Trump, Fascism, and French History
On 6 January 2021, a mob of demonstrators broke into and ransacked the US Capitol. Five people, including one police officer, died during the violence. The demonstrators had gathered to protest against the result of the 2020 election, encouraged by President Donald Trump’s baseless accusations that his opponent Joe Biden had “stolen” victory in the November vote. The invasion of the seat of American representative democracy was broadcast around the world, leaving many viewers questioning the future of the Republic.
For historians of France, especially those of the interwar period, the insurrection in Washington was reminiscent of the events of 6 February 1934. On that night, thousands of protesters gathered on the Place de la Concorde to voice their anger about parliamentary corruption. These men and women belonged to a number of extreme right-wing leagues and veterans’ associations. The mob attempted to force its way into the Chamber of Deputies and police opened fire on the crowd several times. Over a dozen men, one woman, and a police officer subsequently lost their lives.
The French Third Republic survived the six février (as the night came to be known), but the riot is considered an important step along the French road to the wartime Vichy regime for it resulted in the polarisation of politics and the flourishing of the extreme right. Eminent historian of France Robert O. Paxton compared the violence of January 2021 to that of February 1934, warning that Trump now deserved to be called a fascist for endorsing violence against democratic institutions.
Watching the turmoil in Washington on 6 January 2021, I was not minded to make a comparison with the bloodshed in Paris on 6 February 1934. It is true that on the broadest level, there are similarities between the two events. Both saw a violent demonstration of extreme right-wingers angry at real or perceived corruption in government attack the building that houses the parliament of their respective countries. There are also huge differences. The 1934 demonstrators in Paris, for example, were not encouraged by the incumbent President to attack parliament (though a number of them were leaders of the Parisian municipal council). Meanwhile, in 1934, police successfully prevented the bulk of the mob from entering the Chamber of Deputies.
Paxton made several errors in his depiction of the six février. Firstly, save for the Solidarité Française, the groups that attempted to storm the Chamber of Deputies were not “openly fascist,” as Paxton contends. Certainly, leagues such as the Croix de Feu, the Jeunesses Patriotes, and the Action Française admired foreign fascism, but they denied that they were its French manifestation.
Secondly, the men and women present on the Place de la Concorde were not necessarily veterans summoned by right-wing organisations. Some leaguers were veterans yet many of them belonged to the generation too young to have fought in the war. In any case, the veterans of the Union Nationale des Combattants and the Association Républicaine des Anciens Combattants who joined the leagues on the six février were not responding to the call of the extreme right and did not consider themselves fascists (the latter was the communist veterans’ association).
Thirdly, the leagues did not necessarily want a fascist dictatorship. While all of them agreed that the democratic Republic had failed France and that a new, right-wing authoritarian regime should be installed in its place, it is doubtful that they planned to put in place a fascist regime along the lines of that in Italy.
Finally, Paxton claims that the French police prevented the demonstrators from entering the Chamber of Deputies. This is not true: a deputation of municipal councillors did gain entry to the building and demanded to see the Prime Minister.
One might argue that such errors are irrelevant; they do not undermine the broad similarities between 6 February 1934 and 6 January 2021. But in the “post-truth” age, nuance and detail matter more than ever and historians cannot put these to one side.
Paxton did not comment on the moment when democracy was most in danger during the February crisis. This moment came after the riot. Indeed, fascist regimes have rarely come to power through mass street violence. The riot at the Place de la Concorde in 1934 and the US Capitol on 2021 was certainly shocking but when so-called fascism is in play, the survival of democracy depends on the actions of the political establishment. Hitler and Mussolini were invited into power. The rioters of February 1934 failed because they lacked parliamentary supporters and ministers working for them from within the system itself. In fact, the Daladier government won three votes of confidence while police killed citizens in the streets outside. The Prime Minister resigned only when senior figures in his administration pressured him to do so in the days following the riot; they were concerned as much with their own careers as the threat from the street. Mass violence may have set the context for the reversal of the 1932 electoral mandate but it was the machinations in the corridors of power that mattered most. In 2021, the threat from extreme right-wing militias appears frightening but it is the actions of their conservative fellow travellers that will demand scrutiny.
Trump the fascist?
Paxton’s decision to label Trump a fascist—a label that he had hitherto hesitated to give to the President—deserves discussion. Trump’s fascism is a vexed question and one that historians of interwar France and Europe have tackled. Shortly after Trump’s victory in 2016, Kevin Passmore warned against imposing the concept on the present in light of the historical disagreement over its meaning. Immediately prior to the 2017 inauguration, Samuel Kalman, Cheryl Koos, and Geoff Read came close to labelling Trump fascist thanks to disturbing similarities between “Trumpism” and fascism. More recently, Richard Evans argued that Trump was not fascist because of the dissimilarities between his politics and those of Hitler and Mussolini, not to mention the historically situated origins of fascism in post-First World War Europe.
In the wake of the violence at the US Capitol, Paxton wrote that, “[Trump’s] open encouragement of civic violence to overturn an election crosses a red line. The label [fascism] now seems not just acceptable but necessary.” Paxton still admitted that features of Trump’s politics and actions were different to those of fascism; these differences were, however, less significant than the similarities. Paxton’s approach is popular amongst historians of fascism, that is, to categorise movements or personalities based on a list of fascism’s “essential” characteristics. Richard Evans’s assessment of Trump’s fascism likewise compared the former President’s fascist credentials to those of the German Nazis and the Italian Fascists (Evans did not refer to other national experiences of fascism). Despite the similarity of approach—measuring Trump against a fascist checklist—Evans found Trump’s “fascism” wanting.
The problems with compiling a list of fascism’s essential characteristics are familiar to historians of interwar France. For decades, historians have attempted to categorise the movements of the French right using different definitions of fascism. The results have been inconclusive (not to mention bitterly divisive). As Paxton and Evans’s recent interventions suggest, Trump’s fascism seems equally elusive.
One question perplexes historians outside fascist studies: does it matter if Donald Trump is a fascist? The seeming obsession with defining the former President’s ideology as fascist or otherwise strikes these historians as an extreme form of navel gazing. Why, after all, should historians debate the finer points of definition from the comfort of their armchairs when the enemy is marching through the gates of the US Capitol? For others, the question of Trump’s fascism just seems plain boring.
I contend that Trump’s fascism is a question worthy of study. If we are to accuse historians of the extreme right of wasting time on words instead of fighting “real world” problems, then we might level the same accusation at historians of poverty, immigration, climate change, terrorism, and war. Even from the comfort of our home offices, historical enquiry and its attempted application to the present is rarely pointless. We can debate Trump’s ideology and oppose it. We may also conclude that he is not a fascist but still a danger to democracy (the opposite of a fascist is, after all, not necessarily a democrat).
Instead of dismissing avenues of historical investigation because they do not interest us, we might better ask why it is important to pose the question of Trump’s fascism. This does not involve defining Trumpism or its historical antecedents but rather focusing on contemporary constructions of fascism. What is at stake in the debate (and who has a stake in the debate)? Does the label fascism still have the power to influence opinion? What use do contemporary fascists make of “their” history? What does fascism mean, if anything, to citizens living over a century after its emergence?
Le six février 1934 = the sixth of January 2021?
If 6 January 2021 really was the American six février then a dark future awaits. The extreme right grew exponentially as Colonel François de La Rocque’s Croix de Feu attracted hundreds of thousands of men and women to his project for an authoritarian renovation of France. It is true that the left-wing Popular Front alliance won the 1936 general election yet this did little to halt the expansion of La Rocque’s movement, rebranded the Parti Social Français. The ultimate expression of France’s drift to the extreme right was the Vichy regime of the 1940s, though this of course followed the catastrophic defeat to Nazi Germany.
However, historical precedent does not offer a blueprint for the future; it merely offers clues to, and warnings about, possible outcomes. La Rocque, for example, was careful to distance himself from the worst violence on 6 February 1934. His emphasis on the disciplined actions of his followers won many conservatives over. Trump’s warm words for the “special” people who smashed down the doors of American democracy may prove to be a mistake. In conclusion, the six février crisis provided a further—but not the final—nail in the coffin of democratic legitimacy in France; it remains to be seen if the same will be true of the violence at the Capitol.
Photo credit: Tyler Merbler via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0.