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%.
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.
Defining Terms – Populism, Fascism, and Authoritarianism
The readings for this week by Brubaker, Finchelstein, Mudde, and Paxton, all question why we label governments, or different classes/groups of people as populist, authoritarian, or fascist. Brubaker questions if the term “populism” is used as a tool for analysis, or if it is just a journalistic cliché that is thrown around as a label for groups and individuals. By extension I feel that this idea applies to the other terms as well. Do we use the terms authoritarian, or fascist to gauge ongoing political issues, or are they just catchy headline terms that garner clicks? In other words, how do we utilize these terms?
In tandem with their utilization, the readings all question and analyze their characterization. These terms generally carry a very negative denotation with them due to their history, (particularly due to the events that transpired throughout the 20th century in Europe) and generally speaking most people would likely not want to be directly associated with them. A major point of contention when discussing these terms is questioning how we identify them? Do we label them as worldviews, ideologies, or can we even put them on the same level as an ‘ism’ like conservatism, liberalism, and socialism? One thing is certain, and that’s that all three terms define a strong political viewpoint regarding governance and equality.
- Rogers Brubaker, “Why Populism?” NUPI Podcast (51 minutes)
- 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.
Political Definitions are Nebulous
All the readings this week offer some kind of definitions for “populism” and “fascism” as well as discussing the definitions of others. These definitions are used, among other purposes, to draw a line between populism and fascism, but the definitions and lines drawn differ such that I am still left wondering: which is the most correct? Mudde offers his own take on the dominant “ideational approach” for populism, where a group identified as “the people” must defeat a group identified as “the elite.” I personally agree with this definition, but it is incredibly broad (which is the intention) and could potentially describe movements which are not conventionally considered populist.
Finchelstein loosely applies the ideational approach to draw a line between populism and fascism, arguing that populism becomes fascism when “the people” becomes a race/ethnicity/nationality and tries to bend politics to the will of that group. It might also be added that fascism loses the democracy-focus of populism, and Finchelstein’s definition misses some aspects of Paxton’s description of fascism. In other words, the line between populism is thicker than we might think, but also very flexible.
Additionally, both Mudde and Finchelstein argue that populism is also an “illiberal-democratic response to undemocratic liberalism” (Mudde, 1) while also acknowledging that populism can vary in political orientation. But what is the possibility of liberal populism, especially in an illiberal political environment? In this case, I think their definition of populism could exclude some kinds of populism.
Perhaps “which definition is most correct?” is the wrong question for such nebulous concepts – concepts which might be better described by qualifiers than a definition.
People Need Someone to Hate
What struck me with these readings is the lack of consensus shown by the writers with regard to the definition of the word “fascism”, and how easily it is used interchangeably with the word “populism”. Although the general impression of the word shows it to be synonymous with an authoritarian and restrictive regime, which, as stated, refers specifically to certain key countries within the early to mid-20th century, the wider interpretation of the word, and placing it in its correct historical context, are slightly less straightforward.
Finchelstein (2017) in particular lays out in clear terms the distinction between fascism and populism, but the understanding most people in society have regarding these movements is somewhat skewed. It makes me wonder whether people looking at the news today make links between current trends in populism across Europe and the United States and equate them automatically with fascism, as they are used to having a so-called enemy to hate. With the end of the Cold War, people are looking for a new enemy, as befits human nature. Society as a whole, especially in Europe, as stated by Mudde (2021), has been increasingly becoming liberal in mindset. As such, when a minority of people gain populist leanings, many of which trend towards the right end of the political spectrum, the average person may equate the “otherness” of their mindset with the “bad” right-wing regimes of the past.
As the readings show, populism can be left or right, but I would assume that many people do not wish to identify themselves as populist to avoid any negative connotations the word has garnered. However, they would feel comfortable labelling those on the opposite end of the spectrum as such. As fascism and populism, outside of a historical and correctly analysed perspective, are often seen as synonymous, it stands to reason that the term would be erroneously used to label modern populist movements.
Finchelstein, F. (2019). Introduction: Thinking Fascism and Populism in terms of the Past. In From Fascism to Populism in History. essay, University of California Press.
Schapiro, L., & Mudde, C. (1969). Populism in Europe: An Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic Liberalism. In Government and opposition (pp. 1–21). essay, London School of Economics.
Historical analogy – does it help or harm?
As Peter Gordon and Samuel Moyn converse with one another about the efficacy of historical analogy and comparison – particularly in the context of fascism and the current political climate – there appears to be a misunderstanding between the two authors which de Grazia addresses very early on in her article. It seems that Gordon and Moyn are basing their articles on two different meanings of fascism – Moyn engages with fascism as a historical phenomenon, while Gordon’s definition extends more broadly to the political label. De Grazia strikes an important balance in her piece. There is the essential task of knowing and remembering fascism as an historical event – it led to some of the worst suffering humanity has borne witness to. However, there is a very real risk of oversimplifying that event and applying it to modern goings on. That is not to say that fascism is not a real and present threat in the 21st century, but rather, an effort must be made to understand it for what it is, rather than as a shadow or imitation of something else.
There also appears to be a disconnect in the language employed by Gordon and Moyn in the use of analogy vs comparison. Gordon very intentionally prefers analogy, and makes a point of it, writing that “there’s an important difference between analogy and comparison but I’ll ignore that difference here.” Moyn, on the other hand, titles his piece “The Trouble with Comparison.” This may simply be a matter of semantics, but one wonders if the difference speaks to a broader misunderstanding between the two. After all, they both seem to be working towards a similar overall point – that there is a very critical need to address and seek to understand fascism in the modern context, and historical sensibility is very necessary in achieving that understanding. While their disagreements on how exactly to undertake the historical sensibility do differ, and I do not believe those differences can be boiled down to word choice and a slightly different working definition of the word fascism, they both recognize the benefits and pitfalls of analogy/comparison, and caution against similar things; namely, that historical comparison, if it is to be done, be done very cautiously, intentionally, and in recognition of De Grazia’s point that modern fascism ultimately does need to be recognized as its own phenomenon. In coming away from their articles, I am left wondering how best to go about that, in an actionable and practical sense, rather than just the theoretical.
Victoria de Grazia, “What We Don’t Understand about Fascism” Zocalo Public Square
Peter E. Gordon, “Why Historical Analogy Matters,” NYR Daily (7 January 2020),
Samuel Moyn, “The Trouble with Comparisons,” NYR Daily (19 May 2020)