Ines Vuckovic/Dose

What Does It Really Mean To Call Someone ‘Fascist’?

Know your Trumps from your Hitlers.

Welcome to the first installment in our Glad You Asked series, a shame-free zone where we tackle topics you’re too embarrassed to ask even your BFF about. Don’t worry, we gotchu.

Fascist!” has long been Americans’ go-to insult for anyone who’s bossing us around. We hurl the word at human-rights-violating dictators and police officers in riot gear, but also at parents who won’t let us stay out past our curfew. Lately, more and more people have been using the word to describe our president-elect.

Most of us are not using the word correctly. “Fascist” isn’t just a meaner way to say “authoritarian”—it refers to a specific political and economic movement in the first half of the 20th century.

Technically, “fascism” doesn’t apply to any movement that existed after World War II.

Driven by nationalist fervor and, at times, racism, its leaders believed in the cleansing power of “heroic” violence and war, and rejected democracy and civil rights as outdated ideas from a bygone era. They wanted to remake society from the ground up—a fact that distinguishes fascism from garden-variety authoritarianism, which tends to reinforce the status quo. Some scholars consider fascism a totalitarian form of government, closer to Soviet communism than to other forms of right-wing rule.

Mussolini and Hitler. | Getty Images

Why should we bother quibbling over definitions? Although “fascism” as Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler practiced it was killed for good in 1945, neo- and post-fascist groups influenced by similar ideas are still active in politics today. If you want to call out fascists, neo- or not, it’s important to know what they stand for—and to not let overuse blunt the power of the word.

What fascists stood for

Unfortunately, the first difficulty with defining fascism is that fascists could never quite agree on a definition themselves. Fascist ideology varied widely from nation to nation, and there was no central party organization to define doctrine. As it’s hard to pin down what fascists stood for, some scholars have tried to define them by what they stand against. University of Wisconsin history professor Stanley G. Payne defined the “three negations of fascism” as:

Antiliberalism: Fascists did not believe in democracy or in civil rights such as freedom of speech. Instead, they followed a charismatic ruler who was supposed to represent the nation—and they believed the nation came before all. Fascist governments tended to be highly militaristic and expansionist as well, often fighting major wars of conquest.

Anticommunism: Fascists were all for state control of the economy, but they still believed in private property. When fascists wanted to appeal to economic elites, they claimed they were the only group strong enough to stave off communist revolution—and thus ensure rich people could keep their stuff. They also disliked communism because it put loyalty to an economic class above loyalty to the nation.

Anticonservatism: Though fascism often formed strategic alliances with traditional elites, it was at its heart a revolutionary movement aimed at trashing the old order. History professor Robert Griffin has written that a defining feature of fascism is its promise of “purifying, cathartic national rebirth.” It was all about starting over fresh, and remaking society from the ground up.

There are, of course, other aspects of fascism that aren’t covered here. For instance, many fascist regimes, including Nazi Germany, pursued “autarky”—total economic self-sufficiency that minimized trade with the outside world. But the three negations are a good start.

Mussolini with a group of blackshirts—the paramilitary wing of the Fascist party—in Rome, 1922. | Getty Images
The line between fervent ultranationalism and virulent racism is thin, and Hitler wasn’t the only fascist leader to stroll right over it.

Was fascism right-wing?

Fascism is also hard to define because it confounds our usual sense of the political spectrum. We generally think of it as right-wing, but the first fascist movement led by Mussolini in Italy in the 1910s and 20s was actually a coalition of people with both left- and right-wing views. Many early fascists believed in syndicalism, a form of socialism where syndicates of workers would run the economy instead of industrial elites. They blended these left-wing beliefs with strongly nationalist and militarist values to create a hard-to-define hybrid ideology. (That’s where the “socialist” part of “national socialist” comes from, too.)

However, the syndicalist parts of fascism were never really put into practice. Mussolini did divide the Italian economy into 22 syndicate-like “corporations,” but he made sure his regime controlled them all, giving workers little power or autonomy. So in the end, nationalism won out over socialism, at least in this case.

Where did fascist ideology come from?

Fascism has roots in a mishmash of roughly turn-of-the-century ideas including syndicalism, Italian futurism and Nietzschean nihilism. However, World War I was the catalyst that made fascism a reality.

World War I was the first major European war to rely on mass mobilization of the general population instead of professional armies, a change that eroded the boundaries between combatants and non-combatants. This commitment to “total war” meant that economic resources like factories were mobilized for the war effort, too. Basically, this was a blueprint for a fascist regime, where the state controlled every aspect of the lives of its citizens in the name of organized mass violence. It’s no coincidence that Mussolini formed the first fascist organization in 1914, the same year the war started.

Were fascists always racist?

Of all the major fascist movements of the 20th century, only Nazism made racism an explicit, central part of its ideology. It’s enough of an outlier that some scholars have argued Nazism should be considered its own thing, and not a type of fascism at all. However, the line between fervent ultranationalism and virulent racism is thin, and Hitler wasn’t the only fascist leader to stroll right over it. Mussolini, for instance, used racist arguments to justify the so-called Pacification of Libya, a campaign of resettlement and ethnic cleansing that left tens of thousands of Libyans dead. So the short answer is, while fascism didn’t have to be racist, a lot of the time, it was.

How widespread was fascism?

Mussolini addressing a crowd in Rome’s Palazzo Venezia. | Getty Images

When we think of fascism today, we think of Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. But at its peak in the 1930s, the movement was much more widespread. In Spain, the fascist general Francisco Franco was fighting a bloody civil war, and fascists had come to power in countries like Brazil, Hungary and Chile, too. Even countries we today think of as firmly democratic weren’t safe: In France, fascist street demonstrations set off the bloody crisis of 6 February 1934, which some French politicians framed as an attempted coup.

After World War II, however, fascism was largely wiped out. Italy and Germany became democracies again, and fascist governments elsewhere had already mostly been overthrown. Though Franco remained the ruler of Spain, he never implemented fascist policies, choosing to run a pretty standard authoritarian regime instead.

Are there still fascists today?

Technically, “fascism” doesn’t apply to any movement that existed after World War II. People who share similar beliefs today are usually called neo-fascists. (The American Nazi party would fall into this category.) There are also “post-fascists,” or people with fascistic beliefs who participate in electoral democracy, instead of trying to enforce one-party rule. It’s certainly appropriate, though, to identify modern political leaders and parties who borrow ideas or tactics from fascism as “fascist,” even if they don’t swallow the ideology whole.