OPINION: Fascism: The American Drama

When observing the Lincoln Memorial one can see bundles of sticks tied together chiseled onto the front of Lincoln’s armrests. This symbol is called the fasces and has appeared in government since the Roman Empire. Each stick represents a person – when alone they are breakable, weak and brittle, but when standing together, the group is strong. Today it serves two roles in America: as a symbol of authority and security, and representing fascism.

The word fascism tends to leave a bad taste in the mouth of those who speak it. Today it is often confused with authoritarianism and despotism and usually gets a similar reaction when mentioned. While fascist nations were often authoritarian and despotic, this is not an integral part of theoretical fascism. The end of the Second World War saw the term scantily used by political parties, most using the term as a sneer rather than a defining fundamental tenet of their organization, yet fascism is still widely and diversely used across America today.

The origins of fascism can be traced as recently as the end of the Great War. A former radical socialist and anti-war advocate, Benito Mussolini looked for other ways to bring his great Italy to reality after socialism failed his nation. He realized that a greater Italy should be founded, not out of anger of class divisions and pacifism, but strong authority, ruthless aggression and unity under one strong national identity, the main hallmarks of fascism.

In America, this ideology has a rich and deep history. After the events of the Great War, many Americans sought alternatives to the conventional American parties, becoming communist or fascist. Several movements sprung up, such as the Silver Shirts, or the German-American Bund. The First Red Scare saw many anti-communist Americans gather together to resist Marxism, which gave these movements momentum. The Great Depression caused even more Americans to become dissatisfied with the old political system and gave even more power to the fascists, who wanted to save their country.

During WWII, fascism had a significant impact on American politics. Fascist ideas and rhetoric were able to gain traction in mainstream politics, and many politicians and public figures expressed sympathy for fascist regimes in Europe. One of the most prominent of these was Charles Lindbergh, a famous aviator and isolationist who was a vocal supporter of Nazi Germany.

Lindbergh was a pacifist and argued against American involvement in WWII. Yet Germany’s loss in the war was the biggest blow to fascism in America. Once the atrocities of the German government were revealed to the American population, the word became associated with totalitarianism and concentration camps.

American Fascism is strongest in areas of social conservatism and traditionalism. Most importantly, understanding the Second Red Scare of the 1950s is paramount to understanding the tenets and areas of American fascism. Take McCarthyism, for example, an ideology devoted to the protection of America from “dirty” Communists. There are parallels here to elsewhere in history.

Fascists developed around the communist specter of influence in Germany and Italy and in America during the First Red Scare. Later, Hitler’s SA, a paramilitary organization, gained significant power in their street battles with German communists. The comparison between German anti-communism and American anti-communism deepens even further when remembering that both countries purged suspected socialists – the Germans during the Night of the Long Knives, and America during the McCarthy trials. McCarthyism in America, an abuse of American liberties, runs parallel to the fascism of Germany and Italy.

Here is where the trail runs dry. When Americans entered into a period of progressivism and liberalism in the 1960s and 1970s, fascist ideas lost steam, even during the conservative reaction of the 1980s. Fascism ran cold – until 2016, that is. Fascism returned anew in a suit of shining orange armor under the weight of its strongest frontrunner in American history, none other than the brash, confident, strong and ambitious Donald Trump.

Trump’s ideology was not formed in a vacuum. It played on existing American beliefs and anxieties. Trump’s campaign hinged on nativism, nationalism and protectionism, relying on fears that have consistently underpinned American fascism.

Trumpism is an inherent offshoot of the neoconservatism that was born in the American southwest in the 1960s. Beginning with the spectacular Goldwater loss in the 1964 election, American groups like the Young Americans for Freedom grew in popularity, describing themselves as libertarian and conservative. As well-known American historian Eric Foner put it, the YAF claimed that they “offered a greater route to freedom.” They did so by proclaiming that the powers of Big Government and communism should be destroyed. Moreover, they offered the beginnings of a strong new conservative movement to take over America in the 1980s.

Even “Make America Great Again,” the slogan now ubiquitous with Trumpism, was popularized in the 1980s and utilized by Ronald Reagan. Presenting himself as someone separate from America’s political elite, Trump tapped into existing dissatisfaction with the state of American politics. As such, Trump is a direct offshoot of these 20th century political philosophies.

His populist rise to power is inherently fascist. Seeking to appeal to dissatisfaction with the state of America and her politics, Trump and his supporters make their intent of national revival clear. The “Make America Great Again” slogan not only implies room for growth but also the recovery of lost power. As fascism promotes a strong national identity, it often finds itself doing so to the exclusion of other groups to preserve that identity. One of Trump’s aspirations for handling the immigration crisis includes the all-too-famous wall.

Trump’s opinion toward the powers of the presidency broke from previous norms. From refusing to produce his tax returns to firing those who personally disagreed with him, Trump was unafraid to wield presidential power, going so far as to claim that as president his “authority is total.” Even after leaving office, Trump and his supporters have maintained an air of being above the law.

While not outright authoritarian, Trump’s presidency was characterized by broad sweeps of presidential power beyond the typical expansions of presidential power. Trump’s belief about his power as an executive was fueled by his perceived fervent popular support, feeding the air of fascism that surrounded his presidency.

It is also important to note the differences between Trump and ideological fascism. While deviating from previous fascist nations’ blatant racism, Trump used some derogatory language against Mexicans and called for a ban on Muslims entering the country during his 2016 presidential campaign. Fascist movements were rampant with racial supremacists and those who wanted to preserve their own “master race,” but there is no evidence that Trump has these kinds of beliefs. However, he openly sympathizes with white nationalists, such as former KKK leader David Duke, and his insensitive comments at the 2017 Charlottesville riots reveal his tendency to side with racists for his own political capital.

Even though Donald Trump is no longer president and the Republican party looks to be moving past him, his legacy lives on. Red states, such as Florida and Texas, still remain as strongholds for fascist ideas in America. In November 2021, Texas governor, Gov. Greg Abbott, and other Republican legislators issued warnings against the distribution of books that discussed themes of racism, sexuality and gender identity, ABC reported. Republican censorship comes from a direct wave of American attempts to maintain traditional values and fundamentalist beliefs – ideas that stem from the protectionist politics of fascists. In comparison, fascist Italy’s Ministry of Popular Culture banned books that bore socialist and communist beliefs in order to “protect” Italy.

21st century American fascism is a reactionary process against cultural transformation: the sexual liberation of the 20th century, mass Latin immigration and the globalization of the American economy. This process, however, fails to take into consideration that culture is a living, breathing and transformative thing. Trumpism and the Republican Party cannot revert and protect this New America because there is no New America.

There will always be just one America. Our America. Free to change and progress in whatever forms her people want. No amount of fascism and protectionism will ever change this.