Time to use the F word

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

Megan Skinnader investigates the storming of Capitol Hill in the USA and asks whether “Fascist” is the right word to describe Donald Trump’s supporters.

The United States Congress was stormed on the 6th of January 2021 and weeks later we are still grappling with the correct vocabulary of how to describe it. Protest, riot or insurrection? Each of these words carries an entirely different meaning and the language we use has hefty implications on what happens next. From the start of Trump's presidential campaign, we have been warned of the weight of words, the significance of the language used in Trump's speeches. There is no question that events on the 6th of January are a direct consequence of a deliberate effort to not label things as they are. An incorrect response to this violent insurrection will beget another. And with a more coherent and authoritarian leader, things could escalate a lot faster. Without actively and correctly upholding our institutions of democracy, the security of that democracy is never guaranteed. The mob that attacked Capitol Hill had violent intentions and they were provoked by a leader refusing to accept the democratic mandate of the people and engage in a peaceful transfer of power. The group was fascist and it's time we admit it.

Fascist is not a blanket term for politics we disagree with or even politics we find threatening. Trump's presidency until recent months was divisive, populist and at times incredibly dangerous yet we maintained a hesitancy to label it outright fascist. To qualify as fascist, one must completely disregard election results, critical media, and any and all opposition. Paired with a violent insurrection, provoked by unfound claims of election theft, we quickly see how qualifying Trump and the insurgents he provoked are for this term. Many of us have a hard time understanding the fragility of democracy in the US context. America has always been presented as the guardian of democracy, while at the same time we have Trump caught on record pressuring officials in Georgia to "find votes". Trump is using the same tactic we have seen Russia’s president Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan use to retain power when elections do not go as planned. Also, important to note, these are also two leaders Trump has admitted to admiring. I wonder why. We find the correct terminology to describe leaders like Putin and Erdogan, why are we too cautious to apply it to Trump?

While condemning and ensuring due process when it comes to the rioters of the coup, we cannot characterise all Trump supporters as anti-democratic or unhinged. The appetite for Trump's presidency ravished 74 million people in the 2020 election - over 11 million more than in 2016. Trumpism is not going away nor is Trumpism the origin of the discontent that has driven these Americans to an insurrection. Increasing inequality is something Trump capitalised on but in no way created. By addressing growing inequalities and engaging people at local government level, we deter people from the disenfranchisement that only furthers partisanship and anger that leads to this idea of fascism. 

People are understandably slow to use the word fascism. The fascism we grew up learning about in history yielded genocide and suffering to what is now the benchmark of absolute evil. The question must be asked by declaring Trump fascist; are we blending well-meaning Americans who voted for a relaxation in regulations and access to world markets with racists? Does this further the divisions we are so eagerly trying to avoid?

A divided nation paves the way for an enterprising demagogue who chooses whichever scapegoat they deem most popular. Trump has had white supremacists and far-right groups wrapped around his finger from day one. He has played into the no-nonsense paternal character they made of him. In November 2020 he urged them to ‘stop the steal’. In the face of a historic insurrection, he addressed rioters by saying "We love you. You’re very special. You’ve seen what happens, you see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil". He simultaneously infantilises and calls to battle those who are so devoted to him. Between his speeches railing against Mexican immigrants and a complete shutdown of people from many Muslim-majority countries entering the United States in his first month of the presidency, we cannot undermine the implications of the divisions Trump has further wedged and the opportunity this creates for any presidential candidate in future to capitalise. The genie is out of the bottle and we can't predict what wishes they will promise to grant.

We cannot seek complete parallels when it comes to justifying Trump and the rioters that support him as fascist. I think the confusion of the term lies in the question: ‘is fascism a series of actions and tactics or is it the consequence of those actions.’ If we acknowledge Trump’s attacks on the press and judiciary, his intolerance of opposition, his nationalism and his ‘America First Policy’ yet maintain without war or genocide Fascism is exaggerating, we are ignoring the worrying aspects of Trump's leadership that are available to him in the 21st century that other fascist leaders did not have access to. Trump may not have sought to extend U.S borders but he utilised digital fascism with effects still unknown to us. Fascism translates to social media with techniques that promote exaggerated storytelling, gaslighting and metric manipulation - techniques that fearmonger, diffuse or obstruct objective truth and corrupt the logic of numbers and scientific data. A decline in respect for fact completely undermines our ability to have any stable foundation for debate and fair election. Dissimilar to the party structures of fascism in the 20th century, social media allows it in its new form to be self-sustaining and self-renewing. Trump radicalised and reached people faster and more efficiently through Twitter than any mass rally or propaganda campaign. Should the ability to give or take away that power be in the hands of a social media mogul or is it time we stop legitimising hate speech and fake news under the guise of free speech?

Fear of violence at the hands of Trump's presidency was viewed as paranoid before the events on the 6th of January. We cannot wait for horrors to occur to see things as they are. After Trump's first impeachment, Republican senator Susan Collins justified her vote by hoping that Trump had ‘learned his lesson’. The lesson Trump learned was that his actions were inconsequential. The level of impunity brought to the oval office by Trump and in our willingness to let it happen will be something we struggle to explain for decades. This is not a case of using reactionary words to portray the mess of Trump's presidency. It is a case of acknowledging historic patterns alongside Trump's contempt for due process. The outgoing president incited an attack on Capitol Hill. Ultimately, the consequences of exaggerating the threat of an anti-democratic political movement and leader are minor compared to downplaying it.