Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Donate
Topics

Historian Richard J. Evans on the differences between fascism and 21st century populism

His take strikes me as smart, but perhaps a bit too strict and, by dwelling on the differences, glosses over the similarities between Trumpism and fascism.

I’m pretty sure I never called Donald Trump a fascist, at least not without a lot of hemming and hawing over whether the f-word would be fully accurate or fair as a description of Trump.

I wish that people on the right who throw the s-word – socialist – around when referring to liberal Democrats, most of whom don’t call themselves socialists, were similarly cautious.

And there were times when I thought about, and wrote about, using the f-word to describe Trump and his most fascist-seeming followers. I held back because I didn’t want to be part of a race to the bottom. (Here’s an example of a piece in which I discussed this dilemma at some length, but still specified that I was not literally calling Trump a fascist, even as Trump and his minions regularly used the s-word to talk about liberals who do not consider themselves socialists.)

Article continues after advertisement

And I hope that in the post-Trump era, we can return to the pre-Trump norms. To be specific, I hope (without any great expectation) that those on the right will be more cautious and mature about calling liberal Democrats “socialists,” unless their targets have themselves embraced the term. If Trumpers continue to do so, they should be pressed hard on the dividing line between Medicare, Medicaid, and “socialized medicine,” and between mandatory participation in Social Security (which actually has “social” in its name) and socialism.

Richard J. Evans
Richard J. Evans
I actually think it is reasonable, but not advisable, to introduce the f-word (fascism) when exploring the Trump phenomenon, but still reckless to start attaching that word to Trump, Trumpism or Trumpists without great caution and care.

I pass along today, as a responsible treatment of the topic, a smart, cautious piece from History New Network. It’s a Q and A in which Aaron J. Leonard questions historian Richard J. Evans, a scholar on Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, who, without mentioning Trump, tries to carefully define the line between today’s right-wingers and those from the Hitler-Mussolini era who are rightly called fascists. His bottom line, I suppose, is this:

Fascism is one of those concepts that can seem almost infinitely elastic; it’s just too tempting for polemical purposes to accuse any authoritarian politician of being like Hitler, or any populist movement of being fascist. But we have to remember that fascism was a militaristic movement, aiming at war and conflict, territorial expansion and empire. Fascists put every citizen into uniform, drilled the people into uniformity and obedience in training camps, and subordinated private life, business companies, and institutions of all kinds to the state. Fascists were ultimately genocidal, whether it was the Nazis exterminating the Jews, or the Italian Fascists exterminating the Ethiopians (among other things, by using poison gas). Nazism and Fascism also put science at the center of their belief systems, in particular, racial and eugenic ‘science’, and regarded religion as a leftover from medieval times that would soon disappear. In all these respects [fascism] differed from 21st-century populism, which is hostile to the state, anti-scientific, and opposed to militarism both within the country and outside it. The classic fascist mass consisted of endless marching columns of identically uniformed men; today’s populist mass, as in the storming of the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021, consist of thousands of informally and in some cases eccentrically attired individuals heaving about in a chaotic heap, violent and aggressive but not organized in any military way. The problem with calling today’s right populism ‘fascist’ is that it’s fighting today’s battles with the weapons of the 1920s and 1930s. Time has moved on since then.

This strikes me as smart, but perhaps a bit too strict and, by dwelling on the differences, glosses over the similarities between Trumpism and fascism.

I’d be more interested in being fair and cautious about word choices if those on the right who use the word “socialist” rather reckless were equally cautious.

Article continues after advertisement

Of course, you can argue that those on the left who favor various expansions of government to help the needy have certain things in common with some who call themselves socialists. And, in a civilized tone, the similarities and differences are worth discussing. As I mentioned above, Social Security and Medicare have elements of moderate socialism about them.

But when those on the right use the s-word as a cudgel against much of liberalism (without, of course, acknowledging that the beloved Medicare is pretty much “socialized medicine for the elderly,”) it gets harder and harder to care whether they might get their dander up if they are called by the f-word, by which I mean fascism, not the other f-word.

The full, History News Network piece that set me off on this rant, can be viewed here.