these through lines that make me much more comfortable using the word “fascist” as long as we don’t expect there to be a one-party state. That’s what I’ve been trying to do: educate people to see that this is what fascism can look like in our own time.
Laura: I want to throw this forward a bit because the debate over whether we can talk about fascism in America really heated up with Trump’s election. But beyond Trump, you’ve mentioned for, instance, Ron DeSantis. What are the hallmarks there? How do you recognize burgeoning fascism in someone who isn’t the head of state at this point?
Ruth: There is a tradition of authoritarians starting out at the local level and making their cities or places they’re heads of into laboratories for autocracy. In the Philippines, Duterte did that when he was mayor of Davao. Ron DeSantis is in this tradition. He actually has an authoritarian personality. He’s very remote. He doesn’t like people. He’s doing his best to have a personality cult. I’ve been following this. We haven’t talked about personality cults, but they’re absolutely essential. You have to be the man of the people, but you have to be the man above all other men. So you have the “every man” and the “superman” for it to work. Ron DeSantis had that whole phase of being the man of the people, and now he’s depicting himself in these scary dictator poses where you’ll see him from the back looking at a crowd. He’s also practiced autocratic capture—that is when you make the bureaucracies, as he’s done with the Department of Education and the Department of Health, into fiefdoms for loyalists. Trump did this with the State Department and many other fiefdoms he had, he just wasn’t there long enough to complete it.
Laura: I’m curious, from your work, if you’ve seen any analogies from history where you have a kind of forerunner like Trump, whom you identify as fascist, but who doesn’t have the competence of a figure like Mussolini, he’s not actually completing impressive infrastructure projects; there isn’t the efficiency that we associate with fascism in Trump. That doesn’t seem intentional, it just seems to be a function of his own weakness. And then you have another figure following behind who might be more capable. Is that something you’ve seen before?
Ruth: Yes, it is. But I am of a different point of view than many people. Trump was extremely efficient at the things he cared about, which was propaganda and radicalizing people and creating loyalty to himself. He also wanted to make money off the presidency, which is another autocratic thing. The takeaway here is that he didn’t have any interest in governing in the way that most Americans understood that term. He had different goals.
Laura: For my last question, can I just follow up on that? Because I’m fascinated by this idea of his goals as compared to Hitler or Mussolini. Maybe I’m being too generous to them, but they seem genuinely interested in executing a project of making the state efficient, modernizing it, and instituting a policy agenda.
Alex: More than just staying out of jail, you mean? More than just avoiding prosecution?
Laura: Yeah, I’m not saying that they weren’t interested in getting rich or all of that stuff, but at least the old saw that “Mussolini made the trains run on time” seems to have been an important element of both of those regimes.
Ruth: It was. It’s a function of their being there during the depression and after World War I. Also they were expansionist regimes from the very beginning. Trump is a different animal. When you have someone who’s very disruptive, people can get tired of that, especially conservative elites. Some people think Trump has just too much baggage, and it benefits people like DeSantis. Again, the policies are going to be the same, but he’s not going to be blustering about shooting people. That’s why I tweeted that DeSantis would destroy democracy with deadly efficiency.
Alex: Thank you so much for talking to us today. We really appreciate it.
Ruth: Sure. It was a really good conversation.
Alex: There is a persuasive case that there are significant similarities between Trump’s actions and his rhetoric and that of historical fascists like Mussolini.
Laura: After the break, we are talking to Daniel Bessner about why he thinks that’s not enough to justify describing today’s Republican Party as fascist.
Laura: We’ve been talking about the case for calling part of the American right, including Trump and his base, fascist. But over the last century, the term “fascism” has been used to describe a wide range of figures and movements in America. How helpful is a label that can be and has been applied to such a range of political expression? Daniel Bessner, historian at the University of Washington, recently reviewed Bruce Kuklick’s book, Fascism Comes to America: A Century of Obsession in Politics and Culture, which traces the changing ways the term “fascism” has been used here. Daniel thinks the term’s political utility is doubtful. “Fascist,” he writes, “has become little more than an all-purpose curse word.” Daniel, thanks for joining us.
Daniel Bessner: Thank you so much for having me.
Laura: In your review, you mentioned a survey that a social theorist named Stuart Chase did in the 1930s where he basically asked a bunch of ordinary people, “What is fascism? How would you describe fascism?” And the answers range widely from a school boy who defines it as something that’s got to be licked to a farmer who describes it as just lawlessness—which I think demonstrates the sort of range of understanding and misunderstanding that you’re trying to describe in the review. Can you walk us through some of the ways people have understood fascism in America?
Daniel: Over the last century since Mussolini renamed his political party the National Fascist Party in the early 1920s, and especially since the ’30s in the United States, the term ‘fascist’ has been used in a diversity of ways. In the ’30s until World War II, it was really a willy-nilly term where people refer to Franklin Roosevelt as fascist, they refer to Huey Long as fascist, they refer to people across the political spectrum as fascist. During World War II, the meaning of the term stabilized, and it basically refers to the extreme right wing of the political spectrum. That meaning is relatively stable until sometime in the mid-1960s, when it again becomes more of a so-called floating signifier, where Lyndon Johnson is fascist, Richard Nixon is fascist, Reagan is fascist, Obama is fascist, Bush is fascists, etc. In fact, I think we’re living through a return-to-the-World-War-II moment now, whereas since Trump’s election in 2016, “fascist” has really been colonized by the American broad left to refer once again to the extreme right wing of the political spectrum. So there are stages of fascism use, and they’re relatively coherent.
Alex: There’s this really vigorous, sometimes emotional, debate about whether fascism exists in the U.S., whether it’s appropriate to call Trump a fascist or the Republican Party a fascist. You think the debate gets a little confused, and in fact you make a distinction between two different kinds of debates happening at the same time. Can you explain what you see of the conversations that are actually going on here?
Daniel: There’s basically two fascist debates that run parallel. One concerns the analytical utility of the term. If you’re a social scientist and you’re saying, “Today, is the U.S. fascist?,” how do you determine that? And then there’s debate that concerns the political utility of the term, whether it helps you achieve your goals. These debates often get conflated, and people usually don’t make analytical distinctions. Usually, it takes the form, at least online, where the literati go, as the analytical debate. Is the checklist of fascism reached or not? And I actually don’t find that especially useful because a lot of the features that people put on their checklist of fascism are common to authoritarian regimes and long predated fascism, which emerged in the ’20s and ’30s. There’s also what I would say about the more emotional aspect of the debate, which relates to one’s political identity, and how one uses the term politically. As I write in the piece, I think that’s the reason that the debate is so rancorous, because you would assume, if it’s an analytical debate, academics are annoying and we yell at each other, but the rancor is really unique. People don’t get this mad when you’re identifying something as authoritarian or not. I think that emotion comes from the fact that people identify as anti-fascist and to say that there’s not an American fascism or that it’s not a useful term—which is my position, I don’t think it’s useful analytically and I don’t think it’s useful politically—is perceived as an attack on one’s political identification.
Alex: You just staked your claim there: You don’t think it’s useful. Why don’t you just take us through, broadly, why you don’t think it’s useful in the American context.
Daniel: Well, analytically I don’t think it’s useful. I’ve spent a lot of my professional career studying Weimar and Nazi Germany, and I don’t think the modern U.S. or the structural conditions of the modern U.S. are meaningfully comparable to the conditions that existed in Weimar Nazi Germany. The two conditions that people like Adam Tooze usually point to, and which I agree with, is that first, there’s not that general experience of total war, which led to things like a generation of traumatized veterans who go on to form street gangs that literally fight in the streets, and a profound disillusionment with modernity and technology and a search for this type of reactionary modernism, in the words of Jeffrey Herf. There’s also not the existence of a powerful left that encourages capitalist interests to align with the reactionary right. Another condition I would add to that is that there isn’t the existence of a state that is literally capable of being taken over by a fascist group. The state is just more entrenched and powerful in the modern U.S. than it was in Weimar and Nazi Germany. So I don’t think it’s analytically useful.
Alex: So that’s your take on the analytical question. What about the political utility of the term?
Daniel: In terms of politics, I think everyone here would hopefully agree, the left has been using the term “fascist” to describe political enemies for a century, and we’re not exactly closer to the left-wing utopia that we imagine, let alone seizing power. I don’t think it’s a politically useful term, and I think that one could get what does seem like a politically useful message of defending democracy without the fascist analogy. I don’t think you need the identification of fascists to say that democracy is in trouble. More importantly, it actually occludes what are profoundly American traditions: Militaristic racism, xenophobia, and violent obsession with incarcerating minorities were not fascist inventions. You don’t actually need the foreign term “fascist” to understand what happened in the U.S. or its history. So for both analytical and political reasons, I don’t think it’s especially useful.
Alex: I think it’s good that you are making the distinction here between the debate over whether it’s politically useful to invoke fascism and then whether it’s analytically useful to describe the current moment as fascistic, but, to be a little bit glib, I’m sure you’ve heard the sparkling authoritarianism joke? Where it’s the reference to champagne? Well, it’s that it can only be fascism if it came from the fascism region of Italy.
Laura: I have not heard this joke!
Alex: It’s only fascism if it came from the fascism region of Italy in the ’20s.
Laura: Otherwise it’s just Prosecco?
Alex: Otherwise it’s just sparkling authoritarianism. I’m not someone who throws around fascist as a term very liberally. (Not to make a terrible joke…) But if you’re making the eminently defensible point that a lot of what we describe as fascist has these deep American roots and is ingrained in American society, at the same time, if we have this term that has been agreed upon to mean right-wing authoritarianism, why does it have to be the form that it took in the ’40s? Why can’t we continue using that term to describe contemporary versions of this thing?
Daniel: There’s two reasons. You can, if you could prove that it’s politically useful. And I would say that it has proven not to be politically useful. It’s politically neutral at best. And then I would say, “Does that actually occlude the fact that these things have American sources?” Because I don’t care what anyone says, when you use the term fascist, you think of Nazi Germany. That implies that the U.S. doesn’t have its own indigenous racist, imperialist, and xenophobic traditions that the word fascist precludes. It makes it seem foreign in a sense. Analytically, the problems that we face in 2023 are just not those that confronted Weimar Nazi Germany, flat out. They’re just not.
Alex: You make the case that America had fascists and had Nazis, but they were never in government; they weren’t a hugely powerful force. I would wonder if there’s some utility in highlighting the actually existing American tradition—not that fascism is something that happens over there.
Laura: Well, here’s a question. I think you can convincingly go with a checklist approach where you can convincingly make the argument you are making, which is there’s a distinct tradition that you have to be in and context in order to say it’s fascism. But what about historical analogy? Because I think a lot of what’s happening is analogy: People are saying “This looks a lot like fascism,” and rhetorically, that’s a powerful point, or it feels powerful because the ’40s and the post-war years were a period when Americans and much of Western Europe all agreed that there was something that was bad and that was fascism. It’s a moment of consensus that’s quite unusual in history, right? There’s a temptation to draw the analogy without saying this is literally the same thing, this is the same historical moment. You’re saying, “This is a lot like this, and we all agreed that that was bad.”
Daniel: Totally. So let’s get into the analytical–political distinction. I don’t like doing this, but I’ll do it. As a Jew, I find it absurd that anyone compares what’s going on in 2023 America to what happened in Nazi Germany. It just doesn’t compare. There’s no way that one can make an analogical point to what happened in Nazi Germany to modern day America without… It’s kind of offensive, actually. It’s just not similar, in my opinion.
Laura: Although when someone like Timothy Snyder, say, invokes tyranny in Nazi Germany or fascism more generally, it’s as a warning, rather than saying something on the level of the Holocaust is happening here.
Daniel: Right. And I think it’s a misdiagnosis of what is happening and what is going to be needed to stop it. Because, again, I don’t think the structuring conditions are meaningfully comparable.
Laura: So let’s go to the political usefulness. You have a point in the piece where you say that people have been calling their enemies fascist for a long time, particularly on the left. What is the case for doing that? I mean, you mentioned a couple of examples where you say, “Actually it is kind of powerful when Angela Davis called people fascist.” It’s a way of making a point. Is it persuasive? Maybe not. And tell us who she is calling a fascist, how she’s using it.
Daniel Bessner: She referred to, if I remember correctly, the Vietnam War as a fascistic war, and she referred to basically the prison industrial complex as a fascist structure. What she was intending to do was to help Americans appreciate that their liberal democratic capitalist society in certain ways uncomfortably mirrors the experience of Nazi Germany. What she was effectively doing there was building on Herbert Marcuse, who was a member of the Frankfurt School, a German exile intellectual who experienced fascism firsthand in Weimar Germany, who argued in the early ’60s that liberalism, sort of a neutral liberalism, actually enables fascist conditions. So Marcuse was identifying liberalism as fascism, which I don’t think is right, and Davis was, in my understanding of her, building upon that, with the intention of helping Americans appreciate uncomfortable realities. I would say, as a political project, that didn’t work.
Laura: RSo there’s two ways of thinking about it. One is she’s making a statement. So she’s using this word that, again, everyone has agreed this describes something that’s bad, and applying it to something that people don’t necessarily agree is bad. You are saying it doesn’t work because it didn’t convince everyone of her point of view.
Daniel Bessner: Or really anyone! There’s no political coalition. We’re 50-plus years on from that. How have we, as a society, done in confronting the racialized prison industrial complex? I would bet Davis would say that she didn’t expect this to have that effect, but that’s what she was doing, and that’s what the debate is over today. As far as I know, Davis hasn’t contributed to the most recent debates at all; probably because she doesn’t think it’s that important.
Laura: In the years since then, you have had loads of isolated instances of people saying, Obama’s a fascist, Hillary Clinton’s a fascist, anyone under the sun they don’t like is a fascist. But something changed in 2016 and you see a real uptick in people using this word and becoming much more serious about whether it’s justified to use this word.
Laura: Well, talk us through that. Why do you think it became important for people to identify Trump as a fascist? Because there was also, at the same time, a discourse going on, which is still ongoing, about how Trump was actually the summation of all of these fringe traditions in American politics. A very common argument is: Nothing is new, Trump is the return of so-and-so in American politics.
Daniel: Fundamentally, I think the outsize liberal response to Trump emerged from his affect and the fact that everyone thought that Hillary Clinton was going to win. That is the basis. But why has the fascist debate become so powerful and so rancorous? The way I approach this is, “Why didn’t this debate happen under Bush?” If you were a dead alien looking at the universe, you would say that guy seems a lot more Nazi-like than that guy. How come this debate really didn’t define the Bush administration? It’s because liberalism is in crisis, and liberalism was not in as much crisis under Bush as it is today. I think Bush initiated—I actually have an article in Jacobin that came out today that says you could view the Iraq War as initiating 20 years of liberal crisis. Then you have the 2008–2009 collapse. You have the various interventions in Libya, Syria, Ukraine. You have the liberal entrepreneur Sam Bankman-Fried or Elizabeth Holmes failing. A lot of the liberal promises of the ’90s and ’00 proved not to be true. So in a moment when liberalism is in crisis and there’s no clear identifiable existential ideological enemy like the Soviet Union anymore, liberals and liberalism as a structure have needed to identify fascists in order to rejustify themselves as a vital center, which is why the talk of fascism exploded under someone like Trump and not under someone like Bush. It’s effectively because liberalism is in a moment of crisis right now.
Laura: One of the arguments for using the term “fascist” to describe Trump and Republicans is to convey how serious the threat they pose is and to try to motivate people to vote against them. In the piece, you argue that there are actually much better ways to motivate people. Tell us what you have in mind.
Daniel: It’s the classic old giving people material goods. I actually think we’re entering kind of a post-ideological age where ideology is going to be less determinative of history and international affairs than it was over the previous century or so. I think it’s just the old standby. Give people material goods, give people good jobs, give people money, allow working Americans to live decent and noble lives. That’s the best way to win people over in the Democratic Party, but unfortunately, the Democratic Party has become an elite-focused, meritocratic-based institution that is not exactly willing to promote policies of redistribution.
Laura: Well, on that note, thank you so much for talking to us.
Alex: Thank you very much.
Daniel Bessner: Thank you so much for having me, guys. Appreciate it.
Alex: The Politics of Everything is co-produced by Talkhouse
Laura: Emily Cooke is our executive producer.
Alex: Lorraine Cademartori assisted on this episode.
Laura: Myron Kaplan is our audio editor.
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Alex: Thanks for listening.