The different forms of fascism

The specter of fascism in the US has been raised with the presidency of Donald Trump. While he has openly flirted with neo-Nazis and white supremacists, his defenders have said that his behavior does not imply fascist sympathies.

The problem is that fascism does not take a single form. In an article in the April/May 2020 issue of The Progressive, John Nichols looks back at the warnings that Henry Wallace, a progressive who in 1944 was vice-president to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, gave about the danger of fascism emerging in the US then and what were some of its signs

“The dangerous American fascist is the man who wants to do in the United States in an American way what Hitler did in Germany in a Prussian way,” argued Wallace in his essay. He charged that those who sought to divide the United States along lines of race, religion, and class could be “encountered in Wall Street, Main Street, or Tobacco Road.”

“Some even suspect,” Wallace wrote, “that they can detect incipient traces of it along the Potomac.”

Wallace did not limit his critique of American fascism to the overt racists and anti-Semites that at least some of the mainstream politicians of his day decried. He was determined to go deeper, to talk about the enablers of the racists and anti-Semites.

“The obvious types of American fascists are dealt with on the air and in the press. These demagogues and stooges are fronts for others,” Wallace wrote. “The really dangerous American fascists are not those who are hooked up directly or indirectly with the Axis.” Rather, he warned of “a purposeful coalition among the cartelists, the deliberate poisoners of public information and those who stand for the KKK type of demagoguery.”

This was a definition of fascism that brought the issues of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, of media manipulation and political machination, home to America. Wallace even saw the prospects of an American fascism in the predictable machinations of big business.

“Monopolists who fear competition and who distrust democracy because it stands for equal opportunity would like to secure their position against small and energetic enterprise,” he wrote. “In an effort to eliminate the possibility of any rival growing up, some monopolists would sacrifice democracy itself.”

Even today, there are debates about how to define fascism, but we recognize now that it cannot be identified by a single rigid set of characteristics. Fascism “takes on the colors and practices of each nation it infects,” author Adam Gopnik observed in 2016. “In Italy, it is bombastic and neo-classical in form. In Spain, Catholic and religious. In Germany, violent and romantic.” He added: “It is no surprise that the American face of fascism would take on the forms of celebrity television.”

And Henry Giroux, a cultural critic who has written extensively on authoritarianism, says: “Fascism looks different in different cultures, depending on that culture. In fact, it is the essence of fascism to have no single, fixed form.”

Wallace’s strong critiques of the enablers of American fascism earned him the ire of the ruling classes and the supporters of big business including, of course, establishment media like the New York Times. Their opposition led to him being denied the re-nomination as vice-president in 1944, replaced by FDR with Harry Truman.


  1. Jenora Feuer says

    I must admit I kind of liked Elizabeth Sandifer’s description, written during the heyday of GamerGate and as a result of the attempted takeover of the Hugo awards for science fiction:

    […] The easiest mistake to make when trying to understand fascists is to think that they are best described in terms of a philosophy -- as though fascism is a set of tenets and beliefs. This is a mistake that largely benefits fascists, who are generally disinclined to actually call themselves fascists, since they recognize that, much like “Nazis,” it’s not exactly a label that does a great sales job. On top of that, fascists have a remarkably well-developed vocabulary of jargon and a propensity for verbose arguments that puts me to shame. What this means is that if you attempt to get into some sort of practical, content-based argument with a fascist, you will suddenly find yourself staring down a thirty item bulleted list with frequent citations to barely relevant and inaccurately described historical events, which, should you fail to address even one sub-point, you will be declared to have lost the debate by the fascist and the mob of a dozen people on Twitter who suddenly popped up the moment you started arguing with him.

    No, the useful way to understand fascism […] is as an aesthetic -- as a particular mix of fetishes and paranoias that always crops up in culture, occasionally seizing some measure of power, essentially always with poor results.

    Basically describes fascism as a combination of nostalgia for a non-existent golden age, a ‘stab in the back’ myth to give an excuse for victim blaming, and the promise of a strong man unconstrained by morality to restore the former ‘glory’.

  2. Jenora Feuer says

    I think the core idea is that fascism isn’t really a philosophy as such, so much as a method of usurping a culture to one’s own ends. As a result, it obviously depends on the aspects of the culture in question, because that’s the foundation it’s both built off of and trying to undermine.

  3. mnb0 says

    “The problem is that fascism does not take a single form.”
    The problem is rather that fascism has been defined in about as many ways as christianity and socialism.
    Another problem is rather that there is no sharp line between fascism and other forms of right wing extremisms, including populism a la Donald the Clown.
    For one thing fascism is usually associated with Hitler and the Third Reich. But it was first realized by Mussolini in Italy, whose fascism was quite different from Hitler’s.

    “the issues of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, of media manipulation and political machination”
    If you accept a definition like this countries like the Soviet-Union, Red Khmer Kampuchea and North-Korea were/are fascist too. That doesn’t look particularly useful to me.

    “we recognize now that it cannot be identified by a single rigid set of characteristics.”
    But it can.

    1. Extreme nationalism.
    2. Extreme authoritarianism in the form of the Leader Principle (Il Duce, Der Führer, Caudillo de España por la Gracia de Dios, Conducator)
    3. Totalitarianism as expressed in “everything in the State, nothing against the State, nothing outside the State”
    4. Corporatism (specifically the human body analogy), meaning ao that economic classes and the state harmoniously cooperate (which explains why companies like Krupp supported the Hitler regime for so long)
    5. The explicit approval of violence as means to realize political goals.

    There may be a few more; many characteristics belong to these five. Eg appeal to tradition is part of extreme nationalism.
    This shortlist already makes clear that Donald the Clown has a few things in common with fascism, but in the end is not a fascist himself. He hasn’t pleaded for violence to get rid of the Democratic Party for instance.

    Communists at least nominally are internationalists and reject authoritarianism, though in practice there is hardly a difference in these respects. What really matters is the economic organization. Fascist regimes don’t nationalize companies (see point 4). Fiat, an Italian automobile manufacturer, flourished during the Mussolini dictatorship; Ferrari started at the end of the 1930’s. This is because fascists reject the concept of class conflict.

  4. Jazzlet says

    Picking up on mnbo’s final sentence I think a subtext of the authoritarianism of fascism that often doesn’t get a lot of attention is that you (any you) are in the place you deserve to be. Much of the appeal of fascism to those who feel disenfranchised is that they will be restored to their proper place in society, whereas in fact most will stay exactly where they are, but be allowed to be little tyrants at home and over any of that society considered lower than them.

  5. says

    I have no problem calling Trump, his Republican allies, and assorted myrmidons fascists. But, having said that, I feel compelled to offer a humble, practical suggestion: work to make sure we have an election in November, and then vote against the fascists.

    I supported Sanders in 2016 but voted for HRC, even though I was sadly disappointed the Dems wound up with another corporate centrist. But she was not nearly as awful as Trump. This cycle, I have strongly supported Elizabeth Warren and I am once again disappointed that the Dems have settled on another corporate centrist.

    But if we grant that the Republicans are outright fascists, and that we are not fascists, it seems to me our only choice is, once again, to suck it up and vote for the candidate who is not a fascist.

    I hope we have learned from the German tragedy. They did not realize how awful Hitler was and the anti-Hitler forces were badly divided. So the fascist/Nazis conquered. But we have their example to teach us what to do.

    We cannot let the fascists further consolidate their power. We have to coalesce behind every anti-fascist candidate. We have to make sure there is an election (not a certainty at this point) and vote the fascists out at every level.

    But even if we do, they are like some horror movie villain who does not die. The fight for democracy, real democracy, never ends. I think that is a hard lesson and I hope we all learn it -- and soon.

  6. says

    sez mnb0 @4:

    This shortlist already makes clear that Donald the Clown has a few things in common with fascism, but in the end is not a fascist himself. He hasn’t pleaded for violence to get rid of the Democratic Party for instance.

    The Angry Cheeto has explicitly offered to pay the legal bills of those of his followers who commit violence. He notoriously declared that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue without losing any supporters. During the 2016 campaign, he said “If [Clinton] gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”

    If the only reason not to check “explicit approval of violence as means to realize political goals” off the Cheeto’s is-he-a-fascist scorecard is quibbling over the degree to which his approval of violence is actually “explicit”…

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