I think it’s important that we get one thing absolutely clear: Trump is not a fascist. Steve Bannon is not a fascist. Neither of their ideologies resemble fascism more than superficially. Richard Spencer may very well be an actually fascist, which makes it all the more important that we reserve the word for cases where it actually applies, and anyway we should stop giving him free publicity.
Fascist ideology calls for the end of liberal democracy, permanent militarization, and the mobilization of society under a totalitarian one-party state. Fascism has taken many different forms in different countries and time periods, but it is always accompanied by a recognizable set of political and aesthetic ideals, especially the aestheticization and glorification of violence and military power. Trump is anti-war! It’s a fairly major part of his platform! (Again, the hard alt-right may actually be fascist, but they’re a relatively tiny sliver of Trump’s base). “Fascist” is not a generic substitute for “racist” or “scary” or even “authoritarian.” Nobody says that Stalin or Pol Pot were fascists, even though both were totalitarian leaders who committed genocide against their own people.
None of this is meant as a defense of Trump, who I think is terrible in almost every possible way. Saying that someone is not a fascist does not mean that they are not dangerous (again, see Pol Pot), it just means that they are not dangerous because of their adherence to one specific ideology, among the many utterly awful ideologies that exist. I’m somewhat dubious that Trump has anything that could be termed an ideology, but that’s by the by.
I do think there’s a lot we can and should learn from responses to fascist movements in Europe in the ‘20s and ‘30s - not because we’re dealing with exactly the same thing, but because there are excellent lessons about how to respond to rising authoritarianism and right-wing populism. And one of the most critical of those lessons is that we must, always, protect the precision and accuracy of our language. Authoritarians of all stripes want to obfuscate. They benefit when language becomes fuzzy and emotionally charged and disconnected from reality, because it makes their claims seem as reasonable as anyone else’s. A Trump supporter will laugh - correctly! - when they hear him called a fascist, and then think the true accusation that he’s an incompetent narcissist with dangerously bigoted advisors is just as absurd.
There are real fascist movements in the world today, but they’re not a major player in American politics. Accusing everyone we don’t like of fascism - and we’ve been doing it since the 1940s - is a failure of the political imaginary. The next major threat to democracy won’t look like Germany in the 1930s, it will look like something else. It is, currently, looking like something else. And it’s absolutely critical that we preserve the ability to understand and fight it on its own terms.
“I think she was ahead of her time. She was a wonder-woman. She had a career and five children. She was sexy, played the violin and had an amazingly high IQ. She had a zest for life, lived every minute to the fullest. She did it all.” - Mariska Hargitay