It’s Time to Use the F-word: An Anti-fascist Approach to Trump and Franco
From the Series: American Fascism
From the Series: American Fascism
The debate over whether Donald Trump qualifies as a fascist has simmered since he emerged on the national political scene. But the insurrection at the Capitol seems to have broken the taboo against using the f-word. In the four weeks following January 6, 2021, the words “Trump” and “fascism” or “fascist” appeared together in 3,167 news items published in the United States, according to a NexisUni search. By contrast, only 970 such pieces appeared after the Commander in Chief directed militarized forces to clear Black Lives Matter protesters from Lafayette Square, many only to note the presence of anti-fascists.
Mainstream media’s vernacular shift rekindled long-simmering debates over defining fascism. With a few notable exceptions, historians of twentieth-century European fascism continue to reject the label. Roger Griffin and Stanley Payne, for example, separately declared Trump too “incoherent” to meet their criteria (see Matthews 2021). Similarly, Thomas Weber (2021) contrasts Trump’s “ruthless pursuit of individual self-interest” with the collectivism that characterized Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Each of these scholars remain critical of Trump. Yet they admonish those who would carelessly throw around the f-word, accusing them of transforming a rigorous analytic category into a generic insult.
Codifying detailed definitions of key theoretical terms is a noble academic pursuit. For those actively working to combat fascism, though, such efforts are not only misguided but actively harmful. Instead of insisting activists adhere to the taxonomic conventions of academics, we would do better to listen to how organizers use the term to highlight and dismantle authoritarian formations of power that, too often, evade journalistic and academic attention.
As an ethnographer who partners with Spaniards searching for their forcibly disappeared loved ones, watching the Trump-fascism debate, I am reminded of similar disputes over the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Those who opposed him at the time and those who continue to combat his legacy today have consistently described Franco as a fascist. When Spain’s Royal Academy of History published a biographical dictionary that described Franco as “head of state” of an “authoritarian but not totalitarian” regime, relatives of the disappeared marched on their headquarters with signs denouncing the “fascist, cowardly, murderous dictator.”
Scholars of fascism, though, have a surprisingly difficult time labeling the Generalissimo. Payne (1999, 476) argues that Franco was not a “generic fascist sensu strictu” but rather a regime that “eluded precise definition.” Similarly, World Fascism: A Historical Encyclopedia throws its hands up at the prospect of cataloging Franco, declaring his legacy, “less a coherent political ideology” before concluding: “Most generalizations turn out to be invalid” (Blamires and Jackson 2006, 250). For many scholars of fascism, Franco, like Trump, defies classification.
In part the difficulties in categorizing Franco stem from his exceptionally long tenure. Franco rose to power as the leader of a military coup aided by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Initially, his government resembled those of his backers: Franco launched a campaign of mass killings and pursued an economic program of autarky. Following the defeat of the Axis powers, the wily dictator reinvented himself as an anti-communist campaigner, allying with the West in the early days of the Cold War. In the ensuing decades, technocrats liberalized the Iberian economy, even as political repression continued. For many fascism scholars, these wild gyrations in Francoist policy leaves the project too incoherent to define.
Still, the idea that political and economic policy might dramatically change over four decades is not unique to Franco’s Spain. Consider that over the same time period, the United States saw the official end of Jim Crow apartheid, landmark civil rights legislation, the implementation of socialized medical insurance for the elderly, and a depression economy transformed into a postwar manufacturing boom followed by early neoliberal reforms. Yet few argue that these political and economic upheavals should call into question the status of American democracy.
Trump’s tenure, in comparison to Franco’s, was mercifully short. Yet, as many of his critics point out, he was no less subject to wild swings in rhetoric and policy. Many scholars of fascism recognize uncanny similarities Trump’s populist rallies, hateful nationalism, and novel use of communication technologies share with the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. However, they argue, Trump’s embrace of individualism, capitalism, and relative isolationism separate him from true fascism. Like Franco, Trump’s policies are said to diverge too much from mid-twentieth-century fascism.
Yet why would we expect fascism in 1971 or 2021 to look anything like it did in 1941? If the goal is to describe a political system, rather than a historical formation, then it makes as little sense to define fascism by its historical originators as it would to contrast American democracy with ancient Greece. True, fascism is notoriously difficult to define in the abstract. But this is no less true when defining democracy, a task once described as a “dead horse” since it “is so vague and democracies are so varied, that there is little chance of substantial agreement” (Mulgan 1968, 3). What, then, is at stake in the debate over whether to label Trump a fascist?
For Robert O. Paxton (2021), the images of Trump supporters, many of them armed, interrupting the peaceful transfer of power was the final straw. Though he previously rejected the designation, Trump, he declared, has now crossed a “red line” into fascism. What, though, had been revealed by the insurrection that was not already apparent when Trump described Mexicans as rapists, directed violence against protesters, passed the Muslim ban, praised the “very fine people” at white supremacist rallies, incarcerated migrant children in concentration camps, and repeatedly flouted laws restricting executive power?
For American anti-fascists, attempts at drawing bright lines between fascism and nonfascism are not only misguided, but dangerous. Rather than wait politely for fascism to cross some metaphorical line, anti-fascist work to dismantle the fascist tendencies that are already affecting people’s lives, albeit below the threshold of visibility for most commentators. Spanish organizers likewise reject the idea of a bright line diving the Franco dictatorship from the post-1978 constitutional monarchy. Instead, they challenge the Spanish state to embrace its responsibilities as the inheritors of a political system brokered through the legal regimes and institutions of the dictatorship. If American activists seek to combat fascism before it emerges, Spanish relatives of the disappeared call attention to the pernicious and long-lasting legacies of unaddressed fascism.
Historians of fascism frequently admonish political activists for carelessly throwing around the term as a generic insult. But activists cannot afford to wait for far-right mobilizations to develop to the point where they might gain admittance into the vaunted halls of certified fascism. Effectively combating fascism requires that it be named, confronted, and dismantled well before it can develop sufficient organizational capacity to fulfill its violent aspirations. It also requires us to seek out and smash traces of seemingly defeated fascist projects that continue affecting vulnerable communities. The greater danger is not in overusing the word fascism, but in failing to recognize the fascism in our midst.
Blamires, Cyprian, and Paul Jackson, eds. 2006. World Fascism: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO.
Matthews, Dylan. 2021. “The F Word: The Debate over Whether to Call Donald Trump a Fascist, and Why It Matters.” Vox, January 14.
Mulgan, R. G. 1968. “Defining ‘Democracy.’” Political Science 20, no. 2: 3–9.
Paxton, Robert O. 2021. “I’ve Hesitated to Call Donald Trump a Fascist. Until Now.” Newsweek, January 11.
Payne, Stanley G. 1999. Fascism in Spain, 1923–1977. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Weber, Thomas. 2021. “Trump Is Not a Fascist. But That Didn’t Make Him Any Less Dangerous to Our Democracy.” CNN, January 21.