The Importance of a Leader?

By: Melyssa Clark

History is an important tool in which we can trace back threads to the past in adding our understanding of how contemporary events are not created from a rupture. This is depicted through this week’s course material that traces back how modern populism is derived from Fascist ideology that emerged from Italy in 1919. The support for both of these ideologies are fuelled by crises that create division amongst insiders and outsiders within society as well as a political system. Although the authors work at contributing to a better understanding of populism as a term, whether in isolation or through a path dependency approach of a historical comparison to fascism, there is one important idea that various authors alluded to that could be further developed. That idea being the use of an actor-based approach that highlights the important role that populist leaders have in these movements. One of the main definers of populism is the division between “the people” and “the elites” effectively, this creates a need for collective action to have the people’s voice heard and remove the elites from power. In turn, it’s important to have a charismatic leader who is able to frame various crises through the democratized media and create a call to action to mobilize “the people”. The most cohesive example amongst the authors that illustrate this is Trump’s rise to power in 2016. Brubaker highlights Trump’s likability, relative to Clinton, and the means through which he uses the media to frame issues to create distrust of institutions and elites amongst the public.

The right, left, vertical, and horizontal by Francesco Sacca.

Hello everyone!

An odd title for this article I know but it does get the point across on the topics that I wish to discuss. In this post I will mainly be focusing on 2 sections of the material that we were assigned for this week, the podcast from NUPI (Norwegian Institute of International Affairs) and the writing created by Federico Finchelstein, titled From Fascism to Populism in History.

Firstly, in the podcast with Rogers Brubaker, there is one point in particular that should be discussed and that is his classification of the three sections and uses of populism. In the first section, Brubaker discusses the ordinary (and or working class) and how they are pitted against the elite (in which there is a suggestion to reorganize the political system), the second section is the sovereign portion, prioritizing “a politics of re-democratization”. The third classification that Brubaker gives is “ethnically bounded”, though in my opinion, this third section can include the elements of both section 1 and section 2, therefore this portion should be clarified more clearly as a separate entity.  Both the sovereign and the ordinary, despite their differences, can potentially be united under a unified body of ethnicity and or nationality (I will make this more clear and provide an example in class).

Secondly, this idea of a shared ethnicity and nationality through the social/political classes is not represented just once in this week’s material. In the text supplied from Federico, the theme continues when discussing the focuses and priorities of the far right, “populists on the right connect this populist intolerance of alternative political views with a conception of the people formed on the basis of ethnicity and country of origin. In short, right-wing populists are xenophobic.”. Through what is said here, it may be implied that fascist politicians attempt to inspire fear in those that are “ethnically bonded” through the use of the “imposing” outside world (an example is provided via this link where Donald Trump discusses Mexico and its connection with job availability in the United States.

I will be ready to discuss more in person but let this be a prelude to what I will bring up in person.

The Pitfalls of Equating Populism with Fascism


One of the issues presented in the readings that I found particularly interesting was the discussion around populism versus fascism. I have often equated the two when discussing the rise of far-right populist movements in contemporary politics. I have come to realize that doing so can have a negative impact on public discourse, potentially fanning the flames of political tensions.

Finchelstein pushes against people who conflate populism and fascism with anything that stands against liberal democracy. He also has a bone to pick with “pundits and politicians” who use fascism to describe not only populism, but also authoritarian regimes or international terrorism. My initial reaction was to question his argument: While I appreciated his nuance when defining these terms, I also believed that labelling populist movements that advocated for exclusionary ethno-nationalist politics as fascist movements was a useful tool to shock and scare people into action against these dangerous political movements. If they walk like a duck, and quack like a duck, then why can’t they be fascit?

This type of anti-populist discourse evidently worsens relations between liberal-democrats and populists. The equation of populism and fascism as political rhetoric can be a form of anti-populism.  Mudde argues it is a “mirror image” of populism, as it establishes both a monist (us versus them) and a moralist (populists are morally corrupt) position that leaves no room for compromise. Thus, the equation of fascism with populism further solidifies the sentiments held among populist-democrats that they are being marginalized by the liberal democratic system and that their political antagonists are “enemies of the people,” further widening the gap between them and liberal democrats.

As Paxton argues, fascist states were established and maintained by the “solid texture of everyday experience and the complicity of ordinary people,” and that these states could not have grown without the help of these people. Perhaps labelling populists as fascists could push people further down the path towards the more violent and extreme ideology of fascism.

Sources: 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.
Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York, 2004), pp 3-23.

Fighting with definitions of Fascism and Populism

In each of the readings this week, analysis was mostly focused on understanding Fascism and Populism, especially in regards to differentiating the two. As underlined in Finchelstein’s From Fascism to Populism in History, though the terms are both used in a colloquial sense to label others as “evil,” they do not share the same ideology, often even having clashing ideals. Though the work offers a good framework for discerning between the two, the categories lead to questioning regarding the gray area between Populism and Fascism. In Paxton’s work, he points out the “fascist minimum” as a concept which would hope to tidy up problems in separating the two. However, his further explanation that Fascist regimes were different from one another, primarily due to their inherently nationalistic ideology.

Facing these different ideas in the readings, a few questions arose in my mind. Though I don’t doubt the usefulness of these categories, are they entirely beneficial in analyzing different movements? Could they be detrimental to better understanding of the similarities and differences that appear? Where do we define the line between the two? Though Finchelstein gives his own interpretation, can it really be said that each of the stated elements is absolutely necessary to call a movement Fascist?

I believe these considerations are especially pertinent in observing new movements which may not fit into either category. Trying to force them into our own categories could lead to a false sense of understanding, where our own biases may cloud our judgment on history.

A Look at the Complexities of Populism, Fascism, and Authoritarianism

I found the readings for this week quite unique. At times, in an attempt to emphasize the intricate aspects of fascism and populism, some arguments would be overly complex and unfortunately, I often found that this distracted me from the original argument that the author was trying to make. However, I still appreciated the approaches that both Finchelstein and Mudde took in an effort to emphasize the ever changing perspectives surrounding fascism and populism.

For one, Finchelstein classifies populism as a category of “authoritarian democracy”. I found this approach to populism quite unorthodox considering that Finchelstein is essentially referring to a democratic society which is blindly being ruled by an authoritative figure. Personally, I would consider this perspective to lightly tread on the boundary between democracy and dictatorship. However, since populism renounces anti-democratic institutions, I am not completely in agreement with Finchelstein’s decision to classify populism as a form of “authoritarian democracy”. Even if populism does promote majoritarian extremism, as emphasized in Mudde’s piece,  the political approach also believes in compromise and equal power, which are both vehemently renounced by authoritarian and totalitarian societies. 

When it comes to fascism, I found that Finchelstein continued to overly complex the issue, but I did find the argument surrounding fascism to be more appealing. Specifically, Finchelstein’s contention that society today is misusing the term ‘fascism’. Finchelstein makes reference to the fact that there were major figures referring to Donald Trump as a fascist during his time in office, however, just because he was prejudiced, racist, intolerant etc. that is not enough to classify Trump as a fascist. Rather, what truly makes a person a fascist is their intense desire to create an entire new nation with a new order. Instead, Trump merely wanted to reform America, or in his words, ‘Make America Great Again’, but his objective was not to create a whole new America. 

I must also note that my main takeaway from what was reviewed this week, is that fascism and populism both seem to be used as a societal tool to justify or oppose controversial decisions and actions against various groups of people.

Fascism and Populism: Some Differences

The origin of fascism takes place in Benito Mussolini’s Italy is in a time of confusion, anger and fear which was used by the future leader of this movement to rise to the top. One point that the author Robert Paxton makes in his introductory chapter of The Anatomy of Fascism that is very interesting is that fascism is not exactly what the popular opinion thinks of it. It is seen as evil, anti-Semitic, and aggressive. While it looks to be true in appearance, Paxton describes it more the culmination of violence, radicalism and contradiction. It should also be note that this movement also feed on misinformation and propaganda.

While looking at Cas Muddle’s text, Populism in Europe: An Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic Liberalism, it can be compared closely to fascism. Key ideas like “power to the people” of antagonizing the elite classes of society seems to be shared, but they are developed differently. While radical goals and ideas are the starting zones, the means to make themselves heard is much more violent for the fascist. It is in the nature of the movement to be more on the offensive and to present a certain discipline. They try to have more of a military culture while populism is looking more like a mob sometimes. Furthermore, a distinction that Muddle explains is that ideology in populism is most of the time secondary; it’s the leader of the movement that impregnates his group with it. On the contrary, fascism is built on the far-right axis even though experts sometime argue on details like the anti capitalist and anti bourgeoisie’s fascism political point of view.

Chapter 1: Defining Terms

By: Hannah Long

In general we as humans love to categorize and give things labels, it is an ability that allows us to recognize patterns and features that are collectively shared. In a political sense it allows us to come to an agreement on what characteristics a specific ideology should have and how those who adhere to it are expected to behave. This becomes all the more crucial when analyzing stronger political views that influence governance more deeply.

While, the importance of differentiating between terms such as authoritarian, populist, and fascist should be clear cut, that is farther from the actual truth. In this week’s readings, I realized how simply defining any given political sphere is a complex mix between our own personal opinions as well as textbook definitions. As the word populist was thrown around so much in 2019, Brubaker explained how it’s not just a lazy journalistic cliché (Brubaker, 2019), but rather as a result of the growing link between media and politics. As many governments have become more direct in their responses, making the word more common in ideological discourse.

I found Brubaker’s points provide a very clear discussion of populism as both a term and ongoing phenomena that has and is still a hot topic due what he describes as the perfect storm of political and social issues happening all at the same time. Likewise, Paxton discussed the rise of fascism in the twentieth century as a label to differentiate itself from the pack (Paxton, 3). The term itself is almost so analyzed and discussed that the set of characteristics that make up the word fascist can never really be shaken from it, or mistaken for another political ideology unlike populism has been and maybe will be for a time to come.

With populist having become the new controversial label many seek to avoid, I wonder if in the coming years we will see a trend of using different words and ideological spheres to define such a broad approach.

Rogers Brubaker, “Why Populism?” NUPI Podcast (51 minutes).

Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York, 2004), pp 3-23.

Nupi. “Podcast: Why Populism? Why Here? Why Now?” NUPI. Norsk Utenrikspolitisk Institutt.

Defining Terms

I appreciate the notion, important in the Brubaker lecture and echoed elsewhere that Populism can be seen as a repertoire of elements by which to gain political support. Not a fully formed ideology on its own, it is first a style of democratic politics which can be deployed by parties of any ideology. This point it important in Mudde, who sees Populism as a “thin centered” ideology (contrasting to full ideologies such as liberalism, socialism or communism) as it only “informs” policy rather than representing a worked out system.

In Finchelstein’s view, populism re-emerged after WWII as a step back from fascism. I wonder whether fascism was shunned in other polities because its major proponents lost the war? Or was there actual revulsion at the centrality of violence in fascism (by Finchelstein’s definition). Paxton thinks fascism is also characterized by a romantic notion that the leader is in “mystical union with the historic destiny of his people”. Is such an exalted self-image of a people (and a leader) a good fit just anywhere? A combination of the latter two feels like the best explanation.

I got a new insight on the meaning of the Elite enemy in populism from Mudde’s discussion of re-politicization. In addition to the neoliberal globalization and mediated understanding of news, Mudde introduced the “rise of undemocratic liberalism”. When controversial issues like abortion and capital punishment become enshrined in law, they are “taken out of the political, most notably electoral, arena”. Immigration, and European integration are other excellent examples: mainstream political parties supported these, in spite of reservations by large portions of the electorate. Technocratic decision-making, and TINA (there is no alternative) arguments are part of this infuriating mix.

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.