The debate over whether it makes sense to call Donald Trump a fascist began during the Republican primary and continues after his election to the presidency. More than a year ago, the conservative writer Robert Kagan offered one of the strongest votes in favor of the proposition: “This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster … and with an entire national political party … falling into line behind him.”
One of the strongest “no” votes came from Vox’s Dylan Matthews, who arrived at that conclusion after interviewing several scholars of fascism. Trump, Matthews wrote, “is not a fascist. … Rather, he's a right-wing populist.”
At the New Republic, just before the election, Jeet Heer suggested that such a definitive answer was inappropriate: “Fascism,” he wrote, “has never been a fixed creed; it’s a syndrome, a series of intertwined tendencies.”
This debate over labels may seem merely semantic. But definitions matter. The point of labels is to identify, clarify, understand, and, if relevant, figure out ways of coping with the phenomenon at hand. Labeling Trump or other new-right parties and politicians “fascist” implies something not just about what these people and movements stand for but how the opposition should deal with them.
As a student of fascism and National Socialism, particularly in the 1930s, I side with those who say that Trump still falls on the “populist” side of the spectrum. That hardly means that he or the people who claim to be part of his movement do not pose a threat to democracy, but the type of threat differs from that posed by “classical” fascists.
Still, given how prevalent the term fascism has become in American and European political debates — and there is a parallel discussion across the Atlantic over whether France’s Front National, led by Marie Le Pen, or Germany’s Pegida party, or Austria’s Freedom Party ought to be described as fascist or populist — it is worth carefully considering what made fascism distinct and so politically powerful. Doing so will allow us to gain a better handle on whether we face similar dangers today to those of the ’30s.
Four key characteristics of fascism (not in evidence in Trumpism)
Academics have fought passionately over how to define fascism, but scholars generally focus on four crucial characteristics. First fascists were nationalists: They believed the nation, rather than individuals (like liberals) or classes (like Marxists), was the key actor in political life; that it existed above or separate from the citizens composing it; and that it had a special mission or “soul” that needed to be nurtured and protected from internal and external enemies.
Membership in the nation was determined on a religious, ethnic, or racial basis. Alfredo Rocco, for example, one of fascism’s chief “intellectuals,” once wrote: “For Liberalism, society has no purposes other than those of the members living at a given moment. For Fascism, [the nation] has … ends … quite distinct from those of the individuals which at a given moment compose it. … For Liberalism, the individual is the end and the [nation] the means. … For Fascism, [the nation] is the end, individuals the means, and its whole life consists in using individuals as instruments for its social ends.”
Second, fascists shared a deep suspicion of capitalism, because it disrupted and divided national communities and destroyed national traditions. They therefore advocated a level of state intervention in the economy surpassed only by the contemporary Soviet Union. At the first Labor Day celebration held under Nazi rule in May 1933, Joseph Goebbels proclaimed:
the German people [were now] assembled in unanimous, unswerving loyalty to the state, the race (Volk), and the German nation to which we all belong. Every difference is wiped away. The barriers of class hatred and the arrogance of social status that for over 50 years divided the nation from itself have been torn down. Germans of all classes, tribes (Stämme), professions, and denominations have joined hands across the barriers that separated them and have vowed henceforth to live as a community, to work and fight for the fatherland that unites us all. … The class struggle is at an end. The idea of the national community rises above the ruins of the bankrupt liberal-capitalist state. … Thus the German people marches into the future.
Third, fascists were deeply anti-liberal and anti-democratic. Liberalism was rejected for its promotion of individualism and individual rights, its emphasis on reason and rationality, its acceptance of pluralism, and its cosmopolitanism. As Mussolini once argued, “The man of fascism is [not merely] an individual, he is nation and fatherland.” The good life, he suggested, is one “in which the individual, through the denial of himself, through the sacrifice of his own private interests, through death itself, realized that completely spiritual existence in which his value as a man lies.” (Self-denial and the sacrifice of self-interests are not qualities that Trump is especially known for.)
Democracy was anathema because it did not recognize a “higher” or “national” good that transcended the interest of particular individuals, social groups, or electoral majorities. Fascists were also convinced that “the people” were best off, and politics most efficacious, when led by a strong ruler or a committed minority. As Hitler infamously put it, there must be “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” (“One people, one empire, one leader”).
Fourth, fascists embraced violence as a means and an end. Fascism was revolutionary: It aimed not to reform but to destroy the modern world — and for this, a constant and probably violent struggle would be necessary. Violence was not merely the method through which revolution would be accomplished; it was valuable in and of itself, providing supporters with powerful “bonding” experiences and “cleansing” the nation of its weaknesses and decadence. Mussolini, for example, argued that “[w]ar alone brings up to their highest tension all human energies and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have the courage to meet it. All other trials are substitutes, which never really put a man in front of himself in the alternative of life and death.”
Historically, fascism arose in a political environment of unremitting tumult and hopelessness
These characteristics made fascism distinctive; they did not alone make it powerful. Although we associate fascism with the collapse of democracy in interwar Italy, Germany, and elsewhere, its origins lie decades earlier, in the period of rapid and disorienting change that hit Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During these decades, capitalism dramatically reshaped Western societies, destroying traditional communities, professions, and cultural norms. This was also, of course, a period of immense immigration, as peasants flocked from rural areas decimated by the inflow of cheap agricultural products from the “new” world to cities and the citizens of poorer countries flocked to richer ones in search of better lives and opportunities.
Then as now, these changes frightened people and led to the rise of new political movements that aimed to capture and channel these fears. Right-wing nationalist movements — the predecessors of fascism — were among these, promising to protect citizens from the pernicious influence of foreigners and markets. Although these types of movements appeared across the West, they did not fundamentally threaten existing political orders before 1914. The characteristics of these movements alone, in other words, were not enough to make them powerful; it took certain conditions to give them the mass support they needed to overthrow existing political regimes. The First World War and its aftermath along with the failures and miscalculations of existing democratic institutions and elites provided these conditions.
As the war ended, dictatorships collapsed and were replaced by democracies, but most of them arose in countries with no previous experience with that form of government — and therefore none of the institutions, habits, and norms necessary for making democracy work. These new democratic governments then faced immense problems. The war had killed, maimed, and traumatized millions of Europeans and left the continent physically and economically devastated. Governments had to reintegrate millions of soldiers back into society and rebuild their economies. Austria and Germany had to deal with the humiliation of defeat and a punitive peace, and were quickly hit by hyperinflation.
In addition, across the continent lawlessness and violence became endemic after 1918. In Italy, for example, left- and right-wing militias fought battles in the urban and rural areas, workers occupied factories, and peasants seized land. Germany’s Weimar Republic was hit by assassinations and violent left- and right-wing uprisings. Despite all this, fascists remained marginal — initially. In Italy’s first postwar election, fascists received almost no votes. In Germany, Hitler’s 1923 Beer Hall Putsch flopped. Mussolini and Hitler might well have remained the marginal cranks many of their contemporaries took them for had not democracies and other political actors continued to stumble.
But stumble they did. As time passed, problems mounted, democratic governments failed to deal with them, and other political parties — on both the right and left — failed to offer convincing responses to citizens’ fears and concerns.
Mainstream political parties fled the field
The Great Depression, of course, was particularly important — but it wasn’t merely the economic downturn that boosted fascism, but rather the way democratic governments and non-fascist political parties responded to it. Too many democratic governments responded passively or ineffectively to the Depression, leaving Europeans to suffer its horrible effects on their own. (Tellingly, in places where governments responded actively, like the United States and Sweden, democracy survived the interwar years.)
Other political parties also failed to offer convincing alternatives to the status quo. By the early 1930s, liberal parties had been discredited, as citizens found their faith in markets, their unwillingness to respond forcefully to capitalism’s downsides, and their indifference or hostility to nationalism and cultural concerns completely out of sync with interwar realities.
With the exception of Scandinavian social democrats, meanwhile, most socialist parties were also flummoxed by the Depression, telling citizens that their lives would only improve once capitalism had collapsed and that they could, therefore, do little to help them in the interim. (Socialists were also, of course, like most of their successors today, indifferent or hostile to concerns about national identity and the evisceration of traditional norms and communities, which was also an unwise political stance during a period of immense social upheaval.)
One group that did offer a strong criticism of the status quo as well as a powerful alternative to it was the communists, and during the Great Depression their vote share soared in many European countries. Communism’s appeal was, however, limited by an almost exclusive focus on the working class and hostility to nationalism. And so in all too many European countries, it was fascists who offered the most powerful critique of the status quo as well as the most powerful alternative to it.
Fascists criticized democracy as inefficient, unresponsive, and weak, and promised to replace it with a regime that would respond actively to the Depression, use the state to protect citizens from capitalism’s most destructive effects, and end the divisions and conflicts that had weakened their nations — often, of course, by ridding them of those viewed as outside of or a threat to it. Fascists also promised to restore a sense of pride and purpose to societies that for too long had felt battered by forces outside their control. Such appeals enabled fascist parties in Germany and elsewhere to attract an extremely broad, cross-class constituency.
But even with the failures of democratic governments and other political parties, fascists could not come to power alone. And so another condition necessary for fascism’s rise was the connivance of traditional conservatives. In both Italy and Germany, for example, conservatives, obsessed with thwarting the left, fooled themselves into believing they could use fascists for their own purposes, maneuvering them into political power. Once in power, however, Hitler and Mussolini repaid this debt by eliminating their erstwhile conservative allies as well as much of the rest of the old order, viewing them, correctly, as a hindrance to their revolutionary projects.
Today’s right-wing populists have made peace with capitalism, and don’t overtly embrace war
As this brief discussion should make clear, there are some similarities between fascists and today’s populists, including Donald Trump, but also some crucial differences.
First, while contemporary populists often extol things like “national sovereignty” (see Brexit) and the importance of national values and communities, they rarely present the nation as an “organic entity” existing above or beyond the people. And “the people” tend to be defined on the basis of shared customs, traditions, and behaviors, rather than on purely racial or ethnic grounds. Populists are thus more often xenophobic than racist.
Second, while populists are often critical of free market, globalized capitalism, their disapproval is more muted and selective than that of true fascists, and they advocate nowhere near the type of state intervention in the economy that Mussolini or Hitler, for example, did. Trump’s intervention to save a few hundred jobs in an air conditioning factory in Indiana may run afoul of free market principles, but it hardly amounts to the type of wholesale rethinking of the relationship between states and capitalism offered by interwar fascists and National Socialists.
Third, populists claim to speak in the name of the “the people,” and often demonize those disagreeing with them. They are thus inherently anti-pluralist, dismissive of the rights of minorities and the legitimacy of alternative viewpoints. Populism is therefore illiberal, but not necessarily anti-democratic. Indeed, populists claim to want to improve democracy, at least as they define it — to rid it of corruption and inefficiency and make it more responsive to “the people.” For this reason, unlike fascists, they offer no alternative to democracy, other than moving it from its liberal version to an illiberal or majoritarian one.
Fourth, populists do not openly embrace violence as either a means or an end: They neither claim to advocate the sort of revolutionary transformation of politics, economy, and society for which violence would almost certainly be necessary nor do they explicitly encourage their supporters to engage in it.
Populists thus share some characteristics with fascists, but their profiles also diverge in critical ways. This divergence reflects the different contexts within which they arose and point to different ways of dealing with them.
What turned the cranky nationalist movements of Europe’s late 19th century into the powerful fascist parties of the interwar period was primarily the changing conditions they faced: namely the immense problems created by the First World War and its aftermath combined with the failures and miscalculations of democratic institutions and elites in responding to them.
While Western democracies surely face serious problems today, including poverty, rising inequality, diminishing social mobility, and communities eviscerated by a decline in local civil society organizations, the departure of local businesses, deteriorating infrastructure, and so on, we are simply not in the 1920s or ’30s. Levels of economic and social dislocation are not remotely as high — in the US, unemployment is around 5 percent, a healthy figure — and democratic norms are stronger than in early to mid-20th-century Europe. This is not, however, reason for complacency. Many commentators have recently sounded alarms about the dangers of democratic “backsliding.”
The weakening of some democratic norms is one thing; fascist revolution is another
In a recent excellent essay in the New York Times, two professors of government at Harvard, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, argued that Trump “tested positive” as a threat to democracy, given “a failure to reject violence unambiguously, a readiness to curtail rivals’ civil liberties, and the denial of the legitimacy of elected governments.”
They also described Trump as a “serial norm breaker” — abetted by a Republican Party that has been willing to violate longstanding informal rules that constrained political ill will (including, for example, simply declining to consider President Obama’s most recent nominee for the Supreme Court). Their point of comparison was less Germany in the 1930s than Latin American countries that adopted US-style constitutions and then drifted toward strongman-style government.
The setbacks to democracy and the populism that Levitsky and Ziblatt warn of are definitely possible. But the word “backsliding” itself hints at a crucial difference between populism and fascism: In the former, the danger is a gradual erosion of democratic norms and institutions; in the latter, democracy ends through a revolutionary, often violent, conquest of power, which historically occurred only because democracy had already essentially ceased to function at all.
Whether populism brings enough democratic erosion to actually threaten the continued existence of democracy — as it has done, for example, in places like Turkey and Hungary and is threatening to do in Poland — is thus a very open question in the US and Western Europe, where democratic norms and institutions have deep historical roots and, despite current hysteria, are still very much in place. The ultimate consequences, in other words, of contemporary populism depend as much on how democratic institutions, parties, and elites respond to contemporary problems and populists as they will on populists themselves. If problems go unaddressed and mainstream parties can’t convince electorates that they, rather than populists, have the best responses to them, then the appeal and radicalism of populism will grow.
In Europe, where populists are not (yet) in power, governments need to find ways to deal with rising inequality, wage stagnation, high unemployment, immigration and integration, and terrorism. In the US, after Trump’s victory, other democratic institutions and actors will need to be vigilant policing attacks on the Constitution, the rule of law, and minority rights.
In both Europe and the US, the response of mainstream parties of the right and left to contemporary problems and populists will also be crucial. Will traditional parties of the right — Republicans in the US, Christian Democrats and conservatives in Europe — push back against populism’s radical tendencies, or will they fall in line like their interwar counterparts?
In the US, there are already signs that many Republicans, even NeverTrumpers, are lining up behind Trump, unwilling to take a stance against Trump’s continued flouting of democratic norms (for example, his insistence on massive electoral fraud and denigration of CIA findings about Russian hacks); the myriad conflicts of interests inherent in his own businesses; and his choice of Cabinet appointees, who not only lack anything resembling traditional qualifications for the jobs for which they have been chosen but who have also often openly questioned the validity of the very departments they are being tasked with leading.
Will traditional parties of the left — the Democratic Party in the US, Social Democratic and Labor parties in Europe — be able to reform their organizational infrastructures and appeals so as to be able to recapture the working- and middle-class voters they lost to the populist right? In the US, those worrying signs that a significant number of Republicans will not band together to check Trump leaves the Democratic Party as the most important watchdog or conservator of democracy. Successfully carrying out that role will require a degree of efficacy and cohesion the party has hitherto not exhibited.
In order to be able to check Trump, the Democrats will need to overcome or reconcile their internal divisions over both cultural and economic issues; only then can they hope to build the type of broad, cross-class coalition that would enable them to win elections at the national, state, and local levels and prevent Trump and his Republican enablers from playing different groups of Americans against one another, as they did so successfully in our most election as well as in many of the ones proceeding it.
Populism, in short, should not be blithely equated to fascism, nor does 2016 look like 1933. But in politics, as in much of the rest of life, nothing lasts forever, and for democracy to not just survive but thrive, democrats — including Democrats — will need to start doing better.
Sheri Berman is a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and the author of a forthcoming book, Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancient Regime to the Collapse of Communism.
Tuesday, January 03, 2017
Donald Trump isn’t a fascist - Vox