It Just Happened Here

For thirty years, I’ve heard conservatives lecture everyone else about the supposed “lessons” of Munich, Neville Chamberlain, and appeasement, all in order to rationalize endless warfare against “threats” abroad. Every time they want to start a war, they roll out their canned lectures on Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler at Munich, the one-size-fits-all analogy that justifies any brutality from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Persian Gulf. In fact, all they’ve managed to accomplish is perpetual war abroad, and fascist sedition at home. (Paul Krugman’s columns on this topic have been both prescient and explanatory.)

Wednesday’s events are what all that arrant, hypocritical, virtue-signaling bullshit really amounts to. A white fascist mob incited by a Republican president announced for weeks its intention to overturn the results of the 2020 election by armed violence. True to their word, they invaded the Capitol in broad daylight. The police–despite all their “blue line” valor and all their “real time intelligence”–were taken by surprise by a bunch of half-assed thugs, running away as a mob took over and occupied the heart of the United States government.*

Law enforcement then mounted a decidedly rearguard action to take back what they had previously surrendered. Had the attack been better organized and its participants more strategically competent, we’d have had a hostage situation mimicking Waco and rivaling 9/11. Indeed, Trump’s followers came in order to complete what Al Qaeda had hoped to bring about on 9/11–the destruction, by armed force, of American democracy. Twenty years into a “War on Terror,” and retreat is the best we can do when an actual invasion reaches the doorsteps of the country’s center of gravity: after bombing the shit out of everyone all around the globe in the name of “national security,” and “taking the fight to the enemy,” the “troops” trained to keep democracy safe ran away, and surrendered it directly to the enemy.**

Let’s not sugarcoat it. It’s long, long past time to face the fact that Trump and his supporters are fascists, no matter now nice and neighborly some of them can be in person, that fascism can happen here—that it has happened, and that a Biden presidency doesn’t immunize us against a further descent into fascism, any more than the Weimar Republic saved Germany from that fate. It’s time to stop being afraid to use this supposedly “incendiary” word, time to start fearing the thing it names, and time to start resisting it for the danger it represents.

* Afterthought, added January 10, 2021: In retrospect, my blanket assertion that the police fled strikes me as unfair. Some did flee, ignominiously, in my view. Some allowed the protesters into the Capitol. But some fought hard. What’s indisputable is that the insurrectionists’ success at gaining entry to the Capitol was an abject, embarrassing failure on the part of law enforcement.

**The best indirect response I can offer is the blurb to Macalester Bell’s 2013 book, Hard Feelings: The Moral Psychology of Contempt:

At a time when respect is widely touted as an attitude of central moral importance, contempt is often derided as a thoroughly nasty emotion inimical to the respect we owe all persons. But while contempt is regularly dismissed as completely disvaluable, ethicists have had very little to say about what contempt is or whether it deserves its ugly reputation. Macalester Bell argues that we must reconsider contempt’s role in our moral lives. While contempt can be experienced in inapt and disvaluable ways, it may also be a perfectly appropriate response that provides the best way of answering a range of neglected faults.

16 thoughts on “It Just Happened Here

  1. Well said. I never supported Trump, but I seriously underestimated how troubling things could get. We are all lucky that the president is as incompetent as he is.

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    • Thanks. I actually think that Trump’s fascist tendencies were apparent all along, and underscore the legitimacy of character-based voting. Jason Brennan has argued that we should vote primarily on the basis of “policy” rather than character, but even apart from the unclarity of the policy/character distinction, it’s impossible to vote on policy when the candidate has no policy-based track record. In that case, we’re forced to assess the candidate based on considerations of character–what he’s said in various contexts, and how he’s acted in various contexts. If you put those things together, I thought it clear as early as 2015 that Trump was a moral monster capable of almost anything.

      But instead of tooting my own horn, here’s a blog post written back in 2017 by PoT blogger David Riesbeck. It strikes me as both profound and prescient. Too many of Trump’s “critics” wasted too much time making fun of him, or railing at him, and too little figuring out concrete ways to resist him. This post is a good analysis of that tendency.

      You’re right that we’re lucky that Trump was as incompetent as he turned out to be. We may not be so lucky next time. Which is a pretty sobering thought.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree with you that voting on character is important – even if you have a policy track record. To clarify I didn’t underestimate Trump’s character. I agree that he was despicable and fascist from the start. What I underestimated is all that might happen in his first term.

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  2. Addressing David’s post and echoing some of Ray’s sentiments, I both somewhat underestimated Trump’s bad character (oh shit, he believes his bullshit at some level and laps up conspiracy theories, it is not just a show) and these particular awful effects (the particular circumstance of disputing an election and stirring up a sizable portion of Americans into believing his conspiracies about grievous injustice being perpetrated on him and their acting accordingly). In some respects, we did get a largely-harmless show, but not in this respect (I worried more about his having bad judgment in foreign policy and getting us into wars and was dead wrong about that). This speaks, perhaps, to our moralistic intuitions and tendencies being more on-target than I’d like to think (the bad consequences of bad character being perhaps more significant than one might, with philosophical skepticism, be able to easily enumerate; hats off to your attempts at enumerating these consequences and constructing good theory around this regarding character-based voting). However, as you might guess, I’m not crazy about your condemnation of Trump and Trump supporters as “fascists” (though maybe this depends on the meaning you attach to this pejorative term and who and how many are in the target group). Though holding Trump and the mob responsible for what has happened — and for the vices that spawned it — is important, it is equally or more important to achieve consensus on what good political ends we can (with the people and factions that we have, not in some ideal world that we do not occupy). The actions of the mob, and Trump’s role in instigating them, have been appropriately and roundly condemned by national politicians across the political spectrum. Perhaps that’s not all we should do condemnation-wise (or identifying-root-causes-wise), but it is a good start.

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    • I don’t understand your reluctance to use the term “fascism” for Trump and his supporters. Trump incited an armed, angry mob of known white supremacists to invade the Capitol in order to disrupt the certification of a free and fair election. On the white supremacist/nationalist connection:

      It just isn’t credible to think that Trump didn’t know that his crowd was full of such people. It was public knowledge for weeks ahead of the event that white nationalists were organizing, alongside more conventional Trump fanatics, to create a disturbance of some sort at the Capitol. The mob “only” managed to kill one person, but if better organized, could literally have overturned the results of the election and taken over the government–the insurrectionists’ explicit aim. They very likely created a superspreader event in the bargain.

      Trump might as well have encouraged his supporters to go out and engage in biological warfare. If anyone dies from COVID as a result of the insurrection, surely Trump bears moral responsibility for their deaths.

      What more would Trump have to do to merit the description of “fascism”? How different, in principle, is the Capitol Insurrection from the Beer Hall Putsch that landed Hitler in jail? If you add the COVID factor, I’d say it’s worse. Both happened to end in failure due to the incompetence of their leaders, but both could have gone the other way.


      • In popular usage, I take ‘fascist’ to be something of a moving target in its descriptive content. Though there is perhaps a core descriptive meaning that is adequate enough for some contexts, in many contexts the term is inadequate and downright cognitively destructive (similarly for ‘racist’ and ‘white supremicist’ and many other terms of “cultural warfare”). This is why I wondered about a more specific definition. We know from online chatter (and other sources) that some, perhaps many, of the people who did the planning for the 500 or so who initiated the violence were white nationalists. These folks believed Trump’s conspiracy theory about a stolen election and aimed to violently disrupt and prevent the vote certification process (not just, say, show symbolic support for Ted Cruz challenging this or that slate of electors). If you want to say that the complex of beliefs and attitudes behind what these folks did check enough of the boxes to fit the rough descriptive content of ‘fascism’ in its popular use, this seems close enough to right for me (though still not my cup of tea). Also, with regard to these folks, I have no trouble with the severely pejorative function of the term (successfully attaching the ‘assholes’ tag to them would work well, too). But the bulk of the 1/4 million folks who showed up to the rally are another thing (as is the average Trump supporter or voter). I don’t think these folks by and large check enough of the boxes to count as fascist in the rough-and-ready, popular use of the term (and the severely pejorative nature of the term is likely to cause unnecessary conflict). However, in this general ballpark, there is some insufficient understanding of and respect for democracy going around and causing real (and now also symbolically important) damage. There is some specific confronting and condemning that needs to be done on these counts, but with understanding, subtlety and (in most cases) personal respect.


        • That argument just seems to me to be a logical non-starter–a non-sequitur leading directly to a reductio. It’s one thing to dispute competing definitions of “fascism,” and/or to dispute whether Trump satisfies your preferred one. But your principle is: if term F is misused in popular usage, it lacks descriptive content altogether.

          That entails that if “racism” is misused, there is no racism; if “fascism” is misused, there is no fascism; if “communism” is misused, there are no communists; if “totalitarianism” is misused, there is no totalitarianism. And so on. Isn’t that a reductio?

          Your principle also bypasses what seems an obvious semantic fact: a term can have determinate descriptive content, and yet be widely misused anyway. “Insanity” is often misused, but there’s still a difference between sanity and insanity. The same could be said of “asshole,” or any number of terms. The misuse of F doesn’t entail that F can’t properly be used. (In general, semantics aside, the misuse of a thing doesn’t entail that it can’t properly be used.) So there’s the non sequitur.

          Your view holds semantics hostage to popular usage, and renders us unable to call things what they are simply because others call things what they’re not. But what if we’re actually dealing with fascists? Your view entails that we can’t say so, on the grounds that other people have attributed fascism to people who weren’t fascists. But that doesn’t respond to the realities that confront us right now. Maybe people have misused the term “fascism” in the past, but that doesn’t change the fact that we might currently be using it correctly right now.

          The claims you’re making about the people at the Trump rally could all have been made of the Germans at the Nuremberg rallies. It is indisputable (I assume) that the Third Reich was a fascist regime, and that it enjoyed a fair bit of popular support. The support in question ranged from full-fledged, self-conscious support for fascism under that description to the confused, aggrieved emotionalism of the people who consistently voted for the Nazis or nationalist right without quite grasping the implications of what they were doing. I would say that all such people were fascists to varying degrees. Consistent, counterfactually stable support for a fascist regime is sufficient to make you a fascist. Were (are) some of these fascists nice guys, fun to hang out with, less culpable than others, more confused than evil? Yes. Does that change the fact that were/are fascists? Not in my book.

          The Trump movement consists of its fair share of nice guys. But nice guys can be fascists. The inability or refusal to see that is, in my view, the main obstacle to figuring out how to deal with Donald Trump. But we’re getting to the point of “now or never.”


          • I was speaking to a common, public meaning of the term (not to the term as a literal description of a political movement or doctrine). What you say about proper and improper use is of course true, but consistent use in a population comes to constitute a distinct public meaning. I take it that this is what happened with ‘fascism’ in its original meaning. I gestured toward plausible elements in this common, public (descriptive or cognitive) meaning in popular use in what I said. What do you take it to be? (I’m not at all meaning to address who is or who is not a nice person.)


            • I really don’t understand your position here. In your first comment, you wrote:

              In popular usage, I take ‘fascist’ to be something of a moving target in its descriptive content. Though there is perhaps a core descriptive meaning that is adequate enough for some contexts, in many contexts the term is inadequate and downright cognitively destructive (similarly for ‘racist’ and ‘white supremicist’ and many other terms of “cultural warfare”).

              In your second comment, you write:

              I was speaking to a common, public meaning of the term (not to the term as a literal description of a political movement or doctrine).

              The first comment implies that the popular use of the term has no determinate meaning, but the second implies that it does.

              Anyway, the original issue was my ascription to Trump and his supporters of fascism “as a literal description of a political movement or doctrine,” so I don’t see the relevance of invoking a popular “moving target” conception. I still don’t see what’s problematic about my use of “fascism.”

              As for my own conception of fascism, I’d need to sit down to construct a crisp definition, but if I did, it would integrate the elements common to the accounts of fascism below by Rand, Passmore, and Paxton:


              Passmore, Paxton:

              Not meant as a definition but descriptive enough: Fascism is a specifically right-wing, nationalist form of authoritarianism, typically built around a cult of personality, hostile to liberty, hostile to democratic norms, ideologically eclectic, but intended as a counter-weight to the power, or imagined power, of the Left. Trump and his supporters exemplify all of those things. The number of similarities between the Trump movement and German nationalism of the 1920s and 30s strikes me as too obvious to deny.

              Timothy Snyder’s account, like Krugman’s, strikes me as essentially on target:


              • I suspect the popular usage of ‘fascism’ has a determinate descriptive meaning at a quite general level that is often not very useful (something like “right-winger who is too willing or eager to advocate or resort to violence or repression of expression for political ideals or ends,” though often the ‘right-winger’ part is left out so that descriptions like ‘liberal fascism’ or ‘corporate fascism’ or the like make sense). One danger in using the term is that it will be interpreted in this way. Another (more concerning to me) is that the term functions as something of an epithet. And so it can start very personal fights. It can also feed the tendency to use the term to refer to just about anything that the speaker does not like: after all, if you can successfully apply the term, the argument is automatically won and your opponent is likely to be lowered in social status (similarly, but perhaps to an even greater degree, for ‘racism’).

                I do think there is something real and bad here to get at and fight against. But I don’t think it is what you take yourself to be referring to. Specifically, I don’t think the interesting and important thing here is a literal political ideology or movement. There is nothing around right now that is specific enough for that (there is no specifically “authoritarian” right-wing political program, more like a bunch of resentments and complaints). However, I think that there are more than disparate elements of such political programs (or the belief and value roots of such) and that this needs to be identified and fought against in some strategically smart way. There are somewhat unified sets of beliefs and values, right and left, that are dangerous in that they undermine individual rights, democracy and the rule of law. Borrowing Synder’s term, I kind of like the tag ‘proto-fascism’ to refer to the dangerous mindset on the right. However, I think that, for public moral and political discourse, something like ‘proto-authoritarian mindset ‘ (‘right-wing proto-authoritarian mindset’, ‘left-wing proto-authoritarian mindset’) is better because it pretty much eliminates the cultural/tribal warfare epithet elements.

                Here is my shooting-from-the-hip characterization of the proto-fascist or right-wing proto-authoritarian mindset: it is a mindset characterized by (i) a kind of intuitive, symbols-really-matter patriotism or nationalism, (ii) reaction to broadly tradition-challenging morally aspirational changes in social values, (iii) being drawn toward framings of political conflict in terms of simple problems and simple solutions that require decisive action, (iv) being drawn toward a charismatic leader who promises such decisive action and is viewed as some kind of savior, (v) lack of adequate understanding or appreciation of democratic values and norms. If lots of people on the right have this mindset (or have it to a certain dangerous degree), we might get an anti-liberal, anti-democratic political program –or we might just get lots of the anti-liberal results without much in the way of an explicit political program. This is concerning! (But notice that if you replace my [i] and [ii] with naive sorts of anti-nationalism or internationalism and “progressive values,” you have the proto-authoritarian mindset of many Bernie Sanders supporters. Though this poses somewhat different dangers, likely not as serious as the right-wing version of the proto-authoritarian mindset, this too is plenty dangerous to some core liberal values and institutions.)

                However, having said this, I still think identifying (and condemning as appropriate) particular elements in such “wicked brews” is often better. The right-wing version of the proto-authoritarian mindset is a messy natrual-kinds-like phenomenon and there is much potential for misunderstanding and acrimony in the blanket identifying and accusing. Generally speaking, I’d start with identifying and condemning anti-liberal actions, but then go on to identify and condemn particular elements in the mindset that are most salient in the context. Perhaps highest on my list is recognizing that the alternative to democracy is violence (or repression). Quite dramatically illustrated last week! Hey, amped-up right-wing uncle or neighbor, do you get that now? What the fuck?

                One of the next things I’d focus on is lack of understanding or appreciation of the specific, non-merely-instrumentally-held values that underpin liberalism, democracy and the rule of law. Centrally: to get democracy, as against violence or repression, we need to do the somewhat unnatural or wrong-feeling thing of prioritizing adherence to legal procedure even when doing so countenances real or perceived miscarriages of substantive injustice. Legally, OJ is innocent. Legally, Biden won (all the legal avenues for challenge were exhausted). That should matter to you. A lot. In a democracy, you address shortcomings in substantive justice in the legal rules by changing them for next time. And there is no guarantee that such efforts will succeed. So go fight for a bipartisan electoral fraud commission (though, guess what, you won’t get it because the Democrats will put partisanship over the public interest — and sorry that’s more of what you need to “eat” if you want democracy).

                Though it does not directly speak to the items on my list because it is more general, also of great importance in combating these proto-authoritarian mindsets is identifying (and condemning as necessary or appropriate) people hating and demonizing opponents (or people who are different from them in other, non-ideological non-disputed-value ways). This is as humanly natural as picking your nose, but there has to be at least firm social guardrails on these attitudes and behaviors of we are to have a liberal democracy and a tolerant society. And the salient alternative, again, is what you just saw! Get it, amped-up right-wingers? Get it, hypocritical, over-the-top wokesters who just got through endorsing “good” riots? I think this kind of thing often comes disguised as justified moral condemnation. I think social media makes these tendencies much, much worse. And I think that labeling those with (some degree of) right-wing proto-authoritarian mindset as fascists generally fans these flames and does more harm than any good that comes from publicly identifying and condemning in broad strokes the bad mindset as a whole.

                While we are at it, let’s semi-retire the terms ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’ in public political discourse for the same fundamental reasons of diminished cognitive value and promotion of mutual-hatred-stoking craziness. In the case of these terms as well, we need to be specific and strategic (identification-wise and condemnation-wise) for both reasons of clear communication and reasons of not making the moral and political factions in our country want to kill each other.


                • I don’t think what you’re calling the popular usage of fascism is that far off. It’s incomplete, but not wrong as far as it goes. Compare it with my off-the-cuff quasi definition, and you see both the similarities and the omissions.

                  But just to get one thing out of the way, I take it to be obvious that fascism is a right-wing phenomenon. I can’t figure out whether you want to deny that or not, but there’s no good reason to deny it. We have a generic concept, “totalitarianism,” to subsume totalitarianisms of both Left and Right, but “fascism” names the right-wing species, as “communism” is a left-wing species. There is a recurring tendency for specifically right-wing governments to turn fascist as a means of combatting the real or imaginary perils of The Left. The paradigm cases are Italy under Mussolini, Spain under Franco, Japan under Hirohito, Germany under the Nazis, Chile under Pinochet, Portugal under Salazar, apartheid South Africa, and (more controversially), the Israeli occupation, Russia under Putin, Hungary under Orban, the Philippines under Duterte, and Brazil under Bolsonaro. The claim that Trump is fascist is that his brand of governance bears more of a similarity to these regimes than it does to the Soviet Union and its satellites, or Maoist China, North Korea, North Vietnam, etc.

                  I’m taking two things to be basic:

                  1. The fascist governments above are right wing regimes.
                  2. They get their support from people who regard them as combating the Left.

                  Given that, it’s incoherent to speak of “left-wing fascism.” “Corporate fascism” is sometimes a metaphor and sometimes real, but when real, refers to corporate support for right-wing governments (which is very real). I am not sure what “liberal fascism” means, but since American liberals are after all capitalists of one sort or another, it’s not inconceivable for them to support a form of fascism that is right-wing in its attempt to preserve welfare capitalism (hence to the left of socialism), but left-wing relative to the American Right.

                  I don’t see the argument for why the account of fascism I gave is not useful. I can see why the popular version is not useful: it’s incomplete and historically uninformed. But that’s true of popular culture generally, and seems to me beside the point. You’re criticizing my ascription of fascism to Trump, so I’d think that what’s relevant is my conception of fascism (which is pretty standard among political scientists), not the popular one. The popular one is on the right track, but hasn’t traveled far enough along that track to say very much.

                  You say:

                  One danger in using the term is that it will be interpreted in this way. Another (more concerning to me) is that the term functions as something of an epithet. And so it can start very personal fights. It can also feed the tendency to use the term to refer to just about anything that the speaker does not like: after all, if you can successfully apply the term, the argument is automatically won and your opponent is likely to be lowered in social status (similarly, but perhaps to an even greater degree, for ‘racism’).

                  I don’t see the force of any of these considerations. One danger in using any term is that it can be misinterpreted, but that seems an argument against language, not an argument against my ascription of “fascism” to Donald Trump. And anyway, I don’t think the “danger” you cite is all that dangerous.

                  Yes, the term functions as an epithet. It’s supposed to. If Donald Trump and his supporters really were fascists, would it make sense to describe them in terms that conveyed approbation?

                  To say that the use of the term can “start fights” is, in all honesty, to wander into WTF territory. Isn’t it more accurate to say that they’re the ones who started the “fight”? How is using the term “fascist” as a verbal description of the fight that they started a case of starting a fight? If your claim is that the term can start a fight, so can any criticism, depending on the “snowflake” quality of the person being criticized. But again, this brings us to reductio territory. Suppose that they really are fascists. You seem to be asking us to appease their temper tantrums about calling them what they are, lest a “fight” ensue–when fights are precisely what have been under way since Trump was first elected. The fundamental question is whether they are fascists, not how they’ll react if they’re called fascists.

                  Just to repeat the obvious: they are fighting us. We didn’t invade the Capitol. They did. We are not threatening to attack 50 state capitols. They are. We are not threatening to overthrow the US government. They are.

                  Your argument dismisses out of hand the possibility that if the Trump administration is fascist, then it’s perfectly justifiable that the application of the term to that administration should automatically prove that the administration is evil. It’s as though someone argued, “Well, if you call an action rape, it would automatically follow that a terrible crime had been committed. Hence we should never call an action ‘rape.'” The argument seems to imply that we should want to abolish all immediate inferences from our moral semantics. But immediate inferences play as crucial a role in moral semantics as they do in ordinary logic. It’s a feature, not a bug, that modus ponens is an immediate inference. It would make no sense to object to the immediacy of the MP inference on the grounds that if you face a true conditional of the form ‘if p, then q,’ and the antecedent obtains, no further steps are required before you conclude that the consequent obtains–as though there just had to be further steps, on pain of dogmatism. Some inferences should be immediate.

                  What’s not literally self-evident is whether the Trump Administration really is fascist. But if it’s fascist, it’s an immediate inference that it’s evil, and its supporters are supporting evil. That their social status is lowered is exactly what they deserve. There’s no reason it should be as high as it is–from Mike Pompeo and Jared Kushner down to the yahoos who invaded the Capitol. The former should be unemployed; the latter should be in prison. To be called “fascists” should be the least of their concerns.

                  On ideology, you say:

                  Specifically, I don’t think the interesting and important thing here is a literal political ideology or movement. There is nothing around right now that is specific enough for that (there is no specifically “authoritarian” right-wing political program, more like a bunch of resentments and complaints). However, I think that there are more than disparate elements of such political programs (or the belief and value roots of such) and that this needs to be identified and fought against in some strategically smart way. There are somewhat unified sets of beliefs and values, right and left, that are dangerous in that they undermine individual rights, democracy and the rule of law.

                  “Having a specific, worked-out ideology” is not a necessary condition of fascism; just the reverse. It’s left-wing totalitarianisms that tend to have worked-out ideologies (e.g., Marxism); fascist regimes define themselves in opposition to the Left, and tend to be eclectic. I went out of my way to stick that into my quasi-definition of “fascism”: fascisms (I said) tend to be “ideologically eclectic.” They’re consistent only in having identifiable enemies, and in glorifying “The Nation,” and the cult of personality. But ideologically, they’re all over the place.

                  If theocracy and fascism overlap (as perhaps they do), then I suppose fascist theocracies have somewhat worked-out ideologies. But secular regimes tend not to, and even theocratic regimes face the problem that ancient sacred texts offer little guidance on contemporary problems. So despite their official ideology, they tend to be ideologically eclectic, too.

                  You, on Snyder:

                  Borrowing Synder’s term, I kind of like the tag ‘proto-fascism’ to refer to the dangerous mindset on the right. However, I think that, for public moral and political discourse, something like ‘proto-authoritarian mindset ‘ (‘right-wing proto-authoritarian mindset’, ‘left-wing proto-authoritarian mindset’) is better because it pretty much eliminates the cultural/tribal warfare epithet elements.

                  Snyder’s view is that the Republican Party consists of “breakers” and “gamers,” those who want to destroy liberal democracy and those who opportunistically want to ride the populist coattails of the breakers. On Snyder’s view, the breakers are straightforward fascists. The Trump phenomenon is only “proto-fascist” because Trump himself was an incompetent gamer. I regard that as a somewhat overly charitable view of Trump, but regardless, Snyder’s analysis presupposes the legitimacy of applying “fascist” to the Trump regime (more to its supporters than the regime itself, but that is still a wholehearted application).

                  This claim of Snyder’s contradicts the basic point of your comment:

                  In this sense, the responsibility for Trump’s push to overturn an election must be shared by a very large number of Republican members of Congress. Rather than contradict Trump from the beginning, they allowed his electoral fiction to flourish. They had different reasons for doing so. One group of Republicans is concerned above all with gaming the system to maintain power, taking full advantage of constitutional obscurities, gerrymandering and dark money to win elections with a minority of motivated voters. They have no interest in the collapse of the peculiar form of representation that allows their minority party disproportionate control of government. The most important among them, Mitch McConnell, indulged Trump’s lie while making no comment on its consequences.

                  Your comment tries to get people off the hook; Snyder wants to put them on the hook. I have some minor disagreements with Snyder, but fundamentally agree with that.

                  I think this kind of thing often comes disguised as justified moral condemnation. I think social media makes these tendencies much, much worse. And I think that labeling those with (some degree of) right-wing proto-authoritarian mindset as fascists generally fans these flames and does more harm than any good that comes from publicly identifying and condemning in broad strokes the bad mindset as a whole.

                  That conflates two different issues. I personally was against all of the mass protests that took place during the pandemic, including the ones over George Floyd’s death. But whether Trump is a fascist is a separate issue from whether liberals are guilty of a double standard on public demonstrations during the pandemic (or demonstrations that involve disrupting legislative or judicial sessions). I’m the first to admit that there is such a double standard. I was against the summer race protests, and against the invasions of the Wisconsin state legislature under Scott Walker. This, for instance, strikes me as pointless liberal excuse-making of a sort that should stop:


                  I also think that the issues surrounding George Floyd’s death were very poorly reported by the mainstream media.
                  But that doesn’t change my view on Trump’s fascism. I don’t see any important conceptual connection between calling Trump a fascist and adopting a double standard on left-leaning protests. Tu quoque is a fallacy.

                  As a footnote, though the 2011 occupation of the Wisconsin legislature was about a budget bill, it’s worth noting that the Democrats turned out to be correct in Wisconsin re their fundamental procedural complaint about the Republicans: the Republicans really were guilty of unconstitutional vote stealing in that instance via gerrymandering. Republican efforts to undermine democratic procedures and norms go a long way back, and are all rationalized as what’s necessary to “fight socialism.”


                  The Capitol insurrection is just the culmination of decades of Republican efforts to subvert democracy. For all the tooth-gnashing they inspire on the Right, Krugman’s analyses of Republican politics have been amazingly prescient: go back and read his columns over the last decade. He’s been exactly on target, both in his predictions and in his underlying explanation of events.

                  Your proposal that we retire the terms “socialism” and “communism” from our discourse makes things much worse, not better. How would we teach twentieth century history if deprived of these terms? And how could we expect anyone to understand twenty-first century politics without understanding twentieth century history? But even in contemporary terms, it’s perfectly legitimate to object to certain Democratic policies on the grounds that those policies would take us to socialism–an undesirable destination. “Fascism,” “socialism,” and “communism” all have legitimate semantic purposes (along with “oligarchy,” “theocracy,” “imperialism,” and “totalitarianism”). We can’t just throw them all out because using them makes their practitioners and supporters angry. Maybe they should consider that their practices make the rest of us angry. The least we can do is call them what they are.

                  Liked by 1 person

                • Replying (finally) to your Jan. 15 1:02 pm response. I’ll respond just to one central point of disagreement.

                  There is an important difference between someone exhibiting many elements in my list (or some better list) of right-wing authoritarian tendencies (and exhibiting them strongly enough) and someone, in addition to this, advocating or acting in accord with an actual political program that aims to overthrow liberal democracy as an antidote to “the left.” I agree that, historically, fascists (the folks with actual overthrow-liberalism political programs) have been eclectic ideologically. Political programs don’t need to be particularly ideological. Perhaps my list should have an analogous adherence to kooky or eclectic ideology element (after all, enthusiastic Trump supporters include Bernie Bros, QAnon folks, Tea Partiers, Obama voters, union members who feel economically and culturally betrayed by the Democrats, etc.). But we cannot just fudge the crucial “let’s actually overthrow the liberal, democratic regime” element by pointing to (and to some extent mischaracterizing) the Capital riots, Republican gerrymandering, Republicans liking the electoral college system, etc. That’s not publicly-stated (or private) intent to overthrow the liberal system (and neither were Trump’s beliefs about the election being stolen from him, Ted Cruz objecting to slates of electors, etc.).

                  The most you can get here, if you are really concerned with literal fascism as a political program, is that the folks who planned the riot are literal fascists (as, of course, are far-right extremists like Greg Johnson). Not Trump, not Trump supporters generally. Varying degrees of right-wing authoritarian tendencies in Trump and many of his supporters? For sure. Dangerous? For sure. Recent events fueled by Trump’s delusions about the election objectively (or perhaps by intent) creeping up on literal political fascism? A respectable argument can be made. But we have to be specific and accurate. If we are accurate (and recognize the importance of the distinction I draw here), then, fine, condemn away — but only as appropriate to the crime (and let’s be prudent here too — warranted condemnation can be strategically bad enough to be something to avoid). Overblown, unwarranted condemnation as fascist (or racist) via expansive definitions that overlook relevant moral distinctions produces victims, unnecessary repression of thought and behavior and unnecessary conflict.


  3. Michael,

    Final comment on this for now, responding to your Feb 3 comment above.

    I guess the first issue for me is: would you still insist on throwing the term “fascism” out of political discourse?

    Second point: a person can be a fascist without advocating or participating in the overthrow of a government. He might be too prudent or fearful to participate, or simply think that as a tactical matter, fascism is better promoted by quiet internal subversion than overt overthrow.

    But I think your comment about the Capitol insurrection misunderstands the event itself. You write about the event as though the only people supporting it were the people literally in the building. This ignores the fact that many of the people involved were elected officials who represent whole districts of constituents, and who have suffered no significant political repercussions for having not just passively supported but actively engaged in insurrection.

    Here is a non-exhaustive list of local-level Republican politicians to that effect:

    More on the same topic:

    If these officials have not gotten much criticism back in their home districts (and they haven’t), I think we can infer that their districts are fascist-dominated. Note that it doesn’t follow that other districts aren’t; it’s just obvious that these ones are.

    Neither of the first two lists above includes Susan Soloway, the county commissioner for my own county, Hunterdon, in New Jersey.

    Attempts to censure her or get her unseated have met consistent opposition from the Republican-dominated district.

    She was unanimously elected director of the county commission by Republicans who knew exactly where she stands, because they know that her constituents back her in her support for Trump-oriented politics. Nothing has changed since January 6. If anything, their backs have stiffened (not just the politicians but their constituents).

    I take Hunterdon to be typical of Trump-dominated counties. I’ve given you local evidence of support for the insurrection at the local level, both coarse and fine grained. I have no problem saying that Hunterdon County is a fascist-dominated county. If Hunterdon is typical, and there are many Hunterdons in every state in the country, there is plenty of fascism in this country.

    It’s beside the point that people’s support for fascism comes in degrees, from the fire-breathing to the lukewarm. That was true of Weimar and Nazi Germany as well, and was essential to the rise of the Nazism. The Nazis didn’t expect wholehearted support from all of Germany (or Austria); they just knew they had support at the margins, and framed their message accordingly. You can easily get mass death out of a basically complacent population. That’s what our experience of COVID has been. Right-wingers have spent the last year making excuses for the death toll. Consistent message: approximating half a million deaths is no big deal, and we should get over it. (I highly recommend Thomas Childers’s The Nazi Voter: The Social Foundations of Fascism in Germany, 1919-1933, which makes the above points clear in the German context, with plenty of empirical evidence.)

    When people accept, en masse, blatant lies, transparent bigotry, and insouciance about mass death, we’re well inside fascist territory. And people on the Trump-supporting political Right (which is the American Right nowadays) obviously accept these things, and have done so since he started campaigning in 2015. What’s missing for these people is simply their path to power. They’ve learned how to find that path at the local level in certain districts. The only thing preventing these districts from being all-out bastions of full-fledged fascism is that they’re parts of larger wholes that prevent that from happening.

    Example: Hunterdon County is (I have no problem saying) a fascist-dominated county. What prevents it from descending into all-out fascism is the fact that the State of New Jersey is a Democratic-dominated state. But consider this not-very-outlandish-thought-experiment: If the people of New Jersey elected to state office the sorts of people who run Hunterdon County, and we had Trump back as president, then to the extent that New Jersey law was immune from oversight by non-fascist parts of the federal government (by states’ rights via the Tenth Amendment), we would have full-fledged fascism in New Jersey. I really don’t see what you find implausible about that. In this thought-experiment, no insurrection would be needed to establish fascism; the fascists would gain power by election. But once elected, we would have fascism minus any insurrection. The relevant issue is not support for or participation in the insurrection, but commitment to centralized power in the name of ethno-nationalism.

    (The FIS, the Islamic fundamentalist party in Algeria, famously came to power through an election, not an insurrection. That doesn’t change the fact that the party as well as its supporters were theocratic fascists.,his%20bodyguards%2C%20Lieutenant%20Lambarek%20Boumaarafi.)

    I won’t belabor the higher-than-local support for Trump among elected officials (Cruz, Hawley, etc.), and by implication, their constituents. All I need is the Republicans’ obvious, transparent reluctance to engage in an expeditious impeachment of Trump. What these Republicans are saying by their actions is that Trump’s participation in an attempt to overthrow the government is not important enough to rise to the level of impeachment-worthy. “Let’s just forget it, let bygones be bygones, and move on–so that Trump et al can enjoy immunity, and possibly serve in office in some other capacity.”

    From this article: a strong majority of Republicans still support Trump.

    In other words, close to 70% of Republicans support a nationalist insurrection against liberal, constitutional government. How is problematic to call that fascist even by your strictures?

    Again, I think Will is exactly on target:

    But beyond Will, a huge amount has been written on this, with plenty of supporting evidence.

    At the national level, Republican politicians are playing exactly the game that the German Nationalists played with the Nazis:

    The Nazis were obviously fascist, but so, in my view, were the non-Nazi right-wing parties that cooperated with them and put them in power.

    I don’t think there’s anything “overblown” about calling the Trump phenomenon fascist. The refusal to do so strikes me as a clear case of refusing to learn from history.


  4. Michael,

    As if on cue, The New York Times has this article in today’s issue:

    There’s a question how far beyond Michigan this generalizes, but I don’t think it’s reasonably disputable that the phenomenon itself, in Michigan, as depicted by this article, is textbook fascism. The relationship between the Republican Party and the militias is the spitting image of the relationship between the German Nationalists of the Weimar era and the Nazi Brownshirts.

    Historical analogies don’t get closer than this. To deny that this is fascism is tantamount to denying that the Nazis’ rise to power was fascist. Your argument is literally–I mean literally–the analogue of sitting in Weimar Germany in 1930 and objecting to the use of “fascist” to describe the rise of the Nazis.

    To continue with the thought I expressed in the last comment: the only reason why Hunterdon County doesn’t exactly mirror Michigan is that it’s in New Jersey, which doesn’t mirror Michigan. So, for instance, our gun control laws are much stricter than theirs. But within the scope of those laws, there is no question that right-wing New Jerseyans are arming themselves. Friends of mine who live in rural Hunterdon County (and who blend in better than I do) have made this clear to me, and it’s been reported on in the local press: lots of people buying guns; lots sailing through their pro forma interviews with the local police; lots spending time on target practice on their rural farms, far in excess of what is usual for purposes of hunting, etc.


    • Thanks for the reply and sorry to take awhile to get back. Several brief responses:

      (1) We can keep ‘fascist’ if it is used to refer to folks who (among other things) actually oppose liberal democracy and want something else (however vague that something else is). But there are very few clear cases of this, since doing or saying or thinking this or that thing (or set of things) that is damaging to or disrespectful of liberal democracy is almost never clearly tantamount to saying ‘I think liberal democracy is bad and we should try something else’. So I think the occasions of cognitively legitimate use are pretty rare, but this is somewhat of a contestable matter (due to what counts as being fundamentally against liberal democracy in one’s political ideas without having the actual, explicit belief). But you can count this as something of a concession on my part! Also I should have said ‘being against liberal democracy’ not ‘wanting to overthrow liberal democracy’. The condition or feature here concerns political ideology, not specifically ideas about overthrowing this or that political system.

      (2) Which brings us to Jan. 6. ‘Insurrectionist’ is inaccurate as applied to anyone other than the folks who engaged in, planned or supported violent prevention of the formal counting of electoral votes to prevent the election from being finalized (and I’d say the more accurate term for the event is ‘riot’ despite apparently one or two dozen folks who engaged in insurrectionist planning, acts, etc.).

      (3) Trump should not have exaggerated the credible (and not-so-credible) claims of electoral fraud into the claim that the election was stolen from him (and just kept beating this drum to get his supporters riled up). And, when existing legal, constitutional rules (and less formal norms) for settling matters were exhausted, he should have given up the fight to win the election and stay in office (he could have continued to claim fraud, called for investigations, not gotten them, and ridden this line of attack back into the Presidency in 2024). Both of these things are damaging to important institutional norms in our democracy and demand strong condemnation. However, I characterize them as I just did, not as fascist, because doing these things and exhibiting some factors on my list does not — in my opinion — constitute having a fascist political program. We have a step in that direction and the interesting and vital question is how big that step is, how many such steps Trump has taken, what they sum up to. This debate cannot be pre-empted by saying the word ‘fascist’. That Trump occasionally insulted judges but consistently respected their verdicts (and seemed to obey certain clear institutional rules pretty well) is a good indication of where his political ideas are and where the country is (as far as sliding into literal fascism is concerned).

      (4) Trump encouraging supporters to get out in the street in support of these damaging things (the false stolen-election claim, the challenging/stretching/breaking of institutional norms for how the Electoral College has operated for quite awhile) is not insurrection on Trump’s part. Nor is it insurrection for Ted Cruz to challenge slates of electors (though this lends support to both forms of damage that Trump did here). Again, I take you to be using a term (‘insurrection’) in an (objectively) too-imprecise and overly-broad way and in a way that simply asserts your interpretation of a matter that deserves more subtle (though not merely dry “seminar room”) treatment.

      That’s all for now. Though we disagree, you always push me to appreciate points in favor of your position more and I’m always better off for it. So thanks for that. And I hope the same is true for you!


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