On Thursday, September 1, 2022, a few days before the unofficial launch of the mid-term campaign season on Labor Day, President Biden excoriated ex-President Trump and his followers in an angry and eerie speech in Philadelphia in front of Freedom Hall. He went on, “It’s not just Trump, it’s the entire philosophy that underpins the — I’m going to say something, it’s like semi-fascism.” He also labeled the followers of Trump’s philosophy (if you can call it that) as MAGA-Republicans.
But what is a semi-fascist? I think President Biden’s explanation would be something like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” But when you accuse an ex-president and possible future presidential candidate of supporting a semi-fascist philosophy, you better have something to support your claim.
I think that we need a definition of fascism that is something more than just that fascists are mean, nasty people. Fascism is generally described as far-right authoritarianism and a nationalistic movement that subordinates citizens’ rights and private sector industry to the needs of the state as determined by the leader of the one party political system. We have historical evidence of these movements in Mussolini’s Italian Fascists and Hitler’s German Nazis. Other examples include Peron’s Argentina and various other dictatorships around the world. But what is a semi-fascist?
Yale University Professor of Philosophy, Jason Stanley, describes in a YouTube video the attributes of fascism through ten tactics that fascists use to gain control of a country. These tactics employ a mythic past, control of propaganda, anti-intellectualism, unreality (more often called fake news), hierarchy (a form of racism), victimhood (your problems are not your fault, it’s because of them), demands for law and order, a rural/urban divide and the value of hard work (which implies that unsuccessful people -in other words minorities – are lazy and responsible for their own condition). Many of these so-called fascist tactics seem to have been manipulated by Dr. Stanley to match the actions and rhetoric of Donald Trump and his followers. Presumably a semi-fascist would employ some but not all of these tactics in attempting to gain power.
But many of these tactics are distortions of what many people consider positive aspects of a society. We consider America to be exceptional, but the left’s disdain converts American exceptionalism into a fascist mythic history of our country. Others, like the value of hard work have been derided as part of “white culture” as described by the Smithsonian’s American Museum of African American History and Culture.
But many of these so-called fascist tactics are also tactics of the progressive left, who must be labeled semi-socialist as was noted by Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger in his editorial, Biden’s Choice: Semi-Fascism or American Socialism. The progressive left has whole-heartedly adopted the mythic America described by Nikole Hannah-Jones in the 1619 Project promoted by the New York Times. Progressive commentators are portrayed as reporters in the mainstream media as they propagandize the left’s agenda. Government officials reject the scientific method by proclaiming that transgender affirming care must not to be discussed because the science is settled.
I could go on and on. The truth is that fascism has more in common with the socialism of the left than it does with America’s Founding Principles. Both fascism and socialism require a strong and powerful state to control, not only the economy, but the people as well. Both require a single political party to control ideological orthodoxy. Both use the same tactics described by Dr. Stanley to achieve their goals. Both tend toward a single powerful leader such as Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin. More recently Mao, Peron, Hugo Chavez and Kim Jong-un. Xi Jinping now appears to be readying his place as president for life in Communist China. Donald Trump might plausibly be considered to fit that role, but Joe Biden comes up short (but not for the dint of trying).
Semi-fascist or semi-socialist. America needs a better future than these two alternatives.
The progressive left asserts that their policies are designed to increase democracy in America while those of the MAGA-Republicans are designed to destroy that democracy. But democracy, pure democracy, is not all it’s cracked up to be. Throughout history democracies have briefly flourished only to degenerate into autocracy under the sway of populist demagogues. Hitler, Mussolini, Peron and Chavez were all elected democratically before launching their plan to seize power.
The Founders recognized this fatal weakness of democracy and set about to create a republic (as noted by Ben Franklin) that could avoid the pitfalls of popular democracy. They created the famous “checks and balances” that can thwart the accumulation of government power as well as the vagaries of popular opinion. The bi-cameral legislature, the staggered terms of office, the lifetime appointment of federal judges, the electoral college. Most importantly, the limitation of the powers of the federal government to only those designated by the Constitution, reserving any remaining powers to the states or the people.
It is these checks, not only on the power of government but also on the popular will, that have preserved the American Republic for over 230 years. It is a republic, not only of limited government, but also limited democracy. What were the first things that these democratically elected populists do once in power? Change the constitution, pack the courts, create special rights for favored groups, and eliminate any institution that had any possibility of checking their grip on power.
Our faith in democracy has led us to believe that the more democracy, the better. But in making a cake, you need to have the ingredients in their proper proportion. Too much of any one ingredient (such as sugar) will not make the cake better but will make it inedible. Democracy is an important ingredient in American society, but it is only one ingredient, and it needs to be included in our recipe for a successful republic in its proper proportion. Ending voting restrictions on men lacking property, black men and eventually women was an appropriate expansion of democracy that improved our social recipe. The use of primary elections to pick candidates for office was considered an expansion of democracy but it has led to the current bitter divisiveness that afflicts politics in the 21st century.
Being opposed to the unlimited expansion of democracy does not make you a fascist or even a semi-fascist. It makes you a realist. Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, Jonathan Haidt (and many others) have shown that many, if not most, of our economic and political decisions are governed by the instinctual and emotional parts of our brain and not by our rational frontal lobes. The checks and balances created by the Founders are intended to slow down instinctual and emotional reactions to current events and to allow time for our rational frontal lobes to at least take part in the democratic process (and the Founders had not even read Kahneman and the others).