Fascism is much in the news. In Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, Turkey and elsewhere, we read reports of the rise of right-wing nationalist-populism, while, in the Middle East, “Islamo-fascism” is blamed for vicious and unending wars. In the United States, Donald Trump is now routinely dismissed as a #fascist. Is the US falling into the same deadly pattern so evident elsewhere?
Fascism is one of the vaguest words in the political vocabulary. It is widely used as a pejorative intended to disparage an opponent. As an analytical concept, the term draws on parallels in the prototypical cases of Mussolini’s Italy, Nazi Germany and Japan in the 1930s and World War II. Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal are also often considered fascist, or exhibiting fascist characteristics. But these five cases are actually quite diverse. And Mussolini’s regime in 1922 was a lot different from its war-time emanation. Owing to the variation, scholars are not of one mind on fascism’s essential features.
Nevertheless, most would agree that fascism, as a movement and an ideology, is a form of far-right populism. Populism refers to a larger-than-life leader who inveighs against “them,” a supercilious/venal/predatory elite or racial/ethnic/religious minority, who exploit, defile, and/or subvert the culture of “we”, the people. Whereas right-wing populists focus anger on vaguely delineated classes, such as financiers, fascists are more likely to identify particular racial, ethnic or religious groups as the source of evil. Scapegoating allows demagogues to explain complex processes, such as globalization and its effects, as the outcome of the machinations of malevolent “others.”
Not surprisingly, such movements gain impetus during economic and social crises. Widespread economic insecurity, vast inequalities, market volatility and the influx of migrants from alien cultures provide fertile soil for fascism. The first three conditions applied during the Great Depression of the 1930s. All four conditions have been present in many Western countries, especially the United States, since the world economic crisis of 2008.
One further characteristic of fascism requires explicit mention: its authoritarian mentality. Typically, fascists denounce the weaknesses of democracy, contending that strong, even autocratic, leadership is needed to deal with the problems and set the world right. During the 1930s, it was the countries with the strongest democratic traditions that resisted the fascist impulse.
So, by this definition, is Trump a fascist? Probably not overall, though his style and his popularity provide disturbing evidence that not even the United States is immune from the fascist virus. Trump does not really head a movement, except in the loosest sense; instead, he leads a major faction within a #RepublicanParty that is increasingly #right-wing but not fascist. He is not (yet) an authoritarian, though he has denounced democratic processes as “rigged,” democratic politicians as venal or dishonest, and the press corps as biased and untrustworthy. He is a head-strong #demagogue who mobilizes political support with xenophobic appeals that paint Mexicans, Hispanics in general, immigrants and Muslims as threats to the well-being of (implicitly) white Americans. He thus exhibits fascist tendencies without yet being a fascist.
The main danger in the US today, as in Europe of the past, is that conservatives will support a leader with these proclivities in the belief that they can control him when he assumes power. Fascist leaders in Germany and Italy, however, quickly gained the upper hand.
In sum, the rise of Trump signals to Americans that they are not so exceptional, that even the democracy they publicly celebrate is vulnerable to a fascist backlash. The solution is easy to record but difficult to achieve: remove the economic insecurity, inequality and market volatility that breeds fascism in this era of late neoliberalism.