President Trump’s July 4 speech at Mount Rushmore celebrated American history, with invocations of the Founders, the Revolution, and 1776 in Philadelphia. The monument provided an appropriate backdrop to review the legacies of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. Panegyrics to past leaders and expressions of faith in the American spirit are standard fare for Independence Day oratory, as much to be expected as are fireworks displays. But this year was different. July 4 occurred amid a wave of protests in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, public efforts to raise awareness of anti-Black racism, and a renewed push to remove public symbols of the Confederacy. As protesters tore down historical monuments of Southern generals, George Washington too was attacked, as well as figures on the Northern side of the epic battle around slavery: Ulysses S. Grant in San Francisco, the Saint-Gaudens memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in Boston, the abolitionist Hans Christian Heg in Madison, Wisconsin, and even monuments to Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. At this moment of widespread vandalism, the presidential choice to speak at the perhaps grandest of monuments was destined to elicit controversy.
Amid his expected patriotic appeals, Trump also called out the “merciless campaign to wipe out our history” being carried out by an ideological movement that he described in attention-getting terms as “a new far-left fascism.” That designation is more historically specific and pointed than one associates with standard political attacks and should therefore give us pause. It provides an opportunity to think through some of the complex historical connotations of the accusation of “left fascism,” just as it challenges us to consider the applicability of the term to the current developments in the country.
Of course, one could just dismiss the term as standard mudslinging in our never-ending American political brawl. At this point, anyone’s political opponent is likely to be a “fascist.” During the Vietnam War era, protesters decried President Johnson as a fascist. During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was decried as “the fascist gun in the West.” The term has become the go-to political denunciation. As soon as the unexpected results of the 2016 election rolled in, Trump critics were predicting that he would be our Hitler and rush to establish a fascist dictatorship. Many of those critics have well-paid sinecures and regular invitations to describe America’s imminent fascist threat on popular cable news shows where they describe, year after year, how the fascist jackboot is now finally descending in America. “Expert compares Trump’s politics to fascism,” read a banner on a top CNN news show last month while The Washington Post recently warned: “A second Trump term could put us on the path to fascism.”
Trump’s accusation of left fascism stings because it contradicts the standard political map. Fascism is typically treated as an exclusively far-right phenomenon, a conservatism on steroids, as distant as possible from the left end of the scale. However, there is also a long-standing discourse around “left fascism” that originates in the early 20th century, not as an insult from the right but with critiques made by prominent leftists directed at their own movement. Two Jewish women, both associated with the left, though different parts of it—Hannah Arendt and Rosa Luxemburg—each played a crucial role in developing the intellectual framework necessary to describe and criticize left fascism. The concept has taken on other meanings as well over the course of its history, at times coming from fascists themselves. Examining these various strands of left fascist meaning and political tradition can shed some light on our current predicament. Since historic fascism was largely a European phenomenon, it is important to start in Italy and Germany, the crucibles of historic fascism, before coming back to our American predicament.
Fascism dates back to the post-World War I upheavals, and specifically Benito Mussolini’s seizure of power in Italy in 1922. Journalist Giovanni Amendola early on denounced Italian fascism as “totalitarianism,” but by 1925 he used the same term to label communism as well, judging both seemingly opposite movements as parallel reactions against liberalism and democracy. Amendola was assassinated by fascist Black Shirts in the same year, but his suggestion of a similarity between far left and far right quickly spread. The priest Don Luigi Sturzo, a founder of the Italian Christian Democratic Party after World War II, wrote: “Ultimately there is only one difference between Russia and Italy: Bolshevism has led to a Communist dictatorship or a left fascism, while fascism has established a conservative dictatorship or a right-wing Bolshevism.” If the ends of the spectrum can meet, then the seeming oxymoron “left fascism” becomes credible within a new political geometry: Think of this as the theory of relativity, where parallel lines eventually meet in totalitarian structures.
This theory of totalitarianism is one of the key paths to understand “left fascism.” The classic investigation is Hannah Arendt’s 1951 magnum opus The Origins of Totalitarianism. In it, Arendt describes in rich historical detail the collapse of the liberal European state system and the emergence of what she deems distinctly new forms of modern politics—Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. They were both radically modernizing because they rejected traditional institutions and erased shared memory. In each case, national interest and history were sacrificed to bizarre, albeit different ideological goals: “Racial purity” in Germany, and “a classless society” in Russia. Arendt underscored the structural convergence between the two totalizing ideologies of left and right: the systematic lawlessness, the ubiquity of distrust, the annihilation of opposition, and especially the symmetry of the camp and gulag systems.
The primary goal of the camp systems, whether communist or Nazi, was never to crush real political opponents. Rather, the camp’s purpose was to degrade explicitly innocent prisoners in order to make a mockery of conventional ethical understandings, as Arendt described:
If the concentration camps had been dependent on the existence of political adversaries, they would have scarcely survived the first years of the totalitarian regimes ... [We must] understand how absolutely necessary the element of the innocent was for the continued existence of the camps ... In Germany, this element of the innocent was furnished in vast numbers by the Jews after 1938; in Russia, it consisted of random groups of the population which for some reason entirely unconnected with their actions had fallen into disgrace. But if in Germany the really totalitarian type of concentration camp with its enormous majority of completely “innocent” inmates was not established until 1938, in Russia it goes back to the early 30s.
Yet, more than half a century after the publication of Arendt’s work, the parallelism is not widely accepted, surely not in common linguistic usage. Except in extremist circles, the designation “fascist” or “Nazi” always carries an unqualified negative connotation, but “communist” remains inexplicably less pejorative. The difference is even clearer in the negative: Few today would judge the designation “an anti-Nazi” to be an insult, and “anti-fascist” is equally positive (unless it is somehow associated with the modern anarchists of “antifa”), but describing a politician or a movement as “anti-communist” still has a negative resonance. According to one quip, McCarthyism gave anti-communism a bad name.
Arendt challenges us to ask how communism resembles Nazism, and therefore where the left morphs into the far right, leading to a “left fascism.” While Arendt’s line of thinking traces a convergence of right and left, a second approach to the problem of “left fascism” conceives of it as an inversion of true principles or the self-betrayal of the left. Why does the left abandon its ideals? When does it turn into its opposite? The pivotal thinker here was the Polish Jewish activist Rosa Luxemburg.
Luxemburg spent her career in the German labor movement, engaging especially in the debates in—and eventually against—the Social Democratic Party (SPD). A vocal opponent of World War I from its start in 1914, she stood at odds with the party which, in a burst of German nationalism, supported the war effort. This difference led to a split and Luxemburg’s co-founding of the Spartacus League, which turned into the German Communist Party (KPD) in December 1918. During the civil war in Berlin, while communists, social democrats and right-wing militia groups battled in the streets in a prelude to the Nazi takeover, members of a far-right paramilitary unit assassinated Luxemburg and her political partner Karl Liebknecht on Jan. 15, 1919. The two were turned into the martyr figures of German communism, achieving iconic status, especially after the end of World War II under the East German regime.
The term “left fascism” names the moment when the left abandons its agenda of emancipation and counterintuitively adopts repressive measures that resemble the practices of the fascist far right. Luxemburg was among the first thinkers to recognize this danger. Others had preceded her in this criticism, especially anarchists with a long tradition of hostility toward Marxism, for example Gustav Landauer in his For Socialism (1911), but Luxemburg was the first prominent leader of the nascent communist movement to warn against its own endogenous repressive potential. For her “socialism by its very nature cannot be decreed or introduced by ukase.” It requires innovation and experiment, and therefore democracy and free speech. “Only unobstructed, effervescing life falls into a thousand new forms and improvisations, brings to light creative new forces, itself corrects all mistaken attempts.” But in Bolshevik Russia, the leadership, Lenin and Trotsky, were stomping out democracy and therefore undermining the prospects for the revolution, with tragic consequences. “The public life of countries with limited freedom is so poverty-stricken, so miserable, so rigid, so unfruitful, precisely because, through the exclusion of democracy, it cuts off the living sources of all spiritual riches and progress.” For Luxemburg, the revolution needs freedom to survive, precisely the freedom that communists were choosing to crush. “The only way to a rebirth is the school of public life itself,” she underscored, the most unlimited, the broadest democracy and public opinion. It is rule by terror which demoralizes,” and it was the left itself that was carrying out that terror.
In her critical assessment of the Russian Revolution and Bolshevik policies, Luxemburg did not use the designation “left fascism,” since Mussolini’s fascist regime had not yet come to power. Still, her analysis of the Bolsheviks from the last years of her life begins to address the substance of the matter: how the revolution becomes counterrevolutionary, how the pursuit of freedom inverts into its opposite, and how the self-declared opponents of czarist tyranny establish something much worse. Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin marks the beginning of the important tradition of anti-communism from the left, laying the foundation for explicit accounts of “left fascism” that would quickly follow.
Keep the compressed historical timeline in mind. The Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in November of 1917, and only one year later the imperial regime crumbled in Germany, amid uprisings in the military and a wave of labor strikes. This was the point when, according to Luxemburg’s Marxist vision, the radical revolution should have swept across Western Europe, as it did briefly in Hungary, but barely elsewhere. Luxemburg could not avoid asking why the revolutionary movement had stalled.
Part of the answer involved genuinely counterrevolutionary forces at work in the postwar chaos. In her comments on The Russian Revolution, published posthumously in 1922, Luxemburg is cleareyed about those threats: the inherently conservative character of the Russian peasantry as well as the nationalisms of the various populations hoping to escape the prison house of the Russian empire. Such estimations were commonplace socialist fare. What was, however, stunningly new was Luxemburg’s powerful criticism of the Bolshevik leadership itself for suppressing democracy. This was the essential betrayal of the revolution, and it is this perspective that has become her enduring legacy.
Among the permutations of Marxism, “Luxemburgist” thinking emphasizes the spontaneous actions of the working class rather than the structured power of a Leninist avant-garde party. In order to succeed, a revolution has to rely on the broadest possible participation rather than on a repressive silencing of heterodox voices. Yet this is precisely the accusation she levels against Lenin: As soon as the autonomous revolutionary movement, taking shape in the workers’ councils or “Soviets,” asserted themselves against the directives of the party, the Bolsheviks suppressed them. The authority of the party, or “democratic centralism” in Orwellian newspeak, had to be upheld against the aspirations of the same working class it claimed to represent. In the words of a memorable anthem from communist East Germany, “the party is always right.” Today we call that wokeness.
It is important to listen to Luxemburg’s own words, as she explains how a left-wing political program can lead to right-wing outcomes: from Bolshevism to “left fascism.” How can it be, she wonders, that revolutionaries would choose to suppress debate? “It is true that every democratic institution has its limitations and flaws, a feature shared with every human institution. But the solution that Lenin and Trotsky found—the elimination of democracy in general—is worse than the problem it is supposed to fix. It seals off the living source which alone can correct the congenital deficiencies of all institutions: the active, unhampered, and energetic political life of the broadest masses of the people. This is the crux of Luxemburgism. Democracy becomes better through more democracy; progress requires wider participation and less party discipline.
Step back to today for a moment. The corollary to our current discussions about free speech is evident: The corrective to bad speech is more and better speech, not restrictions on speech. Luxemburg spells this out exactly in what has become her most remembered sentences: “Freedom only for the supporters of a government, or only for the members of one party—no matter how many that may be—is not freedom. Freedom is always the freedom of those who think differently. Not because of the fanaticism of ‘justice,’ but because all the instructive, wholesome and cleansing potential of political freedom depends on this feature, and it will be ineffective if ‘freedom’ becomes a privilege” (emphasis added). Everyone should have the right to say what he or she thinks, just as everyone should have the right to criticize. She emphatically rejects the Leninist dictatorship that persecutes speech and excludes dissenters from the public sphere. Democracy does not need speech police.
Restricting allowable viewpoints or language only has the effect of undermining the quality of discussion because it shelters established claims from much needed scrutiny. The result, as Luxemburg presciently foresaw, was the sort of robotic discourse that would come to predominate in the communist states of yore and that has always found its imitators in those activist circles that value mandatory solidarity over rough-and-tumble debate. Today, we are beginning to see similar speech restrictions in our education system and in our public life. To quote Luxemburg one more time:
Without general elections, unlimited freedom of the press and assembly and a free competition of ideas, the life of public institutions withers away into a pseudo-life, in which bureaucracy is the only active element. Gradually public life falls asleep, while a few dozen party leaders ... direct and rule ... a dictatorship, but instead of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, i.e. a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense, like the Jacobin dictatorship ... And more: Such conditions must end up with a brutalization of public life: Assassinations, executions of prisoners and so forth.
Similarities to our current situation are not unintended. Limitations on speech, policing of statements on social media platforms, and sanctions for publishing dissenting views are laying the foundation for a “pseudo-life,” when we were expecting a presidential campaign and a competition of ideas. Yet Luxemburg’s criticism of the deleterious consequences of empowered party hierarchies is equally apt. This was the real story of the 2016 election. There was a populist revolt against both party hierarchies. The Democrats’ apparatus crushed the Bernie Sanders uprising and therefore lost. On the Republican side, Trump’s anti-establishment revolt succeeded and won. The 2020 story is currently underway.
A party can kill a movement. Luxemburg blamed Leninist policies for the tragic weakening of the Soviets that broke the back of the world revolution. Such was her judgment when her life was cut short in 1919. Soon equally critical interpretations of those Russian developments emerged, treating that same suppression of the Soviets as nothing other than the establishment of a counterrevolutionary regime with a communist mask, a “state capitalism,” as Trotsky and his followers would claim against Stalin. Writing in Mexican exile in 1939, the German communist Otto Rühle labelled bureaucratized Bolshevism a “red fascism,” indistinguishable from the dictatorship on the other end of the spectrum, “brown fascism.”
From a very different political stance, the German social democrat Kurt Schumacher in 1930 coined the phrase that communists are “red-painted fascists” or rotlackierte Faschisten. Schumacher was an early critic of the Nazis, spent years in concentration camps including Dachau, but survived the war to become the first postwar leader of the SPD in West Germany. Of course, he was a vocal opponent of the communist regime imposed in East Germany. That dictatorship took political shape by forcing those SPD members unfortunately trapped in the East to join the “Socialist Unity Party,” under communist control. The obligatory “unity” meant the proscription of dissent, as Luxemburg had predicted. The elimination of alternative viewpoints led to a desiccation of public life and an inability to recognize genuine problems: hence the workers’ revolt against communist rule of June 17, 1953. Because the party could not hear complaints, an uprising broke out, only to be put down by Russian tanks. The poet Bertolt Brecht memorialized the event in his poem “The Solution,” sarcastically describing how “the people had lost the confidence of the government,” and concluding with the ironic question as to whether “it would not be simpler for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?”
Luxemburg, Rühle, and Schumacher show how the Leninist program of the left can become fascist. A parallel inquiry points to a third approach to “left fascism”: How indisputably fascist movements may take on leftist characteristics. Here the semantics of the term “left fascism” shift a bit. The phrase becomes less a matter of some alleged fascist character of the left, but rather the left-wing edge of the fascist camp. This hypothesis implies that among fascists—as among communists or any political field—one can find a range of perspectives and sensibilities. Some of the fascist positions, such as the left-right hybrid termed “third positionism,” may emphasize traditionally left positions, such as the working-class standard of living in contrast to other agenda points that lack a specifically leftist character, for example a traditionalist insistence on social hierarchy or, especially in Nazi Germany, biological racism. These competing issues do not necessarily disappear, but they can sometimes be relegated to a secondary status behind historically socialist goals. When fascist movements try to appeal to working class constituents, they have to offer something that at least appears to meet their specific needs: hence, left fascism.
One key piece of evidence pointing to socialist strands in the DNA of fascism is the biographical itinerary of Mussolini, the fascist par excellence who gave the movement its name and founding inspiration. While he ended up executed by communist fighters in 1945, with his corpse hanging upside down in public to display his ignominious end, he began his political career as a socialist, even joining the leadership group of the Italian Socialist Party. He soon split with it due to its support for neutrality in the First World War, as he moved toward a militarist nationalism—he was developing in the exact opposite direction of the anti-war Luxemburg who lambasted the pro-war German Social Democrats. By 1922, Mussolini, only recently a prominent socialist, had become Il Duce, the dictator of fascist Italy. At the very least, his biography demonstrates a proximity of socialist and fascist thinking, especially the disdain for traditional 19th-century liberalism and individualism.
Further evidence for a left-facing fascism is the very name of Hitler’s party, the National Socialist German Workers Party. It sends a message of the national character of its socialism, in contrast to the international socialism of the communists. (The communists insisted on their internationalism, to be sure, although by the mid-1920s most communist parties around the world had been “Bolshevized” and turned into instruments of Russian foreign policy.) The point, however, is that the Nazis presented themselves as “socialist,” so as to appeal to “workers.” Meanwhile they built on traditions of a right-wing animosity toward market economies that stereotypically denounced “finance capital” as cosmopolitan—a euphemism meant to suggest nefarious Jewish control. This connection of anti-capitalism with anti-Semitism was tailored to reach groups less open to religious anti-Semitism or biological racism. The opportunity to fish for political support in these murky waters had earlier led to the formula, attributed to SPD leader August Bebel, that “anti-Semitism is the anti-capitalism of fools.”
This left fascism is central to the curious history of the Strasser brothers, Gregor and Otto—dyed-in-the-wool Nazis, who during the 1920s led a left-wing faction of the party in Berlin and Hamburg that competed with the more conservative and nationalist camp in Munich. Conflicts involved the extent to which the Nazis could cooperate with communists and social democrats, the traditional worker parties of the left, in strikes and other labor actions. When should the Nazis coordinate with the parties of the left in the context of legislative voting and when with the “bourgeois” parties of the conservative right? Such were the politics of the Weimar Republic, with its fractured party landscape. The Strassers also pushed for traditionally socialist programs such as the nationalization of industries, a step which Hitler opposed.
Gregor Strasser was murdered during the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934, when Hitler had a broad swath of competitors brutally eliminated, especially around Ernst Röhm’s Storm Troopers (SA), another wing of the Nazi apparatus with a worker-facing politics. Otto escaped into exile to wage a long if marginal political campaign against the Nazi regime. By no means “anti-fascist,” he criticized Hitler for abandoning core principles of the Nazi program. He returned to West Germany in the 1950s, remaining active in extremist politics for many years. The left-fascism of “Strasserism” has made a recent comeback in far-right sites online, as has another strange hybrid from the Weimar era, “National Bolshevism.” Historically, National Bolshevism involved support for stronger cooperation between Germany and the Soviet Union, an alternative to a Westpolitik with an orientation toward Western democracies. Today an analogous “left-fascist” foreign policy takes shape when self-declared progressives idealize reactionary regimes or movements overseas, such as Iran or Hezbollah, whose record on civil liberties, especially free speech, and their treatment of women and gays stand at odds with the values the left otherwise purports to uphold. That parts of the left are willing to enter into these alliances indicates the superficiality of their commitment to rights.
Germany and Russia eventually cooperated in the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939—the alliance of the two dictatorships, right and left, Nazis and communists, hand in hand dividing up Poland and igniting the Second World War. For many of the communist generation of the 1930s, this betrayal of all their ideals was a life-changing event. Despite years of communist rhetoric denouncing the Nazis, the sudden change of course exposed the fundamental mendacity in the Stalinist leadership. What to make of a “left” that would crawl into bed with the fascists? Some communists took this betrayal as the right time to break with the movement, but many others stuck with the communist credo despite all its crimes: They saw no salvation outside the party.
In today’s polarized culture, it has become commonplace to dismiss anything the president says, including his surfeit of tweets, out of hand, without thinking about it or even without reading it. This intellectual laziness deserves to be called out. The accusation of “radical left fascism,” a term that carries lots of history, especially for the left, deserves attention. Disagree if you will but at least think it through. What did Trump mean by using the term and where (if anywhere) is it an adequate descriptor of our cultural and political moment? Is there a repressive potential inside the left?
We can start with the terms Trump explicitly used in the speech. “One of their political weapons is ‘Cancel Culture’—driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America.” That a “cancel culture” is spreading across the country is indisputable. While an earlier version of “political correctness” involved subjecting dissenting points of view to moralistic judgment, today’s “cancel culture” takes the intolerance a further step: obligatory retractions, forced resignations, statements of public distancing not only from peers but also from institutional leaders in universities and corporations. Are we at “totalitarianism” yet, as Arendt used the term? Probably not: One’s speech can be curtailed in today’s America and one can lose one’s job, but the personal safety of heterodox thinkers does not seem to be in jeopardy, so far. The result, though, is precisely what Luxemburg predicted—a flattening out of public debate for fear of offending the ruling sensibilities. For all the talk of the dangers of Trump’s rhetorical attacks on the press, no journalist has been fired for criticizing his policies; by way of contrast now we are seeing dismissals because of editorial decisions deemed insufficiently hostile to the White House.
Is this “left fascism?” The term circulated most recently during the 1960s. Philosopher Juergen Habermas criticized the German student movement as “left fascist,” although he later backed off. American sociologists Lewis Feuer and Irving Horowitz recognized “left fascism” in parts of the American student movement, while German Jewish exile thinker Herbert Marcuse dismissed it as a contradiction in terms. Yet Marcuse’s own notorious essay on “Repressive Tolerance” called for withholding tolerance from critics with which the left disagreed: Freedom of speech should be made contingent on political litmus tests. Marcuse’s progressive intolerance had a dictatorial spirit. It is a direct precursor to today’s sacking of editors, attacks on academic freedom and the recent call by Princeton faculty to investigate colleagues for ideological deviations. If you don’t like the term “left fascism,” try out “Ivy League Stalinism.”
The Mount Rushmore speech highlights the unlawful destructions of statues of historic figures carried out by seemingly spontaneous groups. (We don’t know if they were truly spontaneous or intentionally organized as was Kristallnacht.) Trump calls them “angry mobs.” Their defenders may object to that pejorative terminology, but street-level violence was always a hallmark of fascist movements that disdained regular “bourgeois” legality, whether in Italy, Germany, France or elsewhere. There is an enormous difference between a city council’s decision to dismantle a statue deemed obsolete or offensive and a criminal riot destroying public property. Part of the president’s criticism targets the movement’s reliance on illegal methods. We are at a historical moment where the defense of the rule of law is dismissed as extremist, while the president’s critics refuse to denounce mob violence. For them it is the whole system that is wrong, the alleged “systematic racism,” not the real crimes of the lawbreakers. An unqualified attack on “the system” was a hallmark of the Nazis’ rhetoric against the democracy of the Weimar Republic.
Yet more important than the illegal method is the target of the movement’s attacks. For Trump, as for many Americans, the wave of riots represents an effort to revoke—to cancel—American history. “This left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution ... [It is] determined to tear down every statue, symbol, and memory of our national heritage.” The association with a “cultural revolution” points unmistakably to Maoist China, at a moment when the foreign-policy conflict between Washington and Beijing is ratcheting up around core value issues, including the rule of law (Hong Kong) and human rights (the Uighurs). Interestingly, Trump’s attack on statue-topplings was echoed two months later in Paris, when French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking on the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Third Republic, rejected calls to tear down statues representing history. He argued emphatically that it is important to stand with the whole national past in all its often burdened complexity rather than curating it to fit today’s idiosyncratic sensibilities.
In the end, does the left-fascist shoe fit our current culture moment? Consider the list: programmatic silencing of dissenters, purging of editorial pages, growing fear of transgressing murky viewpoint prohibitions, while university leaders generally refuse (there are some exceptions) to offer a full-throated defense of academic freedom, but instead embrace the stereotypical language of the social justice movement in its opposition to “the system.” They sound more like Heidegger promoting the Nazi revolution in the universities in 1934 than Edward R. Murrow in 1954 pushing back against Joe McCarthy. A lot of that is just cowardice. Equally reminiscent of fascism is the de facto coordination between the crowds in the streets and the pronouncements from corporate boardrooms, as well as the monitoring of political opinion by powerful social media. This imposed conformism, this Gleichschaltung, is playing out against the backdrop of attacks on the rule of law and across-the-board denunciations of all law enforcement.
Yet in one respect, the diagnosis of “left fascism” does not go far enough. It misses a key element of the moment, alluded to in Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech: the obsessive effort to suppress history and erase memory. Not only Confederate statues have been toppled but anti-Confederate ones as well, and the Emancipation Memorial honoring Abraham Lincoln and paid for by freed slaves has come under attack. In San Francisco the Board of Supervisors voted to conceal a New Deal era mural that included a critical depiction of slavery. Any symbol of the past has become suspect, as we hurtle into a brave new world robbed of the orientation that historical self-awareness might provide. At root there is only a nihilistic refusal of any positive identification with the shared project to achieve a “land of the free.”
This constellation of riots, lawlessness and social amnesia recalls another moment in American oratory with another American president. When the young Abraham Lincoln spoke at the Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, in 1838, he was responding to mob violence, attacks on African Americans and on abolitionists, when “bands of hundreds and thousands ... burn churches, ravage and rob provision stores, throw printing-presses into rivers, shoot editors and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure and with impunity.” Lincoln saw this “mobocratic spirit” leading to a general alienation from the government, a loosening of the bonds of affection for the republic, as the direct memory of the struggle for independence waned. It was that loss of a historical awareness of the origins and rationale for the United States which, in Lincoln’s view, threatened political stability. The “scenes of the revolution” were disappearing into forgetfulness, as the “silent artillery of time” erased the national past with every passing generation. Lincoln’s alternative: “General intelligence, sound morality, and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and the law.”
One-hundred-eighty years after the Lyceum Address, we find ourselves even further away from the founding. In today’s America, even Habermas’ notion of a “constitutional patriotism,” safely removed from the dangerous temptations of nationalism, is under assault, let alone any deeper love of country. National history has all but disappeared from our curricula, and when it is still taught, it is poisoned with adversarial revisionism, an education for ressentiment and guilt. The failings alone matter: We are always only at 1619 and never at 1865 or 1945 or 1989, a distorted perspective that leads to tearing down, never building up, and embarrassing public rituals of pledging disallegiance. Describing these events as “left fascism,” Trump names the constellation of verbal progressivism mixed with a moralistic vitriol to harass dissenters and indulge in irrational violence, but the worst of our crisis is the contemptuous ignorance of the accomplishments of the nation. It is time to reclaim the history.
Russell A. Berman is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University. He is also the editor emeritus of the quarterly Telos, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he co-directs the Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on the Middle East and the Islamic World.