Erstwhile: A History Blog

Historicizing Fascism, Part 3: The Present


The word “fascist” has been used as an epithet rather casually in the last two years, especially in commentary on US politics. In the hope of bringing clarity to this slippery term, Erstwhile editor Graeme Pente sat down with Dr. Mike Ortiz (Ph.D., CU Boulder, 2017), whose dissertation focused on global anti-fascism in the interwar period, and Alex Langer (Ph.D. candidate, CU Boulder), whose dissertation examines US relations with Italy during the Cold War. Due to the length of the conversation, the transcript has been divided into three parts of approximately equal length with an eye to thematic cohesion. The first part attempts to define fascism, the second explores the phenomenon’s origins, and the third examines fascism in the period from 1945 to the present. You can read the first part here and the second part here, or you can listen to the full audio here. The transcripts have been edited for clarity and length.

John Dewey (1859-1952), American philosopher of pragmatism

“No matter how loudly any one proclaims his Americanism, if he assumes that any one racial strain, any one component culture, no matter how early settled it was in our territory, or how effective it has proved in his own land, is to furnish a pattern to which all other strains and cultures are to conform, he is a traitor to an American nationalism.” — American philosopher John Dewey, 1917

Graeme Pente: It takes us some time to get from 1945 to the present. What happened to fascism in that period? What does its trajectory look like during the Cold War? Is it totally dead?

Mike Ortiz: Alex can probably speak to this more than I can. My expertise sort of ends in 1945. But it’s my understanding that the term is delegitimized, especially once people start uncovering and talking about the horrors of the Holocaust, the ultimate evil committed by fascist regimes. But I don’t think that the movement itself or a lot of the elements or preconditions of fascism go away. I think there are still pseudo- or quasi-fascist regimes out there that just don’t call themselves that. It’s almost like a public relations thing: you rebrand and pivot.

Alex Langer: I mean, Franco is in power [in Spain] until his death in 1975. The Portuguese regime ends just before that. That is, you have active, pre-WWII fascist powers throughout much of the Cold War. We could point to a lot of the things that give rise to fascism—xenophobia, nationalism, traditionalism—being long present in conservative movements in the United States, in McCarthyism, or what we might call more accurately Hooverism, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Moving forward to, say, Pat Robinson. People who are espousing many of the same ideas but couching them in “populism” or just “conservatism.” And then you have general conservatives.

Pente: Well, and there’s an American Nazi Party, right? It emerges in the 1930s?

Langer: It emerges in the 1930s. There’s the [German American] Bund. That’s the American version of the German Nazi Party; they have their rally at Madison Square Garden in 1939. There is an American Nazi Party—we saw that at Charlottesville. A former member of the American Nazi Party will be running on the GOP ticket in Illinois

Ortiz: I would also add that I think the calculus of the postwar world order plays a role. In the sense that once Germany, as a great power, was defeated and the American perspective shifted to the Soviet Union—and Communism became the mortal enemy—I think the prewar quasi-fascist regimes became more of a bulwark against Communism. Look at Spain. Isn’t America the first country to really engage with Franco in the 1950s? They bring [authoritarian Portuguese leader António] Salazar into NATO. There’s a way in which these regimes can be useful in the current political climate or situation. Even in West Germany, as well.

Pente: Yeah, I was thinking about all those former Nazis in West Germany who remained in different levels of government, continued to hold their judgeships, etc.

Langer: To a lesser extent, this happens in Italy, as well, where you have a reconstituted movement that renames itself between 1943 and 1946. It doesn’t take part in government in any major way. But there’s a way in which a lot of the fascist goals taken in moderation—defending against the revolutionary left—are desirable in the postwar world. You see the early Cold War as a defense of “Western values” of capitalism, of the market, etc. There’s a sense in which the fascists took them too far, but that much of the impulse behind elements of their program is desirable, and we’ll jettison what doesn’t work or what was excessive.

Ortiz: This gets back to the difficulty of defining fascism. Fascists were ideological dilettantes, where they cherry-picked from liberalism, conservatism, socialism, and they just radicalized those elements.

Pente: One of the key elements in my mind is its illiberalism and its intolerance of power-sharing.

Langer: And dissent. Unity is the key.

Pente: So that seems an important way in which these remnants that became political parties are not in the same mold.

A WWII-era bunker in southern Germany and a fitting tomb for fascism. Photo by author.

Pente: Shifting to the present: is it irresponsible to charge Donald Trump’s movement or his campaign or his base as fascist? Or is there merit to that charge? To my mind, there’s this element of American liberalism that is very alarmist and views it as a fascist movement that is taking control of the government and transforming the country. And the political scientist Corey Robin pushes back on this all the time, especially when media commentators make the Trump-Hitler comparison. Robin points out the disparities between where the Hitler regime was after a year in power and how little the Trump administration has accomplished, despite his party controlling all branches of government. On the other hand, a lot of the elements you’ve been talking about sound familiar.

Langer: There’s often this defense that figures in the Trump administration are too stupid to accomplish that kind of takeover. It’s worth remembering that fascism began as revolution without ideology, as movement for movement’s sake, as raging against everything that comes around it.

Pente: And as a response to a totally dysfunctional liberal democracy. When you guys were giving your opening remarks, I was thinking, “oh, maybe there is a little more to the accusation.”

Langer: Yeah. I mean, you could point out that Trump and the people around him are ideologically incoherent. But back to our discussion of fascism-as-movement vs. fascism-in-power, nothing that Trump has done in terms of laws or executive orders would not have happened under a Ted Cruz presidency. I.C.E. [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] was probably still going to be stepping up visibility of deportations. A lot of it we treat as an aberration because of Trump’s personal style and his disregard for democratic norms, whereas most of his policy is pretty boilerplate Reagan conservatism.

There seem to be two Trump presidencies. On the one hand, there’s defending domestic abusers, casting a failure to cheer for a speech as treason, and saying that the “deep state is out to get me,” and wanting a military parade in Washington, DC, which are all hallmarks of Mussolini. On the other hand, there’s the Trump presidency’s legislative record, which I would have expected—maybe even with greater success—under Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. I mean, it’s conservative desires to dismantle the welfare state, just added to it the idea that Democrats are treasonous. I think calling someone a fascist, like calling someone Hitler, has lost all meaning in political discourse.

Ortiz: This is one of the reasons scholars resist the notion of a fascist minimum. It’s too often used as a pejorative.

Langer: Yeah, it’s not a warning anymore. It’s like saying something is worse than Watergate. Well, every scandal since 1973 has been “worse than Watergate,” so the phrase has little meaning.

Ortiz: I would caution against comparing Trump to Hitler because I don’t think those comparisons are apt. Mussolini seems a closer mark, if you’re going to make a fascist comparison at all. Hitler was a unique figure, and the Nazi seizure of power happened at an unbelievably rapid pace. Mussolini’s March on Rome was in 1922, and historians call the first three years of his regime a “quasi-normal period” because he ruled essentially as prime minister in a liberal coalition, working and compromising within a constitutional democracy.

Langer: Right. The king invited him in to take the role of prime minister.

Ortiz: I think that first year fascists had eight percent of the vote in parliament. There is something to be said for fascists being able to get into a system and then destabilize it from within, which is essentially what Mussolini did. They undermine democracy. Compromise is crucial for any democratic system to work, and a lot of times fascists delegitimize it through violence, through rhetoric, and just generally try to poison the functioning of democracy.

Langer: Fascists lay out the argument that compromise is bad because they alone know what’s right. This is also part of the issue with revolutionary Marxism.

Ortiz: This being said, I don’t think Trump is fascist. Getting back to Michael Mann’s definition from the beginning [in part one], I do think he has fascist elements in his approach to governance and his worldview. I do think he is something of an organic nationalist, and I think his rhetoric speaks to this: revivify an imagined past, “make America great again” – what does that mean? When was it great? It seems his vision of a great American society is the 1950s.

Pente: And part of that is the economic reality of that moment, right? Manufacturing, strong union jobs.

Ortiz: Right, postwar ascendancy. And part of the calculus, I think, is a desire for a white America. The attacks on Mexicans, the attacks on immigrants, the desire to shield America from immigration as much as possible. I think this taps into a profound anxiety in the American conservative movement where they’ve been demonizing immigrants for fifty years or more, but demographically they’re about to become marginalized. There’s this profound anxiety about losing the power of white America as a voting bloc that comes through when Trump uses this organic nationalist rhetoric: “we’re going to cleanse—keep the good Americans, get rid of the bad.”

I’d also say I think he’s got fascist elements in that he promised during the campaign—without saying so explicitly—that he is going to transcend class conflict. The rhetoric that they’re going to re-prioritize the American worker, bring jobs back to Carrier, back from overseas—this speaks to the fact that both political parties in America have ignored the fact that wages have been stagnant while profits have been at a record high, and it’s left probably the great majority of the population frustrated and feeling somewhat economically dislocated. And Trump tapped into that, primarily on the Right and with this nativist, racist type of rhetoric. But he was able to electrify that frustration, and I think it pushed a lot of people to go out and vote. This is something the Clinton campaign didn’t do enough on: I think Hillary Clinton really dragged her feet on the $15 minimum wage and this whole idea that class conflict is becoming an issue again. Trump did a much better job of promising—without a plan or follow-up but promising—to fix these issues.

Pente: And there’s this reticence on the part of the Democratic Party and its leadership to let go of their technocratic vision. [Former Vice President] Joe Biden came out at some point in the last six months and said, “we will not go in a populist direction” or “give into the impulses of populism” or something like that. But there are serious issues that need addressing for large swathes of the population.

Ortiz: Right. Ninety percent of the country is angry.

Langer: Trump presents himself as a rich guy who gets it for the working class, and therefore we can transcend this divide in a way that doesn’t need any sort of structural changes.

“The Grieving Parents,” a monument to the effects of fascism on civilian populations, Cologne, Germany. Photo by author.

Pente: My initial thought was that rather than charging Trump as a fascist, is it more responsible—or more accurate—to say that he has authoritarian or illiberal tendencies or impulses?

Langer: Maybe it’s even just impulses. He clearly believes that the presidency should be able to order anyone around to do anything. It’s his justice department, etc.

Ortiz: Personal loyalty.

Langer: We can look at that two ways. We could say: this is a person who is profoundly authoritarian in his view on power—if you’re at the top, you get to decide. Or, we could say: this is a 71-year-old man who has always been the head of his own company. This is just an old man who has always been rich and in charge of something and that’s how he views the world vs. he’s a genuine authoritarian.

Pente: And that’s my perspective. I don’t know why people are surprised that putting a businessperson in charge of a government would result in this. The workplace under capitalism is an authoritarian space.

Ortiz: Right.

Langer: To be fair, it doesn’t really matter which one he is because the practical effect on democracy is the same. He has clearly not learned that this isn’t how government works. He’s doubled down on how he thinks it should work.

Ortiz: Yeah, I don’t think he’s fascist, and authoritarian tendencies is probably the most accurate characterization. The two elements of Mann’s schema where I think he falls short are:

Langer: It’s hard to see the Black Shirts as a kind of personal army of Trump and show up in as disciplined of a way as they did. I’m sure there are plenty of disaffected people who would do something. Would they be able to work in concert and alongside the legitimate police force?

Ortiz: This is one of the reasons I don’t like the idea of a fascist minimum because I think the debate becomes too much “yes or no.” Whether you’re a fascist, a militarist, or an authoritarian, it’s not great—freedoms and civil liberties are being eroded. In many ways, what fascism has evolved to is that people will get elected democratically and then erode the democratic system from within. They don’t advertise it, but they quietly consolidate power. I think that’s as close as you’re going to get to fascism after 1945.

Pente: Cause for concern but not alarm.

Langer: He has done and will continue to do harm to norms in the American democratic process for as long as he is in power and for many, many years after he’s gone.

Ortiz: It really does give you an appreciation for how much unspoken norms govern the behavior of presidents past, and how these norms now need to be codified, implemented, and enforced.

—End of Part Three—

A monument to the victims of the Holocaust, Dachau concentration camp, Bavaria. Photo by author.