It's now okay to use the F word about Trump.
Not that F word. The F word I'm talking about is fascism.
Since Trump first announced his candidacy in 2016, he has been branded a fascist by many opponents. They noted that he called for a racist ban on Muslim immigration here. He denounced Mexicans as "rapists". He lied endlessly and evoked typically fascist calls for national rebirth with his now-famous "Make America Great Again" slogan.
A few fascism scholars agreed; many did not, saying Trump checked some of the boxes, but not enough. He was still operating within the framework of democracy. But now, for the first time and as a result of the armed insurrection against Congress Trump led, America's most senior fascism expert finally agrees: Donald Trump is a fascist.
The former chair of the history department at Columbia University, an expert on Vichy France and an avid bird watcher, Robert O Paxton at 88 is an emeritus Professor of History at Columbia now. He is perhaps best known for his brilliant 1998 paper, the Five Stages of Fascism, in which he lays out the phases a democracy under fascist attack endures. This paper helped change the view of fascism from an ideology that varied considerably from country to country into a process with steps that are more or less the same in every country.
The paper was amplified in 2004 into The Anatomy of Fascism, a well regarded book that has been become a standard text on the subject. I called Prof Paxton at his home in New York City yesterday to chat.
"I wanted to be careful in using the "fascist" epithet," Paxton told me. "I have a series of criteria. And Trump had filled some of those, but not all of them. But now he's crossed I think one of the most important lines in adopting violent action." So last week, for the first time, Paxton made his revised view public in a Newsweek op-ed.
So what is fascism? In Anatomy, Paxton wrote a paragraph that almost every history student has highlighted in yellow: "Fascism may be defined as a form of political behaviour marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion."
It was the violence, Paxton told me, that put Trump over the top for him. Not the Big Lie that our election was rigged, I asked? Prof Timothy Snyder at Yale, another esteemed historian of fascism, wrote recently in The New York Times that the election fraud lie, which motivated our mobs, while not as vile as Hitler's lies about the Jews, was big enough to enter fascist or at least "pre-fascist" territory. Paxton agreed, but said Trump's over-the-top lying by itself wasn't enough.
"He's been doing the Big Lie since day one," Paxton explained. Aside from falsely charging that Obama had been born in Kenya, "within in seconds of being sworn in, he stood up and said this is the biggest crowd that was ever assembled in Washington. It clearly wasn't. But I don't see anything innovative about that. He didn't cross any Rubicons there. But inciting a crowd to violence it seemed to me represented something really quite new in his behaviour."
What's to come? In phrasing that sounds ominously like a cancer diagnosis, Paxton says Trump reached either a very late Stage 2 fascism or a very early Stage 3. Paxton's Five Stages, worth noting, are:
1. Intellectual Exploration - disillusionment with democracy and a sense of lost national greatness.
2. Rooting - a fascist movement, aided by political deadlock and polarisation, becomes a player on the national stage.
3. Arrival to Power - conservatives seeking to control rising leftist opposition invite fascists to share power.
4. Exercise of Power - the movement and its charismatic leader control the state with help from traditional institutions like the police, clergy and business.
5. Radicalisation or Entropy - where the state either becomes increasingly radical, like Nazi Germany, or falls into a more classic authoritarian rule, like Fascist Italy.
Like a doctor reassuring a nervous patient, Paxton told me there were hopeful signs too. Aside from the obvious fact that Trump was defeated in both the election and the January 6 coup, our US courts and most of our business community have held firm for democracy. More than 60 courts have rejected Trump's election fraud claims, including the Supreme Court - twice. And hundreds of major American companies have denounced the insurrection, denounced Trump, cut business ties to the Trump Organisation or suspended contributions to the Republican Party. To get control, fascists generally need both the courts corrupted and business firmly on their side.
"However much they would like to throttle trade unions and progressives and so forth," Paxton said, business wants "stability and they want the rule of law. And they want a reasonably stable environment in which they can plan. They don't like these bearded hicks coming in and invading the Congress."
What worries him? The Big Lie of election fraud. He pointed out a famous earlier Big Lie told in Germany after WW1. Concocted by the German Army Staff to conceal their defeat, it claimed the German Army never lost, but was defeated by strikes and treason at home organised by Communists and Jews. It was bull, but it sold, and became known as the stab in the back myth - der Dolchstosslegende, in German. Hitler used it to win over the German people and rise to power.
"The thing that concerns me now is how we extract the myth of the tarnished election of 2020 out of the political bloodstream," Paxton explained. "How do we get rid of it so it doesn't become an American Dolchstosslegende? I've been worrying about this all day ... I think Biden has to set up a commission, chaired by somebody who will be listened to who will tell the American people that the election was fair."