It’s gruesome, but if you can stand it, you really should watch the NY Times video compilation of the Jan. 6 insurrectionist riot. It’s the most riveting 40 minutes of action on a small or big screen that you’re likely to see for a long time. You might say there’s nothing really new there—we’ve all seen bits of video, including some horrific moments—but seeing it all put together in sequence with narrative makes it all the more powerful, and sobering.
As I watched, my visceral reaction was: this is American fascism in all its scary ugliness. But I also had to deal with the nagging, skeptical rationalism in me that asked: c’mon, is this really fascism? I don’t want to replicate that old leftist habit of indiscriminately lobbing the “fascist” epithet at adversaries to the right. In an earlier post, I said that I was comfortable with Paul Krugman’s definition of a fascist as “an authoritarian willing to use violence to achieve his racial nationalist goals.” Of course practically nobody today calls himself a fascist or adopts an ideology that closely resembles those of the European fascists of the 1920s and 30s. So, when we call someone a fascist, we are basically engaged in an historical analogy. All such analogies are imprecise, but I think this one is good enough. I have no doubt that most of the rioters were motivated at least in part by ethno-racist and hyper-nationalist impulses reminiscent of classical fascism. Most of them, I’m sure, would have been happy to see Trump take power in a coup, dissolve Congress, and rule autocratically. So, Krugman’s definition works. Except…
Except that most of the rioters truly believed that the presidential election had been stolen, and that they were engaged in a patriotic mission to rescue democracy from the thieves. So, two questions: (1) Weren’t they acting in the American revolutionary tradition? How, then, can they be fascists? (2) Anyway, why get hung up on a label? If the analogy is necessarily imprecise, why not just avoid it?
The first of these questions goes to the issue of motivation. The fact that the rioters were deluded enough to believe a Big Lie that has no support in empirical evidence doesn’t make their behavior any the less dangerous. Objectively, they pose the same threat to our democracy that they would if they were conscious fascists. And subjectively, their slavish, fact-blind devotion to Trump strongly suggests the cult-like devotion to an authoritarian Leader that characterizes fascist movements.
The second question—why get hung up on the label?—is easy enough to answer. We need some way of adequately characterizing this new, scary phenomenon in American politics. We need to convey in simple terms just how dangerous and ugly it is. “Fascism” is close enough, and it works.