clock menu more-arrow no yes

The January 6 hearings showed why it’s reasonable to call Trump a fascist

We now know Trump expressed support for hanging Pence and did little to stop the violence — actions that suggest some very dark historical parallels.

Trump holds up a fist at the Stop the Steal Rally on January 6, 2021.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Amid the many extraordinary revelations at the January 6 committee’s first primetime hearing Thursday, one stood out for its sheer depravity: that during the assault, when rioters chanted “hang Mike Pence” in the halls of the Capitol, President Donald Trump suggested that the mob really ought to execute his vice president.

“Maybe our supporters have the right idea,” he said, per a committee source. “[Mike Pence] deserves it.”

Endorsing violence is hardly new for Trump; it’s something he’s done repeatedly, often in an allegedly joking tone. But the reported comment from January 6 is qualitatively worse given the context: coming both amid an actual violent attack he helped stoke and one he did little to halt. The committee found that the president took no steps to defend the Capitol building, failing to call in the National Guard, or even speak to his secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security.

While he was de facto permitting the mob’s rampage, he was privately cheering the most violent stated objective of people he acknowledged as “our supporters.”

Throughout Trump’s presidency, there was a raging debate among experts as to whether it was accurate to describe him as a “fascist.” One of the strongest counterarguments, that his political movement did not involve the kind of street violence characteristic of Italian and German fascism, was undermined on January 6 — though some scholars still argued that the term was somewhat imprecise.

But when a leader whips up a mob to attack democracy with the goal of maintaining his grip on power in defiance of democratic order, then privately refuses to stop them while endorsing the murderous aims of people he claims as his own supporters, it’s hard to see him as anything but a leader of a violent anti-democratic movement with important parallels to interwar fascism.

This doesn’t prove that fascism is, in all respects, a perfect analogy for the Trump presidency. Yet when it comes to analyzing January 6, both Trump’s behavior and the broader GOP response to the event, last night’s hearing proved that the analogy can be not only apt but illuminating.

January 6 is the culmination of a long history of fascist-like rhetoric

In The Anatomy of Fascism, Columbia University historian Robert Paxton lays out a fairly clear definition of the political tendency:

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood 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.

Most of this seems to fit Trumpism fairly well. “Obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood”? Check. “Compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity”? Check. “Uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites”? Check. “Without ethical or legal restraints”? Check, check, and check.

One key factor that was missing, at least for most of Trump’s presidency, was the violence. Paxton’s definition stresses the centrality of force to fascist politics: that “a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants” uses “redemptive violence” to pursue “goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”

Yet Trump personally had long harbored a fascination with political violence. In a 1990 interview with Playboy, he praised the Chinese government’s violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.

“When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it,” Trump said. “Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”

During the 2016 campaign, Trump suggested that “Second Amendment people” might be justified in assassinating Hillary Clinton if she wins the race. He repeatedly encouraged his supporters to attack counterprotesters, even offering to pay their legal fees. The dangers were obvious; during the Republican primary, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) warned that his language might lead to mass violence:

This is a man who in rallies has told his supporters to basically beat up the people who are in the crowd and he’ll pay their legal fees, someone who has encouraged people in the audience to rough up anyone who stands up and says something he doesn’t like. …

But leaders cannot say whatever they want, because words have consequences. They lead to actions that others take. And when the person you’re supporting for president is going around and saying things like, ‘Go ahead and slap them around, I’ll pay your legal fees,’ what do you think’s going to happen next?

During his presidency, his fascination with extra-legal violence came up again and again.

In 2017, he described some of the white supremacists at Charlottesville as “very fine people.” During a 2019 rally, he “joked” about shooting migrants at the border, to cheers from the crowd. In a 2020 tweet, he used a segregation-era slogan to call for violence against George Floyd protests (“when the looting starts, the shooting starts”). During a presidential debate with Joe Biden, Trump told the Proud Boys — a far-right militia that would later lead the assault on the Capitol — to “stand back and stand by.”

What this record shows is that the potential for a Trump-led political movement to lead to bloodshed was always there. The president seemingly believed in the cleansing and redemptive power of violence; it has been a hallmark of his thinking for years, even decades. That he would sometimes frame these comments as jokes, or even backtrack after offering them, is characteristic of fringe right political movements — which often cast their most extreme positions in a kind of ironic tone that allows for their supporters to simultaneously embrace radical ideas while also distancing themselves from them.

The question about Trump was whether his fascination with violence would ever manifest in a mass movement: that he would align himself with an illegal violent action designed to secure his own grip on power.

This, of course, happened on January 6. But as the events unfolded, there was crucial information we didn’t know: the extent to which Trump intended to encourage violence and how he reacted as it unfolded in real time.

On the first point, committee chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS) suggested in an interview they had evidence Trump’s team was in direct contact with both the Proud Boys and the Oathkeepers, the other militia group that spearheaded the attack. Their proof was not presented last night; there’s also some evidence that Trump’s subordinates wouldn’t let him communicate with the extremist groups directly. This makes it hard to evaluate the question of intentionality just yet.

But on the second point, the committee’s evidence is damning. The comment about hanging Pence, together with the refusal to do anything to stop the violence, strongly indicates that the president was fine with the violence proceeding: that he saw it as furthering his cause. That is, undoubtedly, fascist.

Does the “fascism” label matter?

Like my colleague Dylan Matthews, I’ve long been hesitant to describe Trump as a fascist.

Unlike interwar fascists, Trump has not laid out an ideological alternative to liberal democracy that involves abolishing elections — in fact, he doesn’t seem to possess a coherent ideology at all. The greatest threat the Trump-led GOP poses to democracy is not the explicit overthrow of democracy, but its hollowing out from within — an endgame that resembles the Jim Crow South or contemporary Hungary far more than Nazi Germany. There’s a real concern, in my mind, that hyper-focus on the interwar model can bog us down in a definitional debate that distracts from more resonant and informative parallels.

But when we’re talking about January 6 specifically, the fascism analogy really is useful.

Events like the 1922 March on Rome or 1923 Beer Hall Putsch help us understand the way in which attempts to forcefully seize power — even failed ones like the Putsch — can play a role in the rise of radical far-right movements. They help us understand the clarifying and organizing power of violence, the way in which banding together to hurt others can help solidify dangerous political tendencies.

And it helps us understand the potential for violence to recur, especially given the mainstream Republican Party’s continued whitewashing of January 6.

One of the defining elements of the interwar fascist ascendancy is the complicity of conservative elites — their belief that they could manipulate fascist movements for their own ends, empowering these movements while remaining in the driver’s seat. This is precisely how the mainstream Republican Party has approached Trump, even after a violent attempt to seize power exposed just how far he’s willing to go to hold power.

In the midst of last night’s hearing, the official Twitter account of the Republicans on the House Judiciary committee repeatedly mocked and downplayed the significance of the committee hearing — even going so far as to label it “old news:”

It wasn’t. Though some of the revelations had been telegraphed in broad strokes by leaks, including the comments about hanging Pence, the specifics had yet to be made public — and there were many revelations that were simply brand-new.

But the issue here isn’t factual inaccuracy on the House GOP’s part. It’s that the official organs of the Republican Party saw their job as covering for Trump, even as evidence emerged that he literally suggested that a Republican vice president should be lynched. The lessons of the interwar period, and indeed the long history of mainstream conservative parties’ dalliances with radicals, seem entirely lost on the Republican leadership.

And this, in the end, is why using fascism as a framework for understanding January 6 is worthwhile. This explicit alliance of political violence to an effort to seize power through force is shocking — so shocking that it deserves comparisons to what’s universally seen as the darkest moment in the history of Western democracy.

That these parallels may not be perfect in every way does not make it unreasonable to draw them, or to seek lessons for how to think through the future.

Understanding is critical

Help us explain the decisions that shape our lives. Give today to keep Vox free.