On Monday, August 14, a Georgia grand jury indicted Donald Trump and 18 allies, the most famous of which was his former attorney and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In an interview the next day, Giuliani shared on WABC radio’s Greg Kelly Show that he was anxious to fight the case, claiming defiantly “We’re going to beat these fascists into the ground.”
Among Trump and his allies, the “fascist” label has been growing in popularity as an epithet for Democrats. Following his indictments, Trump has repeatedly referred to “radical left Democrats” as “fascists” And not just any old fascists. On August 1st, for example, Trump posted on Truth Social that the persecution he’d experienced from the “Biden Crime Family” was “reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.”
In our hyper-polarized national discourse, politicians calling their opponents “fascists” and comparing them to “Nazis” may seem sadly commonplace. But traditionally the labels seemed more ideologically consistent. Democrats have long compared Republicans to fascists, because the term traditionally carried with it the idea of right-wing extremism. Just as Republicans often referred to their partisan rivals as “commies” and “socialists,” terms typically associated with extreme leftism. So to hear Republicans like Trump, Giuliani, and Marjorie Taylor Greene turn the “fascist” and “Nazi” labels on Democrats is a bit more curious.
To be fair, leaders like Mussolini and Hitler often held complicated views that changed over their careers. Italian fascists and German Nazis in the 1930s didn’t fit neatly in our boxes for those on the ideological left or right in 2023. Yet most reputable historians and political scientists would nonetheless classify fascists and Nazis as exemplars of the extreme far-right who were often murderously opposed to groups like socialists and communists and other members of the ideological left.
But the average American doesn’t necessarily share that view.
In March 2023, clinical psychologist Joshua Grubbs and I surveyed a representative sample of over 1,530 American adults. We gave them a list of historical figures and groups and asked them to place each on the spectrum from 1 meaning “Extremely Left-Wing” all the way to 10 meaning “Extremely Right-Wing.” Given the historical consensus, one might guess Americans would place fascists and Nazis on the extreme far-right, right? In fact, fascists scored about a 5.9 and Nazis were only a bit further right at 6.2. Both just slightly right-of-center.
How’s that possible? It’s possible because even though the vast majority of Democrats, and most Independents, place fascists and Nazis on the right, most Republicans don’t consider those groups far-right at all. Just the opposite, in fact. In our survey, 76% of Republicans place fascists on the left side of the spectrum, and 44% rate them at 1, as far left as possible. And we see similar numbers for Nazis. Over 68% of Republicans think Nazis are left-of-center and about 43% say Nazis are the pinnacle of leftism.
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And just in case you think Democrats are dispassionately calling balls and strikes when it comes to history’s “bad guys,” when we asked Americans about “Communists,” roughly half of Democrats said communists were right-of-center and 28% of them rated communists as far-right as possible. Like Republicans, in other words, Democrats are often themselves quite keen on associating politically stigmatized groups with their ideological opponents, even if those stigmatized groups are notoriously on the left—like communists. The major difference, of course, is that Democrats almost never refer to Republicans as “commies.” Certainly not as often as we hear about “fascist Democrats.”
These survey results help us make sense of the sort of political rhetoric we see today. When Trump and other Republican politicians throw around terms like “fascist” and “Nazi” when referencing their partisan rivals, their audiences aren’t reading from context that the politician merely means “authoritarian,” “totalitarian,” or “tyrannical.” Republican audiences by and large have come to associate fascists and Nazis with ideological leftism. How did that happen?
Part of the answer is pure tribal psychology. It is practically first principles in the study of group identity that when we identify with a sports team, religious group, or political party, our self-esteem is bound up with that group. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt has famously shown, our group allegiances take on a deeply moral element. We naturally tend to associate our group and its values with moral goodness and our competition with moral depravity.
For Republicans (and Democrats), admitting that fascists and Nazis are on their side of the ideological spectrum—that they have any overlapping worldviews, values, or tactics with “us”—is a tribal psychology no-no. Fascists and Nazis, the exemplars of political evil, must share space with our partisan opponents. It works like a syllogism. Leftists are the bad guys. Fascists and Nazis are also bad guys. So fascists and Nazis are leftists.
There are other factors at work. Selective readings of history, emphasizing, for example, that Nazis were the “National Socialist” party, or that Mussolini was first a radical socialist before he became Italy’s “Duce,” can lend themselves to associating both with leftism. Others have noted their ambiguous (even hostile) relationship with Christianity place fascism and Nazism more in the leftist camp. Both points underscore the fact that these groups are more complicated than the simple left-right ideological spectrum would capture.
But the data suggest Republican leaders like Trump, Giuliani, or Taylor Greene are not confusing their audiences when they label liberal Democratic opponents as “fascists” or associate their tactics with “Nazis.” They are contributing to a narrative that already exists in the minds of the vast majority of American Republicans: not only are Democrats tyrants, the argument goes, they are tyrants because they are the ideological descendants of history’s most malevolent tyrants—fascists and Nazis—who as everyone knows were radical leftists.
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