Don’t Be Afraid to Use the “F” Word

No, I don’t mean that F word. No one these days seems afraid to use it. I mean this F word:  fascism. We have heard this word more often lately, mostly to describe the current state of the Republican Party after and under Donald Trump.  Is it accurate to describe Republicans like Trump, Boebert, Greene, Hawley, Cotton, Lee, and others as fascists?

Let’s be clear about what fascism is. According to Merriam-Webster, fascism is “a political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.”  In his book, The Anatomy of Fascism, Robert Paxton defines it as “A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”  Author Jason Stanley referred to fascism as the politics of us and them.

The most well-known fascist regimes were in Italy under Mussolini (1922-1943), Germany under Hitler (1933-1945), and Japan (1926-1945) led by a coalition of militarists and industrialists who espoused militant nationalism. During the Twentieth Century, there were many other fascist movements in nations throughout western and eastern Europe, Asia, and South America. America had several nascent fascist groups in the 1930s, but they were banned early in World War II as we fought against the three principal Axis powers.*  Russia under Putin is ostensibly a Communist state, but in reality, Russia is behaving more like a fascist dictatorship.

Mussolini and Hitler at the start of World War II
Vladimir Putin–Russia’s fascist dictator

In a recent speech, President Biden referred to Trumpism as “semi-fascist.”  Was he right?  Not quite.  Labelling Trumpism or the current Republican party fascist would be an exaggeration, but there are disturbing parallels we should not dismiss. It would be more accurate to call Trump and his Republican supporters proto-fascists, which means they embody the ideologies, cultural movements, and many practices that have led previous countries like Germany and Italy to become fascist states. Here are the typical characteristics of fascism and fascist movements:

A cult of populist nationalism led by an “infallible” leader who never admits mistakes. Such leaders often glorify themselves with titles like Der Fϋhrer or Il Duce (both of which mean “the leader”). Trump did not give himself a glorifying title, but his ego prevented him from ever admitting errors, and he often claimed he would have made a great doctor, general, or something else. He saw himself as infallible, and his ardent supporters, in their refusal to blame him for obvious discretions—like saying he could grab women by their genitals or illegally keeping classified documents at Mar-a-Lago—have reinforced his self-image of infallibility.

A dictator or authoritarian ruler who eliminates or suppresses elections or tries to subvert election results through fraud or manipulation of the electoral system. Under Hitler and Mussolini, elections in Germany and Italy were either eliminated or manipulated to deny real voting. In modern Russian and China, elections are a sham. Fascist leaders want total control of their nations and refuse to submit to the free will of an electorate. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election by any means are evidence enough of his disdain for the electoral process and his near-refusal to relinquish power. We are fortunate that our institutions prevented him from succeeding, but he made a diehard effort to subvert a free and fair election in our country, and don’t assume he or someone like him won’t try it again.

A dominant theme of national decline or humiliation coupled with a pledge to make the nation great again. Hitler promised to make Germany great again after the humiliating defeat it suffered in World War I. Putin’s support comes partly from his desire to re-form the “greatness” of the Soviet Union, and Trump’s main theme in his election was to make America great again. He ran on the theme of national decline hastened by the Democrats and an economy in shambles (actually, it was in shambles when George W. Bush left office; in Obama’s eight years the economy improved dramatically). Trump also promoted the idea that mainstream American workers and farmers were being hurt by liberals and immigrants. He appealed to those who felt disenfranchised and alienated from an American Dream that was increasingly available to illegal immigrants, African-Americans, and liberal elites.

Appeals to large segments of the population that believe they have been victimized by outsiders or internal elites. Hitler blamed communists, Jews, and the victors of World War I as his scapegoats for the woes the German people suffered in the 1920s. Many of Trump’s supporters have felt “left out” as wages and their rural communities stagnated and the country seemed ruled by coastal elites, Hollywood liberals, and a government bureaucracy that increasingly did not serve them. And many MAGA-hat-wearers felt angry and alienated as women, gays, people of color, and immigrants gained more mainstream acceptance, wealth, and power.

Political messaging that is overtly propagandistic, attempting to create a false reality based on lies and the denial of truth; often coupled with control of the media. Every politician tries to create a supporting narrative, but no American president has ever lied as much or as often as Donald Trump. His legion of lies became laughably fantastic, yet many in his ardent base believed them wholesale and could not admit that Trump ever lied. Under Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda machine attained near perfection, and all messaging inside and outside Nazi Germany was rigidly controlled. China, Russia, and North Korea have no freedom of the press. Trump never had the power to suppress the media, but Fox News and other right-wing outlets became his de facto propagandists by refusing to call out his lies or correct the false narrative he and his cohorts constantly created. Their messaging reached millions who chose to believe it because it confirmed their biases. To paraphrase Goebbels, “if you tell a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.”

Branding opponents as enemies and finding scapegoats for failures; in some cases, murdering or jailing opponents; in extreme cases, eliminating all perceived
“enemies of the state,” such as the Jews during the Holocaust.
Trump repeatedly called the Democrats and the mainstream media ”enemies.” Following one of his State of the Union addresses, he said Democrats, who voiced less enthusiasm for his speech, were “treasonous” and “Un-American.”  He recently labelled President Biden an “enemy of the state” after Biden warned about Trumpism as “semi-fascist.”  Some of Trump’s acolytes have followed suit. Recently, Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert, speaking at a Christian conference, said that conservative churchgoers must take back the country and defeat the “enemy.” Fascists do not want a loyal opposition; they don’t want to be questioned or defied. They want total control and will vilify anyone who speaks against them or stands in their way. As Jason Stanley noted, fascism is the politics of us and them, so creating division in a populace as Trump has done, and his loyal supporters continue to do, is essential to fascism.

Portland, Oregon, August 22, 2020: Proud Boys, Boogaloo, and other far right demonstrators, many armed, at a “Back the Blue” rally.

Elevation and adoration of the military and the police; in extreme cases, political control by the military or the creation of paramilitary forces or national police forces with virtually unlimited power. After witnessing a military parade in Europe, Trump returned to Washington and wanted his own military parade, including tanks, through the streets of D.C. The military resisted that call, but in a 2019 interview with Brietbart, Trump boasted, ”I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad,”  Trump loves to threaten. He is a bully and a coward—the two often go hand in hand—but he was delusional in thinking he had all the military and the police staunchly on his side. Fortunately, he never had an organized paramilitary force, like the Nazi Party’s Sturmabteilung (Storm Detachment), to terrorize and subdue his opponents. Still, he garnered the support of right-wing militias like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, and they did his bidding on January 6th.

The glorification of violence and the will to violently suppress opponents or those who are less than fanatically loyal to the leader or the cause; in extreme cases, assassinations of political opponents, judges and others who defy the leader or party. Trump glorified violence the way a schoolboy imagines punishing his enemies. It’s a pretend machismo that elevates his self-image of bringing hellfire and damnation on those who dare oppose him. Mussolini and Hitler had no compunction about ordering opponents assassinated, nor do Putin or Kim Jong-un. Their brand of ruthlessness is a quantum leap beyond what Trump could get away with in our society, although it likely has free rein in his dreams. He threatened to send in the National Guard on one occasion, saying, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”  In numerous cases during his campaign rallies, he encouraged violence against protestors and once ordered the crowd to throw out a black man yelling, “Black lives matter.”  During the riots over George Floyd’s killing, he advocated shooting protestors in the legs, and he wanted to build a moat on the border with Mexico and shoot people trying to swim across (his aides informed him that that would be illegal). Trump has admitted that he would not do any fighting himself, but he would and has incited others to do it for him, and that is a fascist mindset—the suppression of dissent through violence. Most recently, he has posted images of himself on his website wearing the Q pin (for QAnon), along with the Q meme: “The Storm Is Coming.” This refers to QAnon’s prophecy of Trump’s return to power followed by his enemies being rounded up and executed on live television. This uncivilized dream of violent retribution is fascist at its core and reflects Trump’s ultimate fantasy—that his more extreme followers will use violence to return him to the throne and punish his enemies for their perfidy.

Overt uses of slogans, symbols, and theatrical displays of “patriotism.”  Trump was not the first politician to promise to make the country great again. Hitler said, “Make Germany great again” on occasion. Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan was, “Let’s Make American Great Again,’ and Margaret Thacker, the British Prime Minister, promised to make Britain great again. But Trump, the consummate marketer, put his slogan on red MAGA hats and wore one to his rallies. He wrapped himself around the American flag, and his rallies were awash in a sea of red, white, and blue. He understood the power of patriotic symbolism and branded himself as the “true patriot who would restore America to greatness.”  Just as the swastika became ubiquitous in Nazi Germany, Trump’s usurping of the stars and stripes to promote himself was ubiquitous at his rallies, in his speeches, and at the Republican Conventions nominating him for the office. Trump’s MAGA hats became a prime piece of merchandizing for his campaign. In 2016, they were earning $80,000 a day selling those hats, and his campaign chairman once boasted that they had sold more than a million MAGA hats at $45 each. You do the math. Both Hitler and Trump used symbolism to gain power; Trump also used it to stuff his bank accounts.

Hilter understood the power of imagery. He used the swastika on a red background to unify Germany under Nazi rule. It became a symbol of fascist fury, oppression, and death.
Jews in Nazi-occupied territories were made to wear the Jude six-pointed star to mark themselves as undesirables. Fascists often use symbols to divide “us” from “them.”
Trump, a master of merchandising, made a fortune selling MAGA hats and other symbols of his “Make American Great Again” theme.
Like Hitler, Trump understood the power of imagery. At his rallies, he staged American flags and the red, white, and blue colors to depict himself as a patriot, although he was anything but.

Suppression of human rights and the debasement of others; in particular, suppression of woman’s rights, gays, transsexuals, and others who do not fit the masculine ideal. The Aryan ideal was depicted in Nazi posters and films and was the model for their eugenics program to produce and promote a German master race. In German society during the Nazi era, people who did not fit the Aryan archetype were ridiculed, debased, and many murdered. Fascists suppress human rights, like voting, because a free people would rise against them. They suppress women, minorities, and homosexuals because they want to consolidate power in men’s hands, particularly men of the majority ethnic group. Racial purity is an essential component of their us-versus-them mentality.

A disdain for science and intellectuals. Fascists derive power from the uneducated. An educated populace questions and even mocks their propaganda, and intellectuals are independent thinkers—too savvy to believe fascist lies. Trump proclaimed himself to be a “very stable genius,” but he could not fool people observant enough to know the truth. When the Covid-19 pandemic began, he initially appeared to accept what the scientists were saying but rejected and ignored them when their statements did not fit his narrative. The anti-Anthony Fauci movement among conservatives was a bandwagon effect in response to Trump’s ridiculing of Dr. Fauci. Trump said that Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, after they appeared on a CNN documentary about the virus, were “two self-promoters trying to reinvent history to cover for their bad instincts and faulty recommendations, which I fortunately almost always overturned.”  Republicans generally share Trump’s distrust in science. A 2021 Gallup poll found that only 45 percent of Republicans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in science—in 1975, 72 percent of Republicans had confidence in science. Harvard attributes this drop in confidence to loyalty toward Trump, but it also reflects the vaccine skepticism that spread through conservative and religious groups during the Covid-19 pandemic. Science, facts, verifiable truth—these are anathema to fascists who seek to control the message to control the crowd.

Blaming the messenger is common when scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci deliver messages contrary to the prevailing party line. Fewer than half of Republicans today trust science.

A complicit bureaucracy and judiciary filled with puppets of the regime who carry out its pollical will. In Nazi Germany, government bureaucrats and judges were either Nazi party members or willing conspirators doing the party’s will lest they be banned or murdered. Trump wanted a complicit bureaucracy and never achieved it. He railed against the “deep state” that thwarted his will by ignoring his orders or outright refusing to carry out his ill-advised and sometimes illegal commands. He often complained about subordinates who were not sufficiently loyal to him, rather than the country, and fired many of them when they would not obey. When he took office, he vowed to deconstruct the “Deep State” by slashing budgets, rescinding regulations, and putting his own puppets in place of seasoned officials and diplomats. The result, predictably, has been chaos, but some of his moves have worked for him. A Federal judge he installed approved his request for a special master to review the classified documents found at Mar-A-Lago, and his three right-wing Supreme Court justices have done exactly what he intended them to do.

Anti-immigration; opposition to anything that would pollute the “pure” mainstream national population. In the earliest stages of Nazi control of Germany, Jews were banned from office, striped of their posts in the universities, and prohibited from owning property. Later, their property was seized and many were shipped into exile outside of Germany. The Final Solution to the Jewish question was to exterminate them and other “undesirables.” In “The Ten Stages of Genocide,” Gregory Stanton writes that the first stage is classification.** “All cultures have categories to distinguish people into ‘us and them’ by ethnicity, race, religion, or nationality.”  Such classifications help fascists label “friends” and “enemies”—those who are loyalists or true believers and those who are opponents or doubters. Trump routinely refers to his supporters as “my people,” as though he owns them. They include most Republicans (not Liz Cheney), conservatives, evangelists, Bikers for Trump, Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, QAnon, Neo-Nazis and white supremacist militias, and the MAGA-hat-wearing crowd that attends his rallies. He calls Democrats and other opponents vile, corrupt, socialists, criminals, power-hungry globalists, liberal extremists, sick, sinister, evil, animals, rapists, scum, and unpatriotic. Us and them.

When the far right or the far left take power, this may be the outcome: The Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration and extermination camp.

A strange coupling of religion and the state, where politicians hypocritically embrace religious ideals they neither practice nor believe and religious leaders who support or ignore policies fundamentally incompatible with their religious teachings. The German Christian movement, a Protestant affiliation, sought to unite Christianity and National Socialism in a spiritual homeland for the Third Reich that would include “true Germans” and exclude anyone considered impure. The Nazi Party appointed Ludwig Muller, a Protestant pastor and Nazi Party member, a Reich bishop and tried to form a national church that would marry Christianity and the white supremacist ideals of Nazism. During Trump’s four years in office, he was unable to muster nationwide religious support for his platform, but he did enjoy the support of most white evangelicals. In 2016, 81 percent of them voted for Trump. Four years later, 76 percent voted for his reelection. Their support was apparently driven by his positions on abortion and religious freedom despite his philandering, lying, tax fraud, racism, sexism, and treatment of immigrants. Trump is a virtual poster boy for immorality. White evangelical support for him is ironic and hypocritical, and one in four Americans said that their support for Trump was a key factor in their turn away from religion.

Few people would dispute that our democracy is facing significant challenges today. Whether Donald Trump is the cause or a symptom of these challenges is questionable. He is likely just the right demagogue for our time, a soulless fraud who is taking advantage of a situation to gain power and wealth. For many people, underlying our current malaise is a desire for order and certainty that a democracy, which is often messy, cannot provide. Democracy means freedom and equality, where citizens have a voice through their votes, where people with opposing views can speak their minds and others are free to disagree with them, where actions are governed by the rule of law, and where people are free to succeed or fail based on their merits, ambitions, and opportunities. In an ideal democracy, which we do not have, everyone has an equal shot at realizing their dreams. Though we are far from that ideal, we can strive toward it by exercising our democratic rights while allowing others to do the same. But democracy’s freedom, autonomy, and equality are frightening to people who fear those attributes in others, who feel that their status quo is threatened by others unlike them, or who feel that they have lost their voice in an increasingly chaotic world.

 In her book Fascism:  A Warning, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote:

On average, one person in four thinks well of a system in which a strong ruler can govern without interference from a parliament or the courts. One in five is attracted to the concept of military rule. Predictably, support for nondemocratic options is most evident among those, whether on the political right or left, who lack a higher education and are unhappy with their economic circumstances—precisely the groups hit hardest by the evolving nature of the workplace.

Fascism thrives on the image of a strong, bold leader, a father figure like Hitler and Mussolini who promises to restore greatness to people who believe they have lost it. Trump sought, and continues to seek, to be that father figure in America and he has usurped the Republican Party by using his millions of followers as leverage to reward their fealty and loyalty and punish dissent. By co-opting the Republicans, Trump has enlisted them to bring his brand of fascism to our country. It would be a mistake to deny his intentions. He said it enough often. He praised Xi Jinping when the Chinese president had himself named president for life, saying “Maybe we should try that.”  He said he had a love affair with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, and he openly admired Putin for his strong-armed approach to governing Russia. Trump admired those dictators for the barely disguised reason that he longs for the breadth of their power. His attempts to overturn the 2020 election through various legal and illegal means, including violence, are proof enough that Trump wants nothing less than unbridled, lifelong power. He wants to be our fascist dictator and if he had been more politically savvy and smarter, he might have succeeded. He was thwarted by our institutions—courts, free press, and Mike Pence’s refusal to carry out his wishes—and he would never have had the Pentagon’s support for a military coup, despite his pipe dream that the military was behind him.

We must be wary, however, because the seeds of fascism in this country have been planted, and the new Republican Party is complicit to a degree I would never have imagined. I remember the Republican Party of 50 years old, the party that believed in small government, fiscal responsibility, immigration, a strong military, and fidelity to the Constitution. That Republican Party has since been replaced by proto-fascists like Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, cowards like Lindsey Graham, and thoughtless co-conspirators like Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell who have refused to hold Trump accountable for his many transgressions, frauds, and illegalities. In her excellent book How Civil Wars Start:  and How to Stop Them, UCSD Professor Barbara F. Walter notes that “America was lucky that its first modern autocratic president was neither smart nor politically experienced. Other ambitious, more effective Republicans—Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley—have taken note and will seek to do better. They will try to usurp Trump’s eighty-eight million enthusiastic followers, knowing that the Republican Party will bend to the will of these voters.”

Ron DeSantis speaking at a Trump rally

To these Trump followers, I would say, “Be careful what you wish for.”  Once fascism takes hold, it is difficult to dislodge without substantial bloodshed, and the dictator who does your bidding today may well herd you into a concentration camp tomorrow. Power is fickle, and a person who takes total control of a nation will do whatever he must—including assassinations, deportations, oppression, fraud, and genocide—to keep it.  Could that happen here?  Don’t bet against it.  Trump’s rabid followers have said things like, “We have the guns and bullets and you don’t know which bathroom to use.”  As we have seen from instances of right-wing violence since Trump was elected, his more extreme acolytes are very willing to use violence to do what they think Trump wants them to do.

Right-wing Republicans, and even those closer to the middle, bridle when you use the “F” word, fascism, to describe their rightward trajectory following Trump’s election. Hypocritically, they feel free to label the Democrats “socialists,” which is hardly true. Nonetheless, when you see Republicans supporting Trump—no matter how many laws he breaks—it would be appropriate to use the “F” word. When you see them changing voting laws to disenfranchise minorities, the “F” word is appropriate. When you see them passing laws that could deny the legitimate voting rights of everyone in their states who vote for the other party, then it’s okay to label them with the “F” word. Today’s Republicans need to be held accountable for their undemocratic practices. Otherwise, a wiser proto-fascist than Donald Trump may gain power and effect what Trump could only dream for himself. In the final analysis, Trump is a buffoon in dictator’s clothing. The proto-fascists who inherit his base may not be, and we risk losing this democracy for which so many millions of Americans have fought and died.

One of the finest books on American fascism is Theo Horesh’s The Fascism This Time. In it, he writes, “Trump is the most egregious archetype of this new breed [of fascists] and a symbol of how far we have fallen. . . He built a political movement on lies, backed with neither the hard currency of facts nor logical arguments. He has succeeded through the sheer aplomb with which he is able to deceive others and the nonchalance with which he can shrug off his contradictions . . . But sooner or later, [his bubble] will pop, and reality will strike. It will implode because it rests on illusions, and it will burst because acting on illusions is dangerous, as fascist leaders before him learned the hard way.”

What we can do now to prevent fascism from taking hold here is to have an open dialogue with Americans who feel differently than we do. We can resist when Republicans try to preempt free and fair elections. Mostly we can vote against the current crop of Republican legislators and candidates until the Grand Old Party regains its senses and moves from the far right to the middle. This does not mean vpting for a liberal or progressive slate of candidates unless you truly believe in their positions. But it does mean throwing the Boebert’s and Marjorie Taylor Green’s and all the Republicans like them out of office. It means forcing the Republicans through our collective votes to return to the democratic principles that made us and this country free.

I will close with another quote from Theo Horesh: “Freedom is the death-knell of fascism, for free peoples do not take to hierarchy, and without the capacity to sit at the top, the fascist leader is just a bloviating pig.”

*For a more comprehensive discussion of fascist movements around the world, see Britannica online at

**You can find Stanton’s description of the ten stages of genocide at the Genocide Watch website:

To read more about fascism and its threat to our democracy, I recommend these fine books:

Theo Horesh. The Fascism This Time and the Global Future of Democracy. CO:  Cosmopolis Press, 2020.

Madeleine Albright. Fascism:  A Warning. NY:  HarperCollins, 2018.

Robert O. Paxton. The Anatomy of Fascism. NY:  Vintage Books, 2004.

Umberto Eco. How to Spot a Fascist. London:  Harvill Secker, 1997.

The Trump baby balloon travelled around the world as crowds mocked the American president

Barbara F. Walter. How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them. NY:  Crown, 2022. A most interesting chapter in this book is Chapter 7 “What a War Would Look Like.”  She lays out the most likely scenario for an armed insurrection in America that could destabilize the country and lead to a fascist dictatorship.

Photo credits:  Hitler and Mussolini at the 1938 Munich Conference:  Photo 201976962 / Adolf Hitler © Romannerud |;  Vladimir Putin:  Photo 49909487 © Frédéric Legrand |; Donald Trump:  66213752 | © Joe Sohm |; Nazi swastika flag:  Photo 105570072 © Maurizio Biso |; Jude symbol: Photo 137736643 / Hitler © Fedecandoniphoto |; Trump rally:  Photo 171068121 © Matthew Bills |; Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi Extermination Camp:  ID 169602569 © Oksana Sotnykova |; Trump baby balloon:  Photo 159091348 © Oleschwander |; Ron DeSantis at a Trump rally:  Photo 122725292 © Joe Tabb |; MAGA hats:  Photo 156797655 © Ray Zacek |; Fauci Lies:  Shutterstock

Religion, violence, and politics are a horrific combination.

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Terry Bacon