Fascism is not taking root in the United States as it did in Europe’s fertile ground in the 1930s, but the ascendance of President Donald Trump and the early actions of his administration may move the United States in an authoritarian direction, a panel of historians told a Harvard audience Tuesday.
During a forum at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, the speakers dismissed direct comparisons between the fascist ideology that once swept parts of Europe, a movement that they called specific to that era. But they said the U.S. administration’s attacks on traditional institutions, targeting of Muslims from some countries, and other actions are unsettling signs.
Charles Maier, the Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History, said that fascist leaders “arrived in power in Europe based on paramilitary models and with militias.” He said that type of movement is not present today.
“Nonetheless, a lot of bad things can happen without attributing them to this historical model of fascism. We can say ‘plain vanilla’ authoritarianism, the psychopathology of the narcissistic leader, the need to bully, the willful disregard for truth,” Maier said. He said that in the United States and some other countries, “We have arrived, I think, at a new era of self-infatuated bullies.”
The forum, organized by the center and chaired by Maya Jasanoff, the Coolidge Professor of History, offered a European historical perspective on current American politics, and in particular the question of whether fascism could take hold here. The title, “What Can’t Happen Here,” was drawn from Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 political novel, “It Can’t Happen Here.”
“We don’t have to simply take the word ‘fascism’ and apply it to the current situation, but we can still say the current situation is worrying,” said Derek Penslar, a visiting professor of history at Harvard and the Samuel Zacks Professor of Jewish History at the University of Toronto.
Penslar, focusing on anti-Semitism, said that “the ‘Jewish question,’ as it was known for a century, has not roared back in the form of Trumpism.” But he worried that the administration “is creating chaos and catalyzing violence that will lead Americans to accept and even long for authoritarian rule,” with the hostility this time directed not at Jews but at Muslims and Hispanics.