In mid-September, I attended the National Conservatism Conference in Miami, where Republican politicians, right-wing thought leaders, and various party apparatchiks had gathered to articulate their vision of the conservative movement’s future. The National Conservatives are only one faction vying to define the Republican agenda, but in a short period of time, they have sharpened their focus and expanded their influence, and the conference gave them a forum to display the dominant position their ideas have achieved on the right. Kevin Roberts, the president of the Heritage Foundation and one of the conference’s speakers, recognized their triumph when he announced from the stage, “I come not to invite National Conservatives to join our conservative movement but to acknowledge the plain truth that Heritage is already part of yours.”
What exactly this movement entails has been the subject of a long-running debate largely obscured by the figure of Donald Trump. When Joe Biden warned in August of the rise of “semi-fascist” ideas on the right, even many Trump critics suggested that the president had gotten carried away. CNN’s John Avlon said this rhetoric was “not befitting” a president. Larry Hogan, among the most staunchly anti-Trump Republicans left in the GOP, scolded Biden for his “divisive rhetoric.” The implication was that it was a miscategorization of Trump and a smear of his followers to suggest that his anti-democratic behavior in any way resembled an ideology, let alone the fascist regimes of the 20th century. And it is true that Trump gravitates toward power instinctively; as president, he dispensed with democratic norms in large part because he did not understand them. Trump’s authoritarianism is sub-ideological.
But that does not mean his style of governance defies theorization or a philosophical rubric. The chaos of the Trump presidency has given way to a period of rethinking on the right, the result of which is a political and intellectual infrastructure determined to carry out his despotic impulses in a more systemized and, its supporters hope, victorious fashion. They may not call it fascism or semi-fascism, but this is only because the word has become a universally recognized slur since World War II. To most Americans, fascist simply means “bad,” and nobody self-identifies as “bad.” People imagine democracy and fascism as a simple binary, leaving them unable to acknowledge political systems that reside in the vast space between the two. But this middle ground between Reagan and Mussolini is where the Republican Party’s most influential ideologists and power brokers are consciously heading.
Semi-fascism contains many features of democracy, like contested elections and permissible criticism of the ruling party, but without the liberal guardrails that maintain democracy’s openness and stability, such as a judiciary, bureaucracy, and news media that are empowered and motivated to check abuses of power. Thus semi-fascism has a nasty tendency to slide into something more like the outright version, in which effective public opposition to the ruling party becomes impossible. Two decades ago, Vladimir Putin’s Russia looked very much like Viktor Orbán’s Hungary does today, and some observers still considered it a democracy, albeit one with challenges and limits. Today, Putin has seized so much power that even though voters have regular opportunities to defy him at the ballot box, it’s unlikely they ever will.
The Republican Party’s ascendant semi-fascist wing wishes to take several steps down this road. I watched the conference’s attendees practically declare they would do so. Their methods and goals are ones that if embraced by their opponents would unquestionably (and correctly) be described as authoritarian or worse. Nobody expressed any fear that a right-wing state dedicated to endless political warfare might violate anybody’s rights. The only rights they respected were those of red America. The only risk that concerned them was losing. [Continue reading…]