Our politics have an unhappy habit of falling into language debates during crises. You’ll recall – and I won’t tire of repeating – the kerfuffle about whether ‘China virus’ was a racist term for what became better known as Covid-19 or the coronavirus last March.
I blame the surfeit of humanities grads who fill our media organisations, which were previously more likely to be staffed by those who had come from school via the local newspaper. The trade has an interest in hiring wordsmiths, but often wordsmiths’ interests hurt the trade.
The only defence for tortured debates over what to call something is that it better reflects reality. When on the podcast we knocked around whether what happened at the US Capitol at the start of the year was best described as an ‘coup attempt’, ‘riot’, ‘terrorist attack’ or whatever else, we were trying to best describe the event.
Riots can cause a lot of damage, but rioters tend not to be labelled enemies of the state in the same way that terrorists are. Likewise, if the mob in Washington was trying to effect a coup it is rather more serious than if a protest got out of hand.
Whatever it is called, the event in Washington has prompted some boffins to revisit the question of whether president Donald Trump can be described with the f-word. Not ‘fuck’, but ‘fascist’.
Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale University, kicked off the debate with an essay in the New York Times. Snyder stops short of calling Trump a fascist, but the word ‘pre-fascism’ is sprayed liberally, and comparisons to historic fascism pepper the essay.
In the week since Richard Evans, a history professor at the University of Cambridge, explicitly rejected the idea that Trump was a fascist. Although Trump has some behaviours in common with fascists, Evans writes, “The majority of genuine specialists, including the historians Roger Griffin, Matthew Feldman, Stanley Payne and Ruth Ben-Ghiat, agree that whatever else he is, Trump is not a fascist.”
My knowledge of fascism cannot compete with those named above. But anyone who has paid some attention to the debates about American politics since Trump’s rise will have observed how the term is used. Its deployment is rarely helpful.
As I’ve written elsewhere, some American liberals have narrated the last few years as a tale of good and evil. It’s common for political tribes to see themselves as the good guys – as you can see with the Guardian and the Daily Mail’s coverage of each other – but the contrast has become more pronounced in Britain and America.
When labelling Trump a ‘fascist’, the intent is not merely or even mostly descriptive. The same effect could have been achieved by branding the president a ‘Voldemort’ and his supporters as ‘death eaters’. Some liberals believe the president is evil, and must be defeated at any cost.
Much as Christians worried of the devil, progressives worry of undiscovered fascism polluting our politics. It has become ‘vital’ or ‘urgent’ to guard against any signs of it; constant vigilance is needed.
As Snyder describes in his essay, there are plenty of parallels one could draw between historic fascism and Trump. It has thus been plausible to warn of an unseen drift into fascism, with obligatory reference to alleged Anglo-American complacency that it could never happen here.
And yet, as Evans notes, there are plenty of gaps in the analogy. Trump, for all his character flaws, is sceptical of foreign intervention, has no designs on global conquest, and lacks the organisational qualities associated with fascism. Not even his worst critics contend that he’d make the trains run on time.
I confess to more sympathy with Evans’ view. But I’ve a bigger point. Just as critics of Britain often caricature the country as thinking too much about a war that ended 75 years ago, plenty of populism’s critics could use the same advice.
I can’t think of any instance where a comparison to ‘fascism’ has enhanced my understanding of a contemporary political situation. It is not, as the writer George Orwell had it, that the term is ‘almost entirely meaningless’ – nobody would seriously mistake the Green MP Caroline Lucas for a fascist. But the word is chiefly a slur, a provocation, or a hysterical shriek.
When one partisan calls another a ‘fascist’ it is never intended to invite an academic discussion on relations between ideologies. It is hoped to put that person’s politics beyond the acceptable. When applied to some rightwingers it can even achieve this, at the risk of alienating that person’s supporters.
When formerly serious commentators deploy the term, my eyes roll. My assumption is that the writer is suffering from political derangement, by which I mean they’ve lost the ability to analyse politics in a sensible way. They have become hapless partisans.
Such pundits are probably not even wrong in their other points. Trump is a bad guy, perhaps uniquely ill-suited for the office he holds. He may well be mentally ill, is probably senile, and lacks many rudimentary political skills. His presidency will rank among the worst America has seen.
You can say that without calling him a fascist. In fact it’s better that you don’t call him a fascist. It adds nothing to an analysis and makes you look hysterical. While it will earn you cheers from his most fervid critics, for everyone else it makes us respect you less. It diminishes the accuser just as it diminishes the accused.
Naturally, I don’t expect this advice to be followed. In Britain it feels like our collective historical knowledge barely extends beyond the Second World War. Americans seem at least to have their civil war and revolution, but even those periods are increasingly mined purely for their racial content.
Perhaps national collective memory struggles to hold more than one idea in its head at a time. But national histories are richer than that, and deserve to be treated as such. Not everything can be put on a scale of zero to fascism.