The moving spirits of fascism have always been, first, a tyrannical love for one’s country and, second, a sadistic hatred of leftists, immigrants, and outsiders. Hundreds of books, thousands of articles, and millions of words have been produced to hide these obvious facts, yet they remain so. Why the obfuscation?
In 1944 Orwell wrote that no satisfactory definition of “fascism” was ever arrived at during or before the war because it would have exposed too many unpleasant truths for both conservatives and socialists. He didn’t list what he thought these unpleasant truths were, but one can now pretty confidently fill in the blanks. For conservatives it’s a fetishizing of those with power (businessmen, police, big landowners, the military); a false, romanticized understanding of the past that’s used to bludgeon the present; a habit of imposing collective guilt on racial minorities for the crimes and mistakes of individuals; a paranoid emphasis on national and military sovereignty; and a moral outlook that views equivocation as cowardice or even disloyalty.
For socialists, the linkages with fascism are largely rhetorical—a perfunctory suspicion of existing institutions, a populist message of “the people” versus “the elites,” an appeal to working-class audiences about higher wages and greater job security—although, in the abstract, many of their economic solutions can seem quite similar. Regulation, protectionism, and state ownership are all policies a socialist or a fascist would, under the right conditions, be in favor of.
The Nazi state, as well-documented in Aly Gotz’s 2008 book Hitler’s Beneficiaries, had a robust welfare and price-control system. This system was funded by (1) high taxation on wealthy Germans, (2) massive exploitation of the state’s African colonies, (3) confiscation of domestic Jewish property, and (4) stealing from occupied countries. (The latter source of welfare revenue should be kept in mind next time President Trump says Iraqi oil should be taken from the Iraqis and given to the families of dead American soldiers.)
The differences, then, between a fascist and a conservative are largely temperament and commitment to “free trade.” The difference between a fascist and a socialist are the underlying assumptions about who the elites are and who has rights to political and economic protection.
Of course, both a conservative and a socialist would be offended by the suggestion that these are the only things that separate them from being a fascist, but this would merely be to miss or underestimate how important these things are. Denying the similarities only leaves one vulnerable to false alliances and ideological confusion. It would also eventually lead to tactical and moral catastrophes.
Once in power, fascist governments directed the economy for war mobilization and institutionalized their racist dogmas. Joseph Goebbels bragged about Germany having “the best social welfare measures,” which excluded non-Aryans by design. After all, by Nazism’s racial definition of citizenship, non-Aryans were de facto immigrants and thus didn’t qualify for state assistance. Likewise, Mussolini believed Italy couldn’t depend on other nations for its food supply, so he fortified the country with agricultural tariffs. Most businesses under fascist governments actually saw an increase return on profits early on—until the chaos and deprivations of total war set in.
However, while fascist governments willingly looked out for the working and the destitute, they also immediately stripped them of any social or economic power. One of Hitler’s first acts was to outlaw labor unions (a political sin he ranked almost as unforgivable as Judaism or Marxism), and while Mussolini endorsed a corporatist model of economics, employees were systematically underrepresented or only represented through government bureaucrats rather than someone from their own ranks. Fascist states undertook certain functions that working-class people would approve of, but only while ensuring that the same working-class people would have no control over the decision-making that went into those functions. A distinction worth remembering next time conservative fraudsters such as Dinesh D’Souza or Jonah Goldberg pretend that fascism was a product of left-wing politics. Socialists and Communists who wanted more than just handouts, and who most vocally opposed their government’s hostility to immigrants and minorities, were the first ones arrested and deported to the concentration camps.
Modern American conservatism has always been an uneasy coalition between racial populists and discontented property owners. Its voting bloc, by numerical necessity, has been largely composed of the former—those more drawn to George Wallace or Pat Buchanan than to Milton Friedman or Mitt Romney. For them, if arguments for liberty could be used for segregation, then they were in favor of liberty. If anti-Communism offered a pretense for cracking down on radical workers, then they were anti-Communist. If isolationism meant allowing Hitler to invade the Soviet Union, then they were isolationists. Otherwise, those highfalutin’ principles held no special charm.
Since the Cold War ended, however, that coalition has been splintering. Until the 2016 campaign, it was always assumed by Republican Party apparatchiks that the most effective electoral strategy would be to explicitly appeal to wealthy donors and simply dog whistle cultural grievances to the rest of their base. After all, who else could they vote for? Nominee Trump flipped this approach and instead dared wealthy donors to go elsewhere. He sacrificed potential Hispanic votes for guaranteed bitter white ones. He talked about national borders—both physical and financial. He was as militaristic as all Republican candidates are expected to be, but the language he used regarding foreign policy wasn’t saturated with typical establishment lingo—it was steeped in talk of blood and plunder. He promised not to cut social security, Medicare, or Medicaid—only to kick off immigrants and black people exploiting the programs.
Pundits like to assure folks that fascism now wouldn’t be—couldn’t be—as sinister and death-driven as it was in Nazi Germany or fascist Italy. But already there are frightened whispers about the need for “internment” of Muslim “terrorists,” and Hispanic immigrants are at this very moment locked up (out of sight, out of mind) in detention centers in the middle of our deserts. World War II-era fascism, as it saw itself, was saving civilization by reverting to barbarism. That same siege mentality is creeping back into prevalence again today.
The good news? President Trump is old, narcissistic, and corrupt. He has no genuine love for the common man, real or imagined. And he entered the White House tied to a political party that isn’t an ideological tabula rasa but that already has genuine claims to integrity, freedom, and patriotism. The bad news? After he’s gone, the country will probably be even riper for a dear leader who is more sincere, less stupid, and more willing to commit crimes against established liberties. And the legislation Trump will be able to get past his own party will just further distribute wealth, resources, and power upward.
Friedrich von Hayek, in his Road to Serfdom, argued that socialist propaganda and welfare pave the way for authoritarianism because they weaken the libertarian will of individual citizens. Unsurprisingly, Hayek failed to note that the libertarian will of individuals is weakened every day in most workplaces—where, for the average person, their labor is disassociated from the resulting gains and where those doing the actual work are disconnected from those making the important decisions. Include that in a society that also treats militarism as a spiritual virtue, and that already has an arbitrary and unintelligible political culture, and you’re always going to be starting much closer to authoritarianism than you would be in a society that lacks those things but has a few social provisions for the hungry and unemployed.
America will get through the present moment. What we must not do is only get through it. Someone once wrote that fascism wasn’t a rejection of Western civilization but a potential path that was available to it at every step. It need not be. Or, if it is, that path need not be so immediate or alluring.