Trump’s losing at politics, ignoring democracy, declaring an emergency where no emergency exists.
Like it or not, we’re getting a lesson in fascism.
I’m reading Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning. No, it is not a Trump-bashing tell-all. It barely mentions him.
But like the title says, it warns democratic countries to learn from the mid-20th Century how to recognize fascism fomenting within our midsts.
Be curious, not complacent. Look around. Since April 2018 autocratic leaders won elections in Russia, Hungary, Egypt, Venezuela, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Cambodia. Nationalism’s rallying cry is heard at elections in Great Britain, France, Italy, and the United States.
People bandy the word fascism about without understanding what they mean. I should know. I was such a bandier.
Even with its meaning unclear, the wallop the word packs is very clear. It’s abrasive. It’s insulting. It’s a discussion-ending way to say “You’re wrong.”
The word fascism gets attached to all sorts of inappropriate definitions. Anything from socialism to corporatocracy to communism to capitalism to democracy to elitism. But the truth is each of these isms have been fascism’s target at one time or another.
Fascism: A Warning provides historical perspective to the question What is Fascism? The history Albright outlines taught me a few things.
- The word fascism derives from fasces. Founders of Italy’s Fascist party adopted the name in March 1919. Fasces refers to a bundle of elm rods strapped together with an axe, an image representing the power of the consul’s office during Roman Empire days. Two consuls served the empire at a time, each wielding veto power over the other. Their authority reached across multiple sectors of government, concentrating great power with these two individuals. They chaired the Senate, commanded the army (each consult having two legions under their command), and acted as a sort of Supreme Court. They also served as executors carrying out the Senate decrees and other laws. In emergencies, they could act completely autonomously. In essence, they served as the Executive and Judicial branches of government with oversight of the legislature, and were viewed by the early Fascists as strong leaders vested with complete control. Concentration of power in the hands of one person or few persons is a key component of fascism.
- Fascism is a tactic, not a political ideology. Fascist strongmen Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler targeted their brutality at communists, socialists, and labor leaders. Stalin used similar tactics against capitalists, nationalists, democrats, and the religious. Hitler defined his enemies along ethnic lines; Lenin by class distinctions. Mussolini simply disagreed with anyone who opposed him. The fascists of the post WWII Soviet satellites targeted democracy and its sympathizers. The closet fascism comes to an ideology is by identifying who they oppose and adopting the opposite stance. Who’s the threat? What group can they rally opposition against? Fascism is ideologically bereft of direction. Fear of the other defines it. Fascist leaders rarely set strategic goals. They promise with no idea how to deliver.
- Fascism’s main tenet is the power, not the authority, of leadership. Once the opposed are deposed and fascists installed in their place, their power cannot be questioned. A true fascist leader does not persuade or sell himself or his programs. He demands loyalty for whatever whim or wish he comes up with. Mussolini described this as the “state being all embracing”, outside which no “human or spiritual values exist.” State and citizen share one common ethos, without distraction or rival. Consolidate power, control democratic instincts among rivals and the populace, target old-guard institutions, and use militaristic violence to neuter the opposition and enforce the state’s will. Brutality of speech and action defines fascism.
- Fascism is a power grab through both violence and legitimate means. Hitler’s Nazi Party, Mussolini’s Fascists, and the Communist post-WWII takeover of Czechoslovakia started in violence but succeeded through democracy. Democracy invites its citizens to air public grievances and publicly debate. Critics call this fractious and politically weak. Fascist strong men take advantage of this appearance of chaos targeting it as inefficient and elitist. Democracy is a hard way to establish order. Too often it leads to complacency or frustration. The impatient expectation of unrealistic results is the democratic sin fascists rage about the most. Yes, democracy’s politicians can be mocked, ridiculed, and satired. Check Plato’s The Republic for a thorough vetting of democracy’s confusion. Listen to Putin’s admonitions that democracies simply do not work. Fascism preys on these democratic weaknesses. It builds minority by voicing decisive and unrepentant resolve. The tactic of fascism need not appeal to the majority. It only needs to present as a strong solution to a seemingly weak system.
- Democracy enables fascism. Democracy is an aspiration. A hope for something better built through compromise and consensus. A heaven we strive for that is difficult to know when we’ve arrived or not. Technically, democracy is supposed to be rule by the people. But its effectiveness is judged by persons. And persons evaluate by their own immediate and emotional criteria. How well am I doing? Am I earning enough money? Is government serving my needs, or just the needs of others? Is the job force I entered at 20 still fulfilling now that I’m 50? Is there somebody else living better than me? I didn’t go to college, why should my taxes pay for someone else to go? Fascism succeeds by breeding jealousy. It’s a message democracies encourage its citizens to hear. Democracies by their very nature are about griping and trying to make your own and your loved ones’ lives better. Democracy is aspiration. A dream. Sell the sizzle, not the steak, because the steak you’d actually have to deliver but the dream can go on forever. Fascism succeeds when it pits citizen against citizen by telling them to forget the dream, you deserve a steak. James Madison explained it in The Federalist Papers. He questioned how a fledgling new American democracy could ensure power remained with the Virginian ruling class and Royalist elites. His conclusion was to keep the populist factions fighting against one another so that they do not consider rising up against the top. Fascism agrees with Madison. Do people living in democracies truly accept its confusion and compromise? At what point do democracies’ citizen throw up their hands in surrender and elect autonomy for the direction it appears to promise?
- Fascism is nationalism. Patriotism encourages trust in fellowship. Fascism fears such interaction, preferring loyalty to the state over loyalty to one another. America has a sordid history with fear. In the early 1900’s Americans feared the hordes of immigrants coming across the ocean. Before World War II American conservatives feared entanglements in “domestic” European issues. Republican Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950’s feared invisible threats from communists in the government and society. Nixon feared everything. Trump fears Muslims and Mexicans. Mostly he fears being a loser, or any other apparent crack in his tightly plastered sense of self. Ego is the controlling instinct of any fascist leader. Unquestioning adulation is stage on which the ego stands.
Democracy teaches us to dream. A healthy democracy also teaches us to enjoy the here and now. A society that focuses on optimism and the good life of being alive, that’s democracy. A society geared toward grasping and jealousy of the other, that’s fascism.
That’s the warning.