The What And Why Of Fascist Tendencies In Western Politics
It can be no secret that the term ‘fascist’ has become a particularly cantankerous word in modern politics. Under the auspices of remittent crisis, ‘fascist’ is becoming a far more common way to describe today’s right-wing governments (not without controversy). And yet it remains a most uncooperative word when it comes to being defined. This could be because of the emotion it elicits or, I think more likely, because it is not an intransigent idea: fascism becomes moulded and bound to the culture in which it is cast. No fascist movement can be the same as another, simply because it demands adaptation to the wants and desires of the people it is deployed to ensnare.
It is tempting to seek an absolute, objective definition of a fascist, but, as I say, it is not the same everywhere and all the time. To work around this complication of semantics, it is more useful to understand fascism as a constant temptation on the part of politicians and citizens to retreat to base instinct and emotion. This is what Umberto Eco described as ‘Ur-Fascism’ – the timeless human characteristics which when present “allow fascism to coagulate around [them]."
These characteristics are deeply ingrained tribal urges which thousands of years of civilisation have conditioned us to repress. The urge to destroy our enemies and exclude those who we perceive as ‘others’. It is also the urge to follow the strongest, not the shrewdest, leader and therefore all fascist movements are anti-democratic in nature.
Fascism, understood this way, is ‘tempting’ because it is an appeal to base instincts and evolutionary mechanisms which almost never fail to elicit a powerful and vitriolic reaction from the polis. Unfortunately for those committed to democracy, the human drives that fascism makes use of are impossible to expunge from our psyche, hence ‘Ur-Fascism’.
Thus, deciding what fascism is and how it comes about is essential to understanding (and responding to) its machinations. Without a coherent and convincing vocabulary, the wheels of power can become almost impossible to question – it is one of fascism’s many goals to create an ‘impoverished vocabulary’ and an ‘elementary syntax’.
The ‘why’ of fascism is perhaps even more prescient in the current moment than what ‘fascism’ is. To respond to anti-democratic forces one must be able to identify to reasons behind that resentment that exists in today’s politics in order to remedy them. The rise of, in this case, right-wing populism cannot be extinguished by leaning on an atavistic diatribe that considers the citizens who voice these grievances as being so far gone from politics that they should not even be engaged. This has been the attitude of many who consider themselves ‘politically tolerant’ and yet it appears to have failed. Following Donald Trump’s election defeat in 2020, resentment of ‘liberals’ in America has reached a fever pitch – more Republican voters than ever believe that Trump won the election, only to have it snatched from him by a malicious cabal of Democrats.
Understanding and responding to what Chantal Mouffe has called the ‘populist moment’. is what could ultimately turn back a dangerous political force by realising that a huge proportion of democratic citizens feel excluded from the debate and, quite reasonably, see that politicians do not care about the things which matter to them.
What, and Where
It can be tempting to dismiss the idea of ‘neo-fascists’ as an overreaction in the face of something unnatural. However, this seems to also come from a place of liberal democratic arrogance – the misplaced belief that the values ‘we’ hold are universal and infallible. If history has taught us anything, it is that the ancien regime can fall at any moment, given the appropriate circumstances. Therefore, excusing the political tactics used by anti-democrats and their apparent similarity to fascist tactics as a mere coincidence is to fall victim to the normalisation of extremism. Jason Stanley writes:
Normalization of fascist ideology, by definition, would make charges of “fascism” seem like an overreaction, even in societies whose norms are transforming along these worrisome lines. Normalization means precisely that encroaching ideologically extreme conditions are not recognized as such because they seem normal.
In the past 20 years, we have clearly been witnessing a growing apathy toward this kind of anti-democracy. The use of law enforcement to incarcerate, en masse, mainly black American citizens for petty crimes has only fairly recently begun to be opposed by a broad sweep of Americans. Or, perhaps even more concerning is the tribalism expressed toward immigrants and refugees by populists along the lines of Donald Trump in America and Priti Patel in Britain. Despite the flagrancy of rhetoric that dehumanises migrants and policy which criminalises the innocent, these politicians still command a wide base of support.
To expose fascism for what it is, one must first tackle the idea that calling the tactics these politicians employ ‘fascist’ is in any way an overreaction. To do so, I shall draw the connection between the motifs of fascist regimes of the past and the right-wing populists of today. To reiterate, this is not to suggest that modern mainstream populism is ‘fascist’, rather I am suggesting that several of the tactics and dispositions of it are fascistic in nature and have a tendency toward undermining democracy.
The first of two parallels I wish to make are the similarities in the anti-intellectualism, and by extension suspicion of the media, between now and virtually all fascist regimes. The emotional drive behind, for example, Donald Trump’s brand of populism was a sense of feeling outcast by the establishment. I will elaborate on why this resonated in the question of ‘Why?’, but the most important thing to establish now is that it did resonate with 150 million Americans. This platform was built on a suspicion of ‘the swamp’, as Donald Trump put it. Coincidentally, ‘the swamp’ consisted of more than simply alligators: it was, in the eyes of millions, a cartel of politicians, intellectuals and media personalities who all conspired against the livelihood of the working American (Trump voters listed ‘the media’ as the biggest threat to America. This is, in essence, an archetypal case of the construction of the ‘they’. It differs from the anti-Semitism of the 20th century in that there is even a little truth to the idea of the ‘swamp’. Far from being totally concocted nonsense, many of Trump’s voters had good reason to feel maligned: the neoliberal hegemony of the previous four decades had left them with very few ways to recover following the loss of both income and housing after the financial crash of 2008. The ‘We versus They’ dichotomy is not uniquely fascistic, rather it is the blood of populism and can be mobilised to democratic ends. What is important to recognise is that in the case of right-wing populism, it has been used against rational debate, making it a mortal threat to democracy. This opposition to democracy is what, I believe, makes it reasonable to call it a ‘fascist’ tactic.
The most salient anti-intellectualism found among the Trumpists today is a vitriolic hatred of university campuses and professors. The university is, one of the many foundations of a functioning democracy, it provides a space to study and question the established codes of an era and without them, a society can be rendered politically mute. It is therefore rather telling when Turning Point USA, a major conservative ‘youth wing’, creates a ‘Professor Watchlist’ with a stated mission to ‘unmask radical professors’. The website features mugshots and a precis of various, primarily left-wing, statements that these intellectuals have said. The watchlist is particularly directed at new areas of study, such as Gender Studies and African American studies, which ask hard questions of the ‘greatness’ that Trumpism seeks to restore. Professors who undermine the narrative of a perfect America are, instead of being questioned and debated, derided as ‘cultural Marxists’, the boilerplate enemy of fascism. It is, put simply, a systematic attack on the freedom intellectuals must have to publish their ideas. Anthea Butler, a professor of Christianity who found themselves on the list wrote in 2016 that:
‘[T]he list is not simply designed to expose professors who discriminate; it is designed to silence and smear. And it helps feed information and screeds to similar sites like the College Fix and Campus Reform’
Despite this, the project is couched as a mission to uphold free speech as these professors allegedly ‘discriminate against conservative students’. This is a typical case of Orwellian doublethink, wherein by masquerading for a noble ideal, fascism instead destabilises it. In this case and many others, particular conservatives use a tactic replicated in fascism to undermine the free expression of ideas and thereby threaten the ability of a society to cogently articulate opposition to the far-right creep.
By endangering intellectualism, this fascist tactic wants us to leave behind reasonable questioning and instead emotionally commit to the ‘we’ of populism. Another way in which right-wing populists are able to stir emotion is something I alluded to earlier – the employment of radically simplified language so as to emaciate the intelligence of public discourse and, in much the same way as opposing intellectuals, it becomes far harder to oppose the ideology on rational grounds. Language is the basis of all political engagements, and thus the danger of a language being manipulated cannot be overstated – it gives those who manipulate it undue influence over the political discourse and, crucially, allows them to ‘limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning’. One of the more typical ways this is done today is through the use of inflammatory or unnecessarily emotive language in public rhetoric. This is, of course, not a new phenomenon in Western politics – the ‘super predator theory’ became widely popular among American politicians in the 1990s, so much so that Hillary Clinton, then First Lady, referenced the theory in a speech in 1996. The theory, first coined by John Dilulio Jr. in 1995, purported that there existed a group of impulsive and violent young men who would commit terrible crimes without even an inkling of remorse – the theory continued that such juveniles would have to be incarcerated for the rest of their lives so as to prevent them posing any further danger to society. The theory was, perhaps unsurprisingly, discredited, and yet it made a deep impact on the way judges treated defendants, particularly black teenagers, when sentencing them. The same effect can be seen in the language surrounding immigration. The fascists of the 1970s supposed that immigrants consisted almost entirely of disease-ridden scroungers. All that has changed in fascist rhetoric between then and now is the metric by which ‘they’ are dehumanised. This is, as I say, achieved through the use of inflammatory language such as ‘illegal aliens’, evoking invading groups of dangerous criminals that are not even human beings. Language such as this deliberately simplifies the motivations behind immigration to purely criminal ones. To a non-critical listener, it can seem as if the only thing immigration will bring to their country is crime, given the latent anger that a phrase like ‘illegal alien’ is evidently able to draw out in America. This kind of rhetoric is very useful to the fascist or the right-wing populist as it encourages a discarding of the critical faculties and a retreat to a purely emotional basis of thinking. In other words, it is able to manipulate voters into thinking based on ‘first impressions’ rather than a deeper analysis.
Once the tendencies of fascism have been identified in modern politics, it is as, if not more, important to ask the question of why this came about, especially as anti-democratic right-wing populism is more alive now than it has ever been in recent memory. This is because, in order to reverse the course of democratic decline, one must first identify the grievances that have caused it. Fascism can be so hard to dislodge because of the us vs. them mentality it creates, blaming ‘them’ for citizens difficulties and thereby entrenching resentment. A clue to how this resentment comes about can be found in what grievances politicians have exploited in order to encourage the populist mindset. Learning from this will enable democratic forces to approach said issues from a liberal perspective, and hopefully offer a more compelling answer than a simple scapegoat.
There are, of course, countless theories as to why we now experience a democratic recession – the one I shall address here is that of the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe, who has written extensively on the rise of right-wing populism. She approaches the subject from a post-Marxist perspective, first synthesised by Ernesto Laclau in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, although I shall draw most of Mouffe’s reasoning from her 2005 book On the Political. I find her reasoning particularly convincing as most of her central tenets have been played out in the political arena since its publishing, especially following the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent recession of Western economies. This brings me to my first reason for fascisms success today – economic hardship. This was seen historically in Nazi Germany – in 1928, the Nazi party only secured 2.63% of the vote. By the following election in 1930, after the Great Depression, Nazi support had ballooned to 18.25%. The depression brought about what the historian Benjamin Carter-Hett calls an ‘economic perfect storm’. A confluence of economic forces seemed to work against rural Germans – a drop in food prices over the whole of the 1920s had impoverished thousands of farmers, some of whom turned to the Nazis for an answer. Confidence in the democratic establishment diminished greatly over the following years, although not entirely due to economic conditions by any stretch. Yet there can be no doubt that economic uncertainty was a serious driver in enabling the anti-democratic candidate, Adolf Hitler, to rise to power in 1933. Therefore, an economic recession is one way by which faith in the democratic system can be eroded, particularly if citizens feel that little is being done to alleviate their own hardship.
However, economic factors are not the primary concern of Mouffe’s reasoning behind democratic recession. She sees a wider force at play, that of the ‘post-political’. Belonging to the tradition of the political theorist Carl Schmitt, she sees politics as an ‘agonistic’ field – that is to say, one sustained by the left-right divide and crucially, one that cannot continue to function without the disagreements between these two visions of a just society. This is the same observation made by Aristotle, who did not believe in such a thing as a ‘virtuous hermit’ – a hermit, in this case, being someone who removes themselves from political debate – and rather saw political virtue in vibrant and meaningful debate. The primary observation made in On the Political is that rather than politics being played in this agonistic way, between left and right, it has come instead to be defined by the ‘moral register’, wherein disagreements in politics are being defined by ‘a struggle between right and wrong’. This is what she believes is at the heart of why right-wing populism has become quite so salient – if the liberal democratic system is conceived as undoubtedly ‘right’, then any voice of dissatisfaction to it can only be conceived as ‘wrong’, and perhaps even ‘evil’, which turns it from an opponent to be engaged in debate into ‘an enemy to be destroyed’. This encourages disagreements to take an antagonistic form of expression, as the channels of dissent are shut off for those dissatisfied with ‘the system’, increasing their feelings of abandonment even more. Despite it being the mission of politicians after the collapse of the Soviet Union to remove these antagonisms, they have returned much stronger than before in the language and vitriol of the right-wing populist, and fascist, movements. Put briefly, ‘[t]his is why moral condemnation…has so often constituted the answer to the rise of right-wing populist movements’.
Why the post-political has taken hold over governments is a messy question, with hundreds of influences nudging Western politics in the direction it is going today, but I would like to examine one such current which I believe has had a particularly powerful impact. This is the new individualism of the 20th century, which arrived in Europe and America pregnant with the ideals of meritocracy. One can now see the effects of the meritocratic mentality on our politics: as meritocracy encourages the successful to believe that they deserve their own success, it has led to demeaning of the unsuccessful, both in terms of people and of ideas. On the latter point, the collapse of the Soviet Union led those in power to unquestioningly subscribe to the ‘liberal democracy’ of the day, as it had supposedly ‘won’. The ‘End of History’ mentality now manifests itself in an unwillingness to engage with political opponents simply because of a hubristic sense of self-righteousness. This demeans the importance of those outside the mainstream political sphere and inevitably leads them to increasingly more extreme candidates who promise to bring them back into the fold of government. In the case of demeaning people, this tends to take shape in their ideas being disregarded, hence Hillary Clinton referring to Trump supporters as a ‘basket of deplorables’.
Therefore, feeling abandoned by the economic system and then having their grievances attenuated when their demands were suppressed by a neo-liberal ‘consensus at the centre’ by leaders such as Tony Blair in Britain and Barack Obama in the US, a broad sweep of voters have turned instead to those supposedly outside the system for answers and solutions. The answers they have provided have been many – ‘liberals’, the European Union, immigrants or, thankfully less commonly, ‘Jewry’. What they all have in common is that they are highly emotionally charged and in the case of the extreme end, highly dubious as a point of fact, two things essential to fascist success. Nevertheless, these answers have motivated massive turnout in their favour – Donald Trump in America, UKIP, and Boris Johnson in this country.
Fascist politics is alive and well in the populist moment of today – it can be found in both the language and actions of a disconcerting number of our leaders, even when it is veiled in seemingly plausible, rational rhetoric. Recognising when and where it appears, and then understanding why it has done so is the only way that it can be effectively combatted. I have presented just a few examples of where it has emerged into the political mainstream and what I see as the best way to explain its success. It may be that by returning to and embracing the left-right, agonistic style of politics that the anti-democratic antagonisms of today’s populism can be tempered, and a more vibrant and healthy debate can emerge where democracy and truth remain the guiding principles. I will end with a call from Umberto Eco:
‘Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world’