Fascism For and Against.

            In the wake of the First World War, “Fascism” appeared to be a new political form on the march toward power.  It challenged both the decrepit Liberalism of the Nineteenth Century and a revolutionary Bolshevism.  Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party came to power in Italy in 1922.[1]  Copy-cat movements appeared in many other European countries.[2]  For the most part, these movements arose in backward countries that emerged from of the collapse of the great empires at the end of the First World War.  Often, their rise met their limits in the willingness–eagerness in some cases–of the traditional forces of order to shoot people who clamored too loudly.[3] 

Then came the Great Depression.  The political systems of a host of countries ground to a halt over “distributive contests”: cut taxes or raise taxes, cut public spending or raise public spending, and for whose benefit?  Fascist movements arose or gained numbers in Belgium, Ireland, Spain, France and Britain.  Most importantly, Germany’s democratic Weimar Republic collapsed and Adolf Hitler came to power.  In the United States, some people on the right saw the New Deal’s inflationary monetary policy, the elaboration of government controls on business, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “cult of personality” as steps toward an American fascism.  On the left, many people saw the populist campaigns of the “demagogues” Hughie Long[4] and Father Coughlin as fascist threats to democracy.  Happily, by 1945, such fears had passed.  Fascism had been destroyed and discredited. 

Yet the idea didn’t disappear.  Robert Penn Warren’s novel All the King’s Men (1947) and the movie of the same title (dir. Robert Rossen, 1949) were based on Long as a demagogic threat to democracy.  Long also partly inspired “A Face in the Crowd” (dir. Elia Kazan, 1957).  It is often discussed as an examination of the populist demagogue who is contemptuous of his followers.  A very different approach came in the novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, Seven Days in May (1962) and the film of the same title (dir. John Frankenheimer, 1964).  Here the danger came from right-wing military officers opposed to arms control.     

Since the 1960s. the term Fascism became “a political expletive.” not an “investigative concept.”  In the Sixties it was a rhetorical rock thrown at Republicans and the police.  In the early 21st Century, the American right used it to describe a changed liberalism.[5]  The election of Donald Trump, well ahead of any policies he pursued, immediately aroused denunciations of Fascism from the left.[6]  Despite 6 January, American democracy remains strong—if stalled. 

[1] The nature of Mussolini’s grip on power was much misunderstood in Western democracies at the time.  Fundamentally, he had compromised with powerful conservative institutions: the army, industrialists, great landowners, and the monarchy.  Mussolini got the trappings of power and the opportunity to build something more, while conservatives got a suppression of the Left.  See: R.J.B. Bosworth, The Italian Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives in the Interpretation of Mussolini and Fascism (1998). 

[2] F.L. Carsten, The Rise of Fascism (1969) is a good guide to developments as understood by historians before the subject became over-theorized. 

[3] See: on Rumania Iron Guard – Wikipedia; on Bulgaria History of Bulgaria (1878–1946) – Wikipedia; on Weimar Germany’s “Beer Hall Putsch” Beer Hall Putsch – Wikipedia 

[4] See Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen here (1936), a sort of instant-book intended to help derail Long’s pursuit of the presidency.  Carl Weiss got there first. 

[5] See, for example, Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning (2008). 

[6] Bruce Kuklick, Fascism Comes to America: A Century of Obsession in Politics and Culture (2022). 

Is Donald Trump a fascist? If so, is that a bad thing?

According to Robert Kagan in the Washington Post, Donald Trump constitutes a “singular threat to our democracy.”[1]  Trump’s chief pull on his supporters “is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence.”  He “provoke[s] and play[s] on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger [directed against] Muslims, Hispanics, women, Chinese, Mexicans, Europeans, Arabs, immigrants, refugees…His program,…consists chiefly of promises to get tough with foreigners and people of nonwhite complexion. He will deport them, bar them, get them to knuckle under, make them pay up or make them shut up.”

According to Kagan, Trump has aroused the “mobocracy” dreaded by the “Founders.”  Alexander Hamilton feared that “the unleashing of popular passions would lead not to greater democracy but to the arrival of a tyrant, riding to power on the shoulders of the people.”  “[I]n other democratic and quasi-democratic countries over the past century, [this] has generally been called “fascism.”  “Fascist movements had no coherent ideology,… fascism was not about policies but about the strongman, the leader (Il Duce, Der Führer), in whom could be entrusted the fate of the nation.”  “[If Trump] wins the election, his legions will likely comprise a majority of the nation.”  “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, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party — out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear — falling into line behind him.”

Well, no.  “Fascism” and “national socialism” (another term that Kagan throws around in a devil-may-care fashion) were born of grave social and economic crises ineffectually faced by liberal[2] governments between the two world wars.  The fascist movements adopted an emphatically anti-democratic stance.  They commonly resorted to “exemplary” violence.[3]  They sought to commandeer elections to create an obstructionist group in the legislature so as to paralyze democratic politics.

None of this is true of Donald Trump.  He has never proclaimed his opposition to democracy.  The Trumpsters have engaged in minor violence on rare occasions and usually only when provoked by leftists trying to prevent Trump from speaking.  Trump has no party.

Undoubtedly, the established parties have been put through the wringer in the past decade.  The Republican Party has been battered by the Tea Party movement and now by the Trump insurgency.  The Democrats saw their settled succession overthrown by Barack Obama and now tested by Bernie Sanders.  American voters aren’t just falling into line.  The question of what is behind these movements is enormously important.

I’m not planning on voting for Trump, although his opponents may yet talk me into it.[4]

[1] See: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/this-is-how-fascism-comes-to-america/2016/05/17/c4e32c58-1c47-11e6-8c7b-6931e66333e7_story.html

[2] Small “l” liberal: representative governments; an executive that can be evicted from office when it loses the support of the majority in the legislature; checks and balances; bills of civil rights and the rule of law; more or less free and fair elections.  The New Deal’s reliance on Southern white voters doesn’t disqualify it.  I suppose.

[3] Tying a Socialist mayor to a tree in the town square, then pouring castor oil down his throat, or kicking a newspaper editor to death in front of his wife and children for example.

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IiM9L49j7HY