What was the “Is Trump a Fascist?” Debate Really All About?

I have a new piece up at The New Yorker. I take stock of the debate over whether Trumpism is an authoritarian/fascist/tyrannical formation.

Throughout the Trump years, I consistently argued that that what I call the strongman thesis (just as a catch-all way of describing the various terms that were used for Trumpism) was not the most helpful way of thinking about what was going on with Trump or on the right. In this piece, I try to step back from that debate and examine what was really driving it.

Long story short: where liberals and leftists saw power on the right, I saw, and continue to see, paralysis. Not just on the right, in fact, but across the political spectrum.

And in an odd way, it was the centuries-long dream of democratic power that helped frame liberals’ and the left’s misunderstanding and misrecognition of our ongoing political paralysis.

As I argue in the piece’s conclusion:

This is the situation we now find ourselves in. One party, representing the popular majority, remains on the outskirts of power, thanks to the Constitution. The other party, representing the minority, cannot wield power when it has it but finds its position protected nonetheless by the very same Constitution.

We are not witnesses to Prometheus unbound. We are seeing the sufferings of Sisyphus, forever rolling his rock—immigration reform, new infrastructure, green jobs—up a hill. It’s no wonder everyone saw an authoritarian at the top of that hill. When no one can act, any performance of power, no matter how empty, can seem real.

Anyway, have a read of the piece at The New Yorker, and after you’re finished, feel free to weigh in here with your criticisms, complaints, compliments, and queries.


  1. Rick Perlstein March 13, 2021 at 1:14 pm | #

    Why does an analysis identifying Trump as a fascist necessarily conflict with claims that he, and the right current American right generally, is weak?

    • Benjamin David Steele March 14, 2021 at 11:47 am | #

      Exactly! An aspiring social dominator, no matter how effectively manipulative with media saavy and rudimentary charisma, isn’t necessarily guaranteed to become a successful authoritarian leader, even when they gain power or at least position as political leader of a country. Many factors are involved.

      One could easily argue that Trump wanted to be a strongman or at least to be perceived that way, as someone of young wealth who sought respectability. And it seems obvious that certain others hoped that he could be used to leverage influence within the poliltical sphere and revive flagging support for the Republican Party.

      Yet, obviously, he didn’t have what was required under present circumsances, even in the role of being a puppet for the greater schemes of devious minds. That is where Bannon failed in whispering into Trump’s ear. He saw Trump as a useful tool for his own fascist aspirations. It turns out, though, that Trump was less willing to comply.

      Still, I wouldn’t dismiss that, if different conditions had emerged such as world war, Trump might have suddenly found himself actually able to play out some of his fantasies of a strongman. Just because this seemingly pathetic attempt at authoritarianism met defeat doesn’t mean that failure was inevitable from the start.

    • Benjamin David Steele March 14, 2021 at 2:46 pm | #

      Let me first note something for context. According to diverse public polling, the vast majority of Americans have been moving left continuosly for decades. They are now to the left of almost all of the corporate media and corporatist politics, including the DNC. But even the leadership of the so-called “moral majority” as “silent majority” admitted in the 1980s that their far right position was so unpopular that they couldn’t win any elections without suppressing votes.

      I could be described as liberal or left-wing, although I’m about in the middle of majority public opinion. But like most people on the political left, I’m not a part of any economic, political, or intellectual elite. And like most Americans in general, I don’t have a college degree. Working class leftists/left-leaners like me, athough representing the single largest political demographic, are almost entirely ignored and silenced in how we are treated as if not existing.

      It doesn’t seem particularly confusing what has been going on. I perceived the right as having been weak during the rise of the Tea Party. But it was precisely because of that weakness that I predicted they could be dangerous, like an injured animal that is cornered. I also understood the dynamics of power can quickly shift as conditioins and mood shifts. I took the weakness as a sign of overall teetering instability that could tilt or topple in any direction.

      That was magnified by the reactionary co-optation that was represented by Bannon’s historically-informed vision and and Trump’s crude charisma. In his first presidential campaign, Trump was throwing around rhetoric that shifted between old school fascism and New Deal progressivism (populist religiosity, xenophobic isolationism, economic nationalism, rebuilding infrastructure, healthcare reform, etc). Most of it was empty bullshit, but it had powerful sway.

      Yet, like you, I’ve long sensed an overwhelming paralysis. That worried me more because it meant the system was maybe out of control. I didn’t fear Trump necessarily becoming a strongman, even as he obviously liked to push the fantasy of being a strongman. The paralysis combined with reactionary pseudo-populism seems like a potent and dangerous mix for the reason it creates the conditions where a more effective strongman could take over. Trump might be an early sign of worst to come.

      This potential threat might be less troubling if even one party actually represented the public, whether or not they had any real power. But that isn’t what we have. The Democrats are not as far right as the Republicans, but the DNC elite are to the right of the American public. So, it’s much worse than your portrayal of a Sisyphian task that goes nowhere. In certain ways, as the public has gone left, the elite have gone right, if not yet into fascism then maybe some other form of corporatocracy, inverted totalitarianism, or whatever — some kind of banana republic.

      One suspects there is real power in control, although it might be more of a deep state combined with transnational plutocracy and cronyism. Disappointingly, the Overton window shoved so far right has meant a soft-spoken neocon elite like Biden comes off sounding moderate. If a more successful strongman doesn’t come along to accomplish what Trump failed to do, I’m not sure the growing transnational authoritarianism offers hope for making possible reform. But given the uncertain times, dramatic changes could go in some unforeseen direction.


      • Benjamin David Steele March 14, 2021 at 4:29 pm | #

        I meant that longer comment to be a stand alone comment, not attached as a response to Rick Perlstein. My apologies. I hope that didn’t confuse anyone in wondering about what I was exactly responding to. It was intended as a direct response to Corey Robin’s article.

  2. carldavidson March 13, 2021 at 2:08 pm | #

    Here’s a link to a longer piece some of us did a while back. As things have unfolded, the Trump core has emerged as fascist with a wider rightwing populist periphery. http://ouleft.org/wp-content/uploads/Trump-and-American-Fascism.pdf

  3. john joseph March 13, 2021 at 6:03 pm | #

    I think you are brilliant and appreciated reading your piece. It was interesting and compelling. In my opinion people would benefit if you would engage in debate with a Dennis Prager or Ben Shapiro. I am over 40, and have been politically unaffiliated or independent for over a generation. Following a change in employment 3 years ago, I felt drawn to some conservative arguments without ever becoming enamored with Trump. I think your analysis is spot as conservative ideology relates to loss, real, perceived or threatened. I would add that it is very personal for the individual actually experiencing loss as well as very challenging to overcome loss, and the right makes a compelling case at times. I totally get that making something from nothing is even more challenging. Finally, it must give you great pleasure that we have entered this era of printing and distributing massive amounts of money, for it will certainly help the poorest by doing so and the dollar is only an idea after all. Unfortunate that it took the pandemic with all of the associated death and disruption to bring this about. In any event I don’t recall any Republicans discussing inflation or the debt over the previous 4 years. Appreciate the chance to leave a comment.

  4. Matt Filip, Connecticut March 14, 2021 at 10:02 am | #

    Your article is the best analysis of our current political situation that I’ve read in years.

    Twelve years of “little transformative legislation and a lot of executive orders.” The result being that any meaningful actions of the federal government are temporary, and subject to the decisions of the executive rather than the legislature. As soon as a new president arrives, the orders of their predecessor are discarded and new ones are enacted. More than ever, the party of the President is the party that makes the rules.
    Interestingly, this is the same as the United Kingdom, where the system guarantees that the party of the Prime Minister is the party in power. Perhaps the mid-century political dream of an American system acting similarly to European parliamentary systems has been somewhat fulfilled. The party of the executive makes the rules, both here and there.
    The difference, as you describe, is that our anti-democratic institutions sometimes give that power to the party representing the interests of the minority. The minority gets to have their say, and getting the rock over the hill is much harder to do here than it is over there; isn’t that what the Framers wanted?

    • Benjamin David Steele March 14, 2021 at 4:38 pm | #

      Isn’t that what the Framers wanted? It depends on which ‘Framers’ one is speaking of. I might instead speak more broadly of the founding and revolutioanry generation. Anti-Federalists like Jefferson and Paine advocated for democracy, self-governance, and majority rule. Even moderates like Madison came more around to this view or at least turned away from Hamilton’s authoritarianism, imperialism, and elitism.

      Anyway, the issue we face at the moment isn’t merely that the “anti-democratic institutions sometimes give that power to the party representing the interests of the minority.” The fundamental problem is that the ruling duopoly doesn’t ever represent the majority, no matter which party is in power. Seen in poll after poll, the moral majority and silent majority of Americans is to the left of even the Democratic elite, such as Biden, Obama, and the Clintons.

      What we have is a banana republic. I doubt many Americans at present would take this authoritarian corrption as a sign of “what the Framers wanted,” not that most Americans seem all that interested in bowing down to the power of dead hands. That is what made the American Revolution so revolutionary, as they threw off the supposedly authoritative claims of corpses over the living generations of free citizens. That was a key argument of the Anti-Federalists.

      • Matt Filip March 14, 2021 at 8:06 pm | #

        My question “isn’t that what the Framers wanted?” was a bit sarcastic – I’m sure they didn’t want a sclerotic government. I certainly don’t.
        I’m more interested to know how we end the paralysis? What happened in Britain after the Reform Act of 1832? What lessons can be learned from history?

        • Benjamin David Steele March 15, 2021 at 7:52 am | #

          There is no single thing that all of the Framers wanted, other than to start a new government that wasn’t a monarchy. That was pretty much the extent of their agreement. But I do think we Americans can learn much from what the Framers disagreed on in what they wanted.

          That is a fruitful thing to consider. The debate of that era was often amazingly radical for that era and remains radical. I’m particularly a fan of the Anti-Federalists as they were the ones most concerned about the problems of corrupt and oppressive systems of wealth and power.

          The challenge with ending the paralysis is that not everyone wants to end it. In a sense, I’m not sure the powers that be actually see it as paralysis. When there is some important issue, they always get it done quickly and there is always any funding or other resources to enact it.

          So, the supposed paralysis might be mostly theater. It is a way of distracting from what the government effectively does on a regular basis. No matter who is in power, the basic operations of the imperial military and trade networks goes on functioning. That is the real power.

          In that case, first we have to come to terms with how the government isn’t paralyzed at all. The better question is why does it work so remarkably well, even under Trump. The Deep State and inverted totalitarianism just keeps trucking along, as elected officials come and go.

        • Benjamin David Steele March 15, 2021 at 11:44 am | #

          By the way, some of the most interesting writings by the founders is found in their private correspondence. That is particularly true for Thomas Jefferson who kept up multiple written dialogues over his lifetime. He was often more strongly and forthrightly opinionated when his audience was safely private, although he was always politic and amiable.

          Later in life, he moderated his radicalism a bit, but a radical edge remained. From the viewpoint of aging maturity, he wrote in one letter about republicanism, still coming from an Anti-Federalist attitude. He said that American republicanism had failed and only survived in the spirit of the people. So, he remained the critic he always was and continued to throw jabs at the powerful, even when it included himself. There was also a suggestion of hope, since it was the spirit of the people that had always been the force behind American republicanism.

          He went on to explain the reasons. The main problem was basically that , as he saw it, his generation of aspiring intellectuals and leaders had been clueless. They had no idea what they were talking about, just pulling most of it out of thin air. It wasn’t their fault, considering they had few examples to go by and few precedents to build upon. Still, they were too cavalier with their assumptions and too confident in their intellectual pride. Jefferson didn’t exactly go that far with a scathing rebuke, although the harshness of his criticism could be felt in his words.

          In being specific, he concluded that he and his fellow founders did not comprehend what republicanism was really about. They assumed that it basically just meant not being a monarchy, but that alone doesn’t offer much of value. This has been proven by history. Republics since then have included Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Stalinist USSR, Maoist China, etc. His call for humility was justified. And he was probably right that, even back then, the American people would’ve been wise to rethink their society’s political foundations.

          Of course, Jefferson, like Thomas Paine, was a thorough democrat. But I don’t know that he ever specifically used the word ‘democracy’, as did Paine. Instead, he spoke in other terms, such as self-governance and majority rule. He often articulated quite clearly that he meant a more direct democracy. He was amusing in some of his arguments. For example, he once suggested that only landholders should be allowed to vote and then included the stipulation that all Americans, upon reaching adulthood, should be given land. I bet that went over well with his fellow aristocrats.

          Anyway, I don’t know what he and other Anti-Federalists would’ve thought about paralysis. Would they see our present government as paralyzed? Would they have thought the same during their own contentious era when it was so hard to get things done? Certainly, the claim of paralysis was used to justify the Constitution replacing the first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, and done so unconstitutionally according to the first that required unanimous agreement to be changed.

          As such, they got past paralysis by simply throwing out the first constitution without any democratic process. That is an interesting precedent to set in the first years of founding not only a new government but an entirely new country. Many of the founders, Jefferson most of all, would be shocked that we haven’t yet thrown out the second constitution they jerryrigged through endless compromise. It was assumed by many that there would be other constitutions with the following generations, as has happened in many other constitutional republics.

  5. Jonnybutter April 3, 2021 at 12:32 pm | #

    I’m interested in what harm is done, if any, by being imprecise in this way – i.e. calling Trump or his movement or the GOP ‘fascist’. It’s worth stipulating that ‘fascism’ is, unfortunately, a taboo word in the US – meaning something beyond the pale, unmentionable, almost unfathomable – and furthermore that by ’fascist’ most Americans these days don’t mean Mussolini/Hitler, but instead something like Orwell’s ’1984’ – some kind of modern authoritarianism.

    The wish-fulfillment angle is interesting. There might be a parallel between leftish ppl invoking fascism, and (RW) libertarians’ perennial excuse for their extremism – namely, that it’s too late to do anything; tyranny has already won, so load your guns and fill your bunker. What might be a worry is that, like those libertarians, ppl on the left might cede the game to inertia before they really have to, making the changet to actual authoritarianism more likely. As Corey says, the proximate cause to the political problems we’re talking about are our counter-democratic institutions; addressing them is the sane next step rather than giving up – overstating how ‘far gone’ we are.

    But on the other hand, white centrist America needs to be a lot less complacent than it is about US violent racist authoritarianism – including gross violations of our bill or rights – now and in the past. If ‘fascist’ or ‘nazi’ have power to break that complacency, then why not use those words? How might a Black American (or increasingly any ordinary person) feel to know that at any moment a neo-nazi cop could blithely murder or maim or unfairly incarcerate them and get away with it? He or I might say it feels like ‘fascism’. Should we quibble?

    • Benjamin David Steele April 3, 2021 at 1:31 pm | #

      Historically, fascism isn’t merely authoritarianism or even merely ethnonatiionalism and corporatism but also populist demagoguery and folk religiosity. All the ingredients are already present in American society and politics. The question is does it add up to fascism in a systemic and organized fashion. One could easily argue that it does, although counter-arguments could be made as well, of course.

      I’ve been doing a deep dive into the formation of the New Right, the Religious Right, and the Shadow Network. Two key players were the hyper-religious and theocratic-leaning Paul Weyrich and Joseph Coors, the former offering the brains and the latter the money. Many others can be included, but just those two alone were directly involved in most of the early major organiizations that became so powerful: Moral Majority, CNP, Western Goals, Heritage Foundation, etc.

      One gets the strong sense that they would have been quite happy if the result they got was fascism or something akin to it. It’s mind-boggling what they were able to achieve. The Shadow Network became this quasi-governmental set of interlinked organizations with a tight group of overlapping founders, members, and backers. When laws restricted what the intelligence agencies could do, they simply created Western Goals to act as a privatized CIA.

      This New Right Shadow Network has since been behind pretty much every issue and policy of culture wars, religious right organizing, corporate deregulation, tax cuts for the rich, defense funding, war, etc; along with numerous cover operations like Iran-Contra. They have operated as a private power structure that is parallel to and often direclty linked to the official government. Western Goals, for example, was run on private servers out of the congressional office of Bircher Larry McDonald who worked with Major General John K. Singlaub and the spy John Rees.

      Many of these people were hard right fundamentalists, not only the big-name preachers like LaHaye and Fallwell but also those like Oliver North. The Coors family had been born-again Christians from prior generations and Joseph Coors was willing to put massive amount of money into the religious right. The Coors family was the single largest funding source on the religious right into the 1990s. Some assert he singlehandedly bought Reagan the presidency. A similar accusation has been made with the religious right Robert Mercer buying Trump the presidency.

      Some of those on this New Christian Right would like theocracy while others simply want a more general authortiarianism. But what the New Right in general shares is a desire for government to be controlled by private wealth and power, some combination of business and religion or anyone else with enough money to throw around. This is implemented through voter suppression, union-busting, racist policies, law-and-order, etc. The intended end results seems to amount to something awfully close to fascism. The only issue up for debate is how successful have they been so far.

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