"Plutocrats and populists": The GOP's "contradictory principles" make a perfect recipe for fascism

Professor ​Gavriel D. Rosenfeld on the toxic stew of tax cuts to rich people while placating racist scapegoating

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published October 24, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

American democracy is under siege from neofascist and other malign forces, from both within and outside. The antidemocracy movement is global. In the United States, this has taken the form, most acutely, in the form of Trumpism and the larger white right, which today’s Republican Party and “conservative” movement has willingly surrendered to. The longer story is decades-old and involves how an increasingly antidemocratic and radicalized right-wing built the institutions and gathered the resources to bring an end – so they hope – to multiracial pluralistic democracy and to replace it with a Christofascist Apartheid plutocracy.

For more than seven years, the American people and the country’s elites were warned by a small but vocal group of people – a group that I am a part of – about the existential dangers that Trumpism and the larger neofascist movement embodied. Unfortunately, the American people and their leaders chose, for the most part, not to listen to our warnings. Now matters are increasingly dire as Trump is tied with or ahead of President Biden in early 2024 Election polls.

In an attempt to make better sense of the rise of American neofascism, why so many people who should know better looked away, the ways that American fascism is both similar to and different from such movements and forces in other countries and earlier time periods, and what comes next – especially if Trump returns to the White House, I recently spoke with ​Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, the President of the Center for Jewish History in New York City and Professor of History at Fairfield University. Rosenfeld is the author of numerous books, including the new co-edited volume (with Janet Ward), Fascism in America: Past and Present, The Fourth Reich: The Specter of Nazism from World War II to the Present, and Hi Hitler! How the Nazi Past is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length: 

How are you feeling about America’s democracy crisis? How are you beginning to process this?

As a historian, I’m keenly aware of how contemporary fears and fantasies shape how people interpret the past, present, and future. I’m personally anxious about current political trends, especially because so many people appear to be caught in information bubbles and have little exposure to, or willingness to consider, competing ideas.    

Language matters: What is this "crisis"? How do we define and apply it properly in this context?

The etymological origin of crisis (from the Greek) refers to a turning point or point of transition, originally with reference to a disease process. Many people intuitively sense that the Western world, like the world at large, is at a turning point where things could either get better or worse depending on any number of contingencies. Human action is needed on a variety of fronts to ensure we move in a positive direction That’s why it’s imperative to look back to the 1930s and 1940s and remind ourselves what was done effectively and what was done poorly to shore up liberal democracy. 

How does that understanding change when we take the longer view from beyond these last seven or so years? 

Crises come in many forms and in different degrees of severity, but they have always been a part of American history. The expansion of political rights to people who were never intended to have them is one arc of this story. The resistance to that expansion is the other arc. I see liberals as people who were originally elitists and applied Enlightenment principles only to themselves. This was true in Europe as well as the U. S. Over time, popular protest forced liberals to grant rights to others who had previously been denied them. Witness all the Reform Acts in 19th Century Britain and the decision of French liberals in 1848 to approve universal manhood suffrage. Those people who were willing to expand political rights remained liberals. Those who opposed doing so in 19th-century Europe and the U. S. became known as conservatives or reactionaries, while their 20th-century successors became fascists.  

In the U. S., rich white men were the first to claim liberal rights for themselves while denying them to poor white men without property. Andrew Jackson changed that by expanding suffrage to all white men, but of course denied those rights to white women and most people who were not white. Somewhat later, Nativists wanted to deny the same rights to other European/white men who were immigrants. The latter, of course, ultimately secured those rights, but it was always a struggle, as we know from many subsequent battles over immigration. We know how the rest of the story goes: white women, Native Americans, Black people, were eventually granted more rights as the 20th century unfolded. But it took a very long time, and at every step they faced resistance by people on the right – Southern oligarchs (who also opposed giving poor whites the vote), the second Klan, interwar fascist groups, and post-1945 segregationists. Only the Federal Government ensured the success of the Civil Rights movement.  

We’re witnessing a new phase of this struggle today in the form of declining elites and social groups trying to prevent multiracial democracy.

I was one of the first people with a public platform to consistently warn that Trump and the MAGA movement and today’s Republican Party are fascists. I would define the terms and give the evidence. In response, those of us who were sounding the alarm were dismissed as “alarmists” with “Trump derangement syndrome." Why was there such denial – even given the obvious evidence about America’s neofascist crisis?

Part of it is psychological – not wanting to admit that we face serious peril in our own country. Obviously, we’ve been aware of right-wing extremists for years (the Oklahoma City bombing drove that home). But they had never acquired such a base in one of our two major political parties until Trump. The precursor to Trumpism in the form of the Tea Party remained mostly a faction without veto power over GOP policy.  

Another reason why people are skeptical of the fascism charge is that it’s been used so widely by pundits and activists for decades. Literally every single president in the U. S. since FDR has been called a fascist at one point or another. I’m currently researching this phenomenon for a new book project). The ubiquity of these charges, combined with the absence of any genuine fascist regime in American history to this point, makes people skeptical of the claim that any one figure or movement is genuinely fascist. It’s the classic phenomenon of “crying wolf,” whereby people become desensitized to alarmist claims. This has been changing, however, especially since 1/6/21. 

How do you define fascism? How does it look in the American mold? Is MAGA a fascist movement?

Fascism is an ideological movement that uses violence to destroy the liberal democratic order and replace it with a dictatorial system benefiting a particular social group, usually defined in ethno-nationalistic terms.  

I see the MAGA movement as fascistic, though to be sure, there are competing wings – between those who are ideologues and those who are opportunists. This division is true of all political movements – even Nazism in Germany. It’s not clear to me how many MAGA supporters are truly willing to use violence to achieve their goals – as opposed to “merely” rigging the democratic process to ensure their desired outcomes. That latter authoritarian phenomenon unfortunately has a long tradition in American history, without rising to the level of fascism, in my opinion. 

How have you been tracking the trajectory of the rise of Trump the figure and Trumpism as a political movement?

It’s all an outgrowth of the contradictory principles and social bases of the GOP. The party has long united plutocrats and populists, certainly since Barry Goldwater, by offering tax cuts to rich people and a stew of racist scapegoating and culture war demagoguery to poorer whites, especially from the Protestant/Nativist segment of the population).  

That coalition held together reasonably well until GW Bush, but the foreign policy adventures of the post 9/11 world combined with the 2008 economic crash led millions of Americans to sense they were being taken for suckers – after all, the GOP’s economic policies had never benefited these voters and the GOP rarely followed through on their culture war promises.  

McCain tried to capitalize on that resentment in 2008 by selecting Sarah Palin as his running mate, but the GOP brand was tarnished by 8 years of Bush and lost the election. Obama’s victory, in turn, radicalized the GOP white base and ensured that when the nominating process of 2015/16 took place, they would not be suckered again into voting for a traditional GOP establishment type like Jeb Bush.  

At that point, the white Christian masses decided they wanted a sincere racist (not just a poseur) and simultaneously moved to demand a new kind of economic populism.

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Establishment Republicans had never been willing to sincerely embrace these two principles, since they offended the donor class. All those mainstream GOP candidates not surprisingly lost to Trump in 2016, who was willing to embrace the combination of racism and populism more sincerely. Ever since, GOP politicians have had to ride the authoritarian populist tiger to stay viable in the new political universe. 

Will American Exceptionalism save us or doom us? Moreover, what role does American Exceptionalism play in the Age of Trump and ascendant neofascism? 

American exceptionalism has two sides reflecting the Janus-faced character of American history: we’ve committed singular misdeeds throughout history, mostly rooted in our colonial origins, but have also pursued a universalistic liberal democratic mission that has gradually been extended to more of the population thanks to their own activist efforts to force the country to live up to its ideals. Those ideals motivated lots of the antifascist efforts of the 1930s and 1940s, which need to be acknowledged and, today, serve as a source of inspiration. 

What can pro-democracy Americans learn from the struggle(s) against fascism(s) and other antidemocratic formations in other countries and at times? What about the Black Freedom Struggle as one of the most successful pro-democracy movements in recent history – and perhaps ever? 

Coalition building in the 1930s was crucial for halting rightwing trends in their tracks. Countless civic groups worked together to oppose the extremist groups of the period. Leftwing groups (unions, the American League Against Fascism and War, etc.) worked with liberal groups (Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, Friends of Democracy), Jewish, Catholic, and Black groups (AJC, ADL, NAACP), along with individual journalists, media outlets, local government (esp. LaGuardia’s administration in NYC), and the Federal Government to combat right wing trends. The same was true in the mid-1920s, when similar coalitions fought against the immensely popular second Ku Klux Klan. It’s the same impulse that supported 19th century abolitionism and reconstruction after the Civil War.  It’s our best political tradition, to my mind. 

What are some of the continuities and parallels and of course differences in what you are seeing with how Germany and other societies embraced fascism in its various forms and what is happening in the U.S. and elsewhere with the rise of the global right? 

My greatest fear relates to the malicious role of declining elites jumping into bed with genuine fascists.  That’s what happened in Germany in 1932/33.  Conservatives desperate to preserve their political and economic power sided with the NSDAP and brought the fox into the hen house. American elites never went that far in the 1930s, because they retained faith in our democratic system, even if most of them were deeply suspicious of FDR’s New Deal. Honestly, their ability to limit the New Deal’s reach probably made them feel sufficiently confident to NOT need the aid of the far right. Also, FDR was our savior in the sense that he and his administration took the country enough to the left that labor unrest never reached a critical mass to frighten the elites into contemplating a major coup. Had FDR been killed in Miami in 1933, a different president for the rest of the decade would have probably worsened social tensions and been terrible for the country’s political stability. 

What is the role of violence in Trumpism and American neofascism?

Apart from January 6th, which was partly directed by Trump and partly stochastic, Trump’s worst sin has been his never-ending rhetorical demonization of its opponents and incitement of his followers to act on their own. 

What of the role(s) that white supremacy, nativism, antisemitism, sexism play in Trumpism and American neofascism? 

They all go together. Though not all far right groups in American history have embraced white supremacy. To cite one example, the Christian Front (which was a Catholic form of American Nativism, which had traditionally been Protestant) appears to have been largely indifferent to race and wanted a religious form of “Christian Unity.” Race didn’t figure in much of their thinking. Relatedly, in the late 1930s, Joe McWilliams tried to recruit Black supporters to his Christian Mobilizers movement. Charles Gallagher makes that interesting point in his recent book, The Nazis of Copley Square. Those groups were primarily fixated on anticommunism coming from the traumas of the Spanish Civil War and blamed Jews for promoting communism. The Christian Front’s antisemitism was more religious and political than racial.   

Now that the book is done, what are you seeing or understanding differently about American fascism and the Age of Trump? What has been reinforced? 

We wanted to bridge the 1930s and the present in the volume and get people to see the connections. We want to advance current scholarship by inspiring younger historians to plunge into the field and interest the general public in a topic that’s all too often been underplayed. As we increasingly become open to seeing American history as double sided, we need to realize that the same country that won the “good war” against fascism had its own fascist groups that would’ve been happy had the Nazis won. 

What happens if Trump returns to the White House? 

Nothing good, that’s for sure. But we need to realize that any of his GOP imitators could wreak just as much havoc if for some reason he doesn’t become the party’s nominee for president. At this point, the social base of the GOP is driving the party’s autocratic agenda. 

Where do we go from here?

All the usual claims about the need for vigilance apply, along with warnings about complacency. It’s exhausting but necessary to constantly be on guard. We also have to adapt to new geopolitical developments and not just see things in a domestic context. Between December 7th and December 11th, 1941, the ongoing standoff within American social, economic, political, and cultural life decisively shifted in favor of FDR’s left-liberal agenda.  

There’s no question that international events today – the War in Ukraine, Gaza, potentially elsewhere – will have momentous consequences for American political life. I’m concerned about rifts emerging on the American left about how to respond to the horrific Hamas terror attacks.

The last thing we need is for the anti-fascist coalition between centrists, liberals, and progressives to be shattered by events in the Middle East. The weakening of the left between 1939-41 because of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact is an example of something we certainly don’t want to happen in the present-day world. We really need to keep our eyes on multiple threats simultaneously. It won't be easy but it's absolutely necessary.


By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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