Calling Trump the F-word

By Adam Gopnik / The New Yorker

There are achievements for which one would want to claim credit only reluctantly—the return of the infield shift might be one, Twitter battles, perhaps, another—but, if forced, I will lay claim to having been among the first to use the F-word about Donald Trump. This was in early 2016, before he was taken seriously as a candidate and long before it was thought that he could win, and a full six years before Joe Biden finally came out with it in August, describing Trump and his movement as “semi-fascism,” a formulation that brings to mind George Carlin’s old joke about “semi-boneless ham”—either the ham has a bone, or it doesn’t. This one does. I wrote:

There is a simple formula for descriptions of Donald Trump: add together a qualification, a hyphen, and the word “fascist.” The sum may be crypto-fascist, neo-fascist, latent fascist, proto-fascist, or American-variety fascist—one of that kind, all the same. Future political scientists will analyze (let us hope in amused retrospect, rather than in exile in New Zealand or Alberta) the precise elements of Poujadisme, Peronism, and Huck Finn’s Pap that compound in Trump’s “ideology.” But his personality and his program belong exclusively to the same dark strain of modern politics: an incoherent program of national revenge led by a strongman; a contempt for parliamentary government and procedures; an insistence that the existing, democratically elected government, whether Léon Blum’s or Barack Obama’s, is in league with evil outsiders and has been secretly trying to undermine the nation; a hysterical militarism designed to no particular end than the sheer spectacle of strength; an equally hysterical sense of beleaguerment and victimization; and a supposed suspicion of big capitalism entirely reconciled to the worship of wealth and “success.” It is always alike, and always leads inexorably to the same place: failure, met not by self-correction but by an inflation of the original program of grievances, and so then on to catastrophe. The idea that it can be bounded in by honest conservatives in a Cabinet or restrained by normal constitutional limits is, to put it mildly, unsupported by history.

I claim no gift for prescience—I am one who insisted that Mark Sanchez’s talents only had to be unleashed to begin a dynasty for the Jets, and tipped America to the likelihood of Michael Ignatieff becoming Prime Minister of Canada—but I do claim a modest sum here, precisely because anyone who had read some history could see what Trumpism was. At the time, the media was more inclined to “analyze” appeal and motives (“Why’d he takes those documents?”) than to outline potential crimes. It’s part of the fascist inheritance to create such a fire-hose blast of corruption and lies that trying to focus on any one drop becomes impossible—that blast has the uncanny effect not of washing away the truth but of drowning your attention. You just want to get out of its way. Who now recalls that Trump was found to have confessed, in the testimony of his chief of staff, as reported by Susan B. Glasser and Peter Baker, how much, if how ignorantly, he admired Hitler’s dictation to his generals? That news appeared in this magazine’s pages four weeks ago, and it already seems part of the distant past.

The point to be made, then and now, is that fascism is a specific style and practice of authoritarian politics, which Trump then, and Trumpism now, re-creates—one that has specific character traits without having any axiomatic ideology, taking on new aspects in each new nation that it afflicts. Fascism is, by its nature, chaotic and incoherent and chameleonic—that’s why it needs a strongman to organize around. The confusion and the lack of ideological rigor in Trumpism, which some point to as proof of its ultimate impotence, is part of fascism’s nature. As Umberto Eco wrote, in his great essay “Ur-Fascism,” from 1995:

Fascism became an all-purpose term because one can eliminate from a fascist regime one or more features, and it will still be recognizable as fascist. Take away imperialism from fascism and you still have Franco and Salazar. Take away colonialism and you still have the Balkan fascism of the Ustashes. Add to the Italian fascism a radical anti-capitalism (which never much fascinated Mussolini) and you have Ezra Pound.

Indeed, anyone wanting a guide to fascism’s chameleonlike nature (and its inevitably violent disposition) should consult that essay, in which Eco writes that fascism must be chaotic because it “depends on the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”

What matters about identifying the Trumpist line as fascist is not that it allows for some kind of victory in name-calling. It’s that it is diagnostic. When we have a spot on our skin, we want to know if it’s just a mole or a melanoma. When the doctor says, from his experience of other patients, that it’s recognizably cancer, we know that we need to take it seriously and treat it differently. The objection to Biden’s call-out speech earlier this month, in which, while cataloguing “maga Republican” crimes against democracy, he significantly did not repeat the F-word, is that it further “polarizes” the country: you call them semi-fascists, they call you Communist-Marxists, and we are ever more divided. A small concept intrudes here, called the truth: there is no way that any member of the Biden Administration, or, for that matter, of the current Democratic Party, can be accurately described as a communist, or even a Marxist. There is, for the first time in a long time, a socialist wing to the Party, though it is of the most impeccably democratic kind: Bernie Sanders, its leader, would be on the center-left in England; in the dead center in Scandinavia; and on the center-right in France (where a real far left does exist). The story of polarization is simply not symmetrical. Antifa, to the degree it exists at all, loathes Biden and other liberal Democrats, and has been denounced by them. By contrast, as the January 6th committee has shown, when, during the first 2020 Presidential debate, Trump called on the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” he was calling on an actual organized paramilitary group—one of several that backed him, and continues to back him, to the hilt.

Yet only the most tentative break between Trumpism and “respectable” Republicans has occurred, with most of them angrier at Biden for telling the truth about the threat to democracy than at Trump for embodying it. Anne Applebaum, a historian of the Gulag, has written an essay for The Atlantic on the psychology of collaborating with authoritarianism, with the Trumpist example in the foreground of her vision. It is never the direct appeal of the fascist or the authoritarian that stirs the collaborator, she points out; Vichy intellectuals no more wanted the Nazis in France than the resisters did. The motivating factor is the capacity to convince yourself that your traditional domestic political opponents have become so evil and so out to get you and yours that collaboration with forces who are clearly deranged or evil is, however shameful, essential. (The heroes in France were those on the right who, like de Gaulle, refused to see the instincts of conservatism stained by the poison of collaboration.)

So the purpose of Biden’s use of the modified “semi-fascism” was to remind those who know better to know better. Even Republicans brave enough to call the Trumpists out—Mitt Romney and the Cheneys, Liz and, it must be said, Dick, prominent among them—have not yet left the Party or formed one of their own. Nor have any of them taken the most minimal option of announcing unequivocally that they will never support Trump in the future. Some Republicans who genuinely do not want to be aligned with fascists or semi-fascists will apparently do anything to avoid that except to expel the fascists or semi-fascists among them.

Another excuse for not recognizing the fascist nature of Trumpism is to insist that Trump is too disorganized to be dangerous, and of too short an attention span to be a real tyrant. But we have learned that Trump’s nature is a feature, not a more benign bug, within the tradition. The January 6th committee has exposed that the insurrection was not a spontaneous riot of uncertain ends and unknown purpose; it was the climax of a set plan to try and reject a free election, and to overthrow a constitutional government. Furthermore, the peaceful transfer of power is not solely some part of American “exceptionalism.” All stable democracies have this practice, and most accomplish it more quickly than we do, so it can’t be said too often that Trump’s act is unprecedented in America, alone; not in Canada nor Australia nor France nor India nor any modern democracy has a leader refused to recognize defeat at the polls and then engaged in an attempted coup.

And Trump is the problem—he’s not the last problem that we’ll ever face, but he is the one that must be faced now. The claim that he is merely a harbinger of an even worse and more genuinely fascist future, in the hands of a more efficient inheritor, is not endorsed by history. It is the clownishness, the gift for charismatic chaos, and the hypnotic trance cast by shameless improbability that are essential to the fascist leader. Mussolini and the rest never actually had any staggering gift for efficient organization and bureaucratic initiative. Their being what is now called a hot mess is what heated up their following; there is something in watching someone obviously ill-suited for a part constantly triumph over the norm and against the more obviously efficient and educated that is essential to their popular appeal. It’s what Shakespeare understood about Richard III. How could someone as blatantly wrong for the part of a populist leader as Trump—a privileged New York real-estate tycoon who has failed in so many enterprises—ever become one? Because his unfit nature enlists the favor of those who feel themselves unfairly judged unfit. That is the fascist theme.

Conciliation and compromise are always democratic virtues. But they are meaningful only within a firmly defined boundary of democratic behavior. Lincoln is praised these days for his “conciliation,” but the point of his behavior was to articulate his desire to avoid a civil war at almost any cost, while also making it plain that sedition was unacceptable in any form. The continual delicacy with which Trump has been treated—Hillary Clinton, let us recall, was the subject of regular F.B.I. intervention in the midst of a Presidential campaign—remains alarming. Making threats is an empty and undignified activity for a President. Biden was right to avoid them. But failing to outline outcomes simply empties words such as “unacceptable” of all meaning. The President told the plain truth. Now it is up to his Administration, and to all decent democrats, to do the same. Fascism thrives on institutional timidity. That time has passed.