Biden was right: MAGA ideology is fascism
President Biden described Make America Great Again (MAGA) ideology as “semi-fascism.” Though leaders of the movement object to the comparison, the two worldviews are disturbingly similar.
Fascism developed as a response to the perceived failings of 19th-century liberalism. It began in Italy but reached its fullest potential in Germany. Disillusioned veterans of the Great War swelled the ranks of authoritarian movements, and the Great Depression drove desperate people into the arms of dictators who promised them security, jobs and renewed prosperity.
The MAGA movement consists of those who embrace former president Donald Trump’s vision of America. While not all who voted for him share his extreme beliefs, Trump has a strong grip on the Republican party. Members who disagree with him refuse to say so publicly for fear of his wrath. Trump’s most vocal party critic Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) lost her bid for reelection.
The cult of personality is the defining characteristic of fascism and the MAGA movement. Adolf Hitler posed, not as an elected leader, but as the embodiment of the collective will who knew best what his people needed. He scorned elections asserting his rise to power as de facto justification for the right to hold it indefinitely. “One people, one realm, one leader,” Hitler proclaimed.
Donald Trump has the same faith in his destiny and supreme self-confidence in his unique ability to rule. “I am your voice,” he told the Republican convention in 2016. “I alone can fix it. I will restore law and order.”
Fascism and MAGA ideology also share the same faith in big lies. Dictators and demagogues recognize no objectively verifiable facts. Truth is what they declare it to be. “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it,” Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels declared, “people will eventually come to believe it.” Hitler claimed that Germany did not lose the First World War but had been “stabbed in the back” by Jews, Marxists and corrupt politicians. Trump insists he did not lose the 2020 election. Approximately 70 percent of Republicans believe him.
Both movements are racist and xenophobic. The Nazis envisioned a Volksgemeinschaft, or “national community,” comprised of pure Aryan Germans. Everyone else was an alien unworthy of citizenship. Jews, Roma and others ethnic minorities had to be expelled or exterminated. The Nazis designated the disabled and mentally ill as “life unworthy of living” or “useless eaters” and systematically murdered them. They labeled gay people as degenerates and sent them to concentration camps.
MAGA espouses a narrow definition of American identity. It insists the United States has always been and must remain a Christian nation. While some members of the movement openly embrace white supremacy, others use coded racism, railing against the unfair advantage affirmative action affords people of color.
Trump has his own list of undesirables. He characterized migrants from Mexico as criminals, rapists and even “animals.” During his campaign for president, he called for a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” claimed without evidence that Arab Americans in New Jersey cheered as the towers fell on 9/11, and supported surveillance of mosques. He signed an executive order banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days and suspending resettlement of Syrian refugees. He opposed extending civil rights protection to LGBTQ+ people.
When it comes to antisemitism, MAGA has taken a page directly from the Nazi playbook. In 2016, Trump tweeted an image of Hilary Clinton against a background of $100 bills with the phrase “most corrupt candidate ever” framed by a star of David. When white supremacists at the Unite the Right Rally chanting “Jews will not replace us” clashed with protestors, Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides.”
Fascism and MAGA ideology oppose freedom of information and ideas. The Nazis banned a free press and burned books. They provided people with cheap radio sets dubbed the “Goebbels snout” so they could listen to government-controlled stations, which played music as well as propaganda, but banned jazz, which was deemed the product of a “degenerate” race.
Trump repeatedly dismisses unfavorable coverage as “fake news” and has called the media the “true enemy of the people.” His followers seek to restrict school curriculums. Sixteen states have laws prohibiting critical race theory. Local school boards have imposed similar bans. Other laws limit or prohibit sex education and discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation.
An Indiana bill stipulates students “must receive instruction that socialism, Marxism, communism, totalitarianism, or similar political systems are incompatible with and in conflict with the principles of freedom upon which the United States was founded.” MAGA thought control extends to banning books with “objectionable” content from libraries.
Violence was stock-in-trade for fascists. During his rise to power, Hitler relied on the Sturmabteilung [assault division]. Nicknamed “brownshirts” based on their distinctive uniforms, these thugs intimidated opponents. After he became chancellor, Hitler unleashed a reign of terror. On the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler eliminated his rivals, including Ernst Rohm, a founder of the Nazi party. Then there was Kristallnacht [night of the broken glass], the pogrom against German Jews that began the Holocaust.
The MAGA movement is no stranger to violence. Extremist groups like the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters and the Proud Boys have been among Trump’s staunchest supporters. Several group members have been indicted for their part in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Trump himself has been careful not to openly incite violence, but the Proud Boys took his admonition to “stand back and standby” as a call to arms.
The Jan. 6 committee concluded that he instigated the insurrection. “There can be no doubt that he commanded a mob, a mob he knew was heavily armed, violent, and angry, to march on the Capitol,” committee Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) stated.
Based on years of writing about extremism and teaching a course on “Germany under the Third Reich” I must agree with Biden’s comparison. Not all MAGA supporters are fascists, but the movement’s ideology certainly is.
Tom Mockaitis is a professor of history at DePaul University and the author of “Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.”