History as a Conceptual Tool in Defining Populism and Fascism

by Kaileigh La Belle

The objective of Brubaker, Finchelstein, Mudde, and Paxton in this week’s readings was to identify elements, processes, and in some cases definitions of Popularism and Fascism that are more nuanced and functional. Ultimately, I was struck by the two distinctive approaches to conceptualizing these terms, each relying on historically recognized fascist and populist movements and thought to different degrees. For Finkelstein and Paxton, history served as a point of reconnection and starting point for their characterizations, respectively. Meanwhile, though not entirely divorced from history, I felt that Brubaker and Mudde positioned these terms as frameworks that could be applied to historical scenarios. 

With the centrality of specific historical moments and movements in half of these works, I found myself reconsidering one of the undercutting concerns in each of the four articles: the emotionally-charged, unnuanced uses of terms like Populism and Fascism that these authors reject. Initially, I felt that focusing too closely on history would limit our understanding to how fascism and populism manifested in specific contexts, rather than embracing the models used by Brubaker, which position the definition as a template. Additionally, many authors noted how emotion complicates our definition. Again, I initially felt that history, being highly emotional, also risks perpetuating emotionally-charged usages. However, as I read through Finchelstein and Paxton’s works, I began to notice how looking for criteria in historically established movements provides a much more holistic perspective. For example, Finchelstein was able to identify the difference between theoretical Fascism and Fascism in practice. And, in making this distinction, I feel that we can have more specific and accurate definitions of these terms. 

Ultimately, considering the complicated nature of these terms and the almost paradoxical ways they can be defined, I do not believe that we can solely define these terms through history. I do believe that it can be a useful tool. As such, I continue to ask myself: is there a way to accurately blend abstract theory and historical fact? 


Brubaker, Rogers. “Why Populism?” NUPI Podcast. 2017.

Finchelstein, Friederico. “Introduction: Thinking Fascism and Populism in terms of the Past”
in Federico Finkelstein. Fascism to Populism in History, 1-30. University of California
Press, 2017.

Mudde, Cas. “Populism in Europe: An Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic
Liberalism.” The Government and Opposition/Leonard Schapiro Lecture
2019. Government and Opposition. 2021: 1-21.

Paxton, Robert. “Introduction.” The Anatomy of Fascism, 3-23. New York, 2004.

Fascism vs Populism: Differentiated by Violence? By Lauren McCoy

For this week’s reading response, I wanted to take a closer look at the relationship between populism and violence. Within his chapter, Finchelstein argues that while populism is the successor of fascism in the post-war context and possesses many similar features, its rejection of violence is critical in understanding how it differs from fascism. This disassociation between populism and violence is further visible in the other material for this week – while Finchelstein and Paxton both identified violence as a key part of fascism, neither Mudde nor Brubaker mentioned violence in their description of populism.

While I agree that top-down violence is a critical feature of fascism, I am confused about how populism could be seen as non-violent. Combining Mudde’s Monist understanding of “The People” and Brubaker’s emphasis of populism as fueled by a (economic, cultural, physical) protectionist narrative, it’s easy to imagine how this type of rhetoric could both scare and empower “The People” to act against the perceived threat. This is especially the case since this minority “threat” is considered illegitimate within a populist understanding of citizenship, negating their right to protection. Potential examples could include the violence against Muslim populations under Indian Prime Minister Modi and white terrorism in the United States – where violence is legitimized by the perceived threat posed by minorities against “true citizens”.

While these acts of violence are not the same as the institutionalized violence conducted within fascist governments, I do not understand how you could consider populism as unrelated to the violent consequences of its rhetoric.

The Circle of (Political) Life by Aimee Brown

I’m going to use a metaphor from one of those bloodthirsty Discovery Channel nature shows. Fascism is the lion. It sees the wilder beast (democracy, work with me here), runs it down, and tears its guts out. The lion only cares about other lions, it thinks that it is totally justified in doing whatever it takes to keep lions on top of the food chain, and it enjoys murdering that wilder beast. Violence is beautiful and democracy exists to be dismembered (Paxton, 41). Populism is the hyena. The wilder beast was already down when the hyena showed up. It isn’t dead, but it looks pretty sick. If it weren’t already sick, the hyena wouldn’t have been able to feed on it. Populism doesn’t hunt democracy down to destroy it, it’s a symptom of democracy’s pre-existing problems of income inequality and democratic illegitimacy (Finchelstein, 5).  And frankly, the hyena is not totally wrong about the whole “people versus the elites” interpretive paradigm. The elite are a mostly-closed group of the affluent and privileged who engage in the depoliticization of politics by shifting some political issues into the realm of law and declaring others to be beyond debate. (Mudde, 581). Where the populists tend to run into trouble is in their definition of ‘the people’. Populists do not like diversity and, for them, ‘the people’ is always a homogenous group which should have absolute democratic power as the majority, regardless of minority concerns. The hyena can still be deadly. And as long as the wilder beast is sick, it’s not going anywhere.     

Defining terms: Fascism vs. Populism

During the readings for this week, as we have all read, the terms fascism and populism come up often.

When defining the term fascism, a lot of examples had come up, particularly in the reading by Frederico Finchelstein. There, I enjoyed the definition of the term populism as “a political form that thrives in democracies that are particularly unequal…” etc. But yet, this also proves that populism is capable of undermining democracy without breaking it. Finchelstein put it into good words by saying if populism extinguishes democracy, it becomes a dictatorship.

With regard to fascism, I liked that Donald Trump was a key topic of conversation. I found it interesting, yet it made sense to me, that Roger Griffin did not see Donald Trump as a fascist because of his own definition of the term. In his definition, for someone to be fascist, they need to have a longing for a new order, a new nation, and not just an old reformed one. Trump’s catchphrase is “make America great again” which to me, indicates that he did not necessarily want to go a new way in government, but back to how it used to be, I’m assuming prior to Obama. So by this definition, Griffin is correct in saying that Trump is not a fascist.

I am running a bit long here, but I just wanted to add lastly that there was a question in one of the readings about if fascism has really returned from its 1945 grave. As of now, I would agree that fascism hasn’t truly come back as much as others may disagree. Not by true definition. However, populism seems to be the bigger issue now as there is a rival between the common people and the “elites” or the 1%.

Defining Terms – Populism Versus Fascism

The readings from this week all center around a similar topic and that is defining populism versus fascism. All the authors from this week seem to have their own definitions, which are similar in some points, but they are clearly different definitions and none in my opinion are one hundred percent concrete.

Looking back at the reading, I found it fascinating the similarities between fascism and populism. With them both being ran by confident, charismatic leaders. But also, the enormous differences, with fascism being against democracy often creating a dictatorship (Finchelstein, 2017). While populist leaders would often work in a democratic state. Before doing the readings, I have heard very little about the term populism but after going over them I had a better understanding. Especially the Finchelstein one that was rather descriptive on the subject. He goes into depth on how many people may have mixed ideas on what populism actually is and how people can use the terms of fascism and populism interchangeably especially people who may have very little knowledge on either subject.

One thing that especially stood out to me was how both Mudde and Finchelstein made a point in saying that Populism is neither left nor right and it is highly dependant on the populist actor and their own personal ideals. I feel as that would be very important as this shows that populist ideals can vary in their ways and as Mudde states often a populist leader has a larger ideology in mind with populism being a secondary note. So being the fact that this is one of the first times I have actually read about this word populism, I am left still a little confused and in need of further research on the subject.


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).

Cas Mudde, “Populism in Europe: An Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic Liberalism” (The Government and Opposition/Leonard Schapiro Lecture 2019). Government and Opposition, (2021): 1-21.


Hi everybody my name is Blaise, I’m a fourth your student in BGINS with a specialization in global politics. A lot of my interest stems from the interaction between economic, development, and security policy and how interactions within these spheres of policies can have much larger rippling effects over all of society.

On a personal level I love just being outside whether that’s playing sports or just existing in the outdoors, it just brings me loads of happiness. I find that nature just puts everything into greater perspective as our (human) problems are only temporary to the Earth. It gives me a little solace when discussing some of the heavier topics we will be discussing in class.

I look forward to getting to know everybody this semester!

This is me stuck in a snow drift after hiking 10km up a mountain near Banff

Introduction – Melyssa Clark

Hi All,

I’m a master’s student in the EU stream of the the European Russian and Eurasian Studies (EURUS) program. For my undergrad degree, I majored in political science with a double minor in French and business studies. Topics that I’m interested in studying are domestic EU politics, environmental politics, and populism. My MRP topic will focus on analyzing the European Parliament’s right-wing populist party’s response to the European Climate Law.

A little about me personally, I’m originally from Alberta and as a result of having the Rocky Mountains in my backyard, I’m an avid hiker/backpacker. The most recent and longest backpacking trip that I’ve done was the West Coast Trail. Some other hobbies of mine include cycling, photography, cross-country skiing, refinishing antique furniture, and collecting plants.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk! Looking forward to a great class with you!

How do we Capture Populism? – Jacob Braun

Ever since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the term “populism” has seen a resurgence in academic literature and popular media. Although the idea of populism has been studied and monitored since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, most still have a very faint idea of what the concept actually means.

In his podcast with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, Rogers Brubaker lays out a general definition of populism as a repertoire of worldviews— characterised by a distrust in governmental institutions, cultural protectionism and crass behaviour. Despite populism further being argued as neither left nor right by Cas Mudde, right-wing populists have been able to wield this repertoire effectively as to champion their political objectives ostensibly in the name of the people. But if populism represents a fight against the elite caste of society which can be manipulated for both the left and right wings of the political spectrum, how does fascism connect to it? 

According to Federico Finchelstein, populism in theory rejects the raw forms of political violence presented by fascism. But, the intolerant nature of right-wing populism as well as its many similarities to fascism provides a readily available jumping-off point for its followers to radicalise into fascists. For instance, Robert Paxton presents the invention of fascism as a kind of “national socialism;” a stark similarity to the populist rhetoric of patriotism and national identity with a necessity to protect the lower class of society who have fallen prey to parasitic elites. Sound familiar?

Through this week’s readings, we can attribute a loose definition to the ephemeral concept of populism and connect it to its most dangerous extreme form, fascism.

“Deus Vult!” A phrase with many meanings

I am choosing to write on last week’s readings for now, but I see everyone is writing on this week’s readings. Worst comes to worst I do two reflections this week…

The phrase “Deus Vult!” or “God wills it”, is a phrase I have heard a few times before, but I had never known what the term really meant or why it was being used.

It seems that shouting the phrase could be very innocent, but in a decade of Trump supporters, Islamophobia and other issues, the term has almost a new meaning. In the reading by Sal Hagen on this phrase, we learn that it is a historical catchphrase that was intended to align people into recapturing the Holy Land. Therefore, it has become a more far-right catchphrase that is slightly problematic.

Although it was interesting to learn that it was not just Americans who began to use this phrase in a more extreme right way, it also fueled Israel’s far-right and the Brazilian far-right as well. However, in either case, it is used to promote a more white and Christian perspective and to extend cases of Islamophobia.

Something that I continue to struggle with is that Christians claim to be loving and accepting of all people, but then you have these cases in multiple areas where the far-right of these groups are hating on others. Which you would believe to be the opposite going off of what they tell others. Alas, that is more on the side of my opinion, so I will stop there.

I think using the phrase as a meme can be funny and innocent in a particular context with friends. However, to use a catchphrase in terms of hate is a bit ridiculous. However, it seems that everyone needs to hate someone. In the reading of the Brazilian far-right, it is interesting that the government used another phrase, “Brazil above everything, God above all,” which is a religious twist on a slogan from the Nazi Party.

There’s much I could talk about on this phrase but I will leave it here for now.