The election of Donald Trump as president of the US has catapulted the word “fascism” into everyday use these days, with many people claiming that Trump and at least some of his supporters are fascists or exhibit fascist tendencies.
So, what exactly is fascism? “Exactly” is a hard task because defining fascism is a bit like picking up jelly in your hands. It is also difficult to produce a rational analysis of something that was and is fundamentally irrational. “Fascist theory” is essentially an oxymoron.
The term “fascism” derives from Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), who used it to describe his mishmash of political ideas, as well as the party he founded at the end of World War I, the Fascist Party of Italy. The word “fascism” comes from a Roman symbol, the fasci, an axe around which are tied a bundle of sticks. The fasci represents the idea of strength through mass unity, an idea Mussolini stressed endlessly.
The Italian fascists were also the first to gain political power, in 1922, through a famous bluff, the “March on Rome.”
As thousands of his fascist supporters moved toward the capital, establishment politicians caved into Il Duce’s threats of violence and made him Prime Minister. Presto!
Mussolini’s success made him a global celebrity and soon produced a horde of imitators in other countries, including France, the UK, and the USA. Fascist or fascistic regimes took power in a number of European countries, and some in Latin America.
The most extreme and dangerous fascist regime, of course, began its reign of terror in 1933 when Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) became Chancellor of Germany, vowing to ”make Germany great again.” he soon dropped "Chancellor" in favor of "Der Fuehrer" (The Leader)
Hitler’s Nazi Party (short for National Socialist German Workers’ Party) was a joke through the 1920s. After 1933, only Nazis and their supporters were laughing. Interestingly, Hitler’s party never won a majority of the German vote.
Fascism is difficult to define precisely because it took different forms in different countries. One reason for this is that all fascist movements embraced extreme nationalism, which by its nature is localistic. Nationalists emphasize differences, what makes their nation better than their neighbors’.
Fascists dressed up their rhetoric in a fervent devotion to national traditions, many of them old myths or new ones invented to enhance fascist domination. Nostalgia for a mythical past is central to the fascist appeal. So is the belief in a Supreme Leader who will restore a lost national greatness (Rome, the Second Reich).
(Hitler as medieval night in shining armor)
Fascist movements had several other things in common. They denounced democracy, liberalism, socialism, reason, tolerance, free expression, feminism, scientific method -- what we might call the “Enlightenment Project.”
Fascism thus was – and is -- largely defined by what it was/is against. But not entirely. In addition to exalting the nation-state, fascists posed as the defenders of traditional values, especially “traditional” religious and family values. Hitler promised to protect Christianity
"as the very basis of our collective morality. We want to fill our culture again with the Christian spirit. We want to burn out all the recent immoral developments in literature, in the theatre, and in the press ... in short, we want to burn out the poison of immorality which has entered into our whole life and culture as a result of liberal excess during the past few years."
The Speeches of Adolph Hitler, 1922-1939, Vol. 1, pp. 871-872 (London: Oxford University Press, 1942)
(Hitler as Christ-like savior figure)
Nazi propaganda also promoted the family unit, motherhood (source of cannon fodder), and healthy living, as can be seen in the following posters.
Fascism can be endlessly confusing because it appeals to the emotions, not the intellect. Fascist propaganda is often illogical because is based on the premise that most people do not think but feel. Hence, they will accept the most glaring contradictions and outrageous claims without difficulty.
Fascism was/is always bursting with contradictions: denouncing modern science while embracing technology based on science, especially military and surveillance technology. Hitler is infamous for arguing that a Jewish world conspiracy controlled both capitalism and communism, and that Soviet Russia was a new tool of the Jews to enslave and degrade the pure (and fictional) "Aryan Race." The United States was another tool.
“The danger to which Russia succumbed is always present for Germany ... the striving of the Jewish people for world domination …In Russian Bolshevism we must see the attempt undertaken by the Jews in the twentieth century to achieve world domination.”
Mein Kampf, 1926
One of the problems in assessing fascist leaders is the extent to which they believed their own rhetoric. Mussolini and Hitler both embraced the concept of the “Big Lie” – that if you repeated something outrageous often enough, and loudly enough, people would begin to believe it if it coincided with their existing prejudices. In this sense, fascism is not "forced" on people. They accept it, often enthusiastically.
Untangling fascist propaganda from fascist policy and “principles” can be infuriatingly difficult. Will this leader do what he says he will do, or is it a lot of hot air? History is not comforting. A glass of wine, please.