Fascism: A ConcernHistorians in the News
tags: conservatism, far right, political history, fascism, Donald Trump
It’s a word that’s been appearing with increasing frequency recently, including in The Times. But what does fascism actually mean? To what extent can American politics, present and past, be described as fascist? And is it even a useful word anymore? Here’s what people are saying.
The word fascism has become so freighted with meaning that it can be difficult to define; today, it is often used as a shallow epithet for any politics one strongly dislikes. As a historical term, however, fascism refers to the current of far-right, anti-democratic ultranationalism that coursed through Europe in the interwar period. Although primarily associated with Adolf Hitler, fascism first gained form as a paramilitary and political movement under Benito Mussolini in 1919. The name of Mussolini’s party derived from “fasces,” the Latin word for a bundle of wooden rods containing an ax that symbolized power in ancient Rome, and which Mussolini used to represent the Italian people bound by the authority of the state.
A fascist government, as Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian of authoritarianism at New York University, explains, has only one party, led by a dictator who through violence has shut down all opposition, including from the judiciary, the press and so-called enemies of the state.
But what makes fascism distinct from other forms of authoritarianism? Here are a few signature characteristics according to Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale and the author of “How Fascism Works.”
The mythic past: Fascism appeals to an imaginary and glorious past destroyed by the forces of liberalism, cosmopolitanism and globalism. The fantasy of a uniform past can take on multiple dimensions — racial, cultural, religious — but it is invariably patriarchal. The enshrinement of traditional gender roles lends moral authority to the strongman to impose his will on the present.
“Us” vs. “them”: Through appeals to the mythic past, fascism establishes a hierarchy of human worth: e.g., law-abiding over criminal, hard-working over lazy, racially pure over impure, heterosexual over homosexual, abled over disabled. Those deemed worthy are considered the nation’s true people, or in German, the “Volk.” Those deemed unworthy are singled out as threats to the Volk, “straw men and women ready to be cast into the roles of rapists, murderers, terrorists.”
Unreality: False distinctions between worthy and unworthy populations are enforced through propaganda and anti-intellectualism that corrode shared reality, degrade language and create fertile ground for conspiracy theories to flourish. Crucially, as Hannah Arendt wrote, the hallmark of fascist propaganda is not just that it promotes lies, which is characteristic of propaganda in general, but that it promotes lies in service of policy that seeks to make them true.
Atomization: While fascist movements emphasize certain collective identities, they also tend to promote a social Darwinist ethic, according to which the individual must struggle against others for power and resources in free-market competition. Class divisions must therefore be minimized through the dismantling of labor movements and unions, possessing as they do the potential to promote solidarity across differences that fascism depends on exploiting. That fascism is most effective in times of severe economic inequality is another reason it targets labor unions.
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