[Publisher’s Note] “Semi-fascism,” by John R. MacArthur

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“Trump is morally and constitutionally illiterate—a vile plutocrat—but he is no evil genius.”
A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on November 7, 2022. Translated from the French by Elettra Pauletto.

According to numerous Democratic Party activists, the midterm elections represented an existential struggle: maintaining democracy in the face of a fascist threat. President Biden—who is not well-versed in the history of the 1930s and the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, nor in that of the Spanish Civil War—sounded the alarm himself at the end of August when he said that this ideological threat isn’t “just Trump” but the “entire philosophy that underpins—I’m going to say something—it’s like semi-fascism.”

Ever since this verbally clumsy but tactically clear declaration by Biden, the Internet has been spewing accusations that Republican candidates—previously dubbed “right-wing hardliners” or “fanatical Evangelical Christians”—have suddenly become followers of a political movement that set fire to Europe and caused the death of more than 50 million people.

On September 29, the website Our Revolution, a quasi-official mouthpiece for Senator Bernie Sanders, trumpeted that the “fascist Ron Johnson” had pulled ahead in the Senate race in Wisconsin and that Johnson “is a dangerous traitor who ordered his staff to hand fake electors to Mike Pence on January 6 as part of Trump’s plot to violently overthrow American democracy.” We must beat Johnson to “prevent a fascist takeover of the U.S. Senate.”

I find these accusations exaggerated, even ignorant. According to Robert Paxton, a prominent historian of fascism and France’s Vichy government, Donald Trump, unlike the Fuhrer and Il Duce, supports an economic and social libertarianism that has nothing to do with the economic interventionism and social repression carried out by the most notorious dictators of the 20th century. Nor can one necessarily assume that Trump is capable of thinking before he acts, unlike Hitler, who often planned his actions carefully and was capable of writing down his thoughts. To credit Trump with the ability to organize a coup in advance seems absurd. Trump is morally and constitutionally illiterate—a vile plutocrat—but he is no evil genius.

That said, the “antifascist” propaganda coming from the Democrats risks missing the real problems that motivate a working class already alienated by Bill Clinton’s destructive free-trade policy and who are now appalled by the illegal immigration crisis, a subject dear to Trump. The belligerent rejection of refugees—hatred of “the Other”—expressed during the Trump administration is also considered “fascist” by many mainstream Democrats and much of the left.

Nevertheless, the “fascist” governors of Florida and Texas, Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, are smarter than Trump. They, too, stress the enormous influx of economic and political refugees from Latin America. But they changed things up by putting thousands of these undocumented migrants on planes and buses to the upscale locales of Martha’s Vineyard and the cities of New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., all run by elected Democrats. Their point, to be sure, was to highlight the Democrats’ alleged hypocrisy: it’s all well and good to attack the nasty Republicans in border states who reject and harass refugees, but quite another when these same refugees come to Midtown Manhattan, most of them poor, homeless, and unable to speak English.

Democrats are right to denounce the cynical tactics of DeSantis and Abbott, but the “fascists” still hold the political advantage. Today, in the city of New York, there are at least 55,000 homeless people, including 17,000 children. After the arrival of more than 17,000 asylum seekers since April—transported from Texas by Governor Abbott—the mayor of New York, Eric Adams, declared a state of emergency and set up enormous tents on an island in the East River. These are the consequences, DeSantis and Abbott argue, of a “radical,” “open border” policy.

In reality, Biden and Obama were as tough on undocumented migrants as the Trump administration, but their enforcement was less visible. However, making such comparisons largely misses the effect of mass immigration on the economically precarious or low-income electorate. The typical worker—who is not at all xenophobic or fascist—has noticed the following phenomenon: a surplus of labor has brought down salaries, and the addition of many illegal immigrants has lowered the rate of employment for legal workers. This concept is easy to understand if you read Maine Sunday Telegram columnist Victoria Hugo-Vidal, a rarity in her field. Why so much illegal immigration? “Big businesses want to use undocumented labor because it’s cheaper—they don’t have to pay payroll taxes or the minimum wage if it’s all cash under the table—and because they want to be able to threaten their employees with deportation if they step out of line or report harsh working conditions.” Neither the “radical” Democrats, who are sentimental about undocumented migrants, nor the “fascist” Republicans, who caricature them, are interested in helping them. Too bad for them; too bad for American workers.

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