The appellation fascist or fascism has been applied to many people and movements over the years, and more often than not, it has been used incorrectly etymologically, that is, in terms of its historical and philosophical origins. Most often it has been used by the left to describe people or movements on the right. To be sure, from time to time one hears people on the right using it against the left, too, and particularly in recent years. In essence, it has become a convenient pejorative that has a certain desired impact, namely, it offends, for it is hard to imagine a political outlook that could be much worse, even though I suspect most who use it (or deride its use, for that matter) are unfamiliar with its historical meaning, that is, other than in the most superficial sense that it applied to certain European dictators and regimes in the 20th century. A facile use of the designation has had the unfortunate effect of causing many otherwise sober-minded people to overlook its proper use, and, what I view as particularly dangerous, there has been a failure to recognize when it is the appropriate label. By any other name, and whether people want to acknowledge it or not, and that includes some soothsayers and deniers in academia and among the chattering and pundit classes, fascism is definitely on the rise.
I have studied fascism and fascistic movements for much of my life. I have read its major philosophical progenitors, mostly French, Italian, and German thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and I have studied its development and practice in several localities with some notable differences, but also with some common themes. And based on this research, I believe there are very definite worrisome fascistic trends that obtain today in Latin America, the Middle East, Europe, and in the United States, trends spearheaded by leaders who evince both fascistic doctrines and styles of leadership, whether or not they are themselves fully aware of it from an intellectual standpoint. Comparisons to Hitler or Mussolini are often overused and usually inaccurate in terms of some of the unique personal capacities and traits of these men versus some today who are operating on the public stage. Both men were creatures of their times and influenced by particular upbringings and experiences. They also were quite different from one another intellectually and temperamentally. With that said, the writings and practices of both are useful as propaedeutics in understanding the essential characteristics of fascism, both as seen by its principal actors, historically, and to help us understand how it might be manifested today.
Let me begin by stating unequivocally, Fascism does not fit in the traditional ideological categories of right and left, which is not the way pundits representing either ideological extreme would like to have it, namely, by suggesting that fascism represents the ideology of the other side. The fact that this is even possible by both sides partly explains why fascism can appeal to many people even of disparate orientations, for it incorporates principles from both the right and the left. Fascism is nearly always presented by academics as a species of far right-wing politics, but that is both inaccurate and overly simplistic. It is more comforting for the typical intellectual or academic to put it that way, since he is more often than not of a liberal mindset. No less than an authority than Hitler himself thought Nazism, a species of fascism, transcended ideologies on the left and right, borrowed from both, and was what he called “syncretic.”
Fascism is also sometimes characterized as or mistaken for a species of populism, and while it certainly has populist overtones, it is also quite different from it, indeed, in its fully-realized form, it is the exact opposite of populism, insofar as it is the leader who becomes the embodiment of the state and its peoples. To be sure, populist political techniques can and certainly will be used to attain power, but the goal of fascism is not in any way, shape, or form democratic, indeed, it is anti-democratic. Many on the left have viewed some recent movements as populist, when, in fact, they are far more fascistic in nature. They are guilty of mistaking popular appeal with populism, which at its root is a democratic movement in support of the rights and power of ordinary people. Fascism is about the power of the state and its leader, which subsumes the interests of the people.
The remarkable thing about fascism is its relative incoherency as a doctrine, as it does not offer a systematic view of the world as with a typical ideology or political philosophy. As much as anything, fascism is about the behavior of its leader, his style, and it is highly transactional in the sense that whatever facilitates the attainment of its goal, which ultimately is the power and the identity of the leader with the state, a leader who is seen as the solution to all problems and who becomes the embodiment and incarnation of vox populi, is what it will adopt as its method or praxis. And whatever stands in the way of this goal simply will be rejected. Here is the key to understanding fascism: it is about power. It is at once transactional and utilitarian. Part of the problem and reason that many have failed to recognize fascism when they see it is that they are looking for its leaders to delineate a systematic and coherent doctrine when they should be looking instead for personal behaviors and some general characteristics.
I have written elsewhere at some length and in several articles why I believe Trumpism is a manifestation of fascist tendencies in the United States, and why I believe that Trump is himself a fascist, even without his knowing that he is, as he is an utterly and unreservedly unlettered man, someone who is an entirely instinctual vessel of fascism. But my purpose, here, is not to deconstruct Trumpism or provide examples of his fascistic ways and beliefs. Rather, it is to provide a general précis on some of the principal attributes of fascism insofar as it can be codified in order to provide a guide that might prove useful in examining recent and future events in the United States and in other countries. Here are ten characteristics that were present in the major fascistic movements of the last century and are reappearing today.
Fascism is a form of hyper-nationalism that capitalizes (note, that is as much a method as a goal) on two principal outlooks, namely, strong patriotic feelings, often founded on a mythical past that never occurred or that is highly distorted, and accompanied by the vilification of groups seen detrimental to both the nation’s purity and the national interest–––groups most often represented by an ethnic, racial, or religious affiliation, cosmopolitan elites, and outsiders more generally. Both jingoism and revanchist claims are both common aspects of
While there certainly are elements of anti-elitist populism, power to the masses is not the goal, indeed, far from it. The people are but a means to an end, and the irony is that ordinary people are willing participants, for, truth be known, democracy is not their goal, they approve of their authoritarian leader(s). Fascism seeks to co-opt those presently in power, for power is its ultimate objective, and because it is more than willing to use utilitarian means to attain its ends, it will curry favor with economic, political, and intellectual elites wherever and whenever it can to secure it, and it will take full advantage of existing institutions and laws to accomplish its ends.
Related to the last point, fascism freely borrows from both socialist and capitalist doctrines, in that obtaining and maintaining power is its goal, and despite railing against economic elites when it suits its purpose, fascism itself does not entail a systematic economic doctrine other than that which is seen as necessary to attain its ends and to benefit the state, which includes subsuming whatever economic power or centers of influence might be necessary to attain those ends, whether through markets, corporate interests, or popular measures with the masses. It is perhaps no coincidence that Mussolini was once a socialist involved in the labor movement (which he would destroy), and that Nazism had a vibrant socialist wing in its earlier years, one eventually quashed (the Night of the Long Knives) by the mid-thirties and replaced by a kind of quasi-capitalism, an economic system best described as state corporatism or crony capitalism, and in the case of both Italy and Germany, laden with considerable kleptocracy activity among some of its leaders.
Conspiratorial and exclusionary thinking about groups and forces aligned against the movement is part and parcel to all fascistic movements, and they play central roles in the rallying cries of its leaders, whether the bogeyman is international Jewry, Muslims, a particular ethnic group, the bourgeoisie, large corporate interests, liberal elites, communists, or the media. These groups are always conspiring against the legitimate powers and are usually blameworthy for problems past and present. Victimhood is a common feature, as problems or deficiencies must be attributed to others.
When out of power, fascistic movements always declaim against the legitimacy of those in power as usurpers and criminals who, through their machinations, rig outcomes and are not the true representatives of the people or the nation.
Every successful fascistic movement has been led by a charismatic and often bombastic demagogue who claims to be the embodiment of the nation, the vessel of the national will, and as the exceptional person without whom the nation is unable to prosper or survive. The state and its leader effectively becomes one, and unlike some other forms of totalitarianism or authoritarianism, the interests of state are inextricably tied to the leader who, for all practical purposes, is seen as the state made flesh.
A fascistic movement will often view violence as a just means of achieving its ends, whether outside of or through the state, and ironically, law and order are common code words used to justify it. Calls for violence or hints of violent recourse against opponents are common. There is often an exaggerated, hyper-masculinity on parade, with glorification of toughness and strength and power. There is a display of an authoritarian bearing, and the leader’s followers are unabashed admirers of it. In the modern era, violence may be more symbolic through posturing and threats than real, but hints of it through synecdoche and metonyms are often used to great effect in speeches and at rallies.
Despite the popular appeals to “law and order,” a trope and signal calling card of authoritarianism more generally, the fascistic conception of law lies outside of any legislative or judicial proceedings or the kinds of protections or due process enshrined by a constitutional authority. Often the law is construed as that which us willed by the individual or individuals in power. In other words, the liberal democratic principle of rule of law is essentially discarded.
An attribute of all fascistic movements is the creation of alternate realities, often with an adamant and repetitive disregard for the truth, even in the face of abundant veridical evidence to the contrary, especially when it serves the ends of its partisans or when said evidence conflicts with doctrine or the interests of the leadership.
Symbolism is often an important aspect of fascism, especially patriotic symbols that evoke feelings of group identity and shared destiny. The Nazis, in particular, made effective use of this. Stagecraft is of particular importance, including patriotic regalia, lighting, and music. The use of memes and symbols to vilify opponents is ever present in fascistic movements–––against those who would jeopardize the national interest from within or from without–––or they are used to encapsulate the magnificence of the world envisioned versus the depravity or inferiority of the alternative are prominent in fascistic Making the nation great as opposed to what internal or external malefactors have done or would do.
My list is not exhaustive, by any means, and there are variations on these themes and on the importance that each plays in a particular strain of fascism. But I think that both in terms of its underlying philosophy and where it has been put into practice, these ten characteristics encapsulate the major features of a fascistic regime, which, to no small degree, is a is inseparable from the style and persona of its leadership, for fascism is not simply a matter of ideology, but one of personality. There are several very disturbing aspects of fascistic outlook, to be sure–––both in terms of its aspirations as well as its underlying motivations and what actuates it as a movement. Of particular concern, however, is the fact that it is quite dismissive of the rule of law and it is not rooted in any overarching conception of justice. In fact, with fascism, the benefit of the governed is ultimately seen as whatever benefits the ruler, and the ruler is in effect the embodiment, indeed, the raison d’être for the state. It is a critical error to look for a highly-systematic doctrine or an overarching weltanschauung. Fascism is at bottom very transactional and utilitarian in the sense that the power of the leader and his identity with the national interest are paramount. There are some typical tools that I’ve enumerated, but these do not in and of themselves describe the endgame, and it is easy to confuse means with ends when analyzing the fascistic state and those who would lead it. Not so long ago that kind of regime resulted in the deaths and suffering of millions, and many millions more would sacrifice their lives to eradicate it from the world. What will be said of our time and of our generation if all that loss proves to have been in vain?
Michael Berumen is a retired business executive and published author on diverse topics including economics, mathematics, music, and philosophy. He has lectured to civic, academic, and business audiences internationally, and testified before the U.S. Congress and local legislative and regulatory bodies as an expert witness. He has served on various boards of directors. Among other things, he is the author of the book Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business. A longtime Californian, he and his wife have live happily in retirement in Colorado.