Political violence has returned to the United States. Outside a Donald Trump rally in San Jose Thursday night, anti-Trump protesters viciously attacked the presumptive Republican nominee’s supporters as they exited the arena in which Trump spoke. This was not the first instance of mass political violence against Trump’s supporters — the fracas outside a rally in Chicago in March was probably more egregious — but it was certainly as visible and ugly as any other. You could be forgiven for mistaking it for the 1968 Democratic Convention.
If political violence is one theme of the Trump campaign — both as implicitly encouraged by the candidate throughout this long primary season and as exercised against the supporters at his rallies — a torturous debate over fascism is another. To many, Trump’s strongman tactics, his insistence on making attendees at his rallies swear oaths to him, and his apparent disregard for the separation of powers and rule of law, reek of the demons of the 20th century. Many see in Trump — and the new class of Eastern European autocrats whom he, in many ways, resembles — shades of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco.
Left-wing pundits have made authoritarianism central to their critique of Trump. A December article by Jamelle Bouie in Slate carried the revealing, pithy headline “Donald Trump Is a Fascist,” and argued that to say so isn’t to launch “a partisan attack. It is the political label that best describes what the GOP frontrunner has become.” Bouie made sure to note that he wasn’t just using the label “fascist” to disparage Trump’s candidacy; rather, he argued, any dispassionate analysis would conclude that Trump was indeed a fascist, the inheritor of the legacies of the men who destroyed Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.
Jamil Smith had a similar take. Though he shied away from explicitly dubbing Trump a fascist, he had no problems with calling Trump’s ideas fascist — a distinction without difference. Others went further: George Clooney called Trump not only a fascist but a “xenophobic fascist” and Louis C.K. saw fit to call Trump “Hitler.” This attitude is not confined merely to the left; Robert Kagan, the neoconservative thinker, published a much-discussed op-ed in the Washington Post last month that argued Trump’s candidacy is “how fascism comes to America.”
Of course, it’s not hard to see why so many thinkers view Trump as a fascist threat, given his willingness to use violence to further his own goals. Assaults on protesters at his rallies are all too common, and they’re often egged on by Trump himself, standing at the podium. Trump has explicitly threatened political violence before — recall his remark in March that “I think you’d have riots” in the case of a brokered convention in Cleveland — and groups of his followers have formed vitriolic online groups that dog anyone who dares offer dissent. These are tendencies more often found in fascist leaders than in those who obey democratic norms, and writers who call Trump a fascist are not doing so entirely without reason.
#share#So if Donald Trump is a fascist, what is to be done? Do we allow supposed fascists — people who (along with Communists) seek the destruction of democratic government — the political rights to which all citizens are entitled? Should they be defeated at the ballot box, or in the streets? The San Jose riots suggest that a significant contingent of Americans has chosen the latter.
It is one of the ironies of this campaign season that pundits were wrong in a crucial respect: They anticipated that violence would rise from within Trump’s movement. Bouie, for example, wrote that, “In the Europe of the 1920s and ’30s, fascist parties organized armed gangs to intimidate political opponents.” The implication was clear: It would only be a matter of time before Trump formed a personal corps of brownshirts, willing to use their fists to corral their candidate’s opponents into order.
In reality, the opposite has happened. Political violence has arisen not from the right, but from the left. Progressives are already predisposed to violence against Trump supporters as a consequence of the mindset wherein political rights are only accorded to those who ascribe to a slate of largely liberal viewpoints. Add to that the belief that your opponent is a fascist intent only on the usurpation of personal power and the destruction of the democratic system, and you get a toxic mix, one that makes the leap to justifying violence a short one indeed. As the socialist provocateur Fredrik deBoer, no friend of liberal pundits, wrote on Twitter: “Journalists with big platforms called Trump a literal fascist on the rise for months. How did you expect people to react to that?”
If you call Trump a fascist often enough, people will begin to believe you.
The street battles in San Jose on Thursday night were the logical, foreseeable consequence of branding Trump with the F word. If you call Trump a fascist often enough, people will begin to believe you. If you insist that this is a “Weimar moment” in which Western democracy is mortally threatened, a Weimar moment is what you’ll get. Given the number of Americans predisposed to believe a fascist with a real shot at the presidency can only be defeated through violent means, the conditional statement that begins with “If Donald Trump is a fascist” can only end one way.
It took millions of lives, trillions of dollars, and untold human suffering to defeat fascism the first time around. People know that; one needs only to look at Robert Capa’s photographs of D-Day to see the struggles of the Second World War are ingrained in our national consciousness. When pundits tell their readers that a fascist is mustering his forces to destroy American democracy, those readers react in a way that might be appropriate if Hitler’s reincarnation were indeed on the way to winning the presidency. (Hitler did, after all, come to power through democratic means, an uncomfortable reality for those who believe fully in the sanctity of the democratic process.)
The term “fascist” is a very, very powerful thing. Its powers extend far beyond those exerted by the words “racist” or “misogynist” or “xenophobic,” for fascists threaten not merely a specific race or sex but rather the entire polity. If pundits are to use it to describe Trump and his movement, they must be prepared to live with the consequences.
— Noah Daponte-Smith is an intern at National Review.