Brian Fogarty is a professor emeritus of sociology at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota and the author of Fascism: Why Not Here?, available in paperback in October.
The word “fascist” has been a favorite brush with which to tar political opponents since—well, since fascism first arose in the last century. And as that era has receded into the past while at the same time Americans have become more divided, it has become more and more easy to paste that label on political foes.
In the sixties, supporters of the Vietnam war or of Richard Nixon were targets, as were bankers, industrialists, and other representatives of the status quo. Lately the political Right has joined the game, naming a dizzying proliferation of alleged fascists. During the George W. Bush administration we saw the rise of “Islamo-fascists,” who would kill our families and take over the world. Then we had the invention of “liberal fascists,” whose demands for political correctness on campus were said to parallel the practices of the Third Reich—except, one supposes, for the genocide and such.
In short, the definition of “fascist” has through common usage become anyone whose politics you don’t like. But before the term is rendered completely meaningless, it seems a good idea to make clear what fascism is, and more importantly, what it is not.
Many people equate any authoritarian sentiment, or for that matter, any restriction on individual license, with fascism. But not every case of someone pushing citizens around qualifies. The Tsars were authoritarian, too, and so were the Soviets, but they weren’t fascists. Neither were the regimes of Pol Pot or “Papa Doc” Duvalier, or the Bourbon kings of France. Fascism is not merely authoritarianism, certainly not the sort of totalitarianism that is imposed from above.
Fascism is a genuine populist movement, by which a loud minority of citizens agitate against elites of all sorts and against cultural and racial outsiders, embracing a leader who will take bold and even reckless action to achieve these aims. They rejoice in the leader’s flouting of convention and even law, and adopt an uncritical or even worshipful attitude toward him. At the same time they deride the give-and-take of democratic institutions as too cautious and cowardly to do the right thing.
These fascist movements don’t just pop up out of nowhere and “take over.” They are grounded in certain cultural values and ideals which are ordinarily benign or even positive, but become perverted when exaggerated: Boldness. Unity. Love of country. Idolization of ordinary folk.
Today in Austria, Greece, France, Germany, Ukraine, Italy, even Norway and Sweden, parties like National Front, Britain First, Golden Dawn, Nordic Resistance, and a host of other fascist and neo-Nazi groups have grown and gained seats in government. In Poland and Hungary such parties have become the governing majority and are suppressing the press, dismantling independent judicial systems, and stifling dissent.
And now we see the beginnings here: threats against the press, de-legitimation of the courts, overt racism and sexism, demonization of migrants, and fantastic dreams of salvation by a leader. And these are not the ravings of a fringe movement, but of the president himself, aided by an established party cowed into subservience.
When I wrote Fascism: Why Not Here? nearly a decade ago, I warned that American culture contained many of fascism’s roots just as German culture had, and that someday when conditions were ripe, such a movement and such a leader could arise here.
I never imagined that it could come so soon, but here we are.