Interview'We can never get too comfortable. We need to be vigilant'

Is American democracy safe? These historians say the US may be slipping toward fascism

The editors of ‘Fascism in America: Past and Present’ posit that though most Americans see the idea as ‘unrealistic in the extreme,’ there’s nothing fictional about it

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Clockwise from right: 'Fascism in America,' edited by Gavriel Rosenfeld and Janet Ward; American Nazi supporters salute at an event in White Plains, New York, in the 1930s (AP photo); Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol building in Washington, DC, January 6, 2021. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
Clockwise from right: 'Fascism in America,' edited by Gavriel Rosenfeld and Janet Ward; American Nazi supporters salute at an event in White Plains, New York, in the 1930s (AP photo); Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol building in Washington, DC, January 6, 2021. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

NEW YORK — Most Americans relegate the idea of American fascism to merely a plot line from a novel such as Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America,” or the basis of a television series like “The Man from High Castle.”

But that’s highly inaccurate.

“Until recently, the prospect of fascism in America would have been seen by the general US public as unrealistic in the extreme,” writes Gavriel Rosenfeld in the introduction to “Fascism in America: Past and Present,” which he co-edited with University of Oklahoma historian Janet Ward. “Most Americans have traditionally perceived fascism as antithetical to everything the United States stands for.”

The truth is, there’s nothing fictional about fascism in America, Rosenfeld said. As the essays in the book aim to show, fascist ideas and organizations gained a foothold in the United States at the dawn of the 20th century, with the emergence of Jim Crow laws in the South and rising xenophobia.

It was then that the country saw a newly resurgent Ku Klux Klan. By the time of the Great Depression, there were groups like the Silver Legion — a pro-Nazi, fascist group that sought to turn the US into a “Christian Commonwealth.”

But the book doesn’t only focus on the past, bringing us to the present day — by way of the 1960s — with essays such as Clark University scholar Ousmane K Power-Greene’s piece on Black antifascist activism, as scholars examine the persistence of fascist ideology and how it continues to threaten the country.

“My own perspective is that one can’t be too complacent in this current moment. There are all the obvious reasons having to do with not only [former US president Donald] Trump’s own personal corruption, the sycophancy of his MAGA followers and their willingness to do literally anything to be in power, but also because Jews are strongest when we have a liberal democracy,” said Rosenfeld, a scholar of Germany who is also a professor of history at Fairfield University and the president of the Center for Jewish History in New York City.

Rosenfeld explained that he and Ward were inspired to put the book together during the Trump administration when nativist feelings appeared to reemerge coupled with developments such as Trump’s desire to leave NATO.

The book, which officially launched on December 12, also examines how the supporters of liberal democracy fought against fascism. Readers will learn how Jews in Europe and the US were among the most stalwart opponents of right-wing extremism, joining with other groups to form a bulwark against encroaching authoritarianism and white supremacy.

‘Fascism in America’ co-editor Gavriel Rosenfeld at a symposium at the Center for Jewish History in New York, April 20, 2023. (John Halpern)

Those alliances are needed again if a second Trump term is to be thwarted, Rosenfeld posited, though the ongoing Israel-Hamas war threatens to pry them apart — because while the book’s contributors focus on right-wing extremism, there are also clear threats coming from the left, Rosenfeld said.

“I am very worried about the impact of the Gaza war on the coalitions that liberal Jews have forged against right-wing extremism in recent years with Black groups, LGBTQ groups, Asian and Americans and others,” he said. “We all face the same threats, but the divisiveness caused by the war with Hamas threatens to weaken our coalition against Trumpism, and that’s something I think we have to be very much on guard against.”

Pro-Palestinian activists during a protest in New York City, October 8, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

The Times of Israel: How do you define fascism and does former US president Donald Trump fit this classic definition?

Gavriel Rosenfeld: Definitions of fascism are legion among scholars. Indeed, the question of how to define fascism is one of the most controversial in the entire field of fascism studies. That said, I see fascism as an ideological movement that embraces violence to destroy the liberal democratic order and replace it with a dictatorial system benefiting a particular social group, usually defined in ethno-nationalistic terms.

For much of Trump’s administration, he fell short of this definition, though many of his MAGA supporters met the threshold. On January 6, 2021, and in much of his subsequent violent rhetoric about US institutions, it’s easier to see Trump fitting the label of a fascist, even if more in a situational or opportunistic (as opposed to ideological) sense.

Rioters supporting then-US president Donald Trump try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington, on January 6, 2021. (Julio Cortez/AP)

In the introduction, you discuss whether Trump is a fascist or simply traffics in fascism. Is that a distinction without a difference?

At a certain point, actions are more important than words.

I don’t personally believe Trump got into his current right-wing mania out of ideological conviction. However, at a certain point, when one associates with the Nick Fuentes of the world and some of the conspiracy-mongering that goes on with QAnon people, and if you promote what people call stochastic terrorism, which incentivizes lone wolf types to go into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and shoot it up because you’ve been talking about the great replacement theory and white genocide, then it doesn’t matter whether you are a fascist or just traffic in it.

That makes me think of the line in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Mother Night”: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

One of our contributors makes the argument that Hitler became a radical antisemite because he found that when he used radical antisemitic talking points in the beer halls of Munich he got thunderous applause.

That response led him to do more and more of it. At a certain point, whether he believed it or not, it got Hitler to where he wanted to go. Eventually, he started believing his own rhetoric. Maybe he was already inclined to think that way, but he doubled and tripled down on it. That kind of radicalization dynamic can take on a life of its own.

Zioness founder Amanda Berman, second from right, getting asked to leave the Chicago Dyke March along with others bearing Star of David pride flags, in 2017. (Courtesy)

The book examines ways in which Jews and other minorities fought right-wing extremism. Can you also speak to the left-wing extremism we are seeing and how that could impact who wins the 2024 election?

I think as Jews we’ve always had to have our eyes on multiple balls at the same time. In the book, we talk about the responses of Jewish activists to fascism in the 1930s and the importance of Jews having alliances with African Americans, union members, and other people who were also threatened by white supremacy and right-wing extremism.

I point out how in the 1930s Jews had to be worried about Father Coughlin and the Christian American Front, but also that they couldn’t ignore what was happening in the British Mandate where there were violent struggles between Arabs and Jews.

In a way, it’s no different than what we have today. We can’t completely shift our attention to fight left-wing antisemitism and forget about it from the right. We have two threats simultaneously. I guess that’s our Jewish experience. We have interests, we’ve got alliances, but they come and go. They have to be nurtured and preserved, but we can never get too comfortable. We need to be vigilant.

Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest who preached antisemitism to a wide audience over the radio in the US in the mid-20th century (Minnesota Historical Society/courtesy Michael Benson)

How does this play out concerning Israel and the war with Hamas?

Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews have competing agendas. That’s not to say they’re mutually exclusive, but Diaspora Jews face certain threats that Israeli Jews don’t face.

For example, if Elon Musk is giving tailwinds to right-wing extremists in America, and some of those extremists take up weapons and shoot up a JCC or a synagogue, that doesn’t affect Israeli Jews, but it certainly affects Diaspora Jews.

So from an American Jewish perspective, it means we don’t want [Israeli prime minister] Benjamin Netanyahu giving [X owner] Elon Musk a bear hug and then taking him to Be’eri and showing him the ruins of the kibbutz because that makes it easy for right-wingers in America to say, “See, Musk is not an antisemite. You’re overreacting.”

US billionaire Elon Musk, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, take a tour of Kfar Aza, November 27, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Of the essays in the book, which ones speak to differences between the 1930s and 2023?

Tom Weber’s essay comparing Hitler and Trump’s views of foreign policy reveals sharp differences in terms of how they seek to respond to geopolitical turbulence (imperial conquest compared with semi-isolationist retreat from alliances). Matthew Specter and Varsha Venkatasubramanian’s essay on America First shows the different ways that Americans apart from Trump have used the phrase.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share?

American democracy has always faced threats and we’ve always surmounted those threats. But we shouldn’t think because of that our country is predestined to remain a strong vigorous democracy without having to put up a fight.

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