As a student of fascism and National Socialism, particularly in the 1930s, I side with those who say that Trump still falls on the “populist” side of the spectrum. That hardly means that he or the people who claim to be part of his movement do not pose a threat to democracy, but the type of threat differs from that posed by “classical” fascists.
Still, given how prevalent the term fascism has become in American and European political debates — and there is a parallel discussion across the Atlantic over whether France’s Front National, led by Marie Le Pen, or Germany’s Pegida party, or Austria’s Freedom Party ought to be described as fascist or populist — it is worth carefully considering what made fascism distinct and so politically powerful. Doing so will allow us to gain a better handle on whether we face similar dangers today to those of the ’30s.
Academics have fought passionately over how to define fascism, but scholars generally focus on four crucial characteristics. First fascists were nationalists: They believed the nation, rather than individuals (like liberals) or classes (like Marxists), was the key actor in political life; that it existed above or separate from the citizens composing it; and that it had a special mission or “soul” that needed to be nurtured and protected from internal and external enemies…
Second, fascists shared a deep suspicion of capitalism, because it disrupted and divided national communities and destroyed national traditions. They therefore advocated a level of state intervention in the economy surpassed only by the contemporary Soviet Union…
Third, fascists were deeply anti-liberal and anti-democratic. Liberalism was rejected for its promotion of individualism and individual rights, its emphasis on reason and rationality, its acceptance of pluralism, and its cosmopolitanism. As Mussolini once argued, “The man of fascism is [not merely] an individual, he is nation and fatherland.” The good life, he suggested, is one “in which the individual, through the denial of himself, through the sacrifice of his own private interests, through death itself, realized that completely spiritual existence in which his value as a man lies.” (Self-denial and the sacrifice of self-interests are not qualities that Trump is especially known for.)…
Fourth, fascists embraced violence as a means and an end. Fascism was revolutionary: It aimed not to reform but to destroy the modern world — and for this, a constant and probably violent struggle would be necessary. Violence was not merely the method through which revolution would be accomplished; it was valuable in and of itself, providing supporters with powerful “bonding” experiences and “cleansing” the nation of its weaknesses and decadence….
I recommended Berman’s treatment of social capital and the fall of the Weimar Republic in my post on Comparative Politics and the Trump Administration, as the interwar years provide an excellent example of what the rise of fascism actually looked like. One key point that I take from Berman’s work on the rise of the NSDAP in Germany is that fascists organize.* Fascists don’t crush unions, they embrace them so that they can be used. Fascists don’t want people to be politically anesthetized, eyes glued to the popular media, they want people to sacrifice time and money to show their might as a movement. What made the NSDAP distinctive in interwar Germany was not its virulent anti-Semitism, but rather its ability to organize a political movement and later the administrative machinery to act upon that anti-Semitism.
The phenomena to look for in anticipating fascism—in the US and anywhere—are corporatism, syndicalism, and organized mass mobilization. Not celebrity, cronyism, and politics by tweet.
* It is in this sense that Indonesia’s Golkar (“functional groups”) under the New Order—with its embrace of (heavily controlled) labor unions, its forced mass mobilization, and metaphors of nation as body and family—was the closest thing that Southeast Asia has ever had to a fascist organization.