Analysis | To Defend Democracy, Don’t Call Trump a Semi-Fascist


President Joe Biden plans to give a prime-time speech Thursday about democracy. It’s a good idea. Democracy is under threat in the US from those who reject the results of the 2020 election, some of whom might consider resorting to violence to have the results overturned.  It’s appropriate that the president describe the threat, part of his obligation to defend the Constitution.

But what most people are probably wondering is whether Biden will use the term “fascism” or, actually, “semi-fascism,” to describe former President Donald Trump and his allies, as Biden did last week. I hope he doesn’t, although the question is far from an easy one.

There is one argument in favor of invoking fascism: It has shock value. Trump-style authoritarianism deserves front-page coverage, and using explosive language is one way to get the media, and voters, to notice.

Beyond that, I don’t see a good reason for Biden to label anyone “semi-fascist.” But there are several compelling reasons not to.

For one, very liberal Democrats and some other critics of former presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush habitually called each of them fascists. Some people hearing the term might perceive it as a relatively content-free political insult. That Biden is in fact invoking the original meaning of fascism — an ultranationalist and authoritarian ideology — doesn’t really matter; what matters is how key audiences hear it.(1)

Speaking of audiences, I suspect that when most people hear the term “fascism,” they think “Hitler.” And that’s the wrong image for Biden to evoke. Sure, people well-versed in 20th century history might know about Italy’s Mussolini, Spain’s Franco and others who combined strong-state authoritarianism with ethnic bigotry without Hitler’s mass murder and attempt at world conquest. But others might hear it and think “Nazi.” That will make it harder for Biden to get his message across.

What’s more, as far as I know none of the contemporary authoritarian leaders Trump is properly compared with such as Russian President Vladimir Putin or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán call themselves fascist. If they did, as Mussolini did, using the word would be instructive, offering those who follow the news a reference point. Since that isn’t the case, “fascism” isn’t an effective communication shortcut.

Which really gets to the best reason to avoid using “fascism”: It leads to the wrong arguments. What Biden and other opponents of authoritarianism should want is a clear line separating those who support democracy from those who oppose it. There is plenty of evidence that Trump has nothing but scorn for democracy, the rule of law and the US Constitution. Just this week he has demanded to be reinstated to the presidency immediately, something that isn’t provided for in the Constitution even if his wild and false conspiracy theories were true.

Asserting that Trump rejects democracy is an argument that’s easy to make; it isn’t hard, for example, to demonstrate that he undermined the peaceful transfer of power in all kinds of ways. So any argument about fascism is at best a distraction. It takes the focus away from threats to democracy.

Whether Trump is in fact a fascist depends on what you mean by fascism, and scholars tend to emphasize different aspects of the ideology. I’ve seen solid arguments that he is, at the very least, what Biden referred to as a semi-fascist; I think there are equally strong arguments that fascism is really a mid-20th century European phenomenon and that we need language that’s more American, and more contemporary, to describe Trump.

For analysts, this may turn out to be a useful discussion, because fully understanding Trumpism might be helpful in figuring out how to fight it. But a president isn’t well-positioned to develop subtle, complex arguments. The bully pulpit is useful, however, in setting the agenda for the nation. And Biden should place protecting democracy high on that agenda.

It isn’t necessarily the president’s responsibility to tell blunt truths to the nation. It is the president’s job to defend the Constitution. That certainly suggests that when presidents talk, they need to weigh how they are heard at least as strongly as whether they are saying everything they know.

I hope we hear a strong positive defense of democracy from Biden, and an argument for why Trump and his allies are a threat to the republic that is designed for the people who are open to being persuaded.

More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

Biden Is Unpopular, But Democrats Aren’t: Julianna Goldman

Putin Will Turn Gorbachev’s Death to His Advantage: Clara Ferreira Marques

Can Liz Truss Exceed Low Expectations? Thatcher Did: Therese Raphael

(1) This is not to say that Biden should automatically avoid anything that would anger Trump’s supporters. Not only is that futile since they’re apt to take umbrage at anything he says, it also would allow them too much influence. But the history of the word’s usage might mean that some who are open to arguments against Trump would – correctly or not – be less likely to take them seriously if built around “fascism.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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