Does Historical Analogy Matter?

Peter E. Gordon and Sam Moyn debate if and how the “fascism” label is appropriate for Orbán, Erdoğan, Modi, or Trump, over at the NY Review of Books. Gordon:

Among all the terms that are available to us for historical comparison today it is hard to see why “fascism” alone should be stamped as impermissible. No differently than other terms, fascism now belongs to our common archive of political memory. Exceeding its own epoch, it stands as a common name for a style of institutionalized cruelty and authoritarian rule that recurs with remarkable frequency, albeit in different guises. In the United States, it would no doubt take a different form. As the historian of European fascism Robert Paxton has observed, “the language and symbols of an authentic American fascism would ultimately have little to do with the original European models.” In an American fascism, he writes, one would see not swastikas but “Christian crosses” and “Stars and Stripes.”

The true signs of fascism’s resurgence, however, would not be merely the symbols it deploys in its propaganda but its treatment of those who are most vulnerable. This is why the spectacle of migrants in cages should alarm us all, and why we cannot take comfort in the thought that things are not as bad as they once were.


America’s Resistance after the election of Donald Trump turned to analogy to abnormalize him: the US teetered on the edge of fascism, and with a Hitler on the make now at the helm.

That comparison requires a careful ethic is the lesson three years on, for the sake of understanding and mobilization alike. It is surely fodder for some future ironist that, after our era of fearing Trump’s actions, he appears set in the current pandemic to go down in history for a worse sin of inaction. For all his abuses of the powers accorded the presidency in the prior generation, his failure to deploy them now seems more glaring. His hijinks in flouting the rule of law, though inexcusable, have not concealed the continuity of American governance, for good and for ill. (The Republicans have gotten their conservative judges and tax cuts, just as before.) William Barr is the reincarnation of Carl Schmitt, the evil genius of National Socialism, wrote Tamsin Shaw in these pages, except that our attorney general has done his worst by letting some louts out of their lies and pursuing causes with roots deep in American history. No analogy to Hitler or fascism is needed to explain these results.