Two weeks ago, in the Modern History class I teach, we finally got to the rise of fascism in Europe. When I showed my 8th graders some film footage of Benito Mussolini in his military uniform, preening and screeching from his balcony in Rome, many of them laughed out loud. They found him ridiculous, as they should have. One kid said, "Didn't that guy used to be on The Sopranos?" It was hard for them to fathom how the nation of Italy fell under Mussolini's sway, and how a man so utterly laughable could wield such power. I tried to explain it to them, but I'm not sure how successful I was. In historical hindsight, fascism seems hard to comprehend. Can people really be that stupid and gullible? They really followed that guy? Maybe Europeans in the past could, but they are not us.
Actually, they are. It's undeniable that fascism has had a meteoric rise around the world over the past 10 to 15 years. From Bolsonaro in Brazil to Orban in Hungary and Duterte in the Philippines, and, yes, Donald Trump and the Proud Boys in the United States, fascist and fascist-adjacent authoritarians have enjoyed a remarkable resurgence they haven't had since before Mussolini was strung up by his heels and Hitler chomped a bullet in 1945. Democracy seems to be hanging by a thread. The near miss of the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol demonstrates that beyond all doubt. Yet the resurgence of fascism seems at once much more commonly understood today, and also something of a taboo to talk about publicly. Comparing any modern development to Hitler and the Nazis inevitably brings a heap of disingenuous criticism and tone-policing, usually social media reply guys castigating you for denigrating the real victims of, you know, real fascism, like that kind they had in Europe in the 1940s. (I am Jewish, for the record, and I have no qualms about Nazi comparisons when they're apposite). That phenomenon--denying that fascism is actually fascism--is itself a hallmark of fascism.
The specter of fascism on the rise is in the news (again) today. This past weekend, media pundit Michael Knowles told the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that transgender people must be "eradicated from public life." The CPAC audience roared with applause. The genocidal intent of this statement could not be plainer. Conservatives in the United States want to exterminate transgender people. Jay Kuo has an excellent analysis of this, and, yes, he calls it out correctly as exactly the same kind of genocidal ideation that Hitler and the Nazis engaged in. One has only to look at how far the right wing's "culture war" has gone, and what they're actually putting into practice in states like Florida, where books have been banned, university professors (and students) targeted and persecuted, women punished for seeking basic reproductive autonomy, and, right now, a bill is pending to require bloggers (like me, I suppose?) to register with the state before writing about Governor Ron DeSantis. Yet we are supposed to pretend, in polite discourse, that this somehow isn't fascism, because fascism can only exist in Europe in the 1940s. By definition it can't happen here, or in this time, or spawn out of a supposedly democratic country, just as it did in Italy (a democracy) in 1922 and Germany (also a democracy) in 1933.
The reason why fascism is on the rise in the 2020s, in advanced (supposedly) liberal democracies, is a deceptively simple one: many people want and like fascism, whether they accept the label or not. The United States is full of people who would, and want to, follow an authoritarian leader. If you doubt this, I suggest you read a book, available free online, called The Authoritarians, by Canadian psychology professor Bob Altemeyer, published in 2006. He lays out quite succinctly what sort of people want to follow an authoritarian leader, why, and how many of them there are. (I will soon be featuring this book in my "Free History Books" series on this blog). Published more than 15 years ago, The Authoritarians is highly prescient in its warnings. Dr. Altemeyer said this on the last page of his book:
Eleven years later, as I am now definitely writing the last pages in my last book on the subject, I believe circumstances such as “9/11" have nearly swept us to disaster, the authoritarian threat has grown unabated, and almost all the protections I saw in 1996, such as a “free and vigilant press,” are being eroded or have already been destroyed. The biggest problem we have now, in my view, is authoritarianism. It has placed America at one of those historic cross-roads that will profoundly affect the rest of its history, and the future of our planet. The world deserves a much better America than the one it has seen lately. And so do Americans.
Recall, he wrote this in 2006...now 17 years ago. Before Donald Trump. Before January 6. Before Republicans' ridiculous "war on woke" and their ominous rumblings of genocide against trans people. If we were in bad shape 17 years ago, and nothing has gotten better, imagine how much closer we are to full-on fascism than we were then.
For those who are willing to risk the wrath of "reply guys" and the tone police, and to call what's happening now what it is, which is fascism, the historical lessons of Europe from the 1920s to the 1940s show us stark examples of why we're not likely to react much better in the 21st century to rising fascism than the people of Italy or Germany were a century ago. Democratic institutions are slow to react to authoritarian threats that generate from within, and their reactions are inevitably pitiful, at least in the early stages. In both Italy's case and Germany's, the democratic governments of these countries actually invited bully-boy leaders, Hitler and Mussolini, into the government as a means to placate their angry followers, hoping that by getting some of the power they desired, they would compromise on the rest. As we know, that didn't happen. You cannot negotiate with a fascist. They view compromises as temporary stepping stones to total power. Leaders of democratic governments, such as judges and elected officials, play by the rules. Fascists never do. The rules are made to be broken, and then remade in their image.
This is also why the usual proffered antidote to rising fascism--"Vote!"--is not likely to work either. Since when have fascists ever abided by votes against them? In the last election in Weimar Germany, in November 1932, the Nazis scared up a bit more than 30% of votes in national elections. Nearly seven in ten Germans voted against them. Three months later Hitler was in power. I guess the people of Weimar Germany just didn't vote hard enough, did they? Courts and the legal system also don't work on fascists. Courts and lawyers operate on the assumption that you will respect the orders they issue. Fascists operate on the assumption that you will obey this fist smashing into your face. Not much of a contest there.
Fascism is extremely hard to defeat. The last time the world finally got around to recognizing the gravity of the threat from this toxic ideology, it took millions of troops, armadas of bombers and naval forces, and a couple of atom bombs to defeat the major powers where fascism had gained an entrenched foothold. Don't talk to me about "they should have stopped Hitler at Munich," a shibboleth that politicians like to parrot but which has little support in the historical record. Even if somebody had an infallible crystal ball that could predict with accuracy, "That country will be fascist in five years--let's go defeat them now, before that happens," there would be no political will to actually do it. Vladimir Putin is a dire threat to the peace of the world right now; name me a country, besides Ukraine, that's actually putting skin in the game to try to end his reign of terror. The world has a very poor track record in early-stage intervention of fascist regimes. When it gets as bad as 1939 and bombs start falling on the capitals of developed nations, maybe something will be done. Then again, maybe not, because it might not be as easy to recognize the last-ditch moment the next time around as it was in 1939.
It's much easier to say we'll never go back to fascism than it is to make good on that promise. Talk is cheap, and the two cheapest words in the language are, "never again." When real people have to do more than just vote, or share a link on social media to "raise awareness," or stomp around with a cardboard sign at a protest that politicians will ignore anyway, the cost of confronting fascism in the real world goes way up very fast and the number of people actually willing to do it goes way down. This is why fascists are hard to defeat. They make the act of opposing them very costly. It's easier to deny that it's happening, or to mouth platitudes or justifications that begin with "Yes, but." It's easier to believe that fascism can only exist in Europe in the 1940s, and only the silly, backwards people who lived there--definitely not us--could be so gullible as to have followed that guy who looked like he should be on The Sopranos. So, calm yourself. Yeah, what's happening in Florida sucks, and this drumbeat of hatred directed at trans people is troubling, but if we vote for the right politicians, they'll take care of it. After all, it can't happen here.
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