You may be shocked to learn this, but people do not always use certain terms accurately. While my brother Kris was stationed at Camp Pendleton, he once called me up to complain about life there in sunny California, summarizing his despair with the statement: “Everyone out here is a communist.” When I pointed out that, in fact, the governor at the time was Arnold Schwarzenegger, a long-time Republican, Kris replied, “Yeah, but he believes in gay marriage.”
I was confused. I tried to explain that Marx and Engels had never once approached the subject of homosexual relations; moreover, both men were somewhat critical of the bourgeois concept of marriage as centered upon property and regarded the family as the source of the original division of labor. “Indeed,” I insisted, “they probably would have been dismayed to see marriage as a concept receiving a boost through the legal expansion of such rights to gays and lesbians.” At the end of my brief lecture, there was a bit of silence on the line. Finally, my brother said “He’s still a communist.”
Kris wasn’t listening. But, then, neither was I. When he insisted that Arnold Schwarzenegger was a “communist,” he was not tying this Austrian bodybuilder to a specific economic doctrine; no, he was using “communist” as a catch-all term for political positions he found abhorrent, such as gay marriage.
Like pesticide sprayed on a field, the meaning of politicized words often drifts and inflicts damage far beyond its original location – specifically, it can drift to poison any proposition we want to label as “anti-American.” In 1957 in Little Rock, it wasn’t gay marriage that was the greatest boogeyman of right-wingers; it was integration and the fears of “miscegenation” that entailed. And thus did a band of white supremacists rally at the state capitol with signs famously reading “Race Mixing Is Communism.” Again, although Marx and Engels advocated for the end of slavery, the liberation of colonized peoples, and the radical equality of working men and women, they did not actually say anything about “race mixing,” as such. In fact, they would have regarded race as a bourgeois concept aimed at dividing the proletariat against itself. They may not have disapproved of interracial relationships, but this does not mean that “race mixing” is functionally equivalent to the collective ownership of the means of production.
Like “communism,” the word “fascism” has also long been employed as a political Rorschach blot. As early as 1946, just one year after the end of World War II, George Orwell was complaining of this fact in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” writing: “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’ ” He went further, insisting that the lack of meaning was driving reactionary politics: “Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.”
So let us start at the verbal end, as it were, and try to recover the meaning of the term, for 70-plus years after Orwell’s essay, the word “fascism” is still being abused and distorted. Take, for example, Jonah Goldberg’s 2007 book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. Goldberg’s goal, as is evident in the book’s title, is to taint the left with an association with Nazi and fascist ideologies, and he attempts to accomplish this by saying that fascist collectivism — and related rhetoric focusing upon a nation exemplifying health and freedom from disease — have a modern counterpart in political programs, typically advanced by Democrats, to fight smoking, improve physical health and promote organic farming. He literally insists that Nazi ideology “foreshadowed today’s crusades against junk food, trans fats, and the like.” As he writes of Hillary Clinton’s book It Take a Village: “All the hallmarks of the fascistic enterprise reside within its pages,” adding later, “Quoting doctors, friendly activists, social workers, and random real Americans, in chapter after chapter she argues for interventions on behalf of children from the moment they are born.”
But is this not also a right-wing project? Do not conservative Christians advocate for the total control of a child’s world from the moment of birth to ensure that he or she won’t exhibit any deviant traits – especially not queerness?
Goldberg’s book is part of a larger conservative project of Freudian projection, or attributing to liberal and leftist groups those ideological labels with which conservatives see themselves as being slandered. He even insists that “fascism, properly understood, is not a phenomenon of the right at all. Instead, it is, and always has been, a phenomenon of the left.” The best that can be said about Goldberg is that he is a better practitioner of this form of projection than many of his peers. If you follow Dinesh D’Souza on Twitter, you are probably familiar with lesser skill typically employed in such pursuits. D’Souza regularly insists that because the Nazi Party was officially called the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party,” then it must have been a socialist, and therefore leftist, organization. By this logic, we must conclude that North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is a functioning democracy. Likewise, D’Souza repeats, again and again, that the Republican Party was the originally anti-slavery party, reminding the public that Abraham Lincon, the first Republican president, freed the slaves. He does this to assert a continuity between the Republican Party then and the Republican Party now, as well as between the Democratic Party then — which was the party of the slaveholding South — and the Democratic Party now. See, if it has the same name, then it cannot have changed its membership or its foundational purpose. Never mind that David Duke, Thom Robb and Richard Spencer voted Republican during the last presidential election. By this logic, we must assume that the Southern Baptist Convention continues to promote the instution of slavery, given that it was founded explicitly as the Baptist church for slaveholders.
Back to Goldberg. Here is the magic trick he is trying to accomplish – to make enough shallow comparisons between fascist and modern liberal rhetoric so as to convince his reader that they are functionally the same thing. Sure, modern Democratic Party politicians in America have often pushed programs to increase the health of individuals, often casting this rhetorically as caring for the “health of the nation,” and early 20th-century fascists likewise promoted images of vitality and vigor and spoke eloquently about the health of their respective nations. But fascist ideas about the “health” of their collectivities were explicitly based upon exclusionary principles that manifested themselves specifically in violent deeds. As historian Aristotle Kallis observes in Genocide and Fascism: The Eliminationist Drive in Fascist Europe, fascist ideology was born with the specific aim of seeking redemption from recent “humiliations” by latching onto the glories of the past to drive a new utopian future. This “redemption” manifested itself externally, through expansionist policies of conquest, and internally, through a “cleansing” of the population so as to eliminate those figures responsible for recent humiliations: socialists, communists, Jews and other minority groups.
The drive to “cleanse” the state, Kallis writes, “helped shape a redemptive licence to hate directed at particular ‘others’ and render the prospect of their elimination more desirable, more intelligible, and less morally troubling.” Fascism promoted a worldview of the nation as a sacred entity “where any means could be justified if it served the supreme purpose of national rebirth.” Moreover, as fascist states expanded, they came to encompass more of those internal “others” whose presence polluted the nation, thus necessitating even greater efforts at “cleansing.”
At the core of fascism lies violence – specifically, redemptive violence in the service of a narrowly defined group. This is what Goldberg ignores, because to acknowledge it would rather strain his thesis and force him to assert an untenable comparison between the actual violence that defined the Third Reich and something like the modern opposition to trans fats in food. No matter how much rhetoric and misrepresentation Jonah Goldberg summons, one simply cannot draw a straight line from eliminationism to environmentalism, from anti-Semitism to anti-smoking, from Birkenau to Birkenstocks.
And Goldberg’s deception runs even deeper than you might imagine. In an opening chapter on Mussolini, he insists that “Mussolini remained a socialist until his last breath,” insisting that “if at times he would adopt free-market policies, as he did to some extent in the early 1920s, that didn’t make him a capitalist.” Funny, then, that in an article Mussolini wrote and published eight months before his 1922 March on Rome, the future dictator declared, “Capitalism may have needed democracy in the 19th century: today, it can do without it.”
Indeed, American businessmen regularly recognized Mussolini as one of their own kind, as the historian Michael Joseph Roberto has documented. The administrations of Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover supported Italian fascism. Organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Bankers Association and more all expressed support for Mussolini, and on March 9, 1923, 200 American delegates to the Second Congress of the International Chamber of Commerce rose to their feet to cheer Mussolini when the dictator entered the congress with his blackshirts in tow. In fact, Julius Barnes, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said of Mussolini: “Today he is the one real living force, not only in Italy, but in all Europe, and the conversion of that man with his strength and his following to the principle of the so-called capitalistic system that we believe in is the most extraordinary encouragement to us who want to see and hear sound and sane economics put into play.” Likewise did writer Merle Thorpe, writing for Nation’s Business, express admiration for “Mussolini and his methods,” which he described as “essentially those of successful business.”
You will likely not be surprised to learn that the second chapter of Goldberg’s book is titled, “Adolf Hitler: Man of the Left.” Nor should you, at this point, be surprised to learn that such a characterization is far from the truth. Just as they did with Mussolini, American businessmen (such as Henry Ford) found much to admire in Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, and for largely the same reasons: They saw him as a bulwark against the forces of socialism. As William Shirer notes in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, “The free trade unions, which … once had crushed the fascist Kapp putsch by the simple means of declaring a general strike, were disposed of as easily as the political parties and the states” upon the ascension of Hitler to power. Indeed, practically the first thing the Nazis did was to raid all trade union headquarters throughout Germany, confiscate their funds, dissolve their organizations and arrest their leaders, many of whom were placed into concentration camps later. Within three weeks of this, Hitler outlawed collective bargaining. A man of the left he was not.
So if fascism isn’t a manifestation of leftist ideology — if, as it seems, socialism is one of the things of which the fascist must cleanse the nation — does that mean that fascism is simply another word for conservatism, or perhaps a more extreme version of right-wing ideas?
Well, not exactly. At this point, it may be worth advancing a bare-bones definition of fascism and then building from there, rather than continuing to chip away at decades of desperate deceit about its nature. So here we go: Fascism is the attempt, birthed in reactionary politics, to resolve the contradictions of democracy for purposes of preserving elite power against the demands of the masses.
Let’s start with those “contradictions of democracy.” Although we today invest democracy with high ideals, seeing it was the best form of government because it allows all citizens to have a voice, the origins of democracy are a bit grubbier and, as with most things, all about money and prestige. For example, opposition to the Angevin kings of England (which was eventually to result in the Magna Carta) included, according to historian Robert Bartlett, such charges as “heavy taxation, elevation of low-born officials, slow and venal justice, disregard for the property rights and dignities of the aristocracy.” Much of the Magna Carta relates to the property rights of the aristocracy, limiting the king’s ability to levy taxes known as “scutage” and “aid” without “the common counsel of the kingdom.” And yes, the Magna Carta did contain such provisions as the following: “No free man shall be seized, imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, exiled or ruined in any way, nor shall we attack him or send men to attack him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and the law of the land.” But it’s worth noting that the category of “free man” was quite limited at the time. The majority of the rural population, in fact, would have been unfree. According to Bartlett, “The Norman and Angevin kings issued writs requiring their officials to secure the return of runaway peasants to their lords,” and serfs could be given away or sold. There are some noteworthy parallels to American history here.
In other words, democracy, as we might trace its origins back to the Magna Carta, was the aristocracy’s means of preserving its own rights and privileges against the crown. The eventual emergence of a mercantile class of “commoners” in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance sparked a similar expansion of “democracy,” as the bourgeoisie, or burghers, as they were often known, sought similar privileges in order to insulate their own wealth from predatory monarchs. But this new merchant class was by no means interested in sharing its privileges with peasants. Only with the emergence of industrialization, and the eventual concentration of the lower classes into cities, did the proletariat begin to accumulate enough power to demand reforms for itself. Eventually, in the United Kingdom, the Reform Act of 1832 expanded the franchise, largely by granting seats in the House of Commons, and thus some measure of democratic representation, to those cities that had risen during the Industrial Revolution. The character of Will in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch described the bill as emerging from the overwhelming necessity “to have a House of Commons which is not weighted with nominees of the landed class, but with representatives of the other interests.” But this measure was hotly debated at the time, with the House of Lords working to scuttle, limit, or delay its passing. And even after its passage, only about 20 percent of the adult men in England were eligible to vote.
At each step in the expansion of democracy, those who already possessed the franchise feared the loss of their power, the loss of their wealth, by allowing any “lower” classes the privilege of voting. The United States has been much more a racial society than a class society along the lines of the UK, and so here it was easier to get elite buy-in to the idea of universal male suffrage, so long as those males were exclusively white. The abolition of slavery and the expansion of suffrage to those former slaves and their eventual descendants provoked the rage of the south’s idle landlords, who initiated a campaign of violence in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War in order to return to the status quo ante of black servitude and submissiveness. What historians call the first Ku Klux Klan was an elite project to scuttle the political empowerment of African Americans, for they believed that black voters would use the franchise against them.
The rhetoric of an unworthy population using the vote to secure unearned benefits continues to manifest itself. My dad occasionally forwards me the odd right-wing mass e-mail complaining about how “real America” works for a living, while others live by voting — that is, by electing people who will give them free handouts provided by the tax money appropriated from “real Americans.” Many on the right have openly expressed the view that the franchise needs to be rolled back, that those old property requirements for voting (which many states in the U.S. had enacted early on) were a good thing that prevented the poor from using the ballot box to line their pockets. You may remember that, during the 2016 campaign, Ann Coulter even expressed support for a renewed “grandfather clause” that would only allow those whose grandfathers were American citizens to vote, apparently unaware that her favored candidate would be on the losing end of such a policy.
The “contradictions of democracy” that I mentioned above can be seen in this struggle between those who believe that democracy should exist to preserve property rights and those who believe that it exists to give all citizens a voice in how they are governed. Fascism is an attempt to short-circuit this tension through the advancement of a purely corporate figure who is cast as the savior of “the people,” not by empowering or organizing them but rather by emphasizing his own unique attributes to act on their behalf. Fascists do not advance democracy but rather fetishize the individual through the person of the ruler. As the Israeli scholar Ishay Landa, probably the most astute student of fascism currently living, pointed out in his book The Apprentice’s Sorcerer: Liberal Tradition and Fascism, despite the fact that fascism regularly employs the rhetoric of collectivism (emphasizing nation, race, or society), it centralizes such collective and democratic yearnings upon the individual strongman leader, so that he becomes democracy personified, the one true spokesman for “the people,” who no longer need engage in self-governance.
You can see such rhetoric as this employed by Donald Trump during his 2016 speech at the Republican National Convention. Nothing in the speech is about empowering people to direct the course of their own lives, and everything about empowering Trump, as leader, to fix their lives for them:
“I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
“I have made billions of dollars in business making deals — now I’m going to make our country rich again. I am going to turn our bad trade agreements into great ones.”
“I am going to bring our jobs back to Ohio and to America — and I am not going to let companies move to other countries, firing their employees along the way, without consequences.”
“I’m With You, and I will fight for you, and I will win for you.”
In fact, in the transcript of his speech, there is rendered one line in all caps: “I AM YOUR VOICE.” It’s a line he repeats at the end of his speech, as if to emphasize to his followers that they no longer need have a voice now that they have him.
This is the fascist trick. It feels like democracy, because those of you who feel yourself outside a functioning economy or a civil society suddenly feel like you have someone in your corner. But fascism doesn’t actually empower the citizenry to take part in governance. What it offers, instead, as noted above, is a license to hate, and that can feel empowering to the individual permitted to exercise such a license.
Remember, above, the quotation from Mussolini to the effect that capitalism may have needed democracy earlier in its history but did no longer. Mussolini was angling his worldview as specifically against democracy. But does this mean that fascism identified itself with capitalism?
Many on the left have argued thusly. The novelist Upton Sinclair, for one, famously defined fascism as “capitalism plus murder.” But this isn’t exactly accurate. First, capitalism already entailed plenty of murder itself, as the survivors of southern slavery, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, or the Ludlow Massacre could well testify. Second, fascism’s relationship to capitalism was more complicated than thinkers on either the left or right tend to believe.
Like the American business elites who praised Mussolini, we could interpret fascism as an explicitly business-friendly ideology. As Landa writes in Fascism and the Masses: The Revolt against the Last Humans, 1848–1945, “Rhetoric of honoring labor aside, the Nazis strove to achieve the exact opposite: keeping wages low and increasing working hours, which was precisely what German business was insisting should be done throughout the years of the Weimar Republic.” However, if fascists were vehemently opposed to the potential for economic equality inherent in socialism, they also regularly expressed disdain for the mass consumerism offered by the American variant of capitalism. Hitler, in fact, warned that, if it followed the American model of mass consumerism, Germany “will become more and more stunted racially, until it finally deteriorates into degenerate, brutish gluttons who will not even remember the past greatness.” He lamented that current trends threatened to “remodel the whole world into one big department store.”
“America,” writes Landa, “was therefore deemed an even greater menace than Bolshevism, since it reflected the masses’ own desires rather than a top-bottom phenomenon.” And this gets at the kernel of fascist ideology, for it was fundamentally an anti-mass movement. Sure, socialism offered a radical vision of equality achieved through the mechanism of the state and a planned economy, but capitalism, in its own way, offered some liberation for the masses. They may not be liberated from poor working conditions, but the mass production of consumer goods previously only available to the middle class and the elites robbed those above them of their status, for status is by nature exclusive. The masses were living longer lives thanks to advances in medicine. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, more of the working class were learning to read and consuming literature, thus striking at another thing the elites used to separate themselves from the mass hordes. No wonder, then, that “literary” composition gradually became much more impenetrable: Charles Dickens wrote for a general audience, but it requires an extensive education to be able to understand, if possible, something like Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce, which makes it a much more esteemed book in the upper echelons of culture.
Realizing fascism’s anti-mass center allows its rhetoric and policies to make much more sense. For example, Nazi propaganda regularly depicted Jews as both greedy, capitalist bankers and as conniving, scheming Bolshevists. Granted, it was the Bolshevist side of that equation that drew the most attention of the Nazi Party. In her book Hitler’s Crusade: Bolshevism, the Jews, and the Myth of Conspiracy, historian Lorna Waddington writes, “What Hitler found objectionable in Marxism was not its programme for social and economic reform, or its political methods and organization, which he rather admired, but its championing of internationalism, pacifism and democracy, which made it so susceptible to Jewish manipulation,” especially as Marxism rejected “aristocratic principles of nature” and replaced “the eternal privilege of power and strength by the mass of numbers and their dead weight.”
Fascism as a form of political extremism does not simply emerge from nothing; rather, it rises in response to particular situations. According to the political scientist Manus I. Midlarsky, the two components for political extremism are the “ephemeral gain” and “mortality salience.” His term “ephemeral gain” describes the historical trajectory of a group to which one belongs: said group had previously existed in a state of subordination to another but managed to free itself and achieve a Golden Age, but now that gain was threatened by current events, thus raising fears of renewed subordination.
Let us take the case of Germany as an example. It was the most modern state in Europe when it lost World War I, and it was just starting to recover from that loss when the Great Depression hit the world, risking a return to humiliation.
But “ephemeral gain” can constitute the narrative that groups tell themselves as much as it does any objective reality, as we can see if we look closer to home. The “Lost Cause” myth of the Confederacy and the Dunning School of history hold that the South’s antebellum years constituted a Golden Age cruelly brought to an end by the Union, which then tried to impose “Negro domination” by liberating and enfranchising the former slaves. The Ku Klux Klan and other groups were able to fight back against this “rape” of the South and managed to achieve a few decades of relative independence, during which states could oversee their own affairs and manage race relations as they would. But in the twentieth century, the activism of the “New Negro,” the threat of federal anti-lynching laws, and then the birth of the modern civil rights movement threatened to return the south to its previous state of subordination and humiliation. More recently in our history, political reactionaries were triggered by the election of a black man with an unusual name to the presidency of the United States, portraying that event as a humiliation for the white race.
Midlasky’s second component, “mortality salience,” is simply the term he uses for being conscious of death. An awareness of one’s own mortality is a threat to the ego and will result in the individual attempting to compensate, sometimes by lashing out at others. Social experiments have shown that judges forced to think about their own death before hearing cases render much harsher sentences, for example.
War has the effect of raising mortality salience, and in Germany after World War I, it would have been difficult to forget or ignore death, given that number of absent husbands and fathers and the former soldiers living with their wounds. But in our modern world, it seems that we are constantly reminded of death. People of my parents’ generation may have watched the Vietnam War on their televisions, but that was half a world away and relegated to just a part of the nightly newscast. By contrast, the events of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath consumed days of live coverage, including the ongoing hunt for bodies. Every mass shooting these days is reported live if not live-streamed by the shooters or victims themselves. And the lesson we take from every such act of terrorism is that we could be next – it could be us.
With this in mind, let us go back to Donald Trump’s RNC speech and see just how many times he draws upon these themes of national humiliation and how many times he seeks to remind his audience of their own mortality:
“Our Convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation. The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country.”
“Homicides last year increased by 17% in America’s fifty largest cities. That’s the largest increase in 25 years. In our nation’s capital, killings have risen by 50 percent. They are up nearly 60% in nearby Baltimore.”
“The number of police officers killed in the line of duty has risen by almost 50% compared to this point last year. Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.”
“Not only have our citizens endured domestic disaster, but they have lived through one international humiliation after another. We all remember the images of our sailors being forced to their knees by their Iranian captors at gunpoint.”
“In Libya, our consulate – the symbol of American prestige around the globe – was brought down in flames.”
This is not the rhetoric of a responsible actor interested in the give-and-take necessary for the functioning of a political community. This is an extremist seeking to portray the basic system of governance as the source of insurmountable problems that, in the best fascist tradition, only he can solve.
And we haven’t yet gotten to the actual policies implemented by the Trump regime. There is plenty here that may be compared to the policies of earlier fascist regimes, from his ongoing war against labor unions and voting rights to the construction of actual concentration camps along our southern border. However, I think it perhaps more important to draw attention to the shared culture of corruption. Popular myth holds that Mussolini may have been a bad guy, but at least he made the trains run on time. But this wasn’t so. Mussolini carried out a mass firing of more than 35,000 civil servants, but this did not “drain the swamp,” as it were; instead, it inaugurated a regime of unparalleled inefficiency and profiteering, because suddenly there was no one keeping an eye on Italy’s corporations or trying to make the government work for its citizenry.
Moreover, while fascists encouraged citizens to embrace an ascetic lifestyle in the best warrior traditions of Sparta, they themselves indulged in endless luxury. As Landa writes, “In reality, behind the attacks on consumerism conducted by the fascists, their leaders and entourages conducted lives that were often extravagant. The demand to settle for little and make sacrifices in times of economic hardship was broadcast to the masses but did not form a binding code of behavior as far as the upper circles were concerned.” Hitler, after all, had a collection of luxury automobiles and several lavish homes that he visited on a regular basis. One of the more well-known occupations of Nazi soldiers was the theft of classical art, but these pieces were not being taken back to Germany for display in any museum – they were for the private collections of individual party leaders and generals.
Even Donald Trump’s golf excursions and gilded toilets recall the best traditions of fascism.
It is important, this election year, that we cease regarding Donald Trump as some aberration on the political landscape and, instead, as recognize him as but the latest inheritor to a long tradition best described as fascism. It is important to recognize that Trump and his supporters have no vested interest in the maintenance of democratic institutions but, instead, hold the maintenance of Trump as their highest priority, for they have invested in him all their concerns about the fate of the nation. And it is also important that we recognize that Trump and his supporters do not regard us as mere opponents, fellow Americans who simply have different ideas about the best policies to pursue; they view us, instead, as the very enemies of which their nation must be cleansed.
Yes, democracy has its origins in the less-than-noble desire of the nobility to preserve their wealth from a rapacious king. But that point of departure birthed a political system that has continued to evolve and encompass more and more emancipated peoples. Indeed, it’s the imperfect success of democracy that always sparks the fascist backlash. No other policy or proposal put forward this election year should have greater weight than simply preserving our American experiment.