The recent resurgence of right-wing populism around the globe has spawned a tendency among observers to view these movements as a sort of “second coming” of early-20th Century fascism. It’s easy to see the connection: American President Donald Trump has been endorsed by the KKK, Marine Le Pen uses xenophobic language, and intensely anti-immigrant messages are becoming popular throughout central and eastern Europe. These developments conjure images of Nazi anti-Semitism, the strategic manipulation of identities in Mussolini’s Italy, and the suppression of minorities in Francoist Spain. Are modern populist movements, though, really the same as fascist movements of the 1920s and 1930s?
The short answer is: “no.”
Such a simple answer, though, is grossly misleading. Through examining the technical definitions of the terms “fascism” and “populism,” we find a longer, more comprehensive answer: “no (right-wing populists are not fascists), but we should treat them as such.”
There exist certain vital distinctions between the two concepts. First, the words themselves provide some hints: “fascism” comes from the Italian word facismo, which simply means a bundle of sticks signifying strength through unity of the state. “Populism,” on the other hand, can be defined as a political approach which appeals to, and mobilizes, the common people against a perceived corrupt elite.
Second, fascists dream about toppling the democratic system and replacing it with an alternative –historically taking some form of authoritarianism. Populists, on the other hand, work within the democratic system in order to replace the governing elite with an alternative who better represents the common people. In short: fascism is anti-democratic; populism is democratic.
A final difference between these two terms is the important fact that fascists, unlike populists, believe violence is a positive and integral attribute of their cause because it creates commitment. Therefore, to be a fascist and to be a populist are two wildly different things. How, then, do modern-day “populist” leaders, such as Donald Trump, fit into these two categories?
To what degree is Donald Trump concerned with achieving state strength and unity? While Trump proclaims a desire to “make America great again,” actions speak louder than words. Therefore, my answer is: not at all.
To what degree is Donald Trump concerned with mobilizing the common people to overthrow a perceived corrupt elite? This defines Trump’s entire presidential campaign. My answer: to a high degree.
To what degree is Donald Trump in favour of toppling the democratic system in the United States? Trump has always worked within the current democratic system in order to achieve his goals (granted, while disregarding many of the rules). My answer: not at all.
To what degree does Donald Trump champion the use of violence as a political tool? While some might point to examples where Trump has seemed to latently promote or approve of the use of violence, he does not necessarily openly and explicitly advocate for the use of coordinated violence against his political foes. My answer: to a minimal degree.
In following the technical definitions of “fascism” and “populism,” Donald Trump fits the latter but not the former. However, it is not impossible for a populist movement to morph into fascism, given enough time. After all, the fascist movements of the 1920s became more extreme over the succeeding decade, before culminating in the mass atrocities of the 1940s. Benito Mussolini, the man who first attached the term facismo to that style of political movement, even initially referred to himself as a “radical populist.”
Therefore, this entire debate appears wrapped up in entirely the wrong focus: who cares what people are called, fascist or populist, if they engage in immoral discourse and actions? So many people are openly critical of Trump and Le Pen not because they’re undemocratic (although some might suggest otherwise), but because they’re illiberal. After all, Bernie Sanders could accurately be called a populist, and he most certainly isn’t undemocratic. The real issue here is morality, and both fascist and far-right populist movements have a tendency for immoral behaviour. President Trump, Marine Le Pen, and their other contemporaries may be best classified as populists for now but given time that may change.
While the common people of the 1920s and 1930s could not have foreseen the horrific acts fascists would go on to commit, the common people of the 21st Century have that luxury. If there is even a miniscule chance that modern radical populism might morph into neo-fascism, it is our duty to stop it. Immorality is immorality, and if labelling modern populist movements as fascist better enables us to take a firm stance against them, it probably isn’t such a bad thing.
Matthews, Dylan. “I Asked 5 Fascism Experts if Trump whether Trump is a fascist. This is what they said.” Vox. May 19, 2016. <https://www.vox.com/policy-andpolitics/2015/12/10/9886152/donald-trump-fascism>
Mudde, Cas. “Populism in the Twenty-First Century: an Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic Liberalism.” The Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, University of Pennsylvania. <https://www.sas.upenn.edu/andrea-mitchell-center/casmudde-populism-twenty-first-century>
Mussolini, Benito and Giovanni Gentile. “The Doctrine of Fascism.” Enciclopedia Italiana. 1932. <http://facweb.furman.edu/~bensonlloyd/hst11/mussolinidoctrines.htm>