A spectre is haunting the modern world: fascism. All around the world people are talking about and identifying fascists. Newspaper headlines abound in the US such as: 'Is Donald Trump a fascist?', 'How fascist is Donald Trump?', and even more emphatically, 'Donald Trump is actually a fascist.' All from mainstream liberal papers.
The threat of fascism is now a worldwide phenomenon. We have just seen in Brazil the victory of 'strongman' Jair Bolsonaro; the Hungarian authoritarianism of Viktor Orban; the rise of France's Front National, led by Marine Le Pen; Germany's Pegida and AfD; and Austria's Freedom Party. All have earned the description 'fascist' at some point. If that were not enough, there is another dimension, with some talking about 'Islamic fascism' and frequent comments such as 'the terrorists are the heirs to fascism'. That last quote was by George W Bush, but it could have been any Western leader of recent times.
Trump is a cheerleader and mobiliser, whether you are for or against him, by dint of being the president of the USA. Robert Kagan wrote before the 2016 US election: '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.'
The constant clarion cry is meant to call good people to their senses, get them to wake up, and make them realise that democracy, the rule of law, the values which define our societies, and relative freedoms which bind us together, are under attack, and thus, that we need to act and mobilise now. Yet, we have to be very careful not to name all the undoubted threats to democracy as 'fascist'.
For a start, this is a certain left-wing response to the rise of a particular right-wing threat, and one which has been seen before. Some left-wingers in the UK used to call Margaret Thatcher 'fascist'. The same is even true of some of the American radical new left and their paranoia at the gathering authoritarianism of Richard Nixon as US president in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Such is the state of US politics now, many liberals now look back wistfully to the age of Nixon.
Fascism has been historically an ideology of the radical right. Its rise was aided and colluded with by mainstream conservatives. It never came to power in a healthy democracy, but only in countries where democratic norms and mainstream politics were in severe crisis: Germany and Italy in the inter-war years, Spain as a result of the Spanish civil war, Pinochet's Chile in the 1970s.
In the European parliament last week, Tory MEP Syed Kamall commented on nazism being an ideology of 'the left,' and used the old trope that it was 'national socialism' and hence part of the socialist tradition. This is completely inaccurate and offensive (he later apologised for his comments). Fascism has always been of the right, and for the interests and agendas of the right.
Mussolini and Hitler were miniscule electoral forces a few years before they came to power. Both did not 'seize' power as popular mythology suggests. They were invited into power by conservative elites who saw it as a means to control new movements and 'normalise' them. Mussolini was invited to become prime minister by Italian King Victor Emmanuel III, and German aristocrat Franz von Papen first suggested that Hitler become chancellor.
The special mix of politics, crises and hollowing-out of democracy and democratic norms which led to fascism had to involve more than right-wing authoritarianism and the horrendous hate-filled rhetoric of the likes of Trump, Bolsonaro and Orban. Robert Paxton over a decade ago wrote a measured analysis addressing what is and what is not fascism, simply titled, 'The Anatomy of Fascism.' In it, he wrote that: 'It was not enough to don a coloured shirt, march about and beat up some local minority to conjure up the success of a Hitler or Mussolini.'
He continued, that the rise of potent fascism 'took a comparable crisis, a comparable opening of political space, comparable skill at alliance building and comparable co-operation from competing elites.' Paxton gave us, from his comprehensive study of fascism, a helpful definition of the ideology, which is useful both historically and presently, calling it:
A form of political behaviour marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints, goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
With this definition Paxton agrees that Mussolini and Hitler were unambiguous, unapologetic fascists, but questions whether Franco's Spain was too. Taking Paxton's definition, the politics of today's new right-wing strongmen and authoritarian politics do not meet the fascist challenge.
There is something strangely nostalgic, and even reassuring for some, in finding fascists everywhere. It does reduce politics to a familiar divide of them
, good versus bad. The baddies happen to fall into a bunch of well-worn tropes and styles that some have identified before, fought in the past, and defeated. There is even, dare I say it, an element of virtue-signalling, in first identifying and calling-out fascists in your country or neighbourhood: it gives the aura of vigilance and left-wing street credibility.
It also has numerous problems. If people continually cry out 'fascist' at the threat to our democracy from the Trumps and Bolsonaros, there is a element of crying wolf. The first clarion calls will achieve attention and mobilisation, but slowly, as the multiple voices mix and meld, there is a law of diminishing returns. In a paradoxical way, a political mindset of forever identifying 'fascists' in the politics of the right can contribute to the weakening of democracy and rise of the radical right.
We live in scary times. We do not have road maps of where our societies and politics are going to go. The politics of the authoritarian, virulent right, could lead in numerous directions. It could embrace further isolationism, become even nastier and nationalist, and even more filled by ill-tolerance and hatred. But all of these horrendous characteristics, which have to be opposed, do not by themselves make Trump or others, fascist.
Instead of defining the present by the politics of the past, and most specifically invoking the ghosts of the 1920s and 1930s, we need to understand and name the modern threats we face in the here and now. Constantly calling such forces 'fascist' actually gets in the way of this.
The Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce provided one answer, living in Mussolini's Italy in the 1920s. He added to Aristotle's three forms of government: democracy, oligarchy and tyranny, suggesting a fourth: 'onagrocrazia', which literally translated means 'government by the braying asses.' This is a good description of the political age we are living in, although it does not capture the seriousness of the times and crises we face.
Donald Trump, Britain's Brexit, and enduring two years of Boris Johnson as UK foreign secretary: these are apt examples of 'government by the braying asses.' We do need to understand past fascisms and threats to democracy, but at the same time recognise that beyond the rhetoric, rousing leaders and replicas of the past, that we are in uncharted waters. Rather than constantly shouting 'fascist', we have to understand what has made the new authoritarianism of the right possible.
Why have millions of working-class people voted for Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban and others? Why have they seen something positive and found voice and agency in such political visions? This points to something lacking in the voices of mainstream conservatives, liberals and left-wingers over several decades, not just in the last few years.
All of this is a telling indictment of the state of conventional politics. The answer will not come from today's mainstream political classes or numerous establishments. But nor will it come from just shouting 'fascist' at the very real threats and politics of hatred and intolerance that we face. Instead, we are going to have to understand how we fell so short to let this happen, and put together collective answers to the big questions which Trump and others talk about.