Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, there’s been an argument on the left over the sort of threat he poses.
The American left’s most famous figures — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, Noam Chomsky — saw Trump as an authoritarian who could, if reelected, destroy American democracy for good. But another strain of left opinion viewed Trump’s fascistic gestures as almost purely performative, and believed his clumsiness in marshaling state power made him less dangerous than, say, George W. Bush.
A leading proponent of this position is political theorist Corey Robin, author of an essential book about right-wing thought, “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin.” In an interview with the left-wing publication Jewish Currents, he argued, “Compared to the Republican presidencies of Nixon, Reagan and George W. Bush, Trump’s was significantly less transformational, and its legacy is far less assured.”
The Electoral College’s ratification of Joe Biden’s victory seems an appropriate point to revisit this debate. Trump tried, in his sloppy, chaotic way, to overturn the election, and much of his party, including the majority of Republicans in the House, and many state attorneys general, lined up behind him. Yet he failed, and it’s unlikely that he will follow calls from supporters, like his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, to declare martial law.
So what matters more, the president’s desire to overthrow American democracy, or his inability to follow through? Just how fascist was Trump?
Part of the answer depends on whether you’re evaluating Trump’s ideology or his ability to carry it out. It seems obvious enough that the spirit of Trumpism is fascistic, at least according to classic definitions of the term. In “The Nature of Fascism,” Roger Griffin described fascism’s “mobilizing vision” as “the national community rising phoenix-like after a period of encroaching decadence which all but destroyed it.” Translate this into the American vernacular and it sounds a lot like MAGA.
Fascism is obsessed with fears of victimization, humiliation and a decline, and a concomitant cult of strength. Fascists, wrote Robert O. Paxton in “The Anatomy of Fascism,” see “the need for authority by natural chiefs (always male), culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny.” They believe in “the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason.” This aptly describes Trump’s movement.
Yet Trump was only intermittently able to translate his movement into a government. The national security state was more often his antagonist than his tool. There were Justice Department investigations of the president’s political enemies, but they mostly came to nothing. The military was deployed against protesters, but only once.
Trump celebrated what may be the extrajudicial killing of Michael Reinoehl, an antifa activist wanted in a fatal shooting, but such killings weren’t the norm. He put children in cages, but was pressured to let them out. And in the end, he lost an election and will have to leave.
The damage he’s done, however, may be irreversible. On Twitter, Robin argued, correctly, that George W. Bush, far more than Trump, changed the shape of government, leaving behind the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security. Most of Trump’s legacy, by contrast, is destruction — of even the pretense that the law should apply equally to ruler and ruled, of large parts of the Civil Service, of America’s standing in the world. (If mainstream liberals are more deeply horrified by Trump than some leftists, it could be because they maintain greater romantic attachments to the institutions he’s defiled.)
Most consequentially, Trump has eviscerated in America any common conception of reality. Other presidents sneered at the truth; a senior Bush official, widely believed to be Karl Rove, famously derided the “reality-based community” to journalist Ron Suskind.
But Trump’s ability to envelop his followers in a cocoon of lies is unparalleled. The Bush administration deceived the country to go to war in Iraq. It did not insist, after the invasion, that weapons of mass destruction had been found when they obviously were not. That’s why the country was able to reach a consensus that the war was a disaster.
No such consensus will be possible about Trump — not about his abuses of power, his calamitous response to the coronavirus, or his electoral defeat. He leaves behind a nation deranged.
The postmodern blood libel of QAnon will have adherents in Congress. Kyle Rittenhouse, a young man charged with killing Black Lives Matter protesters, is a right-wing folk hero. The Republican Party has become more hostile to democracy than ever. Both the Trump and Bush presidencies concluded with America a smoking ruin. Only Trump has ensured that nearly half the country doesn’t see it.
In May, Samuel Moyn predicted, in The New York Review of Books, that if Biden won, fears about American fascism would dissipate. Complacent in their restoration, he wrote, those who warned of fascism “will cordon off the interlude, as if it was ‘an accident in the factory,’ as Germans after World War II described their 12-year mistake.”
As American electors gathered — with police offering armed guards and Michigan’s capitol closed by “credible threats of violence” — Moyn’s words, meant cynically, seem too optimistic. Trump failed to capture America, but he may have irrevocably broken it.
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.