President Biden has stirred widespread outrage on the right by offering a harsh critique of Donald Trump and his Make America Great Again movement.
As Biden put it recently: “What we’re seeing now is the beginning or the death knell of an extreme MAGA philosophy. It’s not just Trump, it’s the entire philosophy that underpins the — I’m going to say something, it’s like semi-fascism.”
“Despicable,” growled a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. Biden needs to apologize “for slandering tens of millions of Americans as ‘fascists,’” declared House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy. Biden is not trying to unite the country, complained former UN ambassador Nikki Haley on Twitter, but rather divide Americans.
Haley’s comment hits close to the strategic truth here. As the midterms approach, Biden is obviously hoping to galvanize independents against Trump and his MAGA movement. It’s easy to understand why. Two-thirds of independents don’t want Trump to run again, while less than a third do, according to a new survey. Further, a majority are also skeptical of MAGA Republicans. But with the former president and his backers still the dominant force within the GOP, Republicans need to keep Trump and his supporters content within their camp if they are to win in November.
Even though Trump isn’t on the ballot, Biden obviously believes the former president can be hung like an albatross around the necks of McCarthy, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, and the GOP’s congressional candidates — and thus impede GOP efforts to expand the party’s appeal this fall.
So yes, Biden’s line of attack is about the politics of advantageous division.
But is this unfair? It’s certainly less hyperbolic than Trump’s 2020 charge that Biden was the puppet of extremists determined to “replace American freedom with left-wing fascism.” Still, “well, Trump did it” doesn’t necessarily set an appropriate standard for presidential conduct. So let’s look more closely.
There is no one precise or universally agreed-upon definition of fascism. Still, there’s a general consensus on its various characteristics. Usually understood as a mass movement, fascism is a political approach based on hyper-nationalism, often with the goal of reversing supposed victimhood and returning to an idealized past. It elevates the nation over the individual and promotes a monolithic national identity.
Fascist leaders tend to portray themselves as the savior of the nation and frequently rally citizens to their cause by playing on their fears and creating or catalyzing us-vs.-them divisions. Movement adherents are celebrated as true, hard-working patriots, while suspicions are cast on minorities or nondominant cultures. Critics and dissenters, including those in the press, are treated with contempt and often portrayed as enemies of the state or malcontents who despise national values. Autocratic leaders, who often weave a cult of personality around themselves, display a disdain for the rule of law and other procedural niceties.
Recognize anything MAGA-like there?
Still, for most of Trump’s tenure, there was one important missing element that separated Trump’s authoritarianism from fascism: The willingness to use violence to achieve one’s political or governmental ends.
Then came Jan. 6.
Thanks to investigative reporting and to the Jan. 6 committee, we now have a much fuller picture of the way Trump and his team schemed to overturn the election results. Of course, we have long known that he (and his henchmen) charged up the crowd that day, telling them “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore” — after establishing a rhetorical escape hatch for himself by saying he knew they would make their voices heard “peacefully.” He then sent them to the Capitol to try to block congressional certification of Biden’s electoral college victory.
We know he watched on TV for more than three hours while his supporters stormed the Capitol, battling with police, smashing windows and doors, and chanting for the hanging of Vice President Mike Pence, during which time Trump did effectively nothing to end the violence. When he finally called his MAGA mob off, Trump sympathized with their anger and told them “we love you, you’re very special.” He has since said he’d pardon many of the violent marauders should he become president again.
Yes, members of that mob were only a tiny subset of the MAGA movement. But a poll that day found that 45 percent of Republicans who were aware of the storming of the Capitol supported it. One could argue that merely reflected the passions of the moment — except that in a June 2022 survey,33 percent of Republicans surveyed still supported that violent action.
So back to the question: Is it unfair to label MAGA as semi-fascist?
Before Jan. 6, it would have been.
But post-Jan. 6, Biden’s accusation falls into the category of a tough truth, but one that’s fair to tell.
Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.