Ever since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, the word “fascism” has made periodic appearances in American political discourse. Critics of the Patriot Act invoked it as a way of warning against the dangers of prioritizing security over liberty. President George W. Bush later described the nation’s primary enemy in the War on Terror as “Islamic fascists”. And conservatives even labeled Barack Obama a fascist.
But the last few weeks have seen the term achieve a currency unequaled since the days when self-proclaimed fascists were still running European countries. Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s alarming ability to stay at the top of the polls — and headlines — by making one outrageous statement after another advocating a hard line against immigrants, refugees and anyone else who seems to threaten his goal of making America “great” again has not only hyperbolic pundits but sober-minded political commentators wondering, to reference Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, whether it can happen here and might, in fact, already be happening.
There are other reasons for this trepidation. The increasing militarization of police forces, the unprecedented broadening of government surveillance highlighted by Edward Snowden’s revelations, and the persistence of intolerant attitudes towards religious difference in the literal and figurative hinterlands of the United States have all suggested that the love of freedom long believed to be an insuperable bulwark against fascism, American-style, may no longer be strong enough to prevent the ascendance of a state that prioritizes its antithesis.
Even the term “freedom” itself often seems to have fallen down the proverbial rabbit hole into a world of Orwellian doublespeak, being regularly deployed as a weapon by those bent on limiting its scope. From the perspective of both right-wing libertarians and those on the Left with an anarchist sensibility — demographic categories unusually well represented in tech culture, it should be noted — the rituals of the Federal government, whoever is in charge, have come to look like the stage-managed shows of force the former Soviet Union and its satellites were famous for demonstrating in the name of noble political ideals.
Within this context, asking whether we are truly witnessing the beginnings of a homegrown fascist movement in the surprising resilience of Donald Trump’s candidacy makes sense. It also testifies, however, to a nostalgia for a time when the nation’s enemies were easier to pin down.
The anxieties inspired by the Islamic State’s shape-shifting development are counterbalanced by worries that Americans are destined to live in a post-democratic society in which liberty exists in name only. This is not to say that Donald Trump isn’t playing with fire. He surely is. But it’s important to remember that “fascism”, like any political term, can be deployed in order to make people feel better, paradoxically, when everything around them seems to be getting worse.
Photograph courtesy of Gage Skidmore. Published under a Creative Commons license.