Part of an ongoing debate on the USA. Click here to see all the contributions
Look out your window,
there's a scene you'd like to catch
The band is playing "Dixie"
A man got his hand outstretched
Could be the Führer
Could be the local priest
Sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace
- Bob Dylan
During the time when the left protested against the Vietnam war, the term "fascist" was thrown about with careless abandon. On demonstrations against that war, Nixon was regularly denounced as a fascist. For those who waved Mao's little red book everyone who didn't agree with their idolatry was likewise branded "fascist" or "social fascist" - particular vehemence being reserved for those in rival Maoist grouplets. Using the term "fascist" so recklessly didn't serve to intelligently analyse existing political realities.
However, it's a poor reflection on any socialist today if they can't actually recognise the phenomenon of fascism when it stares them in the face! If fascism is to be defined in its "classic" form, then only Mussolini's movement would fit the bill, yet even here Il Duce didn't emerge as fully fledged "fascist" until the mid 1920s.
In fact Mussolini said in his final years that the regime he led until his overthrow in 1943 was not a proper fascist one - citing the maintenance of King Victor Emanuel III as head of state as one example of insufficient fascism. Mussolini regarded the Italian Social Republic - a puppet regime the Nazis set up for him in Northern Italy toward the end of the war - as a true representation of fascism in practice.
It's also been suggested that Franco wasn't a fascist, but just an old style right wing caudillo of the type that litter the histories of Hispanic nations. If I'd known that in the sixties, I could have persuaded my mum and dad to book a package holiday to the Costas! Yet the labour movement was correct in calling for a boycott of Franco's Spain, where the working class suffered decades of murderous repression.
The regime had all the trappings of a fascist state including FET - the sole legal party of the state, based on fascist principles. As to the claim that Franco wasn't a fascist because he didn't invade other countries, he bears the dubious distinction of actually having invaded his own.
Fascism in the twenty first century, however, doesn't tend to dress itself up in black and brown uniforms. Its European variants prefer smart suits and designer gear instead. To the charge of fascism they reply that they are "right wing populists". Such is the position of Le Pen's movement, the Sweden Democrats, and the AfD in Germany. Nevertheless, these forces represent fascism in various incipient forms.
Could this claim be also made of the political movement in the USA termed "Trumpism"? There are those who say that fascism can only exist if it is there to oppose a strong labour movement - i.e. workers' parties and trade unions with mass membership. Unfortunately, not much of the former exists internationally and membership of the latter is much diminished. Also it's somewhat illogical to say that the existence of a fascist formation is solely dependent on one external variable.
The popular movements fascism seeks to crush today need to be seen in broader terms than parties and unions. These now also include the women's movement, environmental protesters, racial justice campaigners and various other grass roots organisations who in diverse and incomplete ways challenge capitalism.
When discussing the specific nature of American fascism, the overriding question of white supremacy must be considered. American Trotskyists in the inter war years specifically stated that fascism in the USA would not necessarily take a European form. It would more likely to be recognised in organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan - itself an movement which predated "classical fascism" by more than half a century.
American political life has tended historically to eschew "ideologies", which might go some way to explaining a certain "backwardness" in the nation's political culture. Trump himself is barely literate, let alone politically literate. It would be a stretch to expect him to produce an elaborate fascist political treatise like fascist "intellectuals" such as Falangist leader Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera. His political instincts are those of animal cunning and pander to a deep seated racist fault line which runs through American society.
Trump doesn't need to proclaim himself a fascist, yet he has definitely evolved into one. He has denied the legitimacy of credibly conducted elections, trashed independent journalism, called for the imprisonment of political opponents and encouraged and energised racists and fascists. His return from hospital when he ripped of his mask on a flag bedecked White House balcony was a definite Mussolini moment. If determining his fascist intent were just a matter going through a checklist he'd tick pretty well all of the boxes.
Of course it isn't as simple as that. Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote a groundbreaking novel It Can't Happen Here in 1935 in which the protagonist, demagogic politician Buzz Windrip, gets elected President after a campaign fomenting fear and promising a return to "patriotism and traditional values". In power, Windrip outlaws dissent, locks up his opponents and established a loyal paramilitary force to terrorise the citizenry. Such a scenario could certainly have been the outcome if Trump had won a second term.
That eventuality was prevented, but possibly only forestalled. The 6 January 2021 attack on the Capitol could be regarded as a Trumpian version of the Munich Putsch. The majority of American voters denied Trump another four years, many believing he would use that time, like fascists in the past had, to establish some kind of permanent authoritarian regime. They voted decisively to reject that and in so doing denied other presidential candidates the chance to make even a marginal impact in the election.
Fascism took power in Germany and Italy by using a combination of constitutional means and street thuggery primarily directed at the labour movement. In the current epoch the fascist emphasis is on the former rather than the latter, because the organisations of the international working class are in a far weaker position than was the case in the inter-war period.
An electoral victory by a fascist party at national state level would likely lead to a sustained attack on most democratic norms, which is what distinguishes it from "normal" right-wing parties. In France, should Le Pen win the Presidency there, extra judicial powers would be assumed by her with the considerable backing of a large section of the police apparatus which contains many of her supporters in its ranks. Such a regime is likely to bear many of the hallmarks of fascism in power as opposed to fascism as a mass political movement. A second run of President Trump or someone like him would produce similar outcomes.
Trying to define fascism in the modern era is as slippery as the beast itself and, indeed, its modern day protagonists. Underplaying the threat it represents, however, would be a catastrophic mistake for socialists to make.