Many people have used the word “fascist” to describe Donald Trump over the past few years. I was not one of them—until Monday night, when Trump openly defended and endorsed violence by his supporters.
First, Trump shockingly defended his 17-year-old supporter Kyle Rittenhouse, who drove across state lines into Wisconsin where he illegally carried a weapon in the streets of Kenosha and then shot and killed two people. (Criminal charges filed against Rittenhouse include first-degree intentional homicide and illegal possession of a deadly weapon.)
Then Trump backed his supporters who on Saturday descended in a caravan of cars on Portland, Oregon, where they were seen shooting projectiles such as paintballs and pepper spray at people in the street. Trump defended this criminal conduct as a “peaceful protest,” arguing that “paint is not bullets.” In reality, shooting people with paintballs is a crime—we all know that. It could blind a person or worse. Yet Trump defends it because the people engaged in this violence were on Team Trump.
We have now entered a new reality in America where Trump, like fascists before, is embracing violence to remain in power. Let’s be clear about what fascism is. As Madeleine Albright explained while discussing her 2018 book, Fascism: A Warning, “Fascism is not an ideology; it’s a process for taking and holding power.” She added that “what differentiates fascism from other ideological movements is the use of violence and anger to achieve political ends.” Hammering that point home, Albright back in early 2019 used a line that sums up Trump today: “Fascism involves the endorsement and use of violence to achieve political goals and stay in power.”
While Trump has embraced other methods used by fascists before—such as pitting Americans against one another to incite anger—that has been utilized by other modern politicians without veering into fascism. What changed this for me was Trump’s embrace of violence to help him remain in power. This is fascism. Period.
Authoritarianism expert Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of the new book Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present, painted a dark picture for me of Trump’s playbook. “His goal between now and November is to make the U.S. erupt into true chaos so he and William Barr can justify the authoritarian crackdown they dream of,” she said.
To this end, Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said point-blank Thursday on Fox News that violence helps Trump. While discussing the protests in Kenosha from the night before, Conway uttered the jaw-dropping line, “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.”
Jared Kushner offered a similar message to Politico, noting that the violence the country saw following the killing of George Floyd could “tip” Minnesota voters toward Trump.
If you love Trump and are looking for a way to help, Team Trump is giving you this simple message: Commit more acts of violence. Thus, it comes as no surprise that two days after Conway’s words on Fox News, Trump supporters sprang into action, heading to Portland where they engaged in acts of violence by shooting people with projectiles. Today it was paintballs. Tomorrow, will it be bullets?
Conway’s words were so jarring and bluntly un-American that Joe Biden slammed them in his powerful and pointed speech Monday. First, he declared, “One of his [Trump’s] closest political advisers in the White House doesn’t even bother to speak in code, just comes out and she says it. The more chaos, violence, the better it is for Trump’s re-election.” Biden then added, “Just think about that. This is a sitting president of the United States of America. He’s supposed to be protecting this country, but instead he’s rooting for chaos and violence.”
Biden is clearly stunned, as anyone who values our democratic republic should be. I understand Biden may be hesitant to use the word fascist to describe Trump because it could be dismissed as the mirror of Trump’s baseless claim that Biden is a socialist. But it is absolutely necessary to alert Americans who may not be paying attention to the threat Trump poses—and coming from Biden, who is more reserved in his choice of words, using the words fascist could be persuasive. At the very least, it could serve as a warning that could save lives given Trump’s record of inciting violence in the past.
We all remember during the 2016 campaign when Trump explicitly encouraged violence at his rallies with lines like, "If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously, OK? Just knock the hell… I promise you I will pay for the legal fees.”
And since Trump took the White House, others have committed violence in his name, such as Cesar Sayoc, known as the MAGA bomber. All told, ABC News reported in May that it found over 40 cases in court pleadings since 2017 in which Trump was cited as a factor that inspired the crime, from terroristic threats against Rep. Maxine Waters to threats to kill leaders of an Arab-American organization. ABC did not find any cases that cited President Obama or George W. Bush as the reason for their attack.
Joe Biden tells us that this election is for the “soul of the nation.” It’s actually bigger than that. If Trump wins there are no limits to what he will do—especially if he can pack the Supreme Court with even more like-minded justices. This election, our democracy, our civil liberties and even our freedom is on the ballot. Those are the real stakes.