“What we’re seeing now is either the beginning or the death knell of an extreme MAGA philosophy,” US president Joe Biden warned on August 25. “It’s not just Trump, it’s the entire philosophy that underpins the — I’m going to say something — it’s like semi-fascism.”
A week later, in Philadelphia, he expanded on his criticisms: “They promote authoritarian leaders and they fanned the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, the rule of law, the very soul of this country.”
He’s not wrong, but his emphasis on a single aspect — Donald Trump’s cult of personality — obscures the real nature of “semi-fascism” and comes a century too late.
To put it bluntly, the United States has been more than “semi-“fascist since long before Biden was born.
Fascism rose from the social tumult following World War One as armed groups of military veterans clashed violently with the socialist left around the world. In Germany, they took the form of various “freikorps.” In the United States, they flocked to a single organization, the American Legion.
The Legion brawled with leftists in the streets of American cities, conducted military-style raids on labor union offices and, in the words of its national commander, Alvin Owsley, stood “ready to protect our country’s institutions and ideals as the Fascisti dealt with the destructionists who menaced Italy. … Do not forget that the Fascisti are to Italy what the American Legion is to the United States.” The Legion even invited Mussolini, the first self-declared fascist head of state in the world, to address its national convention.
At the same time, what James Burnham later described as the “managerial state” — which answers to the Mussolini’s definition of fascism, “everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State” — began to coalesce in various countries.
In the US, that culminated in the New Deal and a cult of personality around Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was elected to an unprecedented four terms as president and would likely have continued as leader (the German word is “Fuhrer”) had he lived longer.
Pre-existing strong democratic norms blunted and limited the scope of American fascism (particularly quasi-worship of the designated leader), but victory in World War Two allowed it to continue within that limited scope.
American fascism’s key aspects — nationalism, militarism, subordination of rights to “national security” claims, obsession with internal policing, and, yes, increasingly rigged/constrained elections to preserve the rule of “approved” parties (versus no elections at all) — survive and thrive to this day.
Joe Biden has been a cog in the American fascist machine, a willing participant in its depredations, for more than 50 years, promoting everything from mass incarceration to state control of enterprise through “industrial policy.”
His sole valid complaint about “the MAGA philosophy” is that it re-introduces the “cult of personality” aspect of fascism’s Spanish and pre-World-War-2 Italian, German, Japanese, and Soviet variants.
He’s right about that, but he’s advocating for one form of fascism over another, not against fascism itself.
Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.