Is Populism the New Fascism?

Both populism and fascism are concepts that are often used in today’s media coverage. While populism and fascism are sometimes used loosely together, the traits of each have been well covered, albeit contentiously. However, the issue arises due to the definition of each is rarely agreed upon and defined definitively. This is problematic as it can lead to questions like the one posed by Federico Finchelstein: “should we brace ourselves for an ideological storm similar to the one fascism precipitated when it first appeared a little less than one hundred years ago”? Unpacking this question requires a great amount of attention due to its potential implications and requires the elaboration of terminology.

Fascism as a concept has seen great debate within the academic literature, from definitions such as “Fascism is a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra nationalism” by Roger Griffin to more detailed and elaborate definitions by Roger Paxton. Paxton sets out a list of features to define Fascism (sense of crisis, primacy of group toward a superior, victimhood of the group, general sense of group decline, closer group integration, the beauty of violence, etc.)

Populism on the other hand is more traditionally defined as “a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite” (Cas Mudde ). Populist politicians typically claim that they alone speak for “the people” against the elites, with “the people”, often the difference between the groups is argued on a moral basis with the “people” being the morally superior going against the “corrupt”. It is important to note that populism defers from fascism as the concept does not fall into dictatorship, populism only manifests within democracies.

Finchelstein makes an important distinction that populism is a form or permutation of authoritarian democracy, whereas fascism is ultra violent dictatorship. I believe some of the confusion that manifests in media coverage occurs because of populist leaders rhetoric being misconstrued, while leaders like Trump may have illiberal agendas, that does not translate to a complete abolition of the democratic way, which would be the case if he was a fascist. This is what I believe is at the heart of Paxton’s idea of “echoes of fascism” when referring to rhetoric and agenda. Additionally, the “people” defined in populist literature is unlikely to match with a fascist understanding of the “group”. This does not mean that the groups found in populism and fascism would not share similar experiences, such as the features set out by Paxton. For example, populist leaders can use events such as the “immigration crisis” in Europe as a rallying call to spur the emotion of a sense of decline and accompanying perceived victim hood of the group who are losing out due to the crisis. It could be argued that the only difference between the populist using this technique and a fascist would be that the fascist would incite violence and go further in their calls to change the system, not just change it but dismantle it entirely.

2019/09/16: “History Doesn’t Repeat Itself, But It Often Rhymes”

by: PSjoberg

How did an Italian term (facismo) used in a particular context in 1919 come to define an entire disjointed collection of nationalistic totalitarian-esque movements throughout the 1920s-1940s, and continue to be apparently misused to describe the resurgence of nationalist sentiments nearly a century later? The answer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, quite similar to the explanation as to why these movements were so explosively successful in the first place: the lack of a widely understood and accepted definition.

Prior to engaging with this collection of readings, I admittedly did not give much thought to the historical vagueness of the term “fascism.” In my mind, the term had always been associated with those common images discussed by Robert Paxton in his The Anatomy of Fascism: chanting crowds, exclusionary rhetoric, and orchestrated acts of violence. Now, though, I see there are broad differences between the various movements which have been described as fascist. Paxton discusses this at length – as do Gilbert Allardyce and Federico Finchelstein in their respective articles this week – but at the end of his eighth chapter he attempts to proclaim an all-encompassing definition for the term, and he ends up with a rambling run-on sentence which desperately tries to make sense of fascism’s many manifestations.

The issue with creating a singular definition for fascism is that this task has always been done with the assumption of fascism as an ideology or a political movement. The only commonality between all “fascist” movements is that their primary purpose was to exploit the passions of the people and use those emotions as fuel for their respective, culturally relevant goals. Thus, fascism can be much easier defined when viewed as a political strategy, not as ideology. This explains why fascism is so widely detested and commonly treated as an insult: the term describes a particularly immoral method for the acquisition of political power.

Comparisons between the 20th century fascist movements and 21st century populist movements stem, I believe, primarily from the common depiction of both movements as being immoral or in some way in opposition to the liberal societies against which each movement is situated. While the “fascist” and “populist” movements are drastically different, in that the former were more focused on the violent uprooting of the liberal system and the latter are still based within it, the terms “fascism” and “populism” themselves are similar in that they are both strategies for the attainment of political power, rather than political ideologies.

While fascism can easily be proclaimed an immoral strategy, because of the presence of systemic violence, populism cannot necessarily be labelled fundamentally immoral. In Cas Mudde’s article, he describes populism as a strategy which unites the common people against a corrupt elite. This hardly seems like an immoral sentiment. In fact, one could easily argue that Bernie Sanders utilizes a populist strategy. Much like fascism, then, the populist movement has a diversity of characters (from Bernie Sanders to Marine Le Pen) and is vague enough to draw mass followings.

Works cited:

Gilbert Allardyce, “What Fascism Is Not: Thoughts on the Deflation of a Concept,” American Historical Review 84 (1979): 367-98

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).

Dylan Matthews, “I Asked 5 Fascism Experts if Trump whether Trump is a fascist. This is what they said” Vox May 19, 2016

Cas Mudde, “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,

Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York, 2004), pp 3-23, pp. 206-220

On Fascism and Right-Wing Populism, By Absalom Sink✢

In years past, when I was a much younger man of more active politics, I, like many of my peers, had the habit of leaning on a particular word when describing those deemed far to my political right. Fascist, I called them. Relatively ignorant of history, and certainly ignorant of pre-World War II Italian history, I had picked the word up from my older friends, my political mentors. This was the term to be used against as much to describe police and conservatives as it was for racists and neo-Nazis. I was an anti-fascist, opposed to bigotry, fighter-for-what’s-right.

Essentially, I fell into the trap that Gilbert Allardyce was lamenting decades earlier, writing in 1979’s “What Fascism is Not”. Allardyce argues that the term is so nebulous, so open to interpretation by sociologists, historians, and political scientists—let alone the public—that it becomes both difficult to take seriously, and all-but-useless as a focus of scholarship. The crux of his argument could be summarized by a quote he borrows from an earlier article by Stanley Payne titled “Spanish Fascism in Comparative Perspective,” in which Payne concludes that “the term fascism can be applied to the entire broad genus only at the cost of depriving it of any specific content.” Fascism to Allardyce is a term whose use as a descriptor ought to be confined to political movements from the period of 1919-1945 or so; anything outside that timeframe ought not be classified as “fascism,” much as the term “romanticism” is reserved for the artistic movement temporally bound to the early 19th century.

In the past few years, the term “fascist” has seen increasingly widespread use, as right-wing populism gains both in popularity and political clout. Questions swirl as to whether or not Donald Trump is a fascist, to say nothing of arguably still further-right figures like Viktor Orbán, Jarosław Kaczyński, and Marine Le Pen. Of course, even ignoring Allardyce’s exhortation to not apply the term “fascist” outside the early 20th century, there is a set of core characteristics of fascism, as Dylan Matthews argues*, few of which the above mentioned populists evince. For instance, none of them advocate an outright rejection of democracy, and few are fervent anti-individualists in the vein of Mussolini; indeed, as Matthews points out, Trump is fervently pro-individualist. And while today’s borderline mainstream populists may inspire violence, they rarely advocate for it directly. By contrast, as Zeev Sternhell explains, the early 20th century saw the proto-fascist Georges Sorel calling violence “something very beautiful and heroic,” not just a means to an end, but a worthy goal in itself. And Mussolini himself valorized violence while decrying pacifism, exhorting that “war alone maximizes to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have the courage to meet it” in his 1932 essay “The Doctrine of Fascism.” Peace is “thus hostile to the spirit of Fascism”.

It is crucial to recognize that Fascism arose in response to a particular set of historical circumstances in Europe in the post-WWI years. By contrast, as Cas Mudde argues, today’s right-populist wave—what he and others describe as “illiberal democracy”—arose from its own set of historical circumstances; in particular, as a reaction to inequality and feelings of disenfranchisement brought on by the undemocratic, technocratic implementation of liberal economic and political doctrine. Mudde argues that the neoliberalism that emerged in the US and Western Europe in the 1980s and its attendant increase in financial inequality and instability has inculcated a popular reaction, which opponents of liberalism have stoked through charismatic leadership and effective propaganda in order to gain power and enact illiberal agendas. But unlike Mussolini or Franco, they gain that power through democratic means; thus, definitionally, they cannot be fascists.

With age and education, I am better able to reckon with the mistakes of my youth. We are clearly facing a right-wing populist “moment” today. But even a salty, battle-scarred old radical like me recognizes that those ascendant populists and would-be authoritarians should be fought and denounced on their own qualities; fascists they are not—at least not at present—and to call them otherwise not only undermines the damage caused by the real fascists of the early 20th century (ie. “cheapens the term”), but also risks any criticism not being taken seriously (a sort of “boy who cried wolf” syndrome). There certainly are still fascists to be “anti-“—as Dylan Matthews makes clear, Greece’s “Golden Dawn” would qualify, as might any number of homegrown, anti-democratic “Western” chauvinists—but as for the more mainstream, right-wing pop-authoritarians like Donald Trump, better to find terms with which to criticize them without resorting to ahistorical, imprecise name-calling.

✢ This author has used a pseudonym.

*For a still more in-depth read of the characteristics of fascism, Umberto Eco’s 1995 article Ur-Fascism is an exceptional resource.

Works Cited

Gilbert Allardyce, “What Fascism Is Not: Thoughts on the Deflation of a Concept,” American Historical Review 84 (1979): 367-98

Cas Mudde, “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,

Dylan Matthews, “I Asked 5 Fascism Experts if Trump whether Trump is a fascist. This is what they said” Vox May 19, 2016

Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile. “The Doctrine of Fascism.” Enciclopedia Italiana. 1932.

Zeev Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1994).

The Ghost of Fascism

By Danielle Johnson*

Ever since its beginning in the early 30s, defining fascism has been a challenge for political scientists and historians. This, according to Gilbert Allardyce, historian and professor emeritus at the University of New Brunswick, is the reason for which the term has been loosely used in politics at the time he was writing his article What Fascism Is Not: Thoughts on the Deflation of a Concept. This was in 1979 and this thought interestingly still applies today in a contemporary setting. The tendency to reduce fascism to a general concept is a fallacy according to Allardyce and many more historians like Robert Paxton.

Consequently, this complex concept is used as an insult in the political sphere. But, how can one understand fascism as it is used today if it was a ghost of the past, an entity that was understood as never coming back to haunt this age’s political realm? Allardyce wrote that fascism should be “untranslatable” to other historical periods. Outside of its assigned historical frame, fascism becomes a generalization made by political candidates to serve their political agenda. Dylan Matthews proves this in his article I Asked 5 Fascism Experts if Trump whether Trump is a fascist. This is what they said. The use of the term fascism in the news and political sphere is used without its historical context reduces its meaning and destroys the plurality which defines it. It brings back the bipolar view of fascism as only existing in the Nazi state and Mussolini’s Italy, when in fact individual fascist movements rose everywhere with their own identities forged from the national needs and contexts. So, is it then possible to reapply these terms to a contemporary setting? Frederick Finchelstein and Matthews both refer to the fact that it is not in fact fascism represented in today’s global politics, but populism. They both understand a rejection of democracy as part of the defining aspects of fascism, rather than the rejection of said democracy for a certain minority only.

Thus, this use of fascism in a displaced context should warn us against the dangers of pulling historical elements from their place of origins. It should be clear that the vocabulary used to describe certain political systems around the world needs to be accurate, and that historians have a responsibility to point out the historical “shallowness” of the media.

*This author is using a pseudonym

Works Cited

Gilbert Allardyce, “What Fascism Is Not: Thoughts on the Deflation of a Concept,” American Historical Review 84 (1979): 367-98
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).
Dylan Matthews, “I Asked 5 Fascism Experts if Trump whether Trump is a fascist. This is what they said” Vox May 19, 2016
Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York, 2004), pp 3-23, pp. 206-220

What is Populism?

Up until very recently, I have always thought that populism and fascism are the same thing. There was also a time when I considered leaders such as US President Donald Trump and Brazil President Jair Balsanaro to be fascists. After this week’s readings, I have come to the conclusion that Trump and Bolsanaro are purely populists. They are not fascists, at least not yet. The major reading that changed my mind on this concept was Finchelstein’s From Fascism to Populism in History. Finchelstein’s article taught me that there is a major difference between Populism and Fascism. First of all I can wholeheartedly agree with the concept that populism is not limited to  the right and right wing movements. The author refers to populism as an “ideological pendulum” swinging between the left and the right. The key concept that populism contains is a deep distrust of the ruling elite, a popular desire of the masses: especially those who believe that they have been left behind in their political system by the ruling elite, combined with the mass following of a leader in which supporters believe is strong and the belief that a single leader is the solution to the problem. This is the blanket umbrella of populism ideals that both right wing and left wing populism espouses. As the author notes, the distinct differences between left and right wing Populism is that left wing populism considers anyone opposed to their movement as enemies of the people. Right wing Populism connects those opposed to their views as enemies of the people based on their race, ethnicity, or country of origin. It would seem in this view that racism runs more rampant on Populist movements from the right. One key difference between populism and fascism that I learned was that Populism is essentially an authoritarian version of democracy. Fascsism exists in an undemocratic institution with dictatorships that espouse violence to gain power, dismantle democratic institutions, and enact violence on minorities or those of a different ethnicity. The author makes it clear however that populism can become fascsim, and as soon as a populist leader begins to dismantle emocratic institutions, cheques and balances, and incite violence, that is when populism turns into fascsim. This can mean that the rise of populism on the right is incredibly dangerous. Even though the author insists that the morphing of populism into facsim is rare, it can still happen. Therefore in order to prevent Populism from morphing into Facsim, one must hope that a country has strong democratic institutions that would prevent a radical leader from dismantling them.  The only area in which I disagree with the author is when he mentions that populist leaders do not celebrate dictatorships. This is not entirely true. In 2018, Donald Trump cozied up to and praised Kim Jong Un and his Regime in North Korea. Bolsanaro has expressed and admiration of the former dictatorship that was in power in Brazil in the 1960s. I therefore believe that when populist leaders begin to encite such admiration, they threaten democratic institutions posing the elements of risk in populism turning into fascsim. 

Work Cited 

 Finchelstein,  Federico, “Introduction: Thinking Fascism and Populism in terms of the Past,” in Federico Finkelstein, From Fascism to Populism in History (University of California Press, 2017).

“Echoes of Fascism”

From this week’s readings, it is clear that there have been many attempts to define fascism, and there are varying ways of defining, or not defining this term. To summarize the relationship between the three terms, fascism, populism, and authoritarianism: authoritarian regimes are not necessarily fascist, but fascist regimes are authoritarian, and fascism ‘morphed’ into populism over time. Federico Finchelstein makes an important distinction that populism is a form of democracy, but fascism is a form of dictatorship.

Gilbert Allardyce, Federico Finchelstein, Dylan Matthews, all make it clear that fascism existed at a very certain time in history, and Robert Paxton describes the ‘necessary conditions’ for fascism very well. A re-occurring comment in the readings was that the term ‘fascism’ has been thrown around very lightly and loosely in modern times. However, if we examine the core elements of fascism, it is clear that fascism does not exist today. That being said, I support Paxton’s statement that “echoes of fascism” can be seen in Donald Trump’s themes, particularly the idea of ‘national regeneration.’ One of the main differences between fascism, and in this case Trump (or more broadly, the structure of today’s society), is the focus on community versus the individual.

Jumping back to Finchelstein’s argument: “fascism and populism, while linked in history, belong to different contexts and became very different historical global experiences,” partially because of how our society is structured. As Matthews highlights, fascism is anti-individualist, and Trump is an arch-individualist. I do not think that in the present day, especially considering the lack of Paxton’s prerequisites for fascism, that you could unite an entire citizenry behind one idea. In some part, this is due to technology and how we consume information and news. The majority of digital information is curated to the individual, and this isolates us from one another. The rise of all things digital has created a very different time and environment, and one could hope that fascism could not rise again. That being said, I would like to pose the following question:

Considering that information, or at least information filtering, is controlled by a few big companies, and that the likes of Cambridge Analytica was able to influence elections, could a form of information control give rise to true fascism once again?

To start answering this question, I think it is important to examine Paxton’s definition of “fascism,” which appear as necessary conditions for fascism. One of Paxton’s conditions is a “sense of overwhelming crisis,” whether real or imagined it is realistic for this to be a reality soon (climate crisis, “migration crisis,” “refugee crisis”). Another one of Paxton’s conditions is the need for “authority by natural chiefs.”  This is becoming apparent, especially in the USA. Joel Westheimer (University of Ottawa) conducted a study that concluded that 48% of millennials in the USA thought that good governance requires a strong leader that does not need to consult with congress or courts. While Trump may be a right-wing populist, the idea that strong leaders do not need to consult with congress and courts may be a departure from democracy and consequently a departure from populism. What about the other factors of fascism (as Paxton defines them), is there evidence of their existence today that may suggest that fascism was not just confined to one point in history and may reemerge?