Because I am a tremendous nerd, I sometimes argue with people who claim that Donald Trump or [literally any other politician] is a fascist.
“Well, actually,” I say, pushing my glasses up my nose and adopting a nasal whine, “fascism was a real, horrible political philosophy. Just being an authoritarian jackass does not automatically make you a fascist.”
And then people get bored and pretend they got a really important text and spend the next 20 minutes checking their phones so they don’t have to talk to me.
I still think it’s an important distinction to make. Fascism was very real, and ruled and murdered millions in the service of the some of the most incoherent ideology ever cobbled together.
Fascism bubbled up just after the First World War from earlier traditions of violent, armed protest movements, and from the associations of former soldiers left at loose ends in the wake of the war. It absorbed ideas from across the political spectrum, especially if they were ugly and extreme.
This new ideology claimed to chart a “third way” between capitalism and socialism, and to avoid the pitfalls of “weak” democratically elected politicians.
What fascists actually believed – or said they believed – varied quite a bit, but between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy and their allies, puppet states, and idiotic fan clubs abroad, you can see a few similarities.
• Totalitarianism. They thought that the state could meddle in any human affairs, from the serious to the trivial. This included economics, which was generally capitalist, unless the state had an interest.
• Rabid nationalism. Patriotism pushed to its xenophobic extreme, fascists always think their country/ethnic group is the greatest! And therefore deserves a slice of land of that country next door…
• Contempt for politics. Fascists think democratic governance is worthless, that elected officials are scum, and that people who have violently forced their way into the job are clearly much better suited for the task. Sure, that sounds like it will always end well.
• Rebirth. Combining the contempt for politics and the nationalism, fascists usually think their country needs a thorough cleaning out. The nation is weak, and it must be strengthened!
• Manliness. Fascism is not just about action, it’s about virility and toughness. Everything is big and mighty and covered with lightning bolts and skulls and the kind of stuff 13-year-old boys doodle in the margins of their textbooks. There’s not a lot of room for women in fascism except as wombs on legs. (Yes, there were women who supported fascism. There are also women who write fan letters to jailed serial killers.)
• An army of their own. Fascists didn’t wait to seize power to get an army, they started their own militias. Then they brawled and/or beat up Communists, labour organizers, ethnic minorities, or anyone else they didn’t like.
The scary thing about fascism is that it builds on common beliefs. Everyone gets irked at elected governments, and lots of people harbour resentment of other countries or ethnicities.
That’s why some of the current Republican presidential candidates are alarming. They aren’t fascist, not yet. But several of them seem determined to see how many boxes they can check off on the list. By my count, several of them are up to four on my list of six. When they start organizing party militias, that’s time to break out the F-word.