For years now, scholars at conferences have argued about whether or not we can talk about fascism in the 21st century. Some scholars stalwartly defended a belief that fascism was something left in the past, and not like every other “-ism” (liberalism, feminism, socialism, communism, anarchism, etc.)—which all have evolved and had different waves and iterations. Somehow, for them, fascism was exceptional. Some went as far to argue that Nazism was not fascist, and only Mussolini’s Italy could claim that title. Scholars warned that we can’t make the error of imposing the present onto the past—ignoring the fact that the past also affects the present and doesn’t simply disappear into a void.
To add to the confusion, popularly, some confused feminists as “feminazis” and the likes of Dinesh D'Souza propagated an alternative history which claimed the Nazis were leftist, rather than right-wingers, as I discuss in my book, Far-Right Revisionism and the End of History: Alt/Histories. Decades of bait and switch tactics left even people like the eminent former United States Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, to confuse fascism, authoritarianism and communism in her massively popular book, Fascism: A Warning.
Curiously, even as some non-academics started recognising US president Donald Trump’s fascism, many academics stuck to their spurious rejections of Trump as fascist—whilst simultaneously writing books and garnering lucrative commentator positions that promoted themselves as scholars explaining how fascism works, its anatomy and theorising about strongmen dictators, capitalizing on the Trump era, whilst still refusing to call a spade a spade.
Nazi Germany learned many of its practices by studying the Jim Crow laws in the United States
One would think that as scholars of fascism, these academics’ primary job is to sound the alarms when it rises, but too many didn’t, with the exception of some heavyweight scholars like Timothy Snyder. Only now some of the stalwarts have started to call Trump fascist—too late.
Finally, it’s become so obvious that one senior Trump official has even told New York Magazine, ‘This is confirmation of so much that everyone has said for years now — things that a lot of us thought were hyperbolic. We’d say, “Trump’s not a fascist”, or “He’s not a wannabe dictator”. Now, it’s like, “Well, what do you even say in response to that now?”’
When is a fascist not a fascist?
One source of this confusion began with the political scientist Juan J. Linz, who in his 1975 book, Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes, exculpated the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco from being considered a fascist according to his own definition that, unfortunately, many academics have since latched onto. Linz claimed Franco was against pluralism but not fascist. Being against pluralism, of course, was always a wobbly euphemism for racist, xenophobic, sexist, classist, queerphobic, and other exclusionary prejudices and practices. This sort of thinking, contributed to scholars of fascism not being able to recognise it. They limited fascism to Mussolini’s fascist party, or they looked at the most virulent cases of fascism for communalities at its worst, rather than looking at its earliest manifestations within those contexts. Even Umberto Eco’s famous article on Ur-Fascism, left out obvious queerphobia and misogyny from his analysis.
In some more esoteric discussions at academic conferences, some academics allowed for José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of Spain’s Falange party of the 1930s, to be considered a fascist, but Franco’s authoritarian government, somehow, wasn’t fascist enough. Primo de Rivera, who died early on in the Spanish Civil War, materially supported Franco’s uprising, and most likely would have been a contender for power had he not died. Whilst Franco might not have had camps full of Jewish people, he did send his communist, anarchist, socialist, and republican enemies to Hitler’s concentration camps. In Spain, leftist prisoners were also enslaved in work camps and queer people were arrested and killed, most famously the poet Federico García Lorca.
‘The American Way’ was paved by white supremacy and enslaved black people
When one scratches beneath the surface, it becomes apparent that many of these exculpations of Franco’s regime as not fascist potentially reflect scholars’ own blind spots and sexism—ignoring the central role of one of the most powerful women in Spain, Pilar Primo de Rivera, who led the state-run ‘Women’s Section of the Falange’ for more than four decades as the inheritor of her brother’s fascist legacy. She was at one point even proposed as a potential bride to Adolf Hitler. A woman of immense power, she influenced education nationally and strove to inculcate young people with fascist ideologies through a “National Catholic” programme—reflected particularly in the children’s books and teacher’s curricula of the period.
Franco, too, staunchly advocated for “National Catholicism” which tied religion to Spanish identity. His imagery and rhetoric attempted to match that of Isabel and Ferdinand’s of the fifteenth century—the two “Catholic Kings” who in 1492 expelled Muslims and Jews from Spain and began the conquest of the Americas. The deeply antisemitic Franco could not go after Jews in Spain because there simply wasn’t that large of a Jewish population in the country; instead, Franco went after communists, anarchists, socialists, queer people, and immigrants. He also stoked conspiracies of secret free-mason and Jewish cabals.
Today, in right-wing media in the US, similar rhetoric is frequently leveraged against “globalists,” “communist and socialist Democrats” and “Hollywood.” The similarities do not end there. Franco’s regime frequently brandished the slogan “¡Una, Grande y Libre!” (One, Great and Free)—a slogan one could easily imagine being chanted at a Trump rally.
Comparatively, like Franco, Trump has had no qualms using the images of Christianity to his benefit. Moreover, one can certainly see that a sort of “Christian Nationalism” has grown-up in right-wing circles in the United States, advocated for by the likes of Steve Bannon, Betsy DeVos, and a slew of cronies. Trump has created anti-Muslim policies, placed migrants in concentration camps, attacked transgender people, and, like Franco did with Mussolini and Hitler, has tried desperately to make alliances with dictators globally. Whilst history doesn’t repeat, it does, it certainly rhymes, and Trump’s ideology and political programme certainly is a strain of fascism. Trump’s brand is particularly Islamophobic, misogynist, racist, xenophobic, queerphobic, and against both liberalism and socialism.
Not a checklist, but a formula with variables
Some scholars have tried to create a sort of “fascist checklist”: is there a strongman figure? Is there violence? Do they use an imagined past to legitimise their actions? Is there a militarized police? Imperialist tendencies?
Fascists today might not wear hoods or swastikas, opting instead for red hats and confederate flags
For years scholars have argued Donald Trump had “X” quality, but not “Y.” These academics looked at the worst-case examples, where fascism resulted in war and genocide, and started their point of comparison from the worst-case scenario rather than considering what does fascism look like before it gains power or a following. What is fascism at its core?
A more simplified definition of fascism, would be a sort of formula like: racism + anti-intellectualism + anti-liberalism/anti-socialism + xenophobia + ethnocentrism + nationalism + queerphobia + misogyny = fascism.
While the quantity of each X-factor varies, the combination of these in any quantity forms fascism. Most other tendencies, such as militarism, cult of personality, etc., are determined by the amount of power and organisation acquired by particular groups and individuals.
For some scholars, thinking of fascism as limited to Mussolini’s movement, a narrow definition of fascism made sense. However, for those who consider fascism a political philosophy—a vile, contradictory one, but still a political-philosophical programme—this did not make sense. If feminism, communism, anarchism, capitalism, and liberalism can have multiple varieties and evolutions, so can fascism. Simply put, scholars confused fascist, the adjective and the noun, with fascism. They failed to recognize that words with the suffix of “-ism” are action nouns created out of a verb, to show practice, action, beliefs, or doctrines. Ideas carry forth through time and can evolve. The Falange, the Nazis, the skinheads, and the Alt-Right took the various elements of the aforementioned formula and created their own specific strains of fascism.
Fascism and conspiratorial thinking have seeped into the minds of millions of Americans
Now one might ask, based on my formulation of fascism, doesn’t that mean the United States and every liberal democracy is somewhat fascist? Yes. That’s the point. The Enlightenment, which culminated with our best aspirations for democracy, also simultaneously inherited a world where categories were created that excluded people from the levers of power—adding some new categories of its own. Fortunately, the Enlightenment also cultivated an idea of pluralism, which has existed in tension with the darker elements of the Enlightenment that attempted to maintain institutional slavery, the disenfranchisement of women and people of colour, and a fear of ‘the other’.
As James Q. Whitman reminds us in Hitler’s American Model, Nazi Germany learned many of its practices by studying the Jim Crow laws in the United States. In fact, as Whitman points out, Charles Vibbert, a Frenchman, argued in 1930, “The Ku Klux Klan are the fascists of America.”
The moment has come where Trump supporters have been revealed as not being believers in democracy or freedom but white supremacy and dictatorship. They were never patriots, they were white nationalists. Their conspiracies and violence replaced truth and justice. ‘The American Way’ was paved by white supremacy and enslaved black people. While fascists today might not wear hoods or swastikas, opting instead for red hats and confederate flags, their attempt to overthrow the US government this past week could have ended very differently.
Even if Donald Trump disappears from the stage forever, this isn’t over. More than a hundred congressional leaders have contested a fair and democratic election with falsehoods and conspiracy theories. They blame the deep state, communists, socialists, liberals, antifascists, big tech, queer people, the global elite, and protestors who advocate for black lives for their state of alienation under late capitalism.
Fascism and conspiratorial thinking have seeped into the minds of millions of Americans. If we compare Mussolini’s March on Rome and Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch to Donald Trump’s Insurrection we should be reminded that the former examples were only the beginning of years of street violence. We can’t address this problem until we call it by its name: fascism.