One can already hear the crying and gnashing of teeth: Thursday night, President Joe Biden called the MAGA ideology "semi-fascism."
As researcher Parker Molloy noted on Twitter, Fox News has been desperate for a repeat of Hillary Clinton's (entirely accurate) description of Donald Trump voters as "deplorables," and will not be able to resist the bait. The mainstream media's gaffe obsession will likely slot this comment into a "he slipped up" framework, unable to imagine that a Democratic politician might, once in awhile, say something truthful about the red hats on purpose. Hands will be wrung. Statements will be issued. The Republican National Committee has already described this moment of truth-telling "despicable," a word they notably did not use after Trump sent a violent mob to the Capitol to overthrow democracy.
It's all noise. Strapped to a lie detector, everyone would have to admit the only problem with Biden's statement is he overloaded it with caveats. First in the use of the term "semi," but also in limiting his remarks to "MAGA," as if that's a separate category from Republicans in general. In reality, the number of Republicans who won't support Trump in another run is, as the last election showed, frighteningly small.
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There is no need to dance around the subject: Trump is a fascist, as evidenced by his Mussolini-style effort to overthrow the U.S. government and install himself illegally in power. Everyone who supports him is therefore also a fascist. Fascism, like punching someone in the face, isn't one of those things that we define by examining the unknowable heart of a person. We look at the action. Are you planning to vote for a fascist? Do you give money to a fascist? Do you participate in gaslighting propaganda on behalf of fascists? Congrats: You're a fascist!
As former Republican Max Boot recently wrote in the Washington Post, "the most apt phrase for this American authoritarianism is the New Fascism, and it is fast becoming the dominant trend on the right."
The first step to getting people to wake up is chipping away at the wall of denial that fascism could happen in America.
Nor should anyone mistake Biden's comment for a "gaffe." Unlike Clinton's "deplorables" remark or Barack Obama's "bitter clingers" remark — both true, yet turned into faux outrages by the media — Biden's full quote sounds quite a bit like someone choosing their words with deliberation.
"What we're seeing now is either the beginning or the death knell of an extreme MAGA philosophy," the president told attendees at a Maryland fundraiser Thursday night. "It's not just Trump, it's the entire philosophy that underpins the — I'm going to say something — it's like semi-fascism."
"I'm going to say something." Biden was clearly signposting that he is aware that his comment could set off a firestorm.
Coming off a series of big political wins on gun control, climate change, and student loan forgiveness, Biden seems to be going into the fall with a lot more fight in him than we usually expect from a politician who spent years carefully crafting an image of bipartisan chumminess. On the same day as the "semi-fascism" remark, the White House Twitter account issued a legitimate sick burn on Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., after the born-wealthy congresswoman whined about student loan forgiveness.
Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene had $183,504 in PPP loans forgiven.https://t.co/4FoCymt8TB
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) August 25, 2022
Even with all the heavy caveating, it's smart for Biden to get that word "fascist" out there. It's crucial for getting Americans to truly understand the threat we're facing from Trump and his fascist goons.
Democrats have largely been conservative in their language to describe the threat, hoping to get through to people who will stop listening the second they hear the word "fascism."
Trump's best weapon is the unwillingness of Americans to accept that fascism can, in fact, happen here. For the past year and a half, Trump and his propagandists have sought to spin the events of January 6 as something other than the fascist insurrection it clearly was. There's been a lot of lies about how it was a "peaceful protest" and attempts to blame the unmistakable violence on imaginary FBI and "antifa" infiltrators. These efforts have been disturbingly successful, due to a widespread myth that the United States is somehow immune to the same fascist politicking that has, at various points in time, conquered other democracies around the globe. The mainstream media has only made it worse with an unwillingness to disturb this myth by leveling with their audiences about the threat we face.
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To be fair to everyone who has danced around the F-word, the myth of American exceptionalism means that properly labeling Trump causes a lot of people, even those who really should know better, to dismiss you as hysterical. Subsequently, Democrats have largely been conservative in their language to describe the threat, hoping to get through to people who will stop listening the second they hear the word "fascism." So instead you hear rhetoric like "democracy is on the ballot," disconnected from blunt explanations about why that might be.
The problem with such pussyfooting is that its very carefulness means that it won't drive the public conversation.
In April, Ezra Klein of the New York Times hosted political strategists Sean McElwee and Anat Shenker-Osorio and they hammered this point repeatedly, that hyper-caution backfires. "[T]he media likes conflict," McElwee underscored, and will therefore slide past stories that don't center conflict. On motivating voters, Shenker-Osorio noted, "What we find activating is tapping into that F-U sort of spirit, rather than, I'm going to go cower in the corner."
Another round of January 6 hearings will no doubt reinforce Biden's use of the word "fascism" to describe Trump and his MAGA crowd.
It's a major reason that Trump — with his actual lies and hyperbole — manages to exert so much control over what people are talking about in both political and social media. He will throw provocations out there, which will both delight his followers and get the media to cover him more. Biden is now doing the same thing — but with honesty. A lot of pundits will likely spend the weekend quarreling on cable news about the definition of "fascism" and whether Trump meets it. Many of them will annoyingly use academic-sounding caveats to deny, on some technicality, that Trump is a full-blown fascist, ignoring his obvious longing to meet that gold standard. But whatever. At least they'll be talking about it and, crucially, using the word "fascist."
The first step to getting people to wake up is chipping away at the wall of denial that fascism could happen in America. Just hearing the word used a lot in respect to American politics will help whittle away that defensive head-in-the-sand reaction.
Biden's gambit is well-timed. It's on the heels of the first round of January 6 committee hearings and in anticipation of another round, promised for the fall. Anyone who watched the hearings cannot, in good faith, ignore that the evidence points to Trump leading a deliberate plot to overthrow an election, and using mob violence to do so. Indeed, as former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson's testimony indicates, Trump fully imagined himself leading the mob to confront Congress, an image that, befitting a reality TV star, owes more to cinematic myths of fascist takeovers like Mussolini's March on Rome than reality. Trump, remember, has a lot of fantasies about how awesome it was to be a fascist leader. Another round of January 6 hearings will no doubt reinforce Biden's use of the word "fascism" to describe Trump and his MAGA crowd.
Having this debate about fascism, in the ordinary people public and not in the pages of the New Yorker, is necessary. Yes, a lot of Republicans are not personally invested in a fascist ideology but are merely conservatives who go along with Trump to maintain their own power. Certainly, this seems to describe people like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell or House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, both of whom have chafed at times under Trump's leadership but ultimately help him to protect their own power. That is always the case when fascists rise to power. They always depend on powerful conservatives who will side with fascists instead of progressives. But this is a distinction without a difference, once conservatives accept fascists as their leaders and work for them. Getting Americans to understand that means talking about it. And talking about it means using the F-word.