Jonathan P. Baird: What does fascism look like?

  • Trump and MAGA purses sit on a poolside table as guests gather before the start of a Republican Party of Palm Beach County dinner at Mar-a-Lago in 2018. Bruce R. Bennett / The Palm Beach Post

For the Monitor
Published: 2/7/2022 11:01:48 AM
Modified: 2/7/2022 11:00:07 AM

By JONATHAN P. BAIRD

Back in 2015, I started writing about the threat of fascism represented by the Trump/MAGA movement. Unfortunately, I believe the seriousness of that threat is still poorly understood. Part of the problem is the lack of clarity about the word fascism. “Fascist” is often hurled as an insult, almost an expletive. It remains fuzzy what fascism means.

Fascism has a shape-shifting quality. It embodies different manifestations in different locations. People talk about Germany or Italy or other places that have experienced fascism. Sometimes I have seen checklists with a number of defining characteristics about authoritarianism, like items on a menu. If you have a certain number, bingo, you qualify as fascism. Checklists may have value but the definition remains vague and ill-defined.

There are some good definitions of fascism. Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works, has offered several. The best one states, “Fascism is a cult of the leader who promises national restoration in the face of supposed humiliation by minorities, leftists, immigrants, feminists and the LGBT community.”

Stanley goes on to say that a fascist leader “promises that only he can protect the nation, protect its traditions from their threat and restore lost glory.”

I think this definition captures the MAGA phenomenon. There is a cult of personality around Donald Trump. He has explicitly said since he knows the system better than anyone, he is the only one who can fix it.

Unlike most conventional political parties, the Republican Party came out of its 2020 convention with no political platform. That is because the party stands for whatever Trump says. If Trump says we support the Big Lie of election fraud, followers acquiesce. More than agreement in public policy, agreement with the Big Lie is the most important determining factor in whether Trump will support other Republican politicians.

When Trump was president, we watched his cabinet members humiliate themselves with their fawning tributes and flattery to the Great Leader. There is a reason Trump said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose votes. It may not be Jim Jones-level, drink-the kool-aid devotion but MAGA reeks of cult. The loyalty to the Great Leader partly explains Jan. 6.

‘Making America Great Again’ is a seeming movement of national restoration although it is never explained what period in American history was “great.” Fascism typically evokes a mythic past destroyed.

As for the enemies cited in Stanley’s definition, MAGA has demonized and dehumanized each group. White supremacy is MAGA’s calling card. MAGA allegedly speaks for the dominant ethnic group, disgruntled white people, worried about their great replacement by minorities and immigrants.

Trump treated Black Lives Matter, an overwhelmingly non-violent movement, as a symbol of hate. He sided with those who wanted to maintain Confederate monuments, a posture consistent with 1950s southern segregationists.

Immigrants, whether documented or undocumented, were registered as objects of hate-mongering. Remember Trump saying Mexico is not sending its best? It is sending rapists and criminals. Contrary to the MAGA narrative sold to the public, immigration into the U.S. plunged in 2021 because of a decline in international travel brought on by COVID-19 restrictions and restrictive immigration policies.

For anyone paying attention, there is a major labor shortage in the United States. The truth is that low immigration has made the labor shortage worse.

The term “radical leftist” as used by Trump has been emptied to mean any Democrat. Trump has rendered “radical leftist” meaningless because people like Biden are anything but leftist.

Antifa is another boogeyman that is a joke. As someone who identifies as a leftist and a democratic socialist, Antifa is a tiny sect with an inconsequential following that does not represent people on the left. Attacking Antifa is bogus because Antifa is a straw man and virtually a mirage.

Feminists and LGBT people do stand in opposition to the toxic masculinity represented by Trump. This is a person who has been credibly accused of sexual misconduct by over 20 women but MAGA apparently forgives the sins because Trump has worked so dutifully to take away women’s freedom of choice. Republicans generally have stoked fear of transgender people. Beating up on a little-understood, despised minority is their shameful good politics.

Fascists historically have panicked about any deviation from the traditional patriarchal family, rigid sex roles and gender hierarchy. Women are supposed to stay in their place, having babies for the cause. Fascism is rooted in male supremacy.

Stanley offers a second definition of fascism: ultranationalism in the service of the financial elite. ‘America First’ perfectly expresses fascism’s ultranationalism. Stanley describes democracy as the mother of fascism and he says every democracy is vulnerable, particularly when extreme economic inequality becomes the norm. Then elites may opt-out of support for democracy, concluding fascism will better protect their money.

We have seen this opt-out on the American Right with their glorification of authoritarian strongman Viktor Orbán of Hungary. Orbán effectively junked democracy and rules as a one party state dictator without checks and balances. Orbán conducts blatant antisemitic campaigns against George Soros and FOX personalities like Tucker Carlson have no problem with that.

Fascism is not a coherent set of ideological doctrines or a type of government. It rejects democratic values like the rule of law, individual rights and multi-cultural pluralism. It is the failure of elites that leads to fascism. Fascists use racism and xenophobia to split apart the public to protect the 1%.

Fascists talk about “draining the swamp” while hiding their own rampant corruption. The fascist stew includes anti-intellectualism, disregard for the truth, anti-science, hostility to a free press, the proliferation of paramilitary groups, gun mania, conspiracy theories, book banning, racism and hate.

Readers can judge for themselves whether the Republican Party is closer to the picture I have painted or closer to a normal political party competing for power. Whatever happens to Trump, his MAGA movement has opened Pandora’s box. If a movement like MAGA comes to power in 2024, we are very likely to never see another democratic election.

(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.)




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