Long after it seemed dead and buried with Mussolini and Hitler, the term “fascism” has been making a comeback — not as the self-description of authoritarian politicians and parties, but as an epithet applied by their enemies, or as an analytical category applied by scholars.
It is not uncommon, for example, for leaders ranging from Vladimir Putin to Donald Trump to be described publicly as “fascists” or “neo-fascists.” Given the extraordinary evil associated with the term, it is quite an accusation. Does it fit the data in front of us, at least as far as Trump and his ardent loyalists are concerned? Is fascism the right name for the Trumpist hard right in America? Is it possible for the scholars to help us answer this question analytically rather than emotionally?
Three books released during the political convulsions of the last few years have made fascism their central category. The late U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in her compelling Fascism: A Warning, sketches fascism’s characteristics as follows: “An extreme form of authoritarian rule … linked to rabid nationalism … power begins with the leader, and the people have no rights … a fascist is someone who … claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use whatever means are necessary — including violence — to achieve his or her goals.”
Jason Stanley, in his 2018 work How Fascism Works, describes fascism as “ultranationalism of some variety (ethnic, religious, cultural), with the nation represented in the person of an authoritarian leader who speaks on its behalf.”
Stanley helpfully distinguishes between “fascist politics” and a “fascist state.” Fascist politics is a mechanism to gain power; it may or may not succeed in metastasizing into the creation of a fascist state, as in Nazi Germany.
This distinction makes it possible to name fascist political strategies or tendencies even when those wielding them have not succeeded (yet) in remaking their nation’s political system.
“Fascism is, in short, characterized by myths, propaganda, hierarchy, anger, patriarchy, violence in word and/or deed, sexual anxiety, and dehumanization.”
Stanley summarizes the characteristics of fascist politics as follows: Real history is displaced by a mythic past, truth and reality are displaced by propaganda, anti-intellectualism displaces expertise, conspiracy theories and lies displace truth and history, a hierarchical vision displaces a normative vision of human equality, a sense of victimhood is encouraged on the part of majority populations as a response to any gains for minority groups, “law and order” politics emphasize tough policing of lawless others, sexual anxiety is stirred up related to perceived threats to patriarchy and masculinity, and the dehumanized lesser groups are described as lazy dependents. Fascism is, in short, characterized by myths, propaganda, hierarchy, anger, patriarchy, violence in word and/or deed, sexual anxiety, and dehumanization.
In his subtle and profound work, A Brief History of Fascist Lies, historian Federico Finchelstein situates lying at the very center of fascism: “Lying is a feature of fascism in a way that is not true of … other political traditions. … Fascists consider their lies to be at the service of simple absolute truths, which are in fact bigger lies.”
Threading this analysis of systemic mendacity through his discussion of fascism, Finchelstein ends up with a treatment of fascism that looks in some ways similar to what Stanley offers but goes deeper into its mythic irrationality.
I am going to break down Finchelstein’s list one at a time, and invite the reader to check it carefully against our politics today:
- For Finchelstein, fascism makes knowledge a matter of faith, beginning with faith in the myth of the leader.
- Fascism is rooted in anti-Enlightenment irrationalism, a modern counter-revolutionary movement against liberalism, democracy and Marxism.
- In fascism, the leader is the embodiment of the truth, even though his politics is based on lying. Enemies of the leader are thus defined as enemies of truth.
- The leader is always right and owns the truth, a truth beyond reality, inquiry and history. Truth is attained through revelation from the leader, who incarnates the soul of the people.
- Dictatorship is redefined as “true” democracy because the “leader” embodies the “people” far better than a diffuse democratic system with multiple power centers.
- Fascist politics names critics of the leader or party as enemies of the nation who must be destroyed, even by violence. Political, even redemptive, violence and the desire for destruction come to characterize fascism.
- Fascist policies attempt to create new realities to correspond with their mythologies. For example, anti-Jewish fascists have dreamt of a country, continent or world without Jews and then at times have enacted policies to turn this dream into reality.
Finchelstein describes modern populism as “an authoritarian understanding of democracy that reworked the legacy of fascism after 1945. … After the defeat of fascism, populism emerged as a form of post-fascism, which reformulated fascism for democratic times. … Populism is fascism adapted to democracy.”
“Populism is fascism adapted to democracy.”
In turn, however, says Finchelstein, extreme democratic populism demonstrates fascist impulses and threatens democracy itself.
Describing “Trumpism,” but with other examples also in mind, Finchelstein sees “an extreme form of post-fascism, an antiliberal, and often anti-constitutional, authoritarian democracy.” His historical account sees populism as succeeding fascism after 1945 but apparently always at risk of giving way once again to full-blown fascism if the conditions are right.
My tentative answer to the question posed in this column is this: Donald Trump began his run for president in 2015 with a populist strategy that worked for him to gain the office. By the time of Jan. 6, 2021, he and the worst sorts around him had gradually moved up (down) the ladder to have embraced visible fascist tendencies according to agreed scholarly definitions of that term.
One other thing. Look again at the description of fascist politics above, thinking not of Trump but some of his most ardent Christian supporters. If you see warning signs of Christian fascist tendencies, you are not alone. It would not be the first time that kind of toxic Christian politics has emerged in history.
David P. Gushee is a leading Christian ethicist. serves as distinguished university professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, chair of Christian social ethics at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and senior research fellow at International Baptist Theological Study Centre. He is a past president of both the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Christian Ethics. His latest book is Introducing Christian Ethics. He’s also the author of Kingdom Ethics, After Evangelicalism, and Changing Our Mind: The Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians. He and his wife, Jeanie, live in Atlanta. Learn more: davidpgushee.com or Facebook.
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