When Fascists aren’t Fascist

An incredibly brief discussion on the reluctance of individuals to recognize certain characteristics in leaders.

Fascists live. In some places in the world they rule. In those places some innocents have died, and many other fascists fear that they might follow. But not if you talk to certain people. Especially if those people voted for the fascist, this isn’t the case.

It’s not hard to find people who — even at the mere suggestion that a far-right politician exhibits certain characteristics of fascism — are ready to snap and assure you, “Bolsonaro isn’t a fascist, Duterte isn’t a fascist, Trump isn’t even fascist-esque.” And if you’ve studied the fascist dictators of the past and their rhetoric, or read relevant pieces such as Umberto Eco’s Ur-Fascism, you might be confused by these people. By every measure you can think of, these leaders are at the very least similar to fascists. But still there’s that person in front of you, snapping at you, telling you with complete self-assurance that you’re wrong.

Now I could give you the bad faith argument — namely, that the people who deny the fascist tendencies of these politicians are in fact fascists themselves, but cannot release the negative correlation of the word they have in their head. However, for analytical purposes I will assume that there is no bad faith in this scenario.

There are generally two methodologies that different people use to think about and analyze how fascism shapes and manifests itself throughout history. One (which I shall call the idealistic methodology) defines fascism by the principles, actions and rhetoric of certain key people; this view insists that there must be a human source of the phenomenon, and allows historians to track its growth through the specific actions and words of individuals found in historical documents. The other view (that I shall call the materialistic methodology) defines fascism by certain “real” moments and acts. In the latter, fascism is fascism when certain turning points occur that could only occur under fascist rule. I believe this is the method that results in our contrarians.

With materialistic methodology, Hitler’s rise to fascist power is not represented by his legitimate appointment as chancellor in the context of Weimar Germany, his use of particular rhetoric to establish an outgroup and focus support, or his development of the zeitgeist of dependence on nothing but the Nazi party and their regime to the point where he was able to take apart the democratic institutions that let him rise to power in the first place. It is instead marked by his burning of the Reichstag, his killings, his invasions, and the dismantling of institutions themselves.

This methodology finds meaning in the result of the process rather than the process itself.

The defining acts, this materialistic methodology argues, is strung together by a single thread. They are not of our political systems. Hitler’s actions were not democratic, they were not liberal, they could not be born of our already established systems. The conclusion that this logic brings is that if an action is legitimate to our (usually) democratic systems, they are not fascist. For this reason, Hitler’s rhetoric was not fascism, nor was his party winning seats with the help of that rhetoric.

The believers of this materialistic fascism might argue that Mussolini is an example of the validity of their method because he was not democratically elected, but used force to gain his seat as prime minister before disintegrating what was left of Italian democracy at that time. But the counterargument to this is that Mussolini gained support to enact that violence. When he marched on Rome he was not alone; he was using techniques and showing qualities the more idealistic, analytic observer would call “fascist” in order to build his group of militants.

Nevertheless, let us assume for a moment the more materialistic method of thinking about the rise of fascism is accurate. This method would lead us to believe that we need not worry about fascism until violence is used, since violent acts are truly not of our system. A leader can yell all they want but it is not a worry until someone is harmed, and when that happens we could legitimately and immediately turn on that leader for the sake of halting this growth of fascism.

This is where the ultimate flaw in this methodology lies.

Most of the time, those participating in this debate believe in liberal democracy. As Weber puts it in Politics as Vocation, those who believe in this form of government believe the state has a monopoly on justified violence. The state described is the same state that the ‘not fascists’ could run before they do their fascist acts. This is where the problem lies:

If the state has a monopoly on violence, and fascism is defined by violent acts, when is the state fascist? Can it ever be?

With the “materialistic” methodology, a leader might look like a fascist, sound like a fascist, but not be a fascist. The only time we could turn on those leaders, according to the “materialistic” view, would be when they do something so disturbing that we can no longer accept the state’s monopoly on violence any longer. But when that occurs, it is often too late. Caging children, extra-judicial killings, dehumanization of minorities, calls to forcibly end political opposition can all be ‘not fascist’ with this mindset. I deplore this form of analysis of fascism, past and present, because it prevents people from acting on fascist sores that appear in our society until it’s too late.

At this point I’ve said fascist too much for me to still be comfortable. I will admit the main audience of this piece are those who tend toward the idealistic methodology I described, but if, by chance, you lie in the other camp, I hope you recognize I attempted to engage in your argument in good faith, and I further hope you do the same with this.

Further Reading
Umberto Eco — Ur Fascism
Max Weber — Politics as Vocation