One of the late George Carlin’s most famous monologues is titled “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” That 1972 piece seems quaint today, as all of those once-forbidden words cited by Carlin can now, in fact, be easily heard on television. Some of those words even find their way into so-called ‘family programming” offered by the three mainstream networks, while the more virulent of what Carlin referred to as the “heavy seven” are cheerfully employed on most cable networks; at least four appear in a single episode of Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Times change, and the impact of certain words changes with them. But as we watch the Republican Party willingly embrace what is now being routinely described as the Big Lie among traditional media—the lie propagated by Donald Trump to explain away his defeat in the 2020 election; the lie that the election was somehow stolen from him through a mysterious and amorphous act of fraud by Democrats—it appears that one word still constitutes a bridge too far for many in the media-verse.
That word is fascism.
Up to this moment in time, the media have been curiously averse to the f-word. With the actions on Wednesday of the House Republican caucus in ousting Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney from the No. 3 spot in the GOP congressional hierarchy, it’s high time for our media to re-examine their reluctance to call this Republican movement what it is.
There is no shortage of real urgency and alarm right now about what is occurring in the Republican Party, specifically its adoption of Trump’s Big Lie and the implications for the future of this country. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times calls it “a daylight mugging of our democracy.” Max Boot, for The Washington Post, bemoans the “falsehoods that threaten our democracy.” His Post colleague Brian Klaas agrees: The Republicans are charting a course that is a “serious threat to American democracy.”
Last week CNN political analyst Stephen Collinson, in an article titled “The GOP’s devotion to Trump threatens to destroy American democracy,” declared that “one of America’s two great political parties has effectively shed its belief in democracy—a dereliction that is massively significant for the country’s future.” Many elected officials have also emphasized the threat presented by Republicans’ eager amplification of Trump’s lies. Collinson’s article cites, among others, Cheney, who characterized the path Republicans have chosen in following and parroting Trump’s election fraud lies as a “poison in the bloodstream of our democracy.” Similarly, Democratic Rep. Annie Kuster of New Hampshire warns that Trump’s clinging to the Big Lie threatens to “undermine our very democracy.”
So it seems pretty clear that most in media, and many in government itself, understand that what the GOP is doing constitutes an existential threat to this country’s continuation as a democracy.
But we have yet to hear the f-word from any of the stalwart anchors of our traditional media. Not from Lester Holt (NBC), David Muir (ABC), nor Norah O’Donnell (CBS) has breathed the word “fascism” as applied to the Republican Party. CNN’s ready stable of anchors has shied away from the term as well. When renowned foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour dared last November to compare the actions of Donald Trump to those of the Nazis, she endured such a wave of indignation that she was forced to apologize for it. For its part, Fox News has tellingly gone the opposite route, actually seeking to demonize opposition to fascism.
And we have yet to hear it from almost any voices in government.
In August, David Bell, a professor of history at Princeton University, confidently concluded in The Washington Post that while exhibiting some fascistic tendencies, then-president Donald Trump could not be fairly characterized as a fascist because “[he] not only lacks a mass movement at his command; he has made no attempt to create one.” Bell patiently explained that fascism as defined in the pre-WWII era was inextricably tied to the presence of a uniformed paramilitary militia “committed to the radical remaking of society as a whole.” With a smug sort of dismissal, Bell yawned at those who, at the time, warned of potential electoral violence as being out of touch: “Most American voters outside the progressive left do not think of fascism as in any way an American phenomenon.”
Trying to explain away the presence of fascism in this country by arguing that Americans can’t conceive of it as an American phenomenon is hardly persuasive. Most Americans can’t conceive of it because most have never lived in anything close to what we’re seeing now. And Bell’s pirouetting over the overwrought concerns of “liberals” about violence sounds awfully hollow after the events of Jan. 6, where a crowd of thousands organized predominantly by right-wing, white supremacist militias stormed the U.S. Capitol, literally hunting for members of Congress.
In 2015, CNN’s national security analyst Peter Bergen was also dismissive, though not as snotty about it. Before Trump’s election, Bergen carefully went over the fundamental traits of fascism according to what he acknowledged at the time was the “classic study”: Robert Paxton’s 2004 book, The Anatomy of Fascism. Bergen agreed that Trump exhibited nearly all of the traits, save one. Because Bergen analyzed only Trump’s qualities as apparent up to late 2015, perhaps he can be forgiven for jumping to this conclusion:
In Paxton’s checklist of the foundational traits of fascism there is a big one that Trump does not share, which is “the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will when they are devoted to the group’s success.”
There is no hint that Trump wishes to engage in or to foment violence against the enemies, such as immigrants, he has identified as undermining the American way of life.
There is now a lot more than a “hint” of Trump’s desire for violence toward his perceived enemies. In fact there is indelible proof, permanently etched in Americans’ memories on Jan. 6. The proof was visible in every face twisted in fury as hundreds of Trump supporters proceeded methodically with their guns, knives, bear-spray, and zip-ties through the halls of Congress with a universal intent of violently overturning the will of the American people. And for those who didn’t notice, that insurrection was the product of the paramilitary domestic extremists who Bell struggled to locate when he pontificated on the issue two months before the 2020 election.
So, yes, in light of Jan. 6, what Trump incited was proof of fascism in the fullest sense of the word. More importantly, what Republicans are now proudly exhibiting for all to see is their commitment to Trump’s fascism—by their relentless repetition and reinforcement of the Big Lie.
For those in media still “on the fence,” it’s useful to recall where that phrase comes from. “The Big Lie” was originally coined by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf, as a slur against Jews.
Dating to Nazi Germany, the Big Lie was a strategy of propaganda that focused on the mass dissemination of a single or a few chief falsehoods to a target population. Like a pyramid, the Big Lie organized a configuration of smaller lies underneath. That is, it was a deductive deception, relying on the command of a single idea or a few large ones to manipulate the many ancillary thoughts to come. Swallow the big pill, and the rest would follow.
Adolf Hitler first defined the Big Lie as a deviant tool wielded by Viennese Jews to
discredit the Germans’ deportment in World War I. Yet, in tragically ironic fashion, it was Hitler and his Nazi regime that actually employed the mendacious strategy. In an effort to rewrite history and blame European Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War I, Hitler and his propaganda minister accused them of profiting from the war, consorting with foreign powers and “war shirking” (avoiding conscription). Jews, Hitler contended, were the weak underbelly of the Weimar state that exposed the loyal and true German population to catastrophic collapse. To sell this narrative, Joseph Goebbels insisted “all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands.”
The employment of that Big Lie proved so useful to Hitler in mobilizing ordinary Germans to blame Jews for the defeat of Germany in WWI, it was also his prime means of maintaining support for the fascist German aggression that spawned World War II. What the Republican Party in this country is doing now with its adoption of Trump’s Big Lie is a similar exercise in blame-shifting, with a similar aim to preserving and maintaining power.
The manner in which the Big Lie is being used by Republicans is what links the party to fascism. The dominant theme of fascism (as explored in both Bergen’s and Bell’s analyses) is that fascist movements need the wherewithal to take over the state. If voting can be legally suppressed, then the paramilitary option can remain dormant, because the same ends can be achieved without the disruptive effects of violence. In this case the GOP, through systematic, state-by-state efforts of voter suppression, the phony “recount” effort in Arizona, and the attempts by state legislatures to circumvent the powers of non-compliant Democratic governors, all have the same end goal as the insurrectionists of Jan. 6: Nullifying the voice of the American people.
That doesn’t mean the option of violence has been abandoned; quite the contrary. In fact, all of these tactics are predicated on intimidation and the threat of violence, if they are opposed. That is why Texas just instituted permission for so-called “poll watchers” to film actual voters in the act of casting their ballots. It’s why Texas instituted criminal penalties for election officials who try and stop this intimidation. It’s why Georgia (and now Florida) criminalized giving food and water to people waiting in long voting lines, invariably occurring in districts with significant populations of color. And if these tactics don’t work in influencing elections, there is always the specter of Jan. 6; paramilitary domestic terrorists can always do the dirty work, whether that’s intimidating ballot counters or invading state capitals to harass legislators.
There are several “thumbnail” summaries popular on the web which purport to set forth the elements of fascism, many of which are vague or broad enough to fit into anyone’s predisposition or political persuasion. The Encyclopedia Brittanica’s online edition acknowledges that there is no single definition of the term. So rather than play games with definitions, it’s more useful to examine the tactics of known, historical fascist regimes, to see where and if the GOP fits in.
According to Bergen’s source, Robert Paxton, who has actually done the legwork on the topic, fascist tactics throughout history include:
• “A sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of traditional solutions”: This, in a nutshell, was the central message of Donald Trump’s 2016 and 2020 political campaigns, and the incessant messaging to incite urgency against the forces of liberalism, specifically people of color and immigrants. It is now the common theme for nearly all Republican politicians.
• “The superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason”: This is best exemplified by the obsequious fealty of Republican politicians to Trump’s supposedly unerring instincts, as articulated over and over by Trump himself, even after his defeat in 2020. This devotion and the personification and vesting of all authority in a single “natural” leader are the salient features driving the GOP’s embrace of Trump.
But it is the last feature that is most indicative of why what the GOP is doing now is a hallmark of fascism:
• “The belief of one group that it is the victim, justifying any action:” This is the glue of grievance that Republicans, from Donald Trump on down, have used to justify rolling back the rights of Americans to vote. It is the core message beamed incessantly at Republicans through Fox News, OAN, Newsmax, and now their elected officials: Voters of color and liberals are illegitimate, they are not “real” Americans like you, and therefore they are not entitled to consideration, much less the right to vote.
Each of these tactics was threatened by Liz Cheney’s leadership in the Republican caucus, because she refused to parrot the Big Lie. Fealty to Trump is now the central motivating factor underlying nearly every elected Republican’s calculations, down to the state and local level. Those same Republicans, so eager to thwart Democratic prospects through gerrymandering and voter suppression, have co-opted Trump’s Big Lie. They do this not simply out of fear, but because it helps them achieve their ultimate goal of obtaining and keeping power. There is simply no room in the party for the heresy of telling the truth about the election, or about the violence that occurred at the Capitol on Jan. 6. The Big Lie and Trump-worship must be maintained at all costs in today’s Republican Party. Liz Cheney, and any other Republicans who oppose this frame, are simply expendable.
This Big Lie strategy means contesting any election, for whatever frivolous reasons, that does not go the GOP’s way. It means bogus audits and intimidating election officials trying to do their jobs. It means continually undermining the integrity of our elections, so much that the Republican base eventually loses all faith in participatory democracy. It means dog whistles, and if necessary, blaring megaphones, to gin up forces of violence and intimidation whenever the Republican Party doesn’t get its way.
Ultimately, it means removing the American voter entirely from the equation. That’s the choice they’ve made. That’s what they’ve signed onto.
And that, my friends in media, is fascism.
Call it what it is. Call it by its name.