They Sure Act Like Fascists

Polls suggest roughly half of Republican voters are big fans of the former president. (The misguided other half vote for him anyway.) Is it fair to call his deplorable true believers fascists?

From Noah Berlatsky for Public Notice (a newsletter that covers US politics and media):

On Tuesday, Dxxxx Txxxx was found liable for sexually assaulting writer E. Jean Carroll and defaming her. The $5 million dollar fine didn’t deter Txxxx for even a day, though.
At his CNN town hall in New Hampshire on Wednesday night, Txxxx again smeared Carroll, mocking her claims about how he assaulted her in the Bergdorf Goodman department store….

Txxxx’s cruel monologue was repulsive. But what was even more disgusting was the audience reaction. CNN had shamelessly filled the room with Txxxx supporters. And as the former president mocked Carroll, those supporters laughed like he was a witty comedian delivering a punchline.

Txxxx is Txxxx; he was a horrible person long before he was president, and he will go to his grave a liar, a bully, and a bigot. When CNN put Txxxx on the air for ratings and clout, they knew he would spread election lies. They knew he would demean E. Jean Carroll. They knew he would direct abuse at moderator Kaitlin Collins (he called her “nasty,” his standard epithet for women who challenge him).

But commentators like to think that most Americans are better than Txxxx. The college students, the small businesspeople, and even the Republican activists who vote for Txxxx do so, pundits hope, despite his manifest cruelty, rather than because those good Americans enjoy laughing at sexual assault victims.

But CNN’s town hall was a reminder that Txxxx supporters are in fact bad people — in the sense that to support Txxxx, and defend Txxxx, requires them to become their absolute worst selves. Probably most of Txxxx’s supporters did not tell themselves before the town hall started that they were there to cheer on sexual assault. But by the end they were doing just that. That’s how fascism works.

Pundits and experts have long scoffed at the idea that Txxxx’s supporters are actually implicated in his evil — or at least, they’ve insisted that saying they are is verboten. How can 74 million Txxxx supporters be fascists?

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was widely excoriated when she said in 2016 that half of Txxxx’s voters were “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and Islamophobic” — a “basket of deplorables,” as she memorably put it.

In 2022, Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute worried that “to say that tens of millions of supporters of the other party … are fascists, fascistic, or semi-fascistic is to use the language of national emergency.” That transforms the other party from “adversaries to enemies,” he argues, which makes it too easy “to justify taking extraordinary action to suppress the threat.”

Hamid is afraid of the effects of polarization. But the way he keeps incredulously insisting that tens of millions of Txxxx supporters can’t be fascists also suggests that he is just loath to believe that so many Americans — our fellow countrymen, our neighbors, our relatives — can be bad people. Fascism is evil. Americans aren’t evil. So how can Americans be fascists? Let us count the ways.

The CNN town hall was a 70 minute demonstration in the grim mechanics of how. Robert O. Paxton argues that a core characteristic of fascism is “an obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood” paired with “compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity.” Fascists claim that they, the pure bearers of the nation’s pride, are being assaulted, smeared, and debased (generally by marginalized people). They then use that as an excuse for extremes of violence in the name of revenge and purity.

You could see Txxxx enact this formula over and over again in the town hall as his fans cheered. In defending his violent coup attempt on January 6, for example, Txxxx quickly brought up Ashli Babbitt, who was killed while storming the Capitol. The former president’s voice got positively misty as he said her name, and then harsh as he called the Black police officer who shot her a “thug.”

“Cold blank range they shot her,” he stormed — as if she was deliberately executed, rather than killed in a violent melee as she and her cohort attempted to get their hands on members of Congress who were trying to count the electoral votes that would finalize Txxxx’s loss to Joe Biden. Babbitt becomes a martyr for the cause, retroactively erasing or justifying everyone else who took part in the insurrection.

Again, when Txxxx was asked about his policy of separating families at the border, leaving children alone in cages, he explained it was necessary to deter immigration. “We have to save our country,” he insisted. America is in danger from immigrants that Txxxx claims are spreading disease and terror. Any excess of cruelty is justifiable to save it.

Txxxx’s ugly discussion of E. Jean Carroll was even more illustrative, [suggesting] that Carroll was mentally ill, out of control, and determined to persecute him. Txxxx is again the innocent persecuted figure, and his innocence justifies his crude smears of Carroll, even after a jury of his peers found him liable for assaulting and defaming her.

In each case here — and in many more throughout the town hall — Txxxx gives the audiences little winks or asides to remind them that he’s on their side. At one point he bizarrely suggested he would give one questioner a job in his administration. At another he gave the audience a sincere look and told them rich people “do pretty well in a lot of ways” as they laughed. He’s a comedian. He tells it like it is. He’s their guy.

Txxxx’s voters empathize with Txxxx, and he in turn empathizes with them, assuring them that they are persecuted and under assault. And then, empathizing together in an organic community of amity, he tells them that the solution to their ills is atrocity. And they enthusiastically agree.

MAGA partisans don’t see themselves as evil, because they know they’re on the side of the noble victims. Txxxx gets people to feel like they’re backed into a corner with him, and that only through him can they break free and scourge their enemies. It’s a potent cocktail of fear and rage and righteousness. It’s addictive. It’s exciting. And, as all that laughter shows, it’s fun.

Fascism is a mass movement. That doesn’t mean that people are tricked or hypnotized by a charismatic leader. It means that people encourage each other to form a community based in cruelty, bigotry, lies, and violence. The community feels good and right, not despite the fact that it gives people license to be their worst selves, but because it does. And, yes, millions of neighbors, relatives, and good, pure people can participate in the rituals of victimization, bigotry, and blood. Who is fascism for, after all, if not the good, pure people?