A video showing Donald Trump during the January 6 Committee hearing

A screen shows former President Donald Trump speaking on January 6, 2021 during a House Select Committee hearing on the Capitol assault on June 9, 2022.

(Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Portraying Trump as the Fascist He Is Could Save US Democracy

It comes down to Democratic framing, a truth-telling media, and the independent judiciary to convince the electorate that Trump is actually the biggest threat ever to the story of America.

April 19, 2025. WASHINGTON (AP)—At the direction of Donald Trump, 47th president of the United States, Attorney General Ken Paxton yesterday sent teams of FBI agents to the residences of General Mark Milley, Eric Holder, and Hillary Clinton.

Knocking on their doors at precisely 9:00 am, the lead agents identically told each of their targets, “We’ve come to confiscate your electronic devices pursuant to a lawful warrant. You are not now under arrest.” Clinton appeared the most resigned. “What might the charges be?” “Sorry, ma’am,” said the female agent with a small ponytail and large vest emblazoned with the familiar oversized yellow lettering of the FBI. “We’re not now allowed to say.”

Paxton late morning explained the administration’s reasoning. “May we remind critics that the American people have spoken?” an apparent reference to Trump’s electoral vote victory of 270 to 268, despite former President Joe Biden’s popular vote margin of 10 million votes over Trump—or 48% to 40%. (The remainder went to four minor party candidates.) The electoral college, however, for the third time in the last seven presidential elections, turned a popular vote victory into a narrow loss.

Secretary of Homeland Security Stephen Miller made additional news on immigration in a Newsmax interview. “Today, we’re beginning construction of 50,000 modular homes in Waco, Texas, to launch ‘Operation Relocation’ to deport three million Americans who came here illegally. Promise made. Promise kept.”

The Pentagon also yesterday sent in federal troops under the 1871 KKK Insurrection Act to a dozen cities holding long-planned “Democracy, Not Dictatorship” protests—organized by MoveOn, Brady United, and the American Civil Liberties Union. Tens of thousands of peaceful marchers in each location were shocked to encounter M1 Abrams tanks rolling down city streets to block their paths with tear gas, flash grenades, and rubber bullets. Thirteen students were killed in Atlanta alone when they stood in front of tanks that wouldn’t stop.

Reporters caught up with President Trump early afternoon in between rounds of golf at his Bedminster Club in New Jersey.. “Well, didn’t Biden do the same thing to me and Rudy? Sad about the deaths in Atlanta but, excuse me, what were those protesters doing in front of our tanks? Anyway, I’d like to remind all Americans that today is the 250th anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord that began our journey as an exceptional model of freedom and democracy.”

* * *

Growing up politically as a progressive Democrat, I never called conservative Republicans “fascist,” a) because they weren’t and b) because it sounded alarmist if not naive, the prevailing view being “only Hitler was Hitler.” That was and still is literally true… yet hopelessly dated since ignoring Donald Trump’s chesty Caesarism is now what’s truly naive.

Which raises three separate though related questions: What’s the evidence that he’s an American Fascist? Should the mainstream media finally concede that should be a newsworthy part of the 2024 contest? And will branding him as one repel a small but decisive number of independent voters to conclude, “Enough!”?

There are of course avalanches of solo articles detailing Trump’s astonishing rhetoric, scandals, and prosecutions. But in each instance, he belligerently “doubles down”—which by definition means there’s no depth he won’t descend to—and quickly offers up dog-ate-my-homework excuses: “It was a joke… Hillary and Joe are worse… What about Hunter?… That’s taken out of context… I never read Mein Kampf… Black prosecutors are racists!… that was AI, not me… Trump Derangement Syndrome!… Witch Hunt!“ His calculation is apparently to isolate and disparage all criticism and indictments so they appear at worst to be aberrations and obscure how his whole is-worse-than-the-sum-of-his-parts, as if a pointillist were judged by only a few dabs of color rather than the entirely of the work. Which in Trump’s case would reveal a portrait far closer to Orban than Obama.

America has never before witnessed a politician who so compulsively and flagrantly lies about everything that his lawyers will not allow him to testify in court.

It’s tempting to respond to his rotating evasions with John McEnroe-worthy contempt: “You. Cannot. Be. Serious!” But in the current context of close polls and monumental stakes, mere indignation might allow him to keep escaping accountability through a combination of scandal fatigue, Trump judges, his base of delirious ideologues and credulous abettors, and GOP leaders paying tribute to Trump by shrugging off his predations. Add to that Team Trump’s expectation that the Fourth Estate will just keep bothsides-ing every controversy due, in Molly Jong-Fast’s insight, to its “normalcy bias.”

With his rants dominating coverage and polls barely budging after a year of startling news cycles, Democrats need more passionate language and memorable story lines to move the needle. Brian Klaas, in his best-selling Fluke, urges advocates to use “schemas… psychological tools to distill vast amounts of information into easily maintained categories.” Former President Abraham Lincoln embraced his “rail splitter” moniker; Lenin took over Russia at the end of World War I with the penetrating slogan, “Land. Bread. Peace”; recent Republicans get it too, from Nixon’s “Silent Majority” to Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” to “Make America Great Again” and recently the rage over “Age.”

What new schema could help keep Democrats on offense and the GOP on the ropes? One would be to portray Trump as a “fascist,” despite or perhaps because of how much of the media dismiss that truth as taboo.

He did, after all, name his movement “America First” after Charles Lindbergh’s appeasement toward Germany in the 30s. Now he openly lauds, quotes, and yearns to imitate Putin, Xi, Kim and Orban—indeed acting as “Putin’s puppet” by implying that Russia should attack NATO (which is odd since the country he seeks to again lead is a member state). If that’s the company he keeps, Trump should be pressed to explain why he too isn’t a fascist, and down-ballot Republicans why they aren’t mute accomplices.

Many Americans may not now understand what that really means since America has never before encountered one… but intense national campaigns can be teachable events. A synthesis of recent books on modern definitions describe a governing system that sounds eerily familiar—viz., one-man rule (“unitary government” in the GOP euphemism) based on big lies, nationalist fervor, xenophobia, hatred of marginal groups, displays of militarism, incitement to violence, media manipulation, and persistent lawlessness.

Let’s apply those criteria to the 2024 election to see whether a democracy birthed after defeating a distant monarch might actually elect one 248 years later.

Lies. Most politicians will at times lie or fib—Mark Twain charitably called them “stretchers”—or, worse, they’ll weaponize Big Lies to justify depravity. The Confederacy maintained that slaves were “property,” Hitler blamed Jews for stabbing Germany in the back in WWI, Joe McCarthy waved around his shifting list of supposed Communists. Those falsehoods attracted immense, eager audiences… until, eventually, they didn’t.

America, however, has never before witnessed a politician who so compulsively and flagrantly lies about everything that his lawyers will not allow him to testify in court. It’s not merely Trump’s astounding 22 lies or falsehoods on average per day in his one term in office, according to TheWashington Post’s fact-checking team, but also several ridiculous ones that have mesmerized his Cult-45: e.g., Obama was a Muslim born abroad; Biden stole the 2020 election; scores of different prosecutors, judges, and juries around the country are somehow in cahoots; vaccines are about personal liberty not public health; and serious crime is rampant with immigrants largely to blame (except, fyi, migrants commit fewer crimes per capita than non-migrants). Last month he even declared that Jewish Democrats “hate their religion and Israel” (which was news to this writer).

The problem is not any particular falsehood but rather how their critical mass has gravitationally pulled millions of aggrieved Americans into his black hole so they wind up not trusting anyone… except The Great Leader.

Then there are the thousands of times that Trump has deployed a classic tactic of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels—keep accusing enemies of your own misconduct in order to blur the truth. Hence, the ex-president declares, “It’s Biden who hates democracy and wants to overturn an election.” Why lie so blatantly, Trump friend Billy Bush once asked him? “Look, you just tell them and they’ll believe it. That’s it. They just do.”

Amplifying laughable lies are MAGAphones like House GOP chairs and Fox anchors. Republican chairmen have become innuendo-machines that disparage the “Biden Crime Family” based on “very credible” witnesses… who, mirable dictu, disappeared or are now in jail for spreading Russian disinformation. The performative outrage of Messrs. Jordan and Comer overlooks Biden’s zero criminal charges over his 50 years of public service compared to Trump’s 88 felony indictments in the past year (not counting adverse defamation, disbarments, and civil judgments).

At the same time, Fox seems to exist as mini-me’s repeating his gaslighting de jour—the latest being Hannity’s nightly attempts to earnestly announce that things were better four years ago, when 1.1 million American were dying from Covid-19 and Trump became the first president since Hoover to end his term with fewer jobs than at the start.

The problem is not any particular falsehood but rather how their critical mass has gravitationally pulled millions of aggrieved Americans into his black hole so they wind up not trusting anyone… except The Great Leader. Again, sound familiar?

Violence. Fascist rulers throughout history have won or maintained power via violence and intimidation: Lenin, Mussolini, Franco, and Gaddafi in violent takeovers; rogue militias such as Italian Blackshirts and German Brownshirts in the 1920s; Stalin’s Great Purge; and Hitler’s Kristallnacht in 1938 as a prequel to far worse later.

The ex-president of course has not been as savage, but it was interesting that—not exactly being a student of history—he kept a book of Hitler’s speeches in a cabinet by his bed, some of which were echoed later in his own propaganda. He repeatedly warns of a “blood bath” if he loses in 2024, promises that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” and, recently, endangers jurists and their families by attacking them by name. Nor was it cool when he dined with, and then praised, neo-Nazi Nick Fuentes at Mar-a-Lago.

He routinely practices “stochastic terrorism” by deploying incendiary rhetoric that he knows—or hopes—will trigger subsequent violence. Like the hammer-wielding home invader looking for Nancy but settling for Paul Pelosi; the mass killers at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue, Walmart in El Paso, and the Buffalo supermarket quoting MAGAisms in their manifestos; and his near-physical inability to condemn the Proud Boys and Charlottesville protesters—can these private militias be fairly called his “Redshirts”?

Has America faced such a climate of “mobocracy”—a phrase of Lincoln’s—since the 1850s?

This campaign of menace has produced anticipatory genuflection by frightened Republicans whose in-boxes are clogged with death threats at any perceived disloyalty. It gets worse: FBI data demonstrate that a significant majority of domestic terrorism is now committed by white reactionaries; some senators privately admit they didn’t vote to convict him at his impeachment trial fearing for the safety of family members; ex-Pentagon Secretary Mark Esper disclosed that Trump suggested that “soldiers shoot civilians” during the George Floyd marches… as growing predictions of a new Civil War emanated from only one of our two major parties, even before the major film Civil War hits screens this month.

“In America, the hallmark of budding fascists was not intellectuals discussing how to take power,” concludes scholar Heather Cox Richardson recently in Democracy Awakening. “It was populist violence.”

No doubt that the leading example was the shouts of “hang Mike Pence” during a Trump-inspired riot that took seven lives. And no surprise that a Navigator poll in March showed the “fear of political violence” had jumped a stunning 29-45% among independents in only the past three months. Has America faced such a climate of “mobocracy”—a phrase of Lincoln’s—since the 1850s?

For the founders never anticipated a leader who would say, “We don’t debate our opponents, we destroy them!”… Oh, that was Benito Mussolini in 1936, but notice how easy it was to conflate two strongmen for whom violence was not a bug but a feature of their governance. Trump himself explained to Bob Woodward that his core belief was that “real power is, I don’t even want to use the word, fear.”

Democracy and Freedom. “Welcome to the end of Democracy,” said the smug opening speaker at this year’s CPAC conference, who at least gets props for candor.

Of course, dictatorships shun democracy by a) rigging free and fair elections and b) limiting independent thought since that threatens their all-powerful and all-knowing image. In the U.S. that shows up in proposed Republican bans on books, abortions, and marriage equality. Trump admitted to wanting to be “a dictator for a day” (as if he’d then voluntarily relinquish that power) and suggested yanking the broadcast license of NBC because of how SNL makes fun of him (networks, by the way, don’t have licenses, only stations do). A joke? Not when he previously declared that “I alone can fix it,” that “Article III [of the Constitution] allows me to do whatever I want,” and that future presidents should “have absolute immunity” for any crimes committed while in office.

Here’s only part of the GOP game plan to repress freedom by rewriting our laws and history:

  • First, by shrinking minority voting at the state level while the Trump Supreme Court undermines the hugely successful Voting Rights Act (enacted unanimously, then reenacted). Why? Because, said Chief Justice John Roberts in Shelby County v. Holder, the South had changed since segregation became unlawful. Except it hadn’t and hasn’t. The Brennan Center in March documented a growing racial voting gap since that 2013 decision due to the 20 states that have enacted scores of new voter elimination laws.
  • Second, limiting speech based on the unspoken premise that “everyone’s entitled to our opinion.” Numerous states are trying to imitate Florida’s pioneering attempt to ban books in school libraries that discuss racism and gender identity since that might either upset white students… or “groom” others. So Black children for generations had to endure the chains of racism, but white children today are too fragile to even learn about it.
  • Third, systemically attacking the “fake media” for being “enemies of the people,” a coinage of Stalin’s. As he admitted to CBS’s Leslie Stahl, his intention behind repeating this phrase was to taint independent journalism and preempt any criticism of him.

Two of the leading Democracy indexes ( The Economist and Freedom House) rate the U.S. a “flawed democracy,” and declining. Trump redux might put us into Belarus territory.

The Rule of Law seems likely to invert into a version of mob rule if the Heritage Foundation’s dystopian Project 2025 were to be enacted. And what else could Trump have meant by admitting that he would “terminate the Constitution” in an emergency and—understanding the allure of the “anti-hero”—by repeatedly lauding Al Capone’s “tough guy” aura? Al Capone! It’s unlikely that any other American politician has ever said or even thought that.

Even as Team Trump excoriates the mild-mannered Merrick Garland for “weaponizing justice” (despite his record number of Republican Special Counsel), the ex-president unironically tells rallies that “if I see someone doing well and beating me… I’ll say indict them.” An ex-president who used his pardon power to release imprisoned political allies now promises to pardon 1400 people duly convicted of crimes in the January 6 insurrection. And no matter how delayed his multiple criminal trials may be, there’s already voluminous evidence under oath that his corrupt character puts him on a scale with Benedict Arnold and 100 Nixons. As his NSC advisor John Bolton put it, “For him, obstruction of justice is a way of life.”

If you taped over the name Donald John Trump on top of a list of all the times he’s lost in court, a neutral observer would conclude we were dealing with a career criminal.

Other-ism. History’s worst dictators have conjured up sinister-sounding enemies to boost nationalist fervor and justify violence. Whether it was Jews in Germany (Hitler famously looked admiringly on Confederate laws and later Jim Crow to help model his approach), socialists in Italy, the intellectual elites in Mao’s China, or gays now in Russia, it’s been an irresistible itch that they scratch. They may not have social programs but readily understand political pogroms (actual or polemical) to fuel their fundamental “US vs THEM” dynamic.

Trump has a proven history of bigotry. It includes unlawfully barring Black people in the 1970s from his father’s apartment buildings; questioning the birth of America’s first Black president; asserting that The Squad should “go back” to where they came from; calling African countries “shitholes”; attempting to bar Muslims from entering the U. S.; and now pledging to deport millions of undocumented immigrants. At the same time, fellow-travelers Tucker Carlson, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Fox hosts promote the white nationalist “Great Replacement Theory” and blame DEI (“Diversity, Equity, Inclusion” in hiring) for causing airline crashes and the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

While avoiding the “N” word, the unmistakable GOP message is that everything will be all-white.

Wealth. Putin is reportedly the world’s richest person and keeps his oligarchs in line by controlling their wealth. Trump’s core DNA is obviously money. Consider: his obsession with ranking high on the Forbes 400; near sole policy goal of $2 trillion in more tax cuts for the already rich; transformation of the RNC into his personal piggy bank; and of course the emolumental $2 billion that Crown Prince MBS gifted son-in-law Jared Kushner. To MAGA, steep wealth and income inequality is not a problem but a promise.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, in her brilliant 2020 book Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, summarizes the “contract” between the authoritarian ruler and his collaborators: “The offer of power and economic gain in exchange for supporting his violent actions and suppression of civil rights.”

* * *

It’s critical that we appreciate the ambition of Trump’s extremism. He is attempting to pull off one of the biggest propaganda campaigns in political history and is getting dangerously close to succeeding. Slowing, stopping, defeating, and then reversing everything itemized above is no simple task.

Totalling all these similarities with history’s authoritarians, there must be a word that describes a corrupt megalomaniac who is running a campaign based, in his own words, on “revenge and retribution.” But that word isn’t “conservative” as Eisenhower, Reagan, or the Bushes would have understood it. If Trumpism, The Sequel were a streaming video,it would require a casting call for actors to play dolts like those in the cult movie Idiocracy, which was supposed to be a satire on reverse Darwinism, not a reality TV series.

The right word is Fascist. According to the most cited scholarship on such matters, “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then…” But can that word and frame in 2024 become as salient as the high-decibel GOP campaign of smear and fear?

We’ll never know whether the fascist moniker is effective if most of the Fourth Estate sticks to its standard “horse-race” template, and continues to assume that today’s GOP is anything like country-club Republicans of decades past.

There are still clusters of influential people who appear scared to utter it: commentators who are stuck on Hitler as the litmus test; politicians who don’t want to risk offending some conservative constituents; an entire party in a two-party system too fearful to criticize him; editors at major publications reluctant to turn off any of their audience, as libertarian oligarchs like Elon Musk, Rupert Murdoch, and John Malone show no interest in encouraging debates about the GOP’s dangerous extremism. The mainstream media regularly quote Republicans calling all Democrats “socialists,” yet reach for their smelling salts at the prospect of discussing whether the Trump clique is “fascist,” even though the former is false and the latter true.

Calling out hard-core MAGAs, to be sure, won’t change their minds since they emotionally bond with a leader who shamelessly hates whom they hate and are loathe to abandon their tribe. “You can’t reason people out of an opinion,” wrote Jonathan Swift, “that they didn’t reason themselves into.” Still, that public conversation would likely spur a larger Democratic turnout (especially as compared to 2016 when so many lazy voters thought Hillary couldn’t lose) and also repulse some slice of undecided voters otherwise immune to mere high-minded appeals to democracy and freedom.

How real is the threat that an Americanized fascism can defeat “the world’s oldest democracy” this fall? My best answer—very real yet still very unlikely. There are obviously several big unknowns to come beyond the scope of this article, like the result of Trump’s upcoming criminal trial(s), the Extreme Court’s ruling on “president immunity,” third-party candidates getting on ballots, and a possible October surprise in either of two major wars.

But Biden has a clear edge (as of now) for three big reasons: first, the ascendancy of abortion as the likely No. 1 voter variable due to the Dobbs decision and the absurd Arizona decision this month that upheld a total ban based on an 1864 statute… and as voters have clearly shown in the 2022 midterms and all subsequent state abortion referenda; second, a steadily rising economy that undermines the GOP falsehood that things are going to hell; and third, Trump is in fact a dangerous extremist, although no one narrative has yet stuck to him. Fascist can because it’s true and odious.

Sticky monikers have done that before. The Johnson campaign was able to label Goldwater a war-monger, which helped produce a record majority. And in a non-political context, “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit“ successfully focused O.J.’s jury. Similarly, in 2024, “Dad, how can you vote for an open Fascist who threatens judges’ families and wants an abortion ban that could send your daughter to jail?” is not an easy question for a parent to answer. But we’ll never know whether the fascist moniker is effective if most of the Fourth Estate sticks to its standard “horse-race” template, and continues to assume that today’s GOP is anything like country-club Republicans of decades past.

While the campaign’s exact language and framing is evolving, the stakes are way bigger than even a timorous media. It’s a contest not merely between two presidents but especially between two traditions that have competed throughout U. S. history. One assumes that we are a nation founded on Democracy, the Rule-of-Law, and Equality; the other, to the contrary, on States Rights, Corporatism, and Free Markets. One flows from Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration, a “we-the-people” Constitution, Lincoln’s Proclamation, FDR’s New Deal, and the 60’s Civil Rights laws. The other stems from the Articles of Confederation, the Confederacy, Reagan’s Cowboy Capitalism, Mike Johnson’s theocracy, and Trump’s dictatorial dreams.

Progress for all or privilege for some. The Rule of Law or the Law of Rule. Human rights or Property rights. Democracy or Fascism.

In this homestretch of our 60th national election, it comes down to Democratic framing, a truth-telling media, and the independent judiciary to convince the electorate that Trump is actually the biggest threat ever to the story of America. If these three entities can crystalize the tyranny in Trump’s personality and program, America will again validate Tom Paine’s optimism that “there is too much common sense and independence in America to be long the dupe of any fiction, foreign or domestic.”

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