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Let’s Talk About Fascism Before It Becomes The Word Of The Year


As we move into the final weeks of 2016, Merriam-Webster is preparing to announce its Word of the Year, an honor bestowed on the word that attracted the most new look-ups in its online dictionary. The current front-runner? Fascism.

Got something on your mind, America?

Demystifying the F-Word

The good people of Merriam-Webster have reminded us that “there’s still time to look up something else.” I guess they’d prefer to highlight a nicer word. I remember people being pleased as punch when “science” won in 2013. This one isn’t so feel-good.

Nevertheless, I for one am ready to celebrate the Year of Fascism. It’s heartening that Americans are trying to improve their understanding of what fascism really is. Both Left and Right would benefit from more specificity and historical detail in their consideration of right-leaning autocracy.

On the Left, the word “fascist” is frequently used to mean “authoritarian-seeming person I don’t like,” or sometimes “militant racist.” It’s just a term of abuse, and the Left has plenty of those already. Maybe if people read the definition, they’ll realize the absurdity of using the term in connection with perfectly lovely people like Pope Benedict XVI.

On the other hand, I think conservatives could also benefit from more in-depth thinking about fascism. A common response to the F-word on our side is to freak out, call people paranoid, and start talking about Tucholsky Syndrome and Godwin’s Law. This is understandable considering how liberals abuse the word. When people are constantly comparing their enemies to Hitler, we reach a point where the comparison sounds ridiculous no matter the context.

Consider this, though. We regularly berate liberals for forgetting the dire lessons of history. We lament how our young people, with their limited memories, aren’t sufficiently attentive to the evils of socialism. Are they only people who ever need to learn anything from history?

The American Right just elected a man who actively eschews the label “conservative,” affects a strongman persona, and promotes a nostalgic nationalism with seemingly little regard for constitutional constraints. We shouldn’t panic. He hasn’t even taken office yet. But it still seems reasonable to ask: are there historical examples of right-leaning, anti-democratic political movements that might give us a better appreciation of which pitfalls to avoid in the coming years?

Actually there are. In modern, developed nations, we typically refer to right-leaning autocracies as fascist.

Trump Is Not Hitler

Donald Trump is not the next Adolf Hitler. In some respects he is definitely unlike your standard fascist leader. For instance, most fascists show their political and military ambitions relatively early. Trump managed to skip out on military service, then meandered around in business and showbiz for most of his adult life. He pulled the trigger on his vaguely expressed presidential ambitions just in time to capture the record for “most geriatric first-time president.” That’s hardly the sort of ruthless political drive you would expect to see in a fascist.

Partly because he hasn’t spent his life building a political or military career, Trump’s personal network is not the kind you would need to stage a violent political takeover. It’s more what you would want for hosting a pledge drive for NPR. If Trump has Nazi stormtroopers waiting in the wings, they’re very well hidden.

There is also the fact that the most ruthless totalitarians tend to be brainy ideological types, while Trump comes across as more of a Falstaffian blowhard, who might well benefit from a subscription to The Great Courses. He isn’t stupid by any means, but I’m pretty sure there’s no Trumpian “Mein Kampf” hiding in Trump Towers, waiting for posthumous publication.

Learning from history, though, is not a matter of searching the annals of time for exact parallels to our particular situation. (There will never be any.) It’s about setting different historical episodes side by side and asking ourselves: How are these situations similar, and how different? Both similarities and differences can be instructive. Over the past year I’ve seen Trump compared to Andrew Jackson, Silvio Berlusconi, and King Richard III. None of those parallels are exact, of course, but all were somewhat interesting to ponder.

In that spirit, I find it rather off-putting how enthusiasts for the “global war against globalism” turn immediately to mockery and cheap psychologizing whenever someone draws parallels to historical fascist movements. Surely this is an obvious place to look for lessons about the potential excesses and perils of nationalistic movements that admire authoritarian leadership, champion working-class interests, and ostensibly support business while looking askance at free trade. Screaming “Godwin’s Law!” and plugging our ears seems like a head-in-sand response.

So Let’s Take Fascism Seriously, Please

Trump is not Hitler, but the driving narrative behind Trumpism does have many elements that are reminiscent of fascism. Fascists thrive among people who feel they are living in the long shadows of a once-great society. Where communists reach out to the long-marginalized (or people who perceive themselves that way), fascists build power by stoking the resentments of people who regard themselves as the slighted or neglected core of a waning society. They typically promise to recover remembered national greatness through ramping up industry, but also by expelling or marginalizing elite or foreign elements, which are presented as leeches sucking away the national spirit.

Fascist regimes often go through periods of intense isolationism. Franco’s Spain was impoverished for 20 years by his radical experiment with autarky, and all fascist leaders or movements have called for substantial trade barriers. This is consistent with fascism’s drive to build social solidarity through a recovery of national pride and self-sufficiency. In many ways, fascism is an extreme reaction to the destabilizing and alienating forces of modernity. A hatred of cosmopolitanism is a regular feature of fascist thinkers.

As “twin” forms of aggressive statism, communism and fascism have much in common, but the mood of each tends to be different. One is militantly progressive, the other militantly nostalgic. One exults in the moral authority of victimhood, while the other basks in the intrinsic strength and goodness of the middle-class everyman. They’re similar enough that most statist movements contain at least some elements of each. History shows us, though, that experienced demagogues are often skilled at playing these camps against each other. So it’s worth appreciating the contours of their different narrative arcs.

It may not be accurate to characterize Trumpism as fascist (or proto-fascist), but it checks enough boxes to make the comparisons interesting. It’s authoritarian, pro-business (but skeptical of trade), high on the righteous wrath of the slighted middle-class everyman, nostalgic for remembered glory days, hyper-sensitive to the threats posed by bubbled cosmopolitans and foreigners, geopolitically anti-interventionist, and gung-ho for massive public works projects. Also, it derives a great deal of its energy from the vilification of left-wing ideology, which is typical of fascism.

Some of our new nationalists even eschew the label “conservative,” which is interesting insofar as conservatives have a history of helping fascists to power in a vain belief that they can be controlled. As mentioned above, there are reasons to be more optimistic in this instance. Trump doesn’t seem to have the kind of connections that would naturally facilitate a rapid consolidation of power. But the parallels may still merit reflection.

Of course it would be wrong to dismiss all of these features of Trumpism as merely the products of crass demagoguery. Every successful political movement reflects and responds to some reality or felt need, and Trumpism is the same. Perhaps immigration policy does need reform. Maybe it is a good idea to build some bridges. Once again, though, it’s wrong to view historical comparisons like a game of “gotcha,” in which historical comparisons either “work” or don’t. In some ways our circumstances resemble historical ones, and in other ways they are distinct. It’s in the joint consideration of both similarities and differences that we may find useful lessons.

Learning From History

One reason conservatives react so negatively to fascism-analogies is because the remembered “legacy” of fascist regimes is so heinous. The ten-second summary of fascism tends to be: brutal dictators who committed hideous atrocities. Accordingly, I understand why people tend to bristle at any comparison of fascist regimes to modern political movements. When I suggest that conservatives ought to pay more attention to the history of fascism, right-leaning friends tend to respond by warning me against fear-mongering and dialing every conversation up to 11.

We might still glean valuable lessons from looking at more-extreme versions of mistakes to which we ourselves are at least somewhat vulnerable.

I understand the reticence, and this seems like excellent advice for liberals who are inclined to shout “fascist!” at every turn. But of course no political trend begins with its most radical or extreme incarnation. Even if we aren’t very worried about (say) genocide, we might still glean valuable lessons from looking at more-extreme versions of mistakes to which we ourselves are at least somewhat vulnerable.

The resurgence of nationalist movements across the developed world is a clearly (at least in part) a response to some of the more destabilizing (or even dehumanizing) features of massive global markets and increased global connectedness. These are real problems, and often our elites have been far too ready to dismiss the afflicted as bitter clingers who just need to get with the times.  At the same time, modern history amply illustrates that anti-modern and anti-globalist national-resurgence movements bring perils of their own.

If we don’t trust liberals to assess those dangers, we need to do it ourselves. It’s entirely unreasonable to suppose that only liberals need to be wary of repeating historical errors.

What’s a fascist? If you’re not too sure, go do some reading. It’s nearly the word of the year, you know.