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Is Trump a Fascist or Something Else Entirely?: A Conversation with Nicholas Grossman

Is Trump a Fascist or Something Else Entirely?: A Conversation with Nicholas Grossman

He will defeat American liberal democracy through utter contempt for its institutions, not a revolution

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Landry Ayres: Welcome to Zooming In at The UnPopulist. I’m Landry Ayres.

As the 2024 election draws nearer and Donald Trump’s second-term plans come into greater focus, critics of his, across the ideological spectrum, are torn as to whether Trump’s movement is continuous with historical fascism. Does the dreaded “f”-word apply to him? Or is it an unhelpful exaggeration?

On today’s episode, The UnPopulist senior editor Berny Belvedere reconnects with his former Arc Digital colleague and international relations professor at the University of Illinois, Nicholas Grossman. The two discuss the propriety of using historically-weighty labels in our public discourse today, where to situate Trump within the not-so-grand tradition of authoritarianism, and break down how the Heritage Foundation-powered Project 2025 would fuel further democratic backsliding. We hope you enjoy.

A transcript of today’s podcast appears below. It has been edited for flow and clarity.

Berny Belvedere: Nick, do you believe terms like “fascism,” “Nazism,” “communism” are overused today? If so, why do you think they are?

Nicholas Grossman: So, in a way they're overused and also not. “Nazi” came to be a word that just meant bad, the thing that we all agree on is bad, and can be used in very serious contexts and comedic contexts—like the Soup Nazi in Seinfeld, and all the running jokes and memes of Godwin’s law and “everything I don't like on the internet is Hitler” and anything else along those lines. So people do overuse it. But also, with “Nazi” in particular, it can reach a level where people then think that any lesson from Nazi Germany or any lesson from the 20th century more broadly is ipso facto wrong, that there's something inherently wrong about comparing the right-wing nationalist-populist movement that won an election and then lost power and then attempted a putsch and then reconsolidated and ran for power again, to America's right-wing nationalist-populist movement that won an election and then lost power by election and then attempted a putsch and then sought power again. That seems pretty ridiculous that you couldn't connect any of those.

As for “fascism,” with thinking of it as this thing nearly everybody agrees was wrong that happened in the 20th century, when people try to apply it more loosely to things that are, say, authoritarian but not necessarily fascist … that could reduce the power of the word. But I think at this point, people using the word like Joe Biden used “semi-fascism,” to describe Trump’s authoritarian project … I don’t think is unreasonable.

Berny: So when Biden used “semi-fascism,” how is it that that qualifier, “semi,” managed to successfully avoid the trap of requiring a perfect historical parallel while at the same time bringing in a term that has enough connotative heft to meet the gravity of Trump and MAGA's offenses? How is it that a word as simple as “semi” is able to successfully get us out of this jam?

Nicholas: You know, that's a really good point. I hadn't quite thought about it that way, but it does look like the “semi” modifier has threaded that needle where it's a way of indicating, “Okay, I'm not saying this is literally Hitler and that we are headed for World War III and another Holocaust.” I mean, to pick a kind of obvious example: When Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, there is explicit calls for genocide. In Trump’s largely ghostwritten books, you don’t see anything like the final solution for the Jews. That runs into the problem of, “No, you're being hyperbolic.” So “semi” makes it where, “I'm not saying it's exactly that. I'm saying it bears enough resemblance to that that we should think of it as serious and bad.” And given that I and many others do think of it as serious and bad, and in particular as anti-democratic and authoritarian, the “semi” adds a way to use a word that connects with a lot of people without running into those, “So you're saying this is literally Hitler” counterarguments.

Berny: As an international relations professor who has taught classes on terrorism, you’ve argued convincingly that misapplications of that word, “terrorism,” can have real consequences and that therefore applying the word well, in a more narrowly defined way, is really important. Is the issue with misapplications of the word “Nazi” or “fascism” on that same level, or not really?

Nicholas: You're right that I'm a stickler on the word “terrorism,” that it's something that I teach and have taught for a while, and I take issue with a common usage of it to be basically a synonym of “bad,” a synonym of “thing I don't like.” If you Google “Republican terrorists” or “Democratic terrorists,” you get millions of hits. I think it is important for us to be able to really understand that “terrorism” refers specifically to violent political actions targeted against non-combatants by non-state actors. It's important for conceptual clarity, but in particular for developing counter-strategies and executing them well.

I tend not to use “fascism” as well. I stick more to something like “authoritarianism” because the usefulness about it is: Trump’s project is clearly authoritarian and there’s no ambiguity about it. He’s calling for the termination of the Constitution, saying, “I’ll be a dictator”—he’s quite open about it. You could have judged it from actions, but also now from statements. Whereas with something like the word “fascism,” that leads to debates that are potentially distracting. So I think it’s a mistake to really fixate on the word, to be very insistent upon it.

My concern with the word “terrorism” is not throwing it around so often and so loosely that it loses its power. And I feel that way about “fascism” as well—as a word that we shouldn't throw around loosely. I'll give you a recent example of this. When some people were reacting to police shutting down various campus protests, some cases seemed, to me and to many others, like an excessive use of force, just the sheer number of manpower and police presence that was being used. I saw comments along the lines of, “Why would you be concerned about fascism? Fascism is clearly already here.” And, no, that's really not it. So, the police arrested a bunch of people and, if any of them are charged with a crime, they'll have a chance to defend themselves in court. And that maybe is bad—certainly somebody can criticize it—but it's also not fascism. There's a danger of a “boy who cried wolf” effect where, if you're constantly calling anything you don't like this maximal bad word, then when something that is actually like that thing comes around, people are less inclined to believe you.

Then again, the lesson of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is not that wolves aren't real and you don't need to worry about them.

Berny: We're going to focus on more than just the term “fascism” here in this discussion, but I want to stay on the term for just a sec because it is a prominent issue in our discourse that keeps popping up.

So, we humans tend to be incorrigibly committed to clarifying our world by describing it, by capturing it linguistically. But there's an inherent limitation to doing that that seems to always rear its head. Calling something a “Nazi” or “neo-Nazi” initiative helps to situate it within a particular historical movement. But the downside to that is historical episodes, by their very nature, are in the minds of many people tethered to particular circumstances, the ones that they temporally existed in. So history gives us these movements that have a fixed shape. And that can somewhat frustrate new applications of those labels.

The part that a lot of people are underestimating is just how incredibly powerful institutional authority is. This idea of, it's norms all the way down … the idea that powerful people should follow the law is a norm. It is only a law to the extent that the people in power enforce it. And if the people in power, just enough of the people in power, don't enforce it, then it might as well not be a law. — Nicholas Grossman

So to continue with the Nazi example, when some form of discourse today, whether it's a meme or a trope, or some rhetoric that a politician uses, gets characterized as “Nazi” or “neo-Nazi,” skeptics who don't detect a full-blown, genocidal antisemitism in that discourse will suggest that the “Nazi” label is overblown or being unfairly applied. I think the same thing happens, though at a lower scale, with “fascism.”

My own take is that proponents and skeptics alike of these terms have in mind different aspects of those movements when they apply the labels or when they hear the labels applied. So when Trump gets called a “fascist” or a “neo-fascist,” the idea isn't necessarily that he's literally continuing Mussolini's project or that he's done the same exact things Franco did in Spain or whatever. Sometimes it means that. But sometimes I suspect the term is applied because a commentator or analyst just wants to note that Trump has similar impulses or inclinations or beliefs. The idea isn't that there's a perfect or near perfect match between the concrete actions Trump has taken and the ones past fascists have taken—because those will always be indexed to a particular time horizon. I think the idea, instead, is that Trump's posture toward democracy, toward the nation, the individual's role within the nation, and so on, is meaningfully similar to past fascist leaders and how they viewed things.

If institutions exist today that reliably frustrate Trump's ability to carry out a more full-bodied fascistic reign, more so than they ever did for someone like Mussolini, that doesn't suggest, and it shouldn't suggest, that Trump lacks fascistic tendencies. Because, of course, that's just something external. Trump has routinely praised Putin and Kim and the way the societies they rule over are organized around their whims and wishes. The fact that he can't achieve that level of compulsory, fawning admiration here doesn't mean that he doesn't hold those yearnings.

Does the fact that at any given time some discourse participants may have in mind tendencies and beliefs, whereas others have in mind concrete actions and historical parallels, and that therefore there's always going to be a talking past each other dynamic, does that suggest that historical terms like “fascism” are more unhelpful than helpful and should be retired?

Nicholas: It can. I think that makes a lot of sense. This is also the purpose of those qualifiers like “semi.” One that's especially popular when you talk about things like political ideologies is “neo”—like a new version that's kind of like the one in the past. That tends to be how people thread the needle.

But I do think that you're right in the tied-to-historical-circumstances aspect of it. And that also makes it where it is not necessarily the best or clearest form of communication or of persuasion because it can send some people down a rabbit hole of, “Let's compare that circumstance in history to this today,” whereas somebody who is using it might want to say, “These are similar”—or, often in some cases, it's a way of almost saying, “I think this is really bad.” So maybe a word like “authoritarian” doesn't have a real kick; “fascist,” “Nazi,” you know, has more of a kick and maybe is more likely to get people to pay attention—but it also, as you say, can make it more likely for people to shut off or to resist it. That's why I tend to say “anti-democracy” or “authoritarian,” or a more political science term, “democratic backsliding,” because that is unambiguously what is happening and it doesn't carry that same “historical circumstance” baggage.

Berny: So, what is fascism, historically?

Nicholas: So there's some debate about that, which again is one of the reasons why maybe it is not the most politically useful, or I guess discourse-useful, word. Historically, people place the origins in Italy, with Mussolini as the first real practitioner. When I was studying this, the person that I read the most was an Italian named Alfredo Rocco. He said that there were a couple of central principles: there's a hyper-nationalism, and an ethnic nationalism. Organicism, which is the sense that cell is to body as individual is to state … in other words, you give over everything to the state, as if you don't personally matter. Belief in superiority, then also militarism and foreign aggression. There are a number of other points that people like Umberto Eco have listed.

There is a kind of later argument, and one that I find pretty persuasive, that fascism is almost a kind of anti-politics in that it is fixated on the past, often a fictional past, one in which there’s not only nostalgia but trying to reclaim past glory and is a rejection in a way of the very idea of politics in the sense of we debate and argue about various pieces of evidence and facts and then come up with things like what might be the best solution or what do we agree would be a better solution rather than a worse solution. Whereas fascism often is much more an appeal to feelings and a fundamental rejection of the value of truth itself.

Berny: I want to shift to a description of actions that can be categorized as fascistic, although if you just use a pure description of them, as you were suggesting earlier, you could also analyze them purely on their own merits. You were talking about how you prefer the word “authoritarianism” and “assaults on democracy.” In your latest for Arc Digital, you write that “American institutions are hanging by a thread.” And you argue that a model of instantaneous authoritarianism or revolutionary illiberalism, or as you put it, “a dramatic seizure of power,” is kind of the wrong model to expect America to fall prey to. Instead, you argue that if authoritarianism arrives in the U.S., it will do so via a more incremental process of democratic backsliding. Can you expound on what that is?

Nicholas: Sure. That's a term that I think is very valuable in describing what's happening. So a lot of people, when they picture authoritarianism, they think of—and probably a lot of 20th-century takeovers were a big part of this—something like a big dramatic scene, something out of a movie. Think Mussolini or Hitler, the Iranian Revolution in 1979, or the Russian revolution, communist revolution—any of these big dramatic moments in which somebody seizes power and then holds onto it and then executes their authoritarianism and asserts their power throughout the country. What is more likely to happen in the United States, what in fact has been happening decently more to some democracies in the 21st century, is this idea of democratic backsliding, which is the process by which a leader gains power legally, legitimately via election, and then proceeds to abuse power while in office, to erode rule of law, erode checks and balances, try to put themselves above the law, and give themselves unfair advantages in elections.

An egregious example of this, one that was backsliding from an already low baseline, is Putin's Russia. That Putin just got reelected—I don't know if you can hear my air quotes through the mic—in what was very clearly not an actual election, and yet they went through the motions and he claimed a popular mandate from it. Earlier, when Russia's laws had required him to step down, he just reworked the offices of president and prime minister, gave himself the prime minister job, gave his flunky, Dmitry Medvedev, the president job and continued running the country until that term was up and then just became president again.

In the 21st century, we’ve seen versions of the sort of democratic backsliding that the U.S. should be afraid of in Turkey, India, Israel, Hungary, Poland, Peru, and a few others. Hungary, in particular, is the model for Trump in that the leader there, Viktor Orbán, won via election and then proceeded to do things like force just about all independent media outlets to go into this new kind of umbrella corporation which he had a flunky run and then change their commentary from sometimes critical of the government to basically government propaganda. An example of what happened in Poland was, they didn't like some of the judicial rulings, so they made a law that said that the maximum age for a Supreme Court justice or their equivalent is set at just right below the people that they wanted to get rid of. Then they got rid of those. And then they said, “Actually, the age can be different,” and then appointed their own people.

We can also see that that sort of democratic backsliding has happened in part of the United States: with the failure of reconstruction after the Civil War and the imposition of Jim Crow—that people in those southern states did get power via elections and then you abuse that power to reduce the ability to vote and generally repress black people. So they still had elections, but they weren't free and fair, especially not in the way that the post-Civil War amendments tried to create and which the U.S. didn't really have until the Civil Rights acts.

If he manages to get power again, there is zero reason to believe that he wouldn't try to do the thing that he literally did last time that he and his team have been spending over three years planning for, to try to fix the problems of that so they could do it again more successfully. I think there's a lot of naïveté about how somebody would stop it. Well, who? Congress? Why? — Nicholas Grossman

Where we are hanging by a thread is: Trump has managed to already break through a lot of those institutional barriers that separate democracy from authoritarianism. And one of the things that a lot of people tend to misunderstand about this, and this also goes back to the glorious takeover vision of authoritarianism, is that authoritarians don't actually need to be strategic and good at this for it to work. This was a point that Hannah Arendt made in The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951 that really resonates today, which is that incompetence can be an asset to wannabe authoritarians because it ends up getting competent people to quit and then opens up more spots for loyalists and makes it that they don't have this fundamental hesitancy when it comes to, “But, I'm violating a norm or I'm violating a law.”

That can create a lot of the democratic backsliding. The United States saw that with Trump beating both impeachments. Why would he be concerned about Congress? And if he does manage to get reelected after being charged with a number of very serious crimes, including crimes associated with a coup attempt to overthrow the Constitution, if he then gets national power anyway, after all of that, there is no reason to expect that he will be bound or restricted by the law at all because he clearly does not respect it himself. At that point, there will be nobody left to potentially enforce it against him.

Berny: In that same Arc piece, you made a list of the battles Trump has waged against our democratic institutions, and you put the number at nine. One of the battles that he's waged includes that he's violated internal rules of the executive branch. Can you give me an example?

Nicholas: That was one of the easiest for him to violate because it was within the executive branch and the president is the elected head of the executive branch, so legal authority in the executive branch flows from the president. Just about everything you think of as government, besides the courts and Congress, is executive branch. So there's this immense power. And yet: America has a president, not a king. Presidents are subject to rule of law. As Teddy Roosevelt famously put it: “No man is above the law.”

In response to Watergate, there were a number of reforms to try to create some internal restrictions on the power of the presidency—an example of this was to create the position of Inspector General and put it in a variety of executive branch departments. The press tends to refer to these people as the internal watchdog of whatever, and Trump, because he was doing things that was tripping these wires and getting these internal watchdogs to publicize the violations that he was doing, he then removed the inspectors general from Health and Human Services and the Defense Department and the intelligence community, among some others. And the only purpose of those positions is to monitor the executive branch, make sure that everybody's following the law, and if they're not following the law, report it, especially to Congress. So by removing them and either not replacing them or putting some loyalist hack in their place, that meant greater ability to get away with more.

The Mueller investigation was another example of this in what finally ended it, at least the potential threat it posed to Trump, was he got a new attorney general, William Barr, and Barr proceeded to mislead the public about what the Mueller report had actually said. And he set a lot of the narratives and then he shut down further investigation of the president. That was an example where the executive branch was investigating itself for some malfeasance by its own leaders, and yet he was able to shut that down in part because it is entirely within the executive branch. So those were the first barriers that he got through. And the third, the one that ended up then bringing in congressional oversight, was when Trump tried to extort Ukraine by secretly withholding military aid and saying to the Ukrainian president Zelenskyy that he would release the aid if Zelenskyy did him a favor by lying and manufacturing an investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden, which Trump would then use as a basis for lies for his reelection campaign. That got caught by a whistleblower, someone on the National Security Council, who went through the proper procedures that got that information to Congress. That's what led to the first impeachment.

So it was Trump's repeated efforts to break through various internal executive branch controls that eventually got the attention of Congress, which is a bigger barrier, but he burst through that too.

Berny: Another battle he waged was against the transfer of power itself—a key presidential tradition within American history. He met that process, that idea, with violence rather than with peaceful acceptance. Do you consider that one to be the most dangerous, or is there one that's worse than that?

Nicholas: I don't know if I can pick out an individual worst one because it's cumulative. My first instinct was to say, “No, the worst one is the current one against the legal system.” But a lot of what the legal system is trying to hold them accountable for was the coup attempt, which grew out of a violation of bunch of norms. So if I had to pick one, I'd still say the January 6 coup attempt, where introducing that level of political violence into American politics, making it the first in all of modern U.S. history to not have a peaceful transfer of power—it was literally not peaceful.

The one about post-election norms … I think it's easy to underrate that one. Norms, because they're not codified, they're not laws, they're not written down, sometimes it doesn't feel like violating something important, but those are the ways that we do things. And if somebody then does it egregiously differently, violates those norms and gets away with it, or manages to even succeed with it, then what they've done is create a new normal, new expectations.

With every previous losing presidential candidate, as soon as the election was called, shortly after they gave a concession speech. Hillary Clinton did it the morning after networks called the election for Trump in 2016. Probably the biggest example of this was Al Gore, who pursued legal means. I'm not criticizing Trump here for doing things like filing lawsuits to try to question some aspects of the election. Some of those were in bad faith, probably all of those were in bad faith, but still it is a legal measure. Others have done it too. But what Gore did was, after the Supreme Court made a ruling about the Florida recounts that resulted in George W. Bush becoming president, Gore publicly accepted the results of the election. And then, because he was vice president, he was in the Mike Pence role of being the presiding officer at the Senate that was officially acknowledging the Electoral College votes. And he gaveled in his own loss. So that was the norm.

The other part of that was an outgoing president brings the new president-elect to the White House to peacefully transfer power, to begin the transfer. Obama did that with Trump—invited him to the White House, hosted him as the president-elect shortly after Hillary conceded. Every previous president did this. George H.W. Bush famously lost reelection and wrote a—what is now publicized, what was then private—letter of encouragement to Bill Clinton that basically amounted to, “I didn't want you to be president, but now that you are, I really wish you the best. You're the leader of our country and I love our country and I want you to do really well. Here are some suggestions.”

That was just the way we always did things. By Trump incessantly lying about the election and conspiring to overthrow it, and after exhausting legitimate means, turning to illegitimate and illegal ones, and then, of course, after all of this, just hammering the Big Lie, the “up is down” lie, about the election results over and over and over again, and turning it into this kind of loyalty litmus test for Republicans that want to seek office or just want to speak in public about this stuff, has made it now where most Republicans just expect that challenging an election result and insisting that if you lost you actually won is just something you do now and that that is normal. Then a lot of the mainstream press treats it as, “Well, that's just another political strategy” and talks about it in these kind of horse-race sports language type of terms as opposed to, “This was a egregious violation of the most core principle of constitutional democracy and not something that we should treat lightly at all.”

Granted, a lot of people didn't. Liz Cheney is a good example of somebody who did not treat it lightly. Nevertheless, it has become more normalized and it's reached a point where just about everybody expects that, if Trump loses the 2024 election, there will be similar claims that it's illegitimate, that it doesn't count, that it should be overthrown, or any other version of that. And that alone is something that is bad for the country, bad for democracy, and I don't really know how we fix.

Berny: What is Project 2025?

Nicholas: Project 2025 comes out of the Heritage Foundation think tank, and it is essentially a blueprint for democratic backsliding, for an internal authoritarian takeover after winning election. The biggest provision along those lines that is in it is a plan to purge the federal government of people who were hired because of their qualifications, not because of their political loyalty—people who are fundamentally loyal to the Constitution, not to Donald Trump personally. People have to swear to honor the Constitution. You don't swear to the president. The oath is to the Constitution—to protect and defend the Constitution. The plan is to get all those people out of the federal government. We’re talking literally thousands of federal employees. That amounts to removing the barriers that thwarted Trump's last coup attempt.

Where he ultimately failed was not enough people went along with the lies—Mike Pence being the most prominent one. So, Project 2025 is best understood as a plan to get anybody who followed the Constitution out and replace them with people who think that Donald Trump being in power is the end all, be all and are perfectly fine with breaking the law about that.

That goes back to the Hannah Arendt line about you don't really need to be competent to do this. If anything, having competent people, smart people, there makes them less likely to be blind loyalists. So, they don't even need to necessarily be good at it. The first coup attempt failed, because it was haphazard, something that Trump and Co. came up with on the fly. Their plan was to win the election, and if not, lose it by one state, probably Pennsylvania, and then try to throw the count in Pennsylvania into chaos. But they weren't able to do that because Biden won most of the swing states, with Arizona and Georgia being two, plus Michigan and Wisconsin.

There's a danger of a “boy who cried wolf” effect where, if you're constantly calling anything you don't like this maximal bad word, then when something that is actually like that thing comes around, people are less inclined to believe you. Then again, the lesson of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is not that wolves aren't real and you don't need to worry about them. — Nicholas Grossman

Now, they've spent the last three-and-a-half years stewing about that failure and trying to figure out ways to make it work next time. Project 2025 is already on the way. So whereas Trump came into office last time—and this is pretty typical of wannabe authoritarians in their first term—and didn't really know what he was doing, didn't really know how the system works, took some time to learn it as is fairly typical of populist leaders, he hired a number of establishment figures that the press called “the adults in the room.”—think, for example, Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Those were ones who were not willing to put Trump above the Constitution. Gradually, over the course of his term, accelerating in his last year after he beat the first impeachment, they started removing a number of these people and replacing them with loyalists. So now you've got people at the Heritage Foundation who have been working on vetting people to make sure that they are loyal to Trump and his authoritarian project rather than to the Constitution and American democracy. They are ready to hit the ground running with a lot of these democratic backsliding plans.

Also connected to this are policy ideas like abortion bans and rounding up all the illegal immigrants and deporting them, which is a good one to describe how this would actually go because it's not that they would necessarily succeed at finding 11 million people and removing them from the country. It's that such a project is so massive and, because they are not the most competent people when it comes to policy execution, even trying would be chaotic and would lead to a lot of federal officers, probably state officers, and vigilantes going after people that they think look illegal, meaning just basically Latino, rather than, say, carefully checking everybody's papers and making this more of a rule of law effort. But that project couldn't happen without having enough of the people in place that would carry it out, people who react to it with, “Yes, sir, absolutely,” or in a bloodthirsty nature of being excited to do it.

Berny: I want to bring the word “fascist” back in here for a sec. The threat of political violence can sometimes be just as effective as political violence itself. Figures associated with Project 2025 have called on Trump, if he gets reelected, to invoke the Insurrection Act on day one. Can this sort of preemptive reliance on police or military force in order to quell popular demonstrations of dissent be characterized as fascistic or semi-fascistic, in your view?

Nicholas: I think so. That's one where I would use the label of authoritarian, because you don't necessarily have those ethno-nationalist aspects to it, though I do think the rounding up of a whole bunch of brown people and putting them in camps, yeah, you can safely call that fascist.

Berny: You've written that if Donald Trump wins the 2024 election and becomes president again, American democracy is done. Why are you so definitive about America's prospects if Trump wins again?

Nicholas: Because the record of national leaders who attempt a coup, fail, and then get power again is really bad for democracy. And because I think that people are—not everybody, of course, but quite a few Americans—stuck in a “it can't happen here” complacency, or just a natural tendency to think that the future will look like the past, that there isn't going to be any sort of drastic change. Also, they did see him in office and see that America did not turn into a dictatorship—so, you know, why necessarily would that happen in a second term?

That gets it backwards in that it's the second term when democratic backsliding tends to go really bad. Turkey and India are both good examples of this, because then you had a leader who is not uncertain at all, who has shown their true colors. And we have in Trump's case very serious, just egregious, violations of the law.

To put this in perspective: the trial in New York for fraud, to cover up hush money payments that he paid to porn star Stormy Daniels, is the sort of thing that's being treated as trivial. If it were at any other person at any other time in the past, it would be one of the biggest scandals in all of presidential history. It’s the sort of thing that you'd have to say is at least on par with something like Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and yet it pales in comparison to the charges that he's facing for things like stealing, retaining, and exposing very high-level national-security secrets, and of attempting to overthrow the government, conspiring to defraud the United States out of its presidential election, conspiring to defraud Georgia out of its presidential vote.

If he manages to get power again, there is zero reason to believe that he wouldn't try to do the thing that he literally did last time that he and his team have been spending over three years planning for, to try to fix the problems of that so they could do it again more successfully. I think there's a lot of naïveté about how somebody would stop it. Well, who? Congress? Why? He got impeached but didn't get kicked out of office because Republicans protected him even when he caused a violent attack on their own building. So, in that case, Congress is toothless. He'll be protected legally from anything. And if he manages to beat the criminal justice system, then anytime somebody says, “That's a violation of the law,” you can just say, “I don't care. What are they going to do about it?”

The part that a lot of people are underestimating is just how incredibly powerful institutional authority is. This idea of, it's norms all the way down … the idea that powerful people should follow the law is a norm. It is only a law to the extent that the people in power enforce it. And if the people in power, just enough of the people in power, don't enforce it, then it might as well not be a law. So the inflection point is the 2024 election. If they get power, they are not going to willingly give it up and they're not going to be checked while using it because they have already burst through those barriers, all those checks and balances. They've already beaten them—or, at least, if he gets reelected, would have already beaten them.

Some people get into a bit of a fantasy: “Well, it'll be like the past in that we'll work hard in the midterms and then Congress will check him.” But why? Or, some that I've seen, especially from more radical people on the left, that there'll be all these great protests. You mentioned the Insurrection Act—I don't think Americans have really absorbed what it looks like when the government sends the military to fire on protesters. We already saw Trump do a bit of this in his first term in the infamous photo-op at Lafayette Square in DC in which had security services violently clear an area so that Trump could go through to this church and take a photo. Incidentally, he took it with the Bible upside down, but you know, still.

There were also these weird paramilitary forces that showed up in Portland, Oregon that were throwing people into vans that were federal officers, but unmarked and turned out to be this force cobbled together from border patrol and others. That was basically a separate, semi-legal force. So having seen this already, and then having that validation of reelection despite fighting the law, despite not following the law and violating the law, there is a decent chance that would do it.

This doesn't mean that every single member of the U.S. military is going to go, “Yes, sir. I’m going to violate my oath and shoot people.” But some probably will. Certainly some will out of a sense of, “Look, this is the commander in chief. That's what he's saying.” Some will because they like it and because they agree with him. The two possibilities, then, are either the security forces and the military honor the order and then they violently put down these protests in a way that modern America at least has never seen or that causes some sort of split in the military, which is also devastating and would break the country.

This was a point that Hannah Arendt made in The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951 that really resonates today, which is that incompetence can be an asset to wannabe authoritarians because it ends up getting competent people to quit and then opens up more spots for loyalists and makes it that they don't have this fundamental hesitancy when it comes to, ‘But, I'm violating a norm or I'm violating a law.’ — Nicholas Grossman

Berny: Imagine that we stripped our vocabulary of labels and just used descriptors. Imagine that historians all formed a pact to no longer use labels and just lay out what each historical movement and figures have done. And so we get to a point where, with historical distance, we read descriptions of what Mussolini and other fascist movements in the 20th century believed and carried out, and we get descriptions of what Trump in the 21st century believed and carried out. What do you think would be the biggest difference in those descriptions? And then what would be the element with the most overlap between them?

Nicholas: The most overlap is democratic backsliding: an elected leader abusing power to gain unchecked authority and then use that to violate our various core tenets of democracy up to and including individual rights and future elections.

For the least parallel, maybe actually not as sound as it used to be, but the part where it's most different is in the aggressive military force abroad, the desire for conquest. You have a number of these historical cases where the new leader goes to conquer some foreign people, usually some people that they consider lesser, racially or in some other way, where they consider themselves the rightful masters. We talked about the Europeans a lot, but you can see this with Imperial Japan in the 20th century.

With Trump and the MAGA movement, something that has caught my attention is increasing discussions of invading Mexico, of using military force against Mexico, usually tied up not in a desire for conquest and domination per se … it’s usually more to stop illegal immigration, or to stop drug dealers. But if they had actually thought any of it through, it amounts to a U.S. war with Mexico. The Mexican government already works with the United States in a coordinated fashion on things like dealing with drug traffickers—maybe not as much or as well as some would like, but nevertheless there is a decent amount of coordination. So, if they actually tried to go through with this, Mexico would resist it and that could create really serious problems spiraling from there. But I'd say the main focus of the MAGA movement is a lot more domestic and really want to dominate and repress groups of Americans that they don't like, rather than to be violently dominant and repressive of bordering countries as well. So I would not expect that the U.S. is going to gear up for a military invasion of Canada. That would be lower on my list of worries, whereas something like an authoritarian power within the United States that focus on domestic enemies is decently more likely.

Berny: Nick, thank you so much.

Nicholas: Thanks, Berny.

Landry: Thank you for listening to Zooming In, a project of The UnPopulist. For more like this, make sure to subscribe for free at Until next time.

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