by Prof. Robert Buzzanco
Since 1/20/2017 huge numbers of people, liberals and on the Left alike, have been adamant, and often apoplectic, that Trump was guiding the U.S. toward fascism, that he was the new American Hitler, and that his followers were Nazis. More recently, we’ve been inundated with increasingly-panicked warnings that a coup was imminent because he was unlikely to win the election fairly or he’d refuse to leave office if he lost.
And we’re not just being told that Trump is a fascist. Some people on the Left have gone further and insisted that nobody should even question that perspective, that fact–as they see it. The most extreme, unhinged example of attacking coup skeptics was probably Counterpoint’s feature write Paul Street, who shrieked that “any asshole ‘radical left’ douchebag who goes around posting and publishing denialist bullshit based on the absence of full on parallels with the Third Reich disgraces themselves and pollutes the discourse with ahistorical drivel.” I guess then I’ll cop to being a disgraceful polluter.
To the people to whom I talk regularly and listeners of the Green and Red Podcast, the error of these views has been clear for some time. As I recently wrote in a piece on this blog, Trump never displayed the basic traits of fascism—control of the state, a solid relationship with financial and industrial oligarchs to plan out the economy, mass repression of dissent, and so on. While far too many people ignored the historical and political nature of what fascism was, it was perhaps more disturbing that those who often vociferously argued that Trump was a fascist or Nazi urged people to…..vote, in 2018 and 2020, as the response to this growing threat.
If you really believed in early 2017 that Trump was a fascist, why not act immediately and decisively, in the streets (which in fact many people were doing, spontaneously, as in the rush to jam airports after the Muslim ban or bum-rushing congress members’ meetings on health care before the mid-terms)? But waiting until the 2018 elections and a presidential election almost 4 years in the future? That’s a pretty empty and in fact dangerous response to fascism.
Trump is a cruel, ignorant, racist, detestable human…..who’s enacted some really awful programs and policies that have harmed people, and surely incited and encouraged some really horrible people who carried Swastika flags and believed QAnon theories. But that doesn’t make him a fascist. It makes him a cruel, ignorant, racist, detestable human…..who’s enacted some really awful programs and policies that have harmed people, and surely incited and encouraged some really horrible people who carried Swastika flags and believed QAnon theories. Despite the fantasies of the Lincoln Project about the GOP before 2016, Trump emerged from political sewers that already had rewarded the traits he was demonstrating–from Nixon (Goldwater, really) onward–and, yes, including Clinton and Obama.
Trump was not a departure from a pristine GOP past, but was a pure-bred “born in the USA” product of the past half-century of American politics.
As as for the coup . . . now that we’re precisely two weeks away from the election, we’re seeing every lawsuit fail, Trump’s blustering being condemned by the media, large majorities of Americans rejecting his claims that he had the election stolen from him, and more and more of his own people—some GOP officials (most powerfully, the hard-core conservative Secretary of State of Georgia), some judges, some Republican members of state legislatures where there were “plots” to send their own slate of electors to vote for Trump–start to bail on his schemes. Even if you believe in a Trump coup (and a new delightful term for such people is “BlueAnon”) it certainly died on the grounds of the Four Seasons…..Landscaping Company.
So what’s the big deal, why be so adamant and cranky about a couple words like “fascist” and “coup,” why not let it go? Because the people who have pimped these views for the past four years have really harmed the Left in many ways.
>They sucked up so much energy by demanding that we all recognize Trump as a fascist or the new Hitler that more reasonable political discourse on the Left became more difficult.
>They ignored the deep extent of opposition to Trump—something that’s not characteristic of real fascist societies. In 2020 alone, maybe 25-30 million people went to the streets to condemn him and got away with it. Two years before that, they swamped the GOP in mid-term elections. Meantime, the ruling class, not a monolithic set of capitalists as many on the Left believe, had already soured on Trump and made it clear they were ready for him to go, while the military, an essential element in a real coup, had openly rebuked him in June as civil-military relations were at their lowest point in generations.
>They provided Trump with the only tactic he had to run the country—fear. Talk of Trump-as-Fascist or coups was oxygen to him. There was a reason he wouldn’t publicly commit to a transfer-of-power or talked about being president for 3 terms or more…..it made Democrats and Liberals go crazy. It distracted them from so many of the genuinely hideous, toxic, and dangerous things he was doing to focus on this nightmare of Berlin 1935 coming to Washington, DC.
>While rapprochement with MAGA-wearing Trump supporters isn’t going to happen, there are presumably a decently large number of people who are more open to criticism of Trump but turned off by the delirium exhibited by so many people calling him a fascist or a Nazi. We all know about the inequities and repression suffered by so many in the U.S. today, but we also see people moving around freely, we hear political commentators and comedians shred the president, and we ourselves castigate him, and each, other furiously on social media. Maybe dialing back on the worst rhetoric–because the basic truth if terrifying enough–might help reach some people.
>They created gut-wrenching anxiety for people already unnerved by the very real things that Trump did and said. Wasn’t it bad enough that he gave massive tax-cuts to top .1 percent? Wasn’t abandoning already-weakened environmental regulations reason to be angry and alarmed? How about appointing cadres of right-wing judges and 3 Supreme Court justices from the Mesozoic era? Scapegoating Muslims and Mexicans in the most vile terms? Wasn’t ignoring COVID as Americans died in droves and the government’s single response was a one off $1200 check enough of an indictment of him as both an elected official and simply as a human? Then add to that the daily clamor of people with ominous warnings about fascism (which would obviously have been FAR worse than what was already happening) and a coup, and you can see how you’d get a massive mental health crisis on the Left, one that was fueled daily by fascist-fanatics and coup-conspiracists in Counterpunch, Common Dreams, Truthout, The Real News, and so many other media sites.
>They created the lowest standard possible for judging the political system—coup, or no coup. Given how alarmed people became about Trump stealing the election, there is now a general sense of huge relief that it’s not happening. The pass-fail for this election became simply having an election. Now we have to deal with corporate Dems running the country and blaming what passes for the Left for dashing their “blue wave” and the fact that 72 million people voted for a president who simply ignored a pandemic that’s already killed a quarter-million people, made it worse in fact as it now peaks.
>And perhaps most importantly, and sadly, they paralyzed people from taking the type of political action that might have really mattered. So many discussions, so many articles, so many podcasts and radio interviews, so much dialogue among people talking about politics focused on whether Trump was a fascist, just how much of a Nazi he was, and whether there would be some kind of electoral coup ultimately meant that too many people were just stuck, immobile in a static place fearing what the future would bring. Thankfully, the uprisings this Spring and Summer, spontaneous and involving younger people incensed by the continued violence of the police and the precarious nature of daily life, provided the “resistance” that was so badly needed.
Words and descriptions do matter and need to be used precisely. After four years of hysterics about fascism and Trump not leaving office, we’re even further behind in some ways, though his electoral loss should be celebrated. People have a really crooked idea of what fascism is, and probably wouldn’t be able to recognize it now if it really would come along. While Tom Cotton might not be a fascist, he’s certainly no improvement on Trump, but his Ivy League background and less crude and vulgar demeanor will him much more palatable to so many people outraged by Trump’s proud ignorance.
If you’re genuinely worried about fascism in America, put down the articles about it and join, or start, a mutual aid group, join or begin to organize a union, engage in environmental activism, do some work on defunding the police so people understand what that really means rather than the unnerved alarmism of politicians, fight for abortion rights or prepare for a post-Roe world, start or join an affinity group, work with already-established progressive organizations for immigrant rights or whatever issue is most important to you, or hell–just donate to people who are doing this work. There’s a million things to do so it’s not hard to find an issue to which you can contribute.
Hysteria and fear are never a good strategy or response to one’s political opposition. The ruling class already has countless advantages–material, political, judicial, psychological. They shouldn’t own our minds, courtesy of collaborationist Left doomsayers, and have us living in constant anxiety over how much worse things could become……. Less panic, more participation.
Professor Robert Buzzanco is a professor of history at the University of Houston. He specializes in, writes about and talks on the Vietnam War era, military-civilian relations, foreign policy, Vietnam, radical social movements, economics, and other stuff.