Across Europe and America there is a surge in support for far-right politicians which has led some to fear a resurgence in Fascism. Donald Trump in particular has been labelled a Fascist and accused of normalising Fascism in America. A book review of the rise of Hitler lead many to draw parallels with the rise of Trump (whether it was written that way or not). The night he was elected president, my article “How Fascism Takes Over” received a surge in views, receiving a months’ worth of views in two days. Some wonder if we will see a rise of Fascism across Europe.
Yet others see this as merely hysteria. Many believe that Fascism died in the Second World War, that the age of uniformed thugs attacking Jews no longer exists. That Fascism is a mere insult that has lost all meaning. That to worry about Fascism is to cry wolf and nothing more than an attempt to smear your opponents. So does Fascism still exist?
While Fascist is certainly overused as an insult, this does not mean it is useless as a term. After all, Socialist and Communist are common insults yet they are still useful descriptive terms. There is hardly any political term that has not been misused (liberal can mean almost anything), so if we ignore those that have been, we have nothing to work with.
Let’s begin by collecting the common features of Fascist political movements in the 1930s. I’ll focus on the rise of Fascism, rather than when they were in power as there are more examples and it’s more relevant. It’s worth noting that there were many differences between the various national movements depending on local circumstances, so some features were more present than other others. Also within parties there would be various factions that emphasised some policies over others.
Fascist parties generally were contradictory and often lacked clear policies, for example many tried to appeal to both anti-capitalists and capitalists at the same time. They were modernist movements yet also glorified the past. In opposition they often defended religion, but in power saw it as a challenge to their authority. They were very vague on their policies, preferring to rely instead on the belief that a strong leader would solve the problems. They were often clearer on what they opposed than what they supported.
That being said, here are some of the core features of Fascism in the 1930s:
- Extremely Nationalistic
- Militaristic (war was glorified)
- Paramilitary wing (uniforms, salutes, flags etc)
- Political violence
- Cult of personality, one strong leader to solve the problems
- Macho male culture
- Vague policies
- Glorified image of the past
- Opposition to modern decadence
- Defender of the Faith
Looking at the list, we can see some features that have continued to this day and some that have not. The most obvious one is that no political movement nowadays wears uniforms or uses salutes (they are illegal in many countries). The political violence of the 1930s (where political rallies would frequently end in fights) is unknown today. While some politicians show disregard for features of democracy by threatening the media or threatening to imprison their opponents, they do not aim to abolish democracy itself. Communism is no longer a major political force and anti-Semitism has been discredited.
But before we conclude that Fascism no longer exists, we must remember that the environment of 2016 is completely different to that of 1936. Our society, culture and economy has completely changed since then so it doesn’t make any sense to expect political movements not to change with the times. After all, if we examined Conservative parties in 1936, we would find few features that exist in modern parties, yet that does not mean that Conservativism no longer exists. If we focus on the common core belief, such as smaller government influence on the market and traditional social values (however that may be defined) then we can see a continuous link between the past and the present.
Fascism was greatly shaped by the issues of the time, namely the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the Great Depression. The War caused enormous shock to society and made many question traditional values. It legitimised violence to achieve political aims and created a sense of national resentment that war sacrifices were not rewarded in peacetime. The Bolshevik Revolution and other revolutions across Europe led to a major fear of a Communist takeover. The Depression also undermined the political establishment and left many people desperate for change. Democracy too was weak and instable having only recently being introduced (often the states themselves had only recently been created).
In contrast, democracy is much firmer and deeply rooted in modern society. As a result, there is far less anti-democratic sentiment, even among the far-right. These movements are by and large committed to attaining power through democratic political means. There is no equivalent to the First World War and as a result, there is less glorification of violence and militarisation. Communism has collapsed as a world power and Communist parties barely exist in most countries. The only possible similarity is the Great Recession which has certainly undermined support for the political system and provoked a large amount of anger.
So as society and the political climate has changed, so too has Fascism. Another major change is the rise of mass immigration. There are many new ethnicities that may have never before lived in the country. A new fear is that the present ethnic majority will no longer have sole control over the country and may even become a minority. In many ways, Muslims have replaced Jews as the bogeyman that can be blamed for the problems of society. They have also replaced Communists as the main villains who are allegedly plotting to overthrow the state and impose Sharia Law. Islam is the new international menace that can strike anywhere, the new enemy within.
Yet many of the core elements of Fascism are still present. They are still extremely nationalist, hostile to ethnic or religious minorities, believe in a strong leader, oppose modern decadence and wish to return to the glory days of the past. For example, a common target is “political correctness” which while being a relatively new term, is similar to the old claim that this generation was too soft and the country needed was a tough leader who will do and say what needs to be done. They still view themselves as defenders of the Christian faith and heritage against non-believers. Protecting the purity of the race and the strength of the ethnic majority are still major concerns even if expressed in modern terms. Militarism is not as strong, although a war on Islam is still a core policy. There is still a lot of ambiguity about how they will achieve their policies, generally preferring to attack the establishment rather than provide an alternative.
So while the Fascism of the 1930s is gone, many elements of it linger on in what I call “New Fascism” (which you could also call “Neo-Fascism” or “Second-Wave Fascism”). Here are some of the core elements:
- Extremely Nationalistic
- Desire for a strong leader
- Support a return to past glories
- Oppose modern decadence and political correctness
- Vague or non-existent policies
- Defender of the Faith
- Macho male culture
So yes, Fascism still exists. Using this definition, most European countries political parties in their parliament that count as New Fascist (Ireland thankfully does not, at least for now). So while some see Fascism as merely an overused insult or as a black and white photo of soldiers marching or thugs beating up minorities, it is still a real and existing ideology. Across the West, there are millions of people who vote for New Fascists, some of whom have come close to winning the Presidency. The American election (and others) have shown the dangers of downplaying or ignoring extreme opinions. They may not be often publically expressed, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
The challenge from New Fascists cannot be ignored and could decide the shape of future political debate. Perhaps this decade or even this generation, will be judged on how we deal with the rise of New Fascism.