What the Heck is Fascism?

The word “fascism” gets thrown around a lot these days. Often, when someone uses the word, they use it incorrectly. The truth is, most people don’t actually know what the word “fascism” means. They often use the word to describe someone or something they don’t like, but “fascism” has an actual definition. And in many cases, that definition is much different than what people think it is.

At it’s most basic, Dictionary.com defines “fascism” as:

  1. (sometimes initial capital lettera governmental system led by a dictator having complete power, forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism, regimenting all industry, commerce, etc., and emphasizing an aggressive nationalism and often racism.
  2. (sometimes initial capital letterthe philosophy, principles, or methods of fascism.
  3. (initial capital lettera political movement that employs the principles and methods of fascism, especially the one established by Mussolini in Italy 1922–43.

Writer Robert Paxton, in his 2004 book, The Anatomy of Fascism, defines “fascism” like this:

“Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”

In the The United States Holocaust Museum, a poster hangs on the wall listing fourteen signs of fascism. Those fourteen signs are:

  1. Powerful and continuing nationalism
  2. Disdain for human rights
  3. Identification of enemies as a unifying cause
  4. Supremacy of the military
  5. Rampant sexism
  6. Controlled mass media
  7. Obsession with national security
  8. Religion and government intertwined
  9. Corporate power protected
  10. Labor power suppressed
  11. Disdain for intellectuals and the arts
  12. Obsession with crime and punishment
  13. Rampant cronyism and corruption
  14. Fraudulent elections

The following video gives a bit more insight into each of the fourteen signs of fascism:

Hitler and Mussolini are the two most well known fascists, but not every fascist leader is as bad or well known as the big two. In fact, fascism should be thought of as a spectrum. Hitler and Mussolini would be on one end of the spectrum, while fascist leaders like Joseph Stalin in Russia, Francisco Franco in Spain, and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy are sprinkled throughout the rest. Likewise, men like Vladimir Putin in Russia and Victor Orban in Hungary, both of whom are currently leading fascist regimes, are also on the fascist spectrum.

While the severity of the fascism may be slightly different, many of the tactics being used are the same. For instance, HItler and Mussolini wore military uniforms, while Putin and Orban wear expensive, tailored business suits, but regardless of their dress, they all marginalize “others” (Jews, gays, racial and ethnic minorities); they all preach a gospel of nationalism, often called “patriotism”; they all use the power of the church to promote their agendas; they all are corrupt, holding themselves and their cronies as above the law; and they all turn to violence to keep citizens in check and encourage loyalty to the cause.

In the United States, fascism is on the rise. I won’t name names. I’ll leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions. To determine who is showing fascistic (or authoritarian) tendencies, ask these questions:

  • Is the political leader or party pushing a nationalist agenda? Do they support “American Exceptionalism,” the idea that the United States is better and/or more favored by God than other nations? Do they distinguish “true Americans” from others, even though those others are also citizens of the United States? Do they often wrap themselves in the flag, even while pushing for unconstitutional, anti-democratic laws?
  • Is the political leader or party advocating for taking away rights citizens have enjoyed for years? Are they targeting certain groups, such as women or racial minorities, in their quest to reign in the rights enjoyed by Americans?
  • Is the political leader or party targeting certain individuals or groups, referring to them as “enemies of the state” or “not true Americans?” Does their quest to target and dehumanize these groups or individuals become party orthodoxy?
  • Does the political leader or party elevate the military (and, often, military veterans), to a special status in society? Do they claim special rights and privileges for the military, not because of who they are or their behavior, but solely based of their association to the military? Do they pay lip service to military members, often while simultaneously reducing their military benefits?
  • Does the political leader or party threaten or resort to violence to achieve their aims? Are they unusually outspoken about violence (or perceived violence) when perpetrated by their political enemies, but forgiving, even supportive, when done by their political supporters? Do they view the military and police as existing to carry out their political agenda and to thwart their opponents agenda?
  • Does the political leader or party favor males over females? Do they grant more legal authority or agency to men than woman? Do they view woman as second class citizens, not deserving of the same rights as men?
  • Does the political leader or party favor certain mass media platforms over all others. Do they have a symbiotic relationship with certain platforms, amplifying messages of one another? Do they try to control or discount the work being done by those platforms they don’t favor? Do they refer to certain platforms as “enemies of the state” while elevating their preferred platform?
  • Does the political leader or party use national security as a pretext for any number of measures that reduce the freedoms citizens have traditionally enjoyed. Do they view all interactions and behaviors through the lens of national security? Does national security trump all other considerations?
  • Does the political leader or party intermingle their religious beliefs with their politics? Do they ignore the separation of church and state, instead supporting laws based on their personal religious beliefs? Do their politics reflect a favored religious doctrine, often dismissing or marginalizing other religious doctrines.
  • Does the political leader or party use a rhetoric of grievance, portraying themselves or their supporters as victims of their political opponent’s “radical agenda?” Do they view their position as one of righting past wrongs? Do they exaggerate past slights, either real or imagined? Do they focus on retribution for their supporters rather than working for justice for all Americans?
  • Does the political leader or party give special rights and privileges to corporate entities? Do they push an agenda favorable to corporations, often in exchange for campaign donations? Do they treat corporations as individuals, granting to them the same (or expanded) rights traditionally enjoyed by individuals? Do they expect (and usually get) support or silent loyalty from these corporations?
  • Does the political leader or party favor corporations over individual workers? Do they make it easier for corporations to fire or mistreat workers? Do they oppose collective bargaining agreements designed to improve worker pay and safety? Do they support eliminating regulations designed to improve working conditions and safety for workers?
  • Does the political leader or party oppose or ignore expertise? Do they rely on opinions from political fellow travelers rather than researchers and academics? Do they oppose government financial support for the arts? Do they hold a liberal arts education in low regard? Do they support a ban on books that they don’t like? Do they view diversity in art and opinion as a threat to their world view?
  • Does the political leader or party hold themselves out as being tough on crime? Do they often support locking people up without due process and advocate “throwing away the key?” Is their “go to” strategy for behavior they don’t like to criminalize it? Is their obsession with crime and punishment usually reserved for people not like them?
  • Does the political leader or party use their power and position to punish their enemies and benefit their supporters? Do they view their position as a means to help their friends? Do they use their position or power to enrich themselves and their friends?
  • Does the political leader or party try to inappropriately influence elections, either through inviting in foreign involvement or suppressing voting rights? Do they work to undermine the public’s trust in elections, telling lies about election integrity? If they lose an election, is their default position to claim election fraud rather than accepting the will of the voters?

The answers to these questions will tell you if a politician or political party is embracing fascist behavior and ideology. Unlike in Mussolini’s time, it’s no longer fashionable for a politician or political party to admit that they are fascist. Even so, fascists give away the game through their behavior and rhetoric. Ask the questions if you want to know the truth.

ADDENDUM: After I wrote this essay, historian Heather Cox Richardson wrote from a historical perspective about how fascism was handled by the U.S. Army during World War II. Her essay was written in anticipation of Memorial Day 2023, and was originally published to her Substack, Letters from an American (published 5/29/23). Here’s what she wrote:

Beginning in 1943, the War Department published a series of pamphlets for U.S. Army personnel in the European theater of World War II. Titled Army Talks, the series was designed “to help [the personnel] become better-informed men and women and therefore better soldiers.”

On March 24, 1945, the topic for the week was “FASCISM!”

“You are away from home, separated from your families, no longer at a civilian job or at school and many of you are risking your very lives,” the pamphlet explained, “because of a thing called fascism.” But, the publication asked, what is fascism? “Fascism is not the easiest thing to identify and analyze,” it said, “nor, once in power, is it easy to destroy. It is important for our future and that of the world that as many of us as possible understand the causes and practices of fascism, in order to combat it.”

Fascism, the U.S. government document explained, “is government by the few and for the few. The objective is seizure and control of the economic, political, social, and cultural life of the state.” “The people run democratic governments, but fascist governments run the people.”

“The basic principles of democracy stand in the way of their desires; hence—democracy must go! Anyone who is not a member of their inner gang has to do what he’s told. They permit no civil liberties, no equality before the law.” “Fascism treats women as mere breeders. ‘Children, kitchen, and the church,’ was the Nazi slogan for women,” the pamphlet said.

Fascists “make their own rules and change them when they choose…. They maintain themselves in power by use of force combined with propaganda based on primitive ideas of ‘blood’ and ‘race,’ by skillful manipulation of fear and hate, and by false promise of security. The propaganda glorifies war and insists it is smart and ‘realistic’ to be pitiless and violent.”

Fascists understood that “the fundamental principle of democracy—faith in the common sense of the common people—was the direct opposite of the fascist principle of rule by the elite few,” it explained, “[s]o they fought democracy…. They played political, religious, social, and economic groups against each other and seized power while these groups struggled.”

Americans should not be fooled into thinking that fascism could not come to America, the pamphlet warned; after all, “[w]e once laughed Hitler off as a harmless little clown with a funny mustache.” And indeed, the U.S. had experienced “sorry instances of mob sadism, lynchings, vigilantism, terror, and suppression of civil liberties. We have had our hooded gangs, Black Legions, Silver Shirts, and racial and religious bigots. All of them, in the name of Americanism, have used undemocratic methods and doctrines which…can be properly identified as ‘fascist.’”

The War Department thought it was important for Americans to understand the tactics fascists would use to take power in the United States. They would try to gain power “under the guise of ‘super-patriotism’ and ‘super-Americanism.’” And they would use three techniques:

First, they would pit religious, racial, and economic groups against one another to break down national unity. Part of that effort to divide and conquer would be a “well-planned ‘hate campaign’ against minority races, religions, and other groups.”

Second, they would deny any need for international cooperation, because that would fly in the face of their insistence that their supporters were better than everyone else. “In place of international cooperation, the fascists seek to substitute a perverted sort of ultra-nationalism which tells their people that they are the only people in the world who count. With this goes hatred and suspicion toward the people of all other nations.”

Third, fascists would insist that “the world has but two choices—either fascism or communism, and they label as ‘communists’ everyone who refuses to support them.”

It is “vitally important” to learn to spot native fascists, the government said, “even though they adopt names and slogans with popular appeal, drape themselves with the American flag, and attempt to carry out their program in the name of the democracy they are trying to destroy.”

The only way to stop the rise of fascism in the United States, the document said, “is by making our democracy work and by actively cooperating to preserve world peace and security.” In the midst of the insecurity of the modern world, the hatred at the root of fascism “fulfills a triple mission.” By dividing people, it weakens democracy. “By getting men to hate rather than to think,” it prevents them “from seeking the real cause and a democratic solution to the problem.” By falsely promising prosperity, it lures people to embrace its security.

“Fascism thrives on indifference and ignorance,” it warned. Freedom requires “being alert and on guard against the infringement not only of our own freedom but the freedom of every American. If we permit discrimination, prejudice, or hate to rob anyone of his democratic rights, our own freedom and all democracy is threatened.” And if “we want to make certain that fascism does not come to America, we must make certain that it does not thrive anywhere in the world.”

Seventy-eight years after the publication of “FASCISM!” with its program for recognizing that political system and stopping it from taking over the United States, President Joe Biden today at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, honored those who gave their lives fighting to preserve democracy. “On this day, we come together again to reflect, to remember, but above all, to recommit to the future our fallen heroes fought for, …a future grounded in freedom, democracy, equality, tolerance, opportunity, and…justice.”

“[T]he truest memorial to their lives,” the president said, is to act “every day to ensure that our democracy endures, our Constitution endures, and the soul of our nation and our decency endures.”



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *