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.