The “deradicalization” of Trump voters grew into a hot topic right after the 2020 election, and the one-word pretext for the proposed WWII-style reeducation of MAGAstan’s naughty wrong-thinkers was fascism. Throughout the presidency of Donald Trump, practically every member of the left-leaning and Never-Trump punditclatura wrote an article regaling their readers in vague but lurid terms about how the former president and his supporters reflected fascist behavior and ideology.
[A]lienation, deterioration of community, breakdown of authority, free-floating anxiety, and economic insecurity…
Even the most serious and knowledgeable among them—including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright— wrote breathlessly about the dark specter of fascism hiding in the closet, waiting for nightfall to emerge and transform America into the Fourth Reich. Even some psychiatrists diagnosed the former president and his voters with “fascist mass psychosis,” using the suspect tools of associative thinking and seemingly very little research or self-reflection.
It’s tempting to apply the ancient adolescent wisdom of “he that smelt it dealt it” to this farrago—to assert that all the left-sympathetic witch hunters who fingered fascist shadows in the White House or among conservatives, in general, were the real fascists. National Review‘s Jonah Goldberg did just that for years, first on his blog, then in a subsequent (and quite informative) book, Liberal Fascism (2008). But simple accusations of hypocrisy obscure a concern that is, so to speak, fascism-adjacent.
Yes, warnings of resurgent fascism from either side of the aisle smack of delusion and historical apophenia, but the social problems which, by most accounts, engendered historical fascism still are very much with us today. The alienation, deterioration of community, breakdown of authority, free-floating anxiety, and economic insecurity that laid open Italy and Germany to fascism are far more advanced now than they were in the 1920s and 1930s—orders of magnitude more advanced. Fascism may not be where we are headed, but the lingering myth of fascism may help drive us into a very bad situation, one yet to earn its name.
EXAGGERATING “FASCISM,” FROM ORWELL TO TODAY
It is important to clarify before going further that fascism does not exist. It used to exist, but no present-day government or mainstream political party self-identifies as “fascist.” A quick glance at Wikipedia will show that even scholars who make historical fascism their lives’ study can’t agree on so much as a rule-of-thumb definition for fascism, let alone use that definition to judge present-day cases in abstractum. Today, the word “fascism” is very much like “vampire”—chilling and viscerally unsettling, but imaginary. Anyone who calls a living person a “fascist” is wrong. And anyone today who calls himself a “fascist” or “neo-Nazi” resembles a mental patient who asserts he is a duke or a KGB spy, and who insists that calling himself one makes it so.
The transubstantiation of fascism from a historical and concrete noun into a catchall term of evil started almost the instant real fascism imploded. George Orwell wrote in 1944:
“It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else … almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist.’ That’s about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.” (Links added.)
In line with Orwell, “fascism” today is nothing more nor less than a synonym for “totalitarian,” “political conservative,” “odious authority figure,” or “heretic” in the political religion of liberal democracy. “Fascism” has provided a rich, empty space in which politicians and public figures of all sorts may box in adversaries, and in which they strive to avoid finding themselves boxed. The American left has styled every major conservative leader since Nixon as “fascist”—including John McCain, both Bushes, Mitt Romney, and Rush Limbaugh. Ronald Reagan had whole books written about his crypto-fascism. Reductio ad Hitlerium stands as the most potent political weapon available to modern political operatives.
The American left seems to have set a similar goal of fascizing everyone and everything that is not Democrat or progressive liberal.
The tactic, however, was not the American left’s invention. As Goldberg relates, propagandists under instructions from Joseph Stalin called everyone and everything that was not orthodox communist as “fascist,” thus replacing “bourgeoisie” and “capitalist” as the Evil Other in Soviet cosmology. The American left seems to have set a similar goal of fascizing everyone and everything that is not Democrat or progressive liberal.
But for all these assertions and propaganda, talk about modern conservatives inheriting the fascist mantle isn’t right. In fact, it isn’t even wrong. “Gibberish” may be more on the mark.
Fascism’s supposedly apodictic place on the far-right of the political spectrum turns out to be a bogus, choice morsel of circular reasoning: “the far-right” is defined as “fascism,” and “fascism” as “the far-right.” But when one knows, as we do, that fascism lacks any definition outside of historical exemplars, the circle fails to connect. Historical fascists persecuted conservatives as well as communists and pandered to progressive as well as reactionary passions depending on time, place, and necessity.
While too straightforward for academic pettifoggery and useless to modern propagandists, Benito Mussolini proffered an early definition of fascism that proved robust in light of subsequent events:
“If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and those who claim to be the bearers of objective immortal truth, then there is nothing more relativistic than Fascist attitudes and activity. From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, we Fascists conclude that we have the right to create our own ideology and to enforce it with all the energy of which we are capable.”
In other words, fascists make it up as they go along. Fascist leaders came up with their policies, mythology, and actions as convenience and advantage dictated, and they revised their positions without consistency or reason (self-contradiction being no obstacle). Unstable? Certainly, but not ‘far-right,’ and about as distant from Burkian conservatism as one gets. In the end, historical fascism doesn’t seem to fit on the left-right political spectrum at all.
[F]ascism has become the mythological obsession of our age—an emotionally fraught, secular Satan used to justify all manner of nonsense.
A forgettable show on Amazon Prime (The Man in the High Castle) explores an alternative reality in which the Axis powers won WWII and ruled the world. Ironically, in an intellectual sense, that’s just what really happened. The fascists suffered defeat on the battlefield, but they won the war of ideas. “Make it up as you go along” has replaced reasoned parliamentarism and traditional principles of any sort in western politics. Political parties within and across countries are growing indistinguishable from one another, as they fasten on whatever political fashions inflame the public’s hysterical attention and exploit that attention for short-term raw power, sweeping aside any principles their party used to hold.
The purpose of deconstructing these misconceptions of fascism is not to overburden the reader with historical trivia or semantics. Rather, it’s to demonstrate that fascism has become the mythological obsession of our age—an emotionally fraught, secular Satan used to justify all manner of nonsense. The literature on fascism—and Nazism in particular—overflows the bookstores and grows every year. There may be no subject more riveting to the imaginations of both academics and the general public, on par with sex and sports. It would come as no surprise if, in 100 years, the period from WWII to the present became known as the “post-fascist era,” a time when the west defined itself by its opposition to a dead-and-buried political movement.
HISTORICAL FASCISM AND THE POST-ENLIGHTENMENT COMMUNITY
And yet, the tilting at fascist windmills and name-calling persists. What underlying fascination sticks our attention to historical fascism and attempts to bring it back to life as a bugbear in the 21st century? The same unresolved psychological discontents at the root of historical fascism dog us today, tracing back to the Enlightenment’s creation of the atomized individual and its shattering of local attachments.
“The historic triumph of secularism and individualism has presented a set of problems that looms large in contemporary thought. The modern release of the individual from traditional ties of class, religion, and kinship has made him free; but, on the testimony of innumerable works in our age, this freedom is accompanied not by the sense of creative release but by the sense of disenchantment and alienation. The alienation of man from historic moral certitudes has been followed by the sense of man’s alienation from fellow man.”
The infernal genius of historical fascism, for its part, was that it addressed the vacuum of community and purpose of post-Enlightenment individualism identified by Nisbet, as well as the particular alienation many Europeans struggled with after WWI, when so much sense of community and stability was lost to them nationally and internationally. Fascism gave people back a sense of unity, stability, and purpose—an aspect of Fascism and Nazism rarely dramatized in modern movies and literature, which tend to portray Germans and Italians of the period as soulless melodrama villains. “The greatest appeal of the totalitarian party,” Nisbet writes, “lies in its capacity to provide a sense of moral coherence and communal membership to those who have become, to one degree or another, victims of the sense of exclusion from the ordinary [traditional] channels of belonging in society.”
Following the Enlightenment, western peoples erected the centralized state and, in the process, deliberately hollowed out the local faith, family, clan, village, and guild that before had defined societies.
Both 20th-century fascism and the breakdown of social cohesion we witness today are facets of the single ongoing catastrophe Burkian conservatives have predicted ever since conservatism began in the bloody and tumultuous aftermath of the French Revolution. Nisbet points out conservatives of the time feared that “the Revolution had opened the gates for forces which, if unchecked, would in time disorganize the whole moral order of Christian Europe and lead to control by the masses and to despotic power without precedent. … Release man from the contexts of community and you get not freedom and rights but intolerable aloneness and subjection to demonic fears and passions.”
None of this is to suggest the present-day American is experiencing some new degeneration of community or sense of alienation analogous to pre-WWII Italy or Germany. The point is rather that the plight of the disconnected and “free” western individual fundamentally hasn’t changed.
Following the Enlightenment, western peoples erected the centralized state and, in the process, deliberately hollowed out the local faith, family, clan, village, and guild that before had defined societies. The advantages of a centralized state could not fill the interpersonal void, resulting in a dearth of belonging and an aching emptiness. Men became “citizens”—undifferentiated members of the unitary central state—not unique neighbors, parishioners, kinsmen, landholders belonging to the environs and its particular people. Our cultural fixation with historical fascism likely traces to its bold attempt–however ill-conceived and disastrous–to solve with a coercive central state the disconnection of whole peoples from one another.
WAR WILL KEEP US TOGETHER
In practice, war and external conflict has been the salve for 20th-century man’s aloneness and its accompanying “demonic fears and passions.” As anyone old enough to remember 9/11 and the War on Terror will recall, wartime spirit in our age pulls peoples together and nurtures selflessness. Nesbit observes:
“One of the most impressive aspects of contemporary war is the intoxicating atmosphere of spiritual unity that arises out of the common consciousness of participating in a moral crusade. War is no longer simply an affair of military establishments and matériel and soldiers. It is now something more nearly akin to the Crusades of medieval Europe, but in the name of nation rather than of the Church … Society attains its maximum sense of organization and community and its most exalted sense of moral purpose during the period of war. Since it is always, now, identified with a set of essentially nonmilitary values—democracy, freedom, hatred of fascism, et cetera—there is an inevitable tendency for the nature of war itself to become more spiritualized and to seem more moral.”
But international war may no longer be a valve politicians can twist to release modernity’s psychic pressure. Present-day warfare—most notably atomic weapons—has made international war too unpredictable and disruptive to the globalized trade. We have just witnessed a poor attempt at substitution by America’s political class (‘We will win the war against Coronavirus!‘, etc.), but such ersatz “conflict” plainly failed to unify the country in the manner of real war.
The only alternative seems to be attacking ourselves; for to use a physics metaphor, what cannot explode outward must explode inward. What form that explosion will take is hard to say, but however it unfolds, labeling half the country as “fascists” and miscreants deserving shame, police surveillance, show trials, and sanctions certainly seems like a promising first step to internal conflict.