Fascism’s Progeny

What passes for political debate has become so debased that “fascist” has entered our mainstream reporting.

Jan 18, 2017 at 1:24 pm

Calling someone a “Nazi” or “racist” usually precludes further conversation.

Not so, “fascist.”

What passes for political debate has become so debased that “fascist” has entered our mainstream reporting.

Inauguration isn’t going to stop it.  

Leftists call conservatives “fascists.” Conservatives call liberals “fascists.” 

That suggests that Americans only know that “fascist” a foreign word that means “bad.” Sort of like “Commie” in an earlier generation.

Recent examples of this Trump=Fascist meme include a New York Times full-page by refusefascism.org. In huge type, the ad starts, “NO!” Then it says, “In the name of humanity we refuse to accept a fascist America.” 

After a wide-ranging description of Donald Trump policies and promises, the ad closes with, “Stop the Trump/Pence regime before it starts!” 

From what I read and hear, reporters rarely ask speakers what they mean by “fascist” other than disapproval. Maybe that’s why critics go unchallenged when they damn Trump’s strongman posturing, promises and bullying provocations as “fascist.” 

To a degree, it’s also guilt by association with some of Trump’s more distasteful supporters. Hating minorities while loving an omnipotent leader with fantasies of greatness are popular features of fascism. 

If reporters need a guide to distinguish the “fascist” epithet from action, Timothy Snyder, a Yale history professor, recently offered one on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show

From its origin after World War I, “Fascism was a reaction against globalization. It was the claim that one should put one’s own country and one’s own people first. Fascism put a face on globalization. It said that globalization wasn’t just a matter of rules or challenges, but of specific enemies, usually ethnic enemies, often arrayed in some kind of a conspiracy. 

“Fascism said we shouldn’t try to understand the world with a reason, but instead rely on faith — not faith in God, but faith in a particular leader. So fascism put emotions ahead of thoughts. It put will ahead of reasonability.”

After 1918, “Fascists (and) their followers by way of elections or other means, were able to overturn democracies throughout Central and Eastern Europe. And we see something like a similar pattern emerging now.”

Snyder identified key elements in the rise of fascism, including  “obvious inequality as a result of this thing that we now call globalization. … There was a Great Depression, there was trade war, there was the experience at both the local and the national level that we should be doing better than we are, which led to counter-productive elections, counter-productive trade policies.”

Moreover, “We’ve gotten ourselves convinced that ideas don’t matter anymore, that all the big ideas have left the framework, which is just not the case. The idea, for example, that truth doesn’t matter, the whole post-factual business that we’re now getting used to. That’s actually a fascist idea for the 1920s and 1930s, that one should have faith in individuals, one can ignore the facts. … Those are the kinds of ideas which allow regimes to change.”

Host Rehm asked if Trump “falls into the category of behaving with fascist beliefs.”

Snyder responded, “I find it very hard to know what the man actually believes. … The way fascism works is to deny the importance of consistency, right? And Mr. Trump is someone who has generally taken both sides of every position.”

Snyder said “one clue is who he likes abroad” and “one could consider the fact that Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin have been carrying out for the past half decade a resuscitation of far-right-wing and indeed sometimes fascist traditions, and have been supporting with propaganda and with money much of the European far right.”

Speaking of Trump rallies, Snyder said, “There are some patterns which are quite familiar to those of us who have watched the films or read the transcripts of rallies from the 1920s and 1930s. The first is the total hostility to facts, right? That you just most of the time say things that aren’t true. 

“The second is the kind of shamanistic incantation, which in Trump’s case was, ‘build that wall’ and ‘lock her up.’ Things which are criminal, things which we know are not actually going to happen, but which establish a kind of mystical relationship between the crowd and the person. 

“The third is magical thinking. You know, the constant promise at the rallies that we’re going to simultaneously cut taxes, pay off the national debt, increase spending on domestic policy and on defense. 

“We all know that this is impossible, right? But we embrace it. And then, finally, the final element, which is very similar to interwar fascist rallies, would be the misplaced faith. 

“Where Trump says things like ‘I alone can solve this’ or ‘I am your voice,’ which can lead people to confuse their faith in the leader with truth or can lead people to abandon their own claim to individually discern what’s actually going on. That’s very similar and that’s alarming.”

Fascism is tangential to my personal experience. By the time I was born, 1930s American infatuation with dictators and fascism was waning. As a teenager, I knew men who fought European fascists in the Spanish Civil War and American Silver Shirt fascists in the streets of this country.

When I lived in Italy in the early 1960s, I couldn’t avoid or ignore the unapologetically neo-fascist MSI (Movimento Sociale Italiano). MSI was a sometimes-violent party in search of glory that Mussolini promised when he created fascismo after World War I.

Lest we forget, fascism was Italy’s gift to the world. It influenced Hitler and less genocidal authoritarian leaders before and since World War II.  

Italians nurture selective memories of fascism. Last year, we saw a shop in Rome selling modern cast metal toy soldier images of Hitler and Mussolini in their pre-war glory. Both dictators are dead, but fascism’s progeny are coming to power by the ballot box as they did before World War II. 

Whether what journalists call “right wing populism” will follow the fascist trajectory in Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and other European countries is uncertain. However, xenophobic, authoritarian nationalist parties are rising at the expense of more liberal governments. 

Even Russia, which lost tens of millions to the Germans and their fascist allies, isn’t immune to fascism’s allure under Putin today.

In our country, the challenge for national news media will be to shake off traditional deference to whomever is in the White House and find the courage to rebuff partisan attacks on their reporting and motives.

Journalists could do worse than refer to Snyder’s insights on fascism as they assess and report on Trump, his family, appointees and administration policies and actions. 

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]