In what might be the smartest appeal so far in this otherwise dismal presidential election, Hillary Clinton did NOT call Donald Trump a fascist during her July 13th speech on unity in Springfield, Illinois. Instead she warned about what he might do once in power. Declining to use the “F word” might seem pusillanimous, the sort of rhetorical restraint that conservatives pounce on, but using it could actually blur what is more important point.
To be sure, Trump has been labelled a fascist by a lot of serious people. U.S. Representative Keith Ellison, Martin O’Malley, Robert Kagan and even J.K. Rowling have done so. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Meg Whitman and Ken Burns have compared him to one or both of history’s most infamous fascists: Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
The problem with the label is that there is little agreement about what ‘fascist’ actually identifies. Little more than a synonym for ‘bully’ for some, it designates any ‘conservative authoritarian’ for others. Marxists insist that fascists can be recognized as defenders of capitalism in its terminal stages of crisis. What we know with certainty is that is that all of the mid-20th century European fascist leaders took power by mobilizing populist sentiment by defending the authority of ‘traditional’ institutions like the patriarchal family, small business and small farming, the established state churches and the army, while simultaneously embracing modern technologies that tended to erode or supplant those traditional institutions. Fascists were often better at straddling the fault lines opened up by economic and social change than their ideological competitors.
What threatens to be lost in the ‘F word’ is that it is possible for Trump to be all of the bad things that Clinton named in her speech, and yet not a fascist. He may be a racist, a xenophobe, contemptuous of the constitution, willing to punish dissent, willing to intern and deport millions, and willing to order the military to commit war crimes… all without being a fascist.
What Clinton warns that Trump might do was done by 20th century dictators, and even some democratic leaders, without ever adopting or earning the label of fascist. Rafael Trujillo was responsible for the repression of civil liberties, the murder of innumerable political opponents, the massacre of thousands of Haitians and the expulsion of tens of thousands more Haitians as the dictator of the Dominican Republic. Augusto Pinochet was responsible for the murder of more than 3000 leftists and driving tens of thousands more into exile as the dictator of Chile. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson re-segregated public buildings in Washington, DC. He also launched witch hunts against German Americans during the First World War and after the war launched the First Red Scare, which included large scale deportations of ‘political undesirables.’ British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was responsible for war crimes during the Second World War, including the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 and the firebombing of German cities. The takeaway from these few examples is that leaders don’t need to identify themselves as fascists or to be labelled as fascists by the government and press of the United States to do the bad things we attribute to fascist leaders.
Trump doesn’t need a paramilitary force like Mussolini’s Blackshirts or Hitler’s Brownshirts to win the White House and do some very bad things with its authority. Indeed, it won’t help his general election campaign if Middle America takes serious notice of paramilitary wannabes like Bikers for Trump and pretentiously renamed Lion’s Guard.  What Trump the potential Tyrant really needs is an America full of frightened people who have lost faith in liberal values, a citizenry that no longer believes that liberty, equality and democratic self-government are still in their own best interests.
Unfortunately much of the work of undermining faith in liberal values has already been done by powerful institutions like the Big Banks and Big Media. If Trump wins in November it will be in large part a reaction to the economic and cultural damage that they caused.
 Fans of science fiction grand master Robert Heinlein are likely to be reminded of the paramilitary Angels of the Lord in his 1940 novella “If This Goes On—”.