In the New Republic, Daniel Bessner has a review of historian Bruce Kuklick’s new book Fascism Comes to America: A Century of Obsession in Politics and Culture. Bessner, a professor at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, is a long-time critic of the “fascism thesis," primarily through his Twitter posts. To my knowledge, he has not to this point committed his arguments to formal writing, so I was looking forward to engaging with the piece, which Bessner confidently supposed would end the debate once for all. [Correction: Bessner has apparently written on the subject before, I was mistaken.] But his intervention comes in the form of a review rather than an original contribution, which makes it somewhat awkward to respond.
Fortunately, I had Kuklick’s book lying around the house because it was sent to me to review, something I was unable to get around to. I’m now very glad I did not agree to review it: it is a very tedious and aimless book. The argument, if you can call it that, is just based on the accumulation of episodes, the sheer and weight and volume of which are supposed to drive home the book’s point. That point is the following: in the context of American culture since the 1920s, the term “fascism” has no real content, it is simply a term of abuse, applied by everyone to everyone else they don’t like. In his review, Bessner writes:
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“Fascism,” Kuklick’s exhaustive survey of U.S. politics and culture shows, has generally functioned as a so-called floating signifier. In the words of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who originated the phrase, a floating signifier is a term “void of meaning and thus apt to receive any meaning.” At one point or another, every political perspective in the United States has been identified as fascist. In the last two decades alone, Jonah Goldberg railed against “liberal fascism” as Chris Hedges dubbed the “Christian Right” “American fascists.” Dinesh D’Souza claimed that Hillary Clinton was fascist; Paul Krugman said the same about Trump. And even fringe ideologies weren’t safe: Sebastian Gorka linked socialism with fascism, while Nouriel Roubini made similar claims about libertarianism.
That may be a fair characterization of the book on Bessner’s part, but it’s a little at variance with Kuklick’s own. The author specifically notes that the generalized use of “fascism” as a slur “does not mean that fascism is devoid of meaning or that it is a vacuous signifier”:
It is rather a part of language that is more evaluative than factual. Fascism belongs in a category of what may be designated the “less than cognitive” in that it does not so much refer to anything that exists as it accomplishes disapproval. To put fascism on paper or to utter it in conversation complexly resembles canceling a magazine subscription in disgust or throwing a tomato at a speaker at a public event—but not worrying much about retaliation. Fascism does not so much isolate a thing as it does some stigmatizing. Of course, such a finding does not suppose the frivolity of the hocus-pocus. Indeed, the opposite is to be inferred.
Indeed, is it?
Someone once said that semiotics explained something everyone knows in a language nobody understands. Something similar might be said of Kuklick’s book: It is patently obvious that in day-to-day politics and pop culture that the term fascism has a very loose meaning and is often just an insult. This is not a remarkable or penetrating observation. It is in fact, a very old one: it is essentially the same point that George Orwell made in 1944, albeit in a mercifully brief newspaper article rather than a book-length academic study:
It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley's broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.
Still, Orwell did not think the situation is entirely hopeless, and believed “underneath all this mess there does lie a kind of buried meaning,” that it would be possible, one day perhaps, to specify some real content, but in the meantime one just had to use it with “certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.”
Kuklick and Bessner believe even this modest goal is impossible: “fascism” is just literally the f-word: “…fascism’s power in American discourse comes from the fact that it has no stable meaning—it’s mostly an all-purpose curse word, a highfalutin “fuck this”—which means that the fascism debate, as currently constructed, can never end.”
This seems to me pretty thin gruel. The fact that a term means different things in different contexts doesn’t strip it of meaning entirely. Think of the words “narcissist” or “psychopath”: they are terms with a specific clinical dimension and also just general terms of abuse or denigration in the culture at large. Now, just because we use “narcissist” on a daily level to designate any kind of self-directed behavior we find personally obnoxious, does that mean that the clinical diagnosis “narcissistic personality disorder” is therefore void of all content in any imaginable context? Not really. Perhaps we should be more circumspect about its use, but that requires closer to attention to the actual, original meaning, not just saying, “Well, it really has no meaning anyway.” Anyway, discourse and dialectic always proceeds by the clarification and specification of terms in the course of argument. The fact that a term is confused or unclear on common usage is not the end but the beginning of inquiry.
While we are on the subject of semantic drift, it’s interesting to note that the critics of the use of “fascism” have now completely reversed their approach to the question: where once they insisted on extreme precision, pointing out the dis-analogy between historical conditions of the 1920s and 30s and the present, now they just say that the term cannot be used with any precision and is therefore useless. Instead, they offer a kind of psychoanalysis and sociology of knowledge: the reanimation “fascism” is a liberal fantasy that gives that dying ideology a new life and meaning: “Identifying “fascists” allows Americans living today to imagine themselves as part of a consequential world-historical fight between good and evil. It’s an ahistorical framing that gives meaning through romantic nostalgia and provides psychic succor to all of us who have no influence in the corridors of power.” Ah, thank you Doctor Freud!
The problem is that this anyone can cook up this of armchair psycho-sociology. You can watch me do it right now: “Intellectuals who distance themselves from the use of ‘fascism’ are trying to demarcate themselves from a hysterical and crude public, setting themselves up above and beyond the present terms of discourse. From this perspective, the fascism debate is essentially about maintaining “high-brow” status: Real intellectuals don’t go around calling things fascist willy-nilly, that’s for petty propagandists and the hoi-polloi. In this way, holding oneself distant from labeling things fascist provides psychic succor to those members of the intellectual class who want to adopt a superficially dissident position without actually having to undergo much risk. They have no consistent, falsifiable definition of fascism: It’s merely about positioning oneself in the discourse and they will adopt many different arguments, even contradictory ones, to keep this game going.” See, anyone can do it. Is any of that actually true? I dunno, but it sounds good to me!
(In fact, one can perform this type of intellectual psychoanalysis directly on Bessner himself. He is the author of a book about Hans Speier, which I had the pleasure to review some years ago. Speier was a refugee from Nazi Germany whose experiences as a young social democrat in the face of rising fascism shaped his thinking as a Cold War defense intellectual. Fearful of a popular uprising, he sought to create institutions that would be insulated against democratic publics. For Bessner, this is the the origin of his anti-anti-fascism: he always views it as an extension of Cold War liberalism by other means. Fine, good, but that’s no less the kind of idée fixe on a certain historical period that he accuses his opponents of having: he just situates his pet analogy twenty years later.)
In any case, whatever merit Kuklick and Bessner’s position might have is undermined by their apparent need to say things that just don’t hold up under close scrutiny. Let’s look for example from the conclusion of Kuklick’s book, purportedly showing how the idea of fascism can transmute into its opposite : “Like Popular Front liberals, Trump attempted to reconcile Americans to a less adversarial relation with the autocratic regime of Russia. Contrary to the expansionist fascists of the 1930s, Trump was reproached for isolationism or a limited internationalism, and for shrinking US influence.” You can only try to sneak these points by a reader that knows very little about what’s being discussed. Kuklick himself probably knows better and is therefore being disingenuous. Attempted reconciliation with and even admiration for a right-wing autocratic Russia puts Trump in closer proximity to the actually existing extreme right: Russia as last defender of the white race or Christian civilization is persistent theme in their propaganda. David Duke had many contacts with Russian nationalists in the 90s and 2000s, as have the European far-right. Kuklick must also know that “isolationism” also puts Trump closer to the tradition of American fascist sympathizers: Trump even made “America First” a literal slogan of his campaign.
Bessner also participates in this sloppiness or incuriosity about the actual facts. He writes:
Why has “fascism” been able to serve such a protean function? According to Kuklick, it’s because fascism hasn’t been, and never was, a real threat in the United States. As he usefully reminds us, “living, breathing Nazis—the German-American Bundists and William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Legion of the 1930s; George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party of the 1960s; or the neo-Nazis of the 21st century”—were all minuscule groups that never came close to wielding political power. The conditions that enabled fascism’s rise—a broad experience of total war and a powerful left on the verge of seizing power—were just never present here. It was precisely this lack of threat that allowed fascism to become a generalized term of vilification. If there were actual fascists running around, you wouldn’t go around calling everyone fascist.
Another reason “fascism” has been so protean is that, unlike liberalism and conservatism, it’s not a living ideology—and never really was in the United States.
First of all, let’s attend to this argument here: “It was precisely this lack of threat that allowed fascism to become a generalized term of vilification. If there were actual fascists running around, you wouldn’t go around calling everyone fascist.” This is just nonsense. If that’s so why did Communist parties in interwar Europe, where there was a real fascist threat, haphazardly label everyone to their right, including social democratic parties, “social fascists?” If you look at the history of the Third Period of the Comintern, the absence of a fascist threat can’t possibly be the explanation for looseness with the term. As we’ve seen from Orwell earlier, the generalized-abuse sense of “fascism” was not absent from Europe. So, this kind of argument sounds insightful but is just bullshit.
Bessner goes on to write:
No self-identified fascist is taken seriously in American society. There are no genuinely fascist op-ed columnists, no fascist TV commentators, no fascist celebrities, no fascist elected officials. You’re unlikely to find people reading actual fascists outside of European history courses.
Part of this is just question begging. Another part of it is just not really true. David Duke, a Neo-Nazi and KKK leader, was elected to office in Louisiana and then ran for Senator and then governor of that state, capturing a majority of the white vote. Pat Buchanan, a TV columnist and op-ed columnist, then openly took from Duke’s program to mount a primary campaign that wounded the incumbent president. That run is widely taken to be a precursor of Trump’s own. Former Iowa congressman Steve King had several documented connections to white nationalism. Does this all prove conclusively that American fascism is a clear and present danger? No, but it certainly suggests a much higher salience of the issue than Bessner wants to admit. And I would submit that what it shows is that fascism is not simply an empty signifier, but rather an actual part of the American political equation.
As to this point, “you’re unlikely to find people reading actual fascists outside of European history courses.” If Bessner cared to pay attention to the culture of the contemporary right, he’d know that was also just not true. The contemporary right is absolutely lousy with curiosity about fascists, their precursors, and sympathizers: the name Carl Schmitt is constantly invoked in right-wing publications, Julius Evola is a cult favorite for some, Ernst Jünger for others, Bannon, himself an Evola fan, also noted his admiration for Charles Maurras. For contemporary names, Bronze Age Pervert, himself essentially an open Nazi, is a big favorite among young conservatives, including those in the Trump administration.
Here’s another highly dubious point that demonstrates a general lack of knowledge or interest in the subject matter at hand:
Others might argue that the rise of far-right groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, and especially their participation in the “insurrection” of January 6, 2021, suggest that there’s an unprecedented threat to U.S. democracy that only the word “fascism” can describe. But organizations like these have existed for decades and undertaken numerous spectacular acts—the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 comes immediately to mind, as do the murders of doctors providing abortions—and the term “fascist” was not usually applied to them.
Well, maybe it should’ve been! First of all, there should be absolutely no doubt at this point that Timothy McVeigh was a committed neo-Nazi. Above Bessner noted the “minuscule” importance of William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Legion. But one can easily draw a direct line from from Pelley to Timothy McVeigh. After the failure of the Silvershirts, former members of Pelley’s circle, along with antisemitic Christian nationalist Gerald L.K. Smith, a figure Bessner does not mention at all, were instrumental in the creation of Christian Identity and Posse Comitatus ideology and groups. Timothy McVeigh had close connections with the Christian Identity settlement at Elohim City. He also took inspiration from the Turner Diaries, written by William Luther Pierce, a former member of George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party. The Oath Keepers and other contemporary militia groups are also direct descendants of Posse Comitatus, a tactic and ideology cooked up by Wesley Swift, a Christian Identity preacher.
The fascist far right in America has had to adapt its organizational style and ideology to local conditions, but it has remained a remarkably persistent, if usually marginal, presence.But something qualitative changed with the emergence of Trump. These groups, long pushed to the very fringes of American political life, suddenly felt vindicated and that their moment arrived. Again, Bessner completely neglects to mention the wave of enthusiasm for Trump evinced by people like David Duke or more recently emerging “alt-right” movements. One reason to take seriously Trump’s proximity to fascism was because actual fascists thought that he was something like what they had always wanted and represented a real political opening. What Trump was actually able to accomplish in office is secondary to the question of whether or not his movement had some analogy or proximity to fascism. Trump has always been very careful to court and not totally alienate this constituency, as evidenced by his attempted cultivation of Nick Fuentes and his favorable public remarks about the Proud Boys.
This brings us to January 6th. Surely, the presence of a paramilitary mob essentially directed by the president in an attempt to overthrow the elected government would make some analogy to fascism understandable? This is what the supposedly hysteric fascism-sayers had warned of all along. Now add to the fact that many of these groups had lineages and ideologies that are identifiably fascist. Or that the entire event, as Kathleen Belew has pointed out, came straight out of the imaginary of the Turner Diaries. At the very least, would this not all suggest that the question of fascism, of its relevance to the contemporary political situation, has a little more to it than either liberal fantasy or petulant name calling?
Another reason why I believe Trump deserves scrutiny on the fascism score is that his movement constantly menaced the very citizenship of its enemies. From the start, Birtherism was about an attack on Obama’s citizenship. Then you have the actual menacing moves and statements that Trump and his administration made about the 14th and birthright citizenship. According to the late Gáspár Miklós Tamás, who coined the term post-fascism, it’s this very hostility to universalized citizenship that properly characterizes a fascist politics.
Finally, Bessner comes very close to refuting his own argument when he connects the reemergence of the discourse around fascism to the “crisis of liberalism:”
For most of the twentieth century’s second half, liberalism was kept vigorous and popular because it was able to define itself against a communist enemy, which, liberals affirmed, was the primary obstacle standing in the way of a better world. But communism has been defeated, and 30 years later everything looks and feels pretty much the same, only worse. Liberals therefore need a credible enemy whose viciousness might attract Americans to the centrist cause and, in the process, help them overlook liberals’ manifold and manifest failures. Simply put, fighting fascism provides liberals with an opportunity to reinvigorate their project in a moment of crisis. This is why fascism talk exploded under Trump and not under Bush; under the latter, liberal dreams had not yet curdled.
Yes, true enough, but again this attends to the world of discourse rather than reality. There is a crisis of liberalism and one consequence, like the last one, is that there is an actual illiberal far right-politics on the march today. Labeling it “fascist” might be inaccurate or anachronistic, but it is not necessarily a product of the liberal or ‘centrist’ dishonesty or self-exculpation, but rather the present lack of other useful terms. All this makes the inquiry into the question of fascism more not less important: is it, in fact, a good context for what we are seeing today or not? Bessner already admitted there is a “crisis of liberalism” whose closest analogy is the Depression era, so why not look at what else was going on then, too?
None of these facts or arguments are relevant to the Kuklicks and Bessners of the world. They have decided the question in advance: to talk about fascism is at best a meaningless absurdity and, more likely, a kind of liberal lie that obscures real social and political conditions. They never engage with the substance of their opponents’ position in good faith, but instead rely on framing the issue as actually being about something else. There is no fascism debate, because no one on the other side is actually debating, just declaring the question prima facie to be beneath contempt: Every fact offered is denigrated as marginal or unimportant, every argument put forward the evidence of bad faith or psychological infirmity. To my knowledge, to this point, no one on the other side of “the debate” has systematically explored the interventions made by the historian Geoff Eley, or Adolph Reed, himself not exactly a “centrist liberal,” or the preeminent scholar Robert Paxton, who publicly changed his mind on the issue. This is all just swept aside, now in favor of the gesture, “It’s all bunch of meaningless chatter anyway.” This is not an intellectual argument, but an intellectual pose.
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I suppose the only difference between "fascist" and "liberal," "socialist," or "conservative" is that few, if any, these days self-apply the label. But ultimately all these labels end up muddled through broad usage and the narrow particularities of who is on what side of a contemporary issue, sides which may not cleanly or obviously map to any one of the broader political tradition.
But you can always step back as a scholar and say "there is a fascist, a liberal, a socialist, and a conservative political tradition," and describe what you think characterizes one as distinct from the other, and justify your use of the term with historical use of it. Even if someone objects to the term you use, the only thing that really matters is whether they think the political tradition itself is a thing that more or less merits treating as something distinct, a pattern that in fact meaningfully exists in history and the present.
What's frustrating about the fascism debate is how hung up people seem to get on the aesthetics of the word without really bothering to face whether or not there is or is not some political tradition or pattern worth wrestling with. I don't care one whit whether or not we ought to call MAGA fascism, but I do find the patterns that you have drawn from history to be useful. Totally agree that the energy behind this from some academics is all about a snobby "real intellectuals don't go around calling things fascist" rather than anything more substantial.
Moyn once tweeted that he was reluctant to call it fascism because he disliked the political and intellectual consequences of such identification. What unifies much of of the "non-fascist" camp is a deep antagonism towards American liberalism for one reason or another. If Trump and the far-right were identified as fascist it would create political obligations towards a popular front that would imperil the political projects of these intellectuals. I don't think its a coincidence that many of those who oppose identifying fascists on the right are also those who nurse the strongest hopes for a new "dovish" right wing who might help create a new, more restrained American foreign policy.