How does one describe the philosophy of former President Donald Trump’s ultranationalist movement, whose most extreme adherents seek to subvert democracy, oppose the rule of law, and embrace political violence? President Joe Biden, who previously tried out “ultra-MAGA” as his umbrella term for the extreme elements of the GOP, used the term “semi-fascism” at a private reception on Friday.
That remark sent Republicans to their fainting couches over the weekend – even as some of the party’s leaders went out of their way to prove Biden right. On Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), amid heightened threats to federal law enforcement and government officials following the FBI’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence, warned of “riots in the streets” if the former president were prosecuted over the reams of classified documents that were seized. And the following morning, Trump himself called for the reversal of the 2020 election and his own extralegal reinstallation as president. These are not idle threats – recall that Trump “summoned a violent mob” to Washington, D.C., which stormed the U.S. Capitol amid his extensive efforts to overturn his electoral defeat.
GOP politicians and their right-wing media propagandists could reject the extremists in their midst and try to establish guardrails to curb their rising influence. But the nascent freak-out over “semi-fascism” demonstrates that they prefer to treat Democratic denunciations of far-right extremism as attacks on themselves, their supporters, and their audience. That may serve to rile up Republican voters for forthcoming elections and to keep them fixed to right-wing media content. But it also ensures the ongoing takeover of the party by its most radical faction.
As Tucker Carlson put it, Democrats think that “anyone who disagrees with Joe Biden is by definition a fascist,” and Biden had proven it by purportedly declaring on Friday “that Republicans are ‘semi-fascists.’"
“So, that is effectively a declaration of war against half the country,” Carlson explained. “What do we do to fascists? Well, we fought a war to kill them."
But Biden did not actually describe every Republican as a fascist; he specifically described the “extreme MAGA philosophy” as “semi-fascism.” He has consistently been very clear – even generous – in differentiating between more extreme and more moderate elements of the GOP. He did so again hours after the “semi-fascism” remark. Speaking at a campaign rally in Maryland, Biden drew a line between “MAGA Republicans” who “refuse to accept the will of the people” and “embrace political violence,” and the “mainstream Republicans” whom he urged to oppose them.
Fox doesn’t want to establish such distinctions between right-wing extremists and mainstream Republicans – it wants to collapse them. It is difficult to create coherent guardrails when the face of your network is toasted by white nationalists for mainstreaming their massacre-spurring conspiracy theories, and so the network generally doesn’t try. In fact, one of the panelists Fox brought on to condemn Biden’s “semi-fascism” remark was TownHall.com senior columnist Kurt Schlicter, who routinely glorifies political violence and has urged Republicans to “use the law to ensure blue submission” and “imprison dissenters.” That sounds pretty fascistic!
The right has followed this playbook for more than a decade, insisting that all Democratic efforts to call out the most extreme elements of the right are attacks on every member of the party.
All the way back in 2009, right-wing pundits falsely depicted a Department of Homeland Security memo detailing the threat of right-wing extremism as an assault on “everyday conservatives” and anyone who “disagree[s] with that liberal path that President Obama's taken the country down.”
In 2016, they generated a pseudoscandal around Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s description of some Trump supporters as belonging to “a basket of deplorables” who are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic,” which she contrasted to the “other basket of people ... who feel that the government has let them down.”
And days before the 2020 election, when Biden described a handful of Trump supporters who were interrupting one of his speeches as “ugly folks,” they pretended he was talking about all Trump supporters.
This disingenuous strategy is of a piece with one of Carlson’s most dishonest conspiracy theories. In the alternate reality that the Fox host creates for his audience, white nationalists and QAnon conspiracy theorists do not exist and the January 6 insurrection was a false flag. Since right-wing extremists aren’t real, Democratic efforts to curb their influence must be pretextual, and their real target must be his viewers.
The leading lights of the right are unwilling to reject the extremists in their midst. The result is a party that puts QAnon adherents in Congress; nominates a pro-Confederate candidate for Pennsylvania governor, several underqualified and unhinged Senate candidates, and a host of would-be election subverters to run state elections; and remains firmly under the thumb of a racist former game show host who tried to overturn the last election.