What is Fascism in the 21st Century?

This is the first in a regular column where our Editor’s share their personal views on the most recent happenings.

A recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher took up the topic of whether or not the administration of Donald Trump is an exercise in modern fascism. Maher said, “Before the election I was saying there’s a slow moving coup happening and fascism could come back to America.” Maher, of course, is not isolated in making this suggestion. When we did a Google search for “Trump fascism” we got 12.2 million results back.
The March 24, 1944 edition of the British magazine Tribune, contained a column from George Orwell entitled, “What is fascism?” In the famous piece Orwell speaks about how difficult it is to precisely define what fascism actually means because quite a few countries at the time were considered fascist and yet had meaningful differences in their outlook and how their systems were structured. Orwell cautioned against using the term as nothing more than an insult, lest it should lose all meaning. He presciently said:

“It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless.  In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print.  I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.”

Many would do well to heed Orwell’s advice. Today, terms like Fascist, Nazi, or Communist are thrown out with abandon in nothing more than a desire to insult the opposition. It’s probably instructive to take a look back at the origins of fascism before attempting to place the current administration in the United States in any kind of historical context.

Most historians trace the origins of fascism to Italy in the years after the First World War. The word “fascist” is Italian an origin and means a bundle of sticks, a metaphor for national unity. Benito Mussolini, the person credited with founding the movement, originally identified as a socialist. Socialism was a very broad movement that arose in Europe after the Industrial Revolution in response to perceived failings of the capitalist model and an excessive emphasis on the individual rather than society as a whole. Karl Marx’s ideas were a specific form of socialism that incorporated a “scientific” view of history and a belief that all of history can be interpreted through the prism of class conflicts. Since communism and certain strands of socialism divide the world by economic classes, and not by race or nationality, these movements are generally international in nature. A socialist is likely to say that a laborer in the United States would have more in common with a laborer in Russia than he would with another American in a higher socio-economic class.

The Italian Socialist party was opposed to Italian participation in the War. Mussolini supported the involvement and surprisingly, for a socialist, did so on largely nationalist grounds. He believed the War would give an opportunity for Italians living under German and Austrian monarchies the chance to break free. He also justified his stance with the hope that instability in other countries could lead to changes in governments and opportunities for socialism to take root. His support of the War led to his expulsion from the Italian Socialist Party. When he founded the fascist movement in 1914, the primary distinction from socialism was its advocacy of nationalism over class conflict.

Technically Italy, allied with Britain and France, was a winner in the War. In order to coax Italian entrance into the War, Great Britain had secretly promised Italy territories at the conclusion of the War. These territories, though, were not forthcoming. To complicate matters, Europe went through a severe economic downturn following the War and Italy suffered greatly. While many appreciate the struggles the German economy experienced following the War, some do not realize that the post-War economic malaise extended to much of Western Europe. Between 1918 and 1921 Real GFP in Italy fell by 25%.

Performance of selected economies, 1918-1921. In millions of 1990 international dollars. Source: Angus Maddison.

This combination of national humiliation, great losses in a War that did not benefit the country, and an evaporating economy led many in Italy to lose confidence in the political class and democracy itself. When Mussolini marched on Rome in 1922, the King abdicated Mussolini took over Italy.

Hitler’s rise in Germany is often misunderstood as well. It is commonly held that Hitler gained power in Germany by appealing to nationalist pride and scapegoating certain groups of people. In fact, the Nazi party never obtained an electoral majority in Germany. In the final free election that the party participated in, only about 1 in 3 Germans voted for a member of the party. Germany experienced many of the same problems as other European countries after the First World War and that instability slowly exhausted the center and sent people increasingly over to political extremes as solutions to the problems they were facing. Hitler was able to coalesce many of the right-wing groups under his authority and as time went on many felt that the choice was between Hitler’s fascism or a Communist government.

Understanding that Communism would be a disaster for them, many business leaders were willing to roll the dice on Hitler and he received support from the Catholic Church as well. In part from pressure from business leaders Hindenburg allowed Hitler to form a government in 1933. After he took power one of Hitler’s primary rivals – the Catholic Centre Party – was removed from politics as a result of an agreement with between Germany and the Pope.

Mussolini’s and Hitler’s stories draw a couple of facts into focus. But, they largely show that fascism was as much a reaction to the spread of Communism as it was an organic movement and often times came to power as a result of fear of the spread of Communism. If people were to feel that democracy was inadequate to solving their problems then a political ideology that preserved aspects of free enterprise as well as the authority of the Catholic Church was to vastly preferred to the alternative. Indeed, the late Christopher Hitchens was fond of pointing out that at times fascism was indistinguishable from the Catholic right-wing.

Fascism later spread to countries like Spain, Portugal, Croatia, and Romania. While it’s not scientific, there are some traits that hold these countries together and that could be said to define what is and is not fascist. All of these countries espoused a rather extreme form of nationalism, focused on the collective at times in opposition to individual rights, obsessed over national security, tightly controlled the media, blurred the line between church and state, and glorified the military.

Could these attributes be applied to the Presidency of Donald Trump? Yes and no. There is little question that Trump is more inclined towards nationalism than other Presidents have been and is not exactly a champion of human rights. But, it is pretty soon to declare Trump a Fascist based on these facts only. He may want to control the press, but the Constitution prevents him from doing so. He may also throw red meat at religious conservatives from time to time, but does not seem interested in abolishing any specific religion.

The biggest protections that the United States have against the emergence of authoritarian regimes are the rule of law and the Constitution which limits and balances executive authority. These protections should not be taken lightly, but so far it does not seem as though the checks and balances that have safeguarded individual liberties are in extreme danger. In countries where fascism became entrenched these protections and previous Constitution’s had to be discarded before truly authoritarian regimes could rise.

The economic situation of many Americans has been challenged by structural changes in the global economy and many of those who voted for Trump felt as though their voices were not being heard by other politicians. This is somewhat reminiscent of the situations in European countries between the wars where complete faith was lost in the political elite amidst regressions in national pride and dire straits for households. But, the situation is certainly not as dire in the world today and by no means is the country in an economic depression, even in hard portions like the industrial midwest.

If you oppose Trump’s Presidency then using labels such as “Fascist” is not going to help you make your case. Those who identify with your view need no convincing and those who do not will shut down as soon as you draw the comparison. There really is no true historical precedent for Donald Trump – a billionaire populist. And those who oppose him should be ready to meet him on the issues head on and mobilize politically for the next four years.

As for us, while we are concerned about aspects of Trump’s campaign and initial Executive Orders we will remain cautious observers. We hope the new President succeeds and believe it is still too early to pass judgment. We will, however, be watching carefully and raise our voice when we feel it is needed.

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