Oversimplification, incorrect labels causes a resurgence of populism confused with fascism

Wesley M

            The central linking argument for this week’s readings and podcast is that the terms fascism and populism are often (either because of intentional bias or just genuine ignorance), commonly conflated within public discourse resulting in the majority of people incorrectly believing that the two terms mean the same thing; an authoritarian dictatorship, instead of their very different definitions. This incorrect labelling is in fact distracting from the real current issue: the fact that populism is resurging throughout Europe and North America and appears to be quickly gaining ground primarily due to discontent while more traditional political parties seek to maintain their relevance.

One of the most interesting things about these readings is that scholars are also divided on the issue of whether populism or fascism can be applicable terms for what we are dealing with in the world today. As the podcast of Professor Rogers Brubaker, the book by Robert Paxton, and the articles by Cas Mudde and Victoria de Grazia all show their own unique perspectives on this issue through their own separate discussions of the history of fascism as well as several deconstructions of the meaning of fascism and/or populism. Despite some minor differences in argument or focus, all of those mentioned above, appear to share the belief that populism can in fact be an accurate representative term for contemporary events around the world, but only if the term is used correctly.[1]

In contrast the article by Federico Finchelstein seeks to downplay the possible underlying correlation between the two terms by arguing against Paxton’s view on Trump not being a fascist, by viewing populism as being a post-fascism response to the perceived failures of neoliberal democratic institutions.[2] Professsor Brubaker discusses how the politicians failing to respond adequately to recent crises (2008 crash, Eurozone, 2015 refugee crisis, 2015-2017 terrorist attacks, Brexit) have allowed for those issues to become united and in turn strengthened populism’s appeal to the discontented masses, who don’t understand the danger populism due to not understanding what populism actually means.[3]

The best way to explain the danger of confusing populism and fascism with each other is by looking at the five steps of the fascist cycle: “(1) the creation of movements; (2) their rooting in the political system; (3) their seizure of power; (4) the exercise of power; (5) and, finally, the long duration, during which the fascist regime chooses either radicalization or entropy.”[4] populists and fascists being different is irrelevant because the terms being conflated together has allowed their original meaning to become joined in the public’s opinion and as the past years demonstrate populists being elected could gradually erode that country’s democracy, which in turn could ultimately create a dictatorship. So the best way to prevent this is to give an accurate explanation of the terms to show why populist leaders are able to appeal to the public.[5] This may allow the opposition to effectively counter them than just sticking them with the fascist/populist label.


[1] Rogers Brubaker, “Why Populism?” NUPI Podcast (51 minutes) https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/why-populism-rogers-brubaker/id1200474003?i=1000449389000:; Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York, 2004), 23.; Cas Mudde, “Populism in Europe: An Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic Liberalism” (The Government and Opposition/Leonard Schapiro Lecture 2019). Government and Opposition, (2021): 581.; Victoria de Grazia, “What We Don’t Understand about Fascism” Zocalo Public Square https://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2020/08/13/understand-fascism-american-history-mussolini-hitler-20th-century/ideas/essay/

[2] Federico Finchelstein, “Introduction: Thinking Fascism and Populism in terms of the Past” in Federico Finkelstein, From Fascism to Populism in History (University of California Press, 2017).: 11-12, 18-19.; I wonder if Paxton’s viewpoint is changed following the capital riot on January 6, 2021?

[3] Brubaker, “Why Populism?” NUPI Podcast (51 minutes).

[4] Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, 23.

[5] de Grazia, “What We Don’t Understand about Fascism”.

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