Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, there’s been an argument on the left over the sort of threat he poses.
Many saw Trump as an authoritarian who could, if re-elected, 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 the political theorist Corey Robin. He said, “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.”
However, 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.
Fascism is obsessed with fears of victimization, humiliation and a decline, and sees a need for a national chieftain who alone is capable of shaping the group’s historical destiny. They believe in the superiority of the leader’s instincts over truth and 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 a few times.
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. Most of Trump’s legacy is destruction.
Most consequentially, Trump has eviscerated in America any common conception of reality.
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 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.
Since Trump’s defeat, the MAGA revolution has begun devouring its own. As it does, some conservatives are discovering the downsides of having a president who spreads malicious conspiracy theories, subverts faith in democracy and turns the denial of reality into a loyalty test. As the archconservative Jeff Sessions learned years ago, even a lifetime of ideological service is no defense when you’ve displeased Dear Leader.
People and institutions that get involved with Trump often end up diminished or disgraced. Since the election, this is happening faster than ever. The president asked for Attorney General Bill Barr to resign, because he declined to repeat Trump’s fantasies about widespread electoral cheating. Much of the MAGA-verse has turned on Fox News, because its news programs aren’t pretending that Trump won.
Both Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia and Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona have been slavishly faithful to Trump, but stopped short of breaking the law by refusing to certify the vote in their states. For that, they’ve been cast out of Trump’s movement. “What is going on with @dougducey? Republicans will long remember!” Trump tweeted. At a berserk Georgia rally on , the pro-Trump lawyer Lin Wood led the crowd in a “lock him up” chant against Kemp.
In the end, it was the Republicans that helped Trump unleash countless evils. They shouldn’t be surprised when those evils don’t spare them.
Some think that after Biden won the election, fears about American fascism would dissipate. That the damage Trump caused was “an accident of history,” much like many Germans after World War II described their “12-year mistake.”
As American electors gathered — with the police offering armed guards and Michigan’s capitol closed by “credible threats of violence” — these words seem too optimistic. Trump failed to capture America, but he may have irrevocably broken it.