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Scapegoating Trump: Reflections on the Question of Fascism in America

January 13, 2021

Scapegoating Trump: Reflections on the Question of Fascism in America

January 13, 2021
Peter E. Gordon in Verso

Peter E. Gordon questions what really caused the anti-democratic assault on the Capitol and whether we should call the President a fascist.

The victory of Joseph R. Biden in the 2020 Presidential elections will no doubt bring a measure of relief to all of us who have watched in horror as the current occupant of the White House strained the institution of American democracy nearly to the breaking point. In centres of liberal opinion such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, crowds gathered in early November to cheer and wave as passing cars honked their horns. It was a festival born of the comforting belief that the spell of a would-be tyrant had finally been broken and the country could now be restored to what it once was. That very night, the President-Elect gave a live address in which he offered the usual platitudes and promises. “We are not enemies.” he said. “We are Americans.” He even quoted the line from Ecclesiastes that there is “a time to reap and a time to sow.” He didn’t mention the other bit about “a time to hate.”

But hate was on grand display in Washington D.C. throughout the afternoon of January 6, 2021, when a crowd of thousands gathered for a “Save the America” demonstration, listened to the President rage against the humiliating experience of his political loss in what he called a stolen election. They took special note of his final exhortation:

“So we’re going to, we’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, I love Pennsylvania Avenue, and we’re going to the Capitol and we’re going to try and give… […] we’re going to try and give our Republicans, the weak ones, because the strong ones don’t need any of our help, we’re going to try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”

And then all hell broke loose, with results that were, or should have been, entirely predictable. A violent mob broke into the Capitol building, shattered glass and burst through doors, terrorized Senators and their staff, and, brandishing their signs and their flags, succeeded in halting the official ratification of votes that is typically an unexceptional and routine process in the American democratic system. The usual inhabitants of the building cowered beneath benches and behind locked doors. The Vice President and other officials were swiftly escorted from the building. President Trump himself, despite his promise of that “we” would go to the Capitol, did not in fact accompany the crowd whose passions he had helped to stir into action. Instead, he watched the events unfold on television from a safe distance, and it’s been reported that he was in a state of excitement, qualified only by his dismay that elements of the mob appeared “low class.”

The violence of these events is so recent and so raw that all attempts to summarize their meaning will inevitably be premature. But I want to offer just a few reflections on what it may portend for the immediate future.


In the best-case but unlikely scenario, the coming months could bring waves of contrition. When the right-wing commentariat loses its interest in rumours of a stolen election, a new narrative may emerge, and the overwhelming share of Republican politicians who spent the last four years transforming themselves into Trump’s enablers could slowly break away from their cult-like leader to say that they did not really mean it after all, that in their hearts they always harboured reservations about the President and are glad to see him go. Perhaps they will joined by moderates in the Democratic party to forge a new consensus, that Donald Trump was a mere anomaly whose dismissal now offers us a chance to forget all that unpleasantness and, in Biden’s words, “to restore the soul of America.”

But all of this is an illusion, and, if we reckon honestly with what has happened, we have little reason for confidence in the survival of American democracy. My own political views are far to the left of the average American, and I see in Biden’s victory little more than a restoration, not the harbinger of political redemption. As I write these lines on an early Sunday morning in 2021 several weeks after the election, the final tally shows that Trump received well more than 74 million votes—and that’s the second largest share of votes ever won by a President in all of US history, after Biden of course. This is hardly a cause for celebration. When it came to a choice between a hate-mongering demagogue and a principled if occasionally faltering moderate, nearly half of American voters went for the demagogue.

About the Author

Peter E. Gordon

Peter E. Gordon

Resident Faculty & Seminar Co-chair

Peter Gordon is Amabel B. James Professor of History at Harvard University and resident faculty at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies (CES), where he co-chairs the Harvard Colloquium for ...