n the year preceding the August 12 violence in Charlottesville, the term “fascist” was heard more and more frequently in American political discourse. The “Resistance” wasted no time making clear that it saw Donald Trump as fundamentally fascistic. The loose-knit collection of activists known as “Antifa”—short for Anti-fascist—became Trump’s most radical and most violent opponents. Others noted fascist tendencies in some of Trump’s supporters in the camps of the “alt-right.” Others, besieged and harassed by radicals groups including Antifa and Black Lives Matter, have turned the fascist label against their tormenters.
One might have been excused for dismissing such talk as hyperbolic. However, Charlottesville brought into sharp relief the reality that fascism in America in 2017 is not merely a metaphor. If we are to take charges of fascism seriously, we need to think more carefully about what fascism was, in theory and practice. It is not enough to make “fascist” an all-purpose synonym for any outburst of authoritarianism or political violence.
Fascism as a movement or a doctrine first emerged in Italy under Benito Mussolini, then spread to many other corners of Europe and Latin America. It took numerous forms, the most virulent of which was German National Socialism, which can be lumped into the overall fascist phenomenon, but only in certain respects. In others, it must be considered distinctly.
It may be in the realm of conduct that the term “fascist” is most frequently applied today, connoting a thuggish disregard for law and the rights of others and a determination to use force to impose one’s will, grounded in hatred and resentment of perceived grievances. The fascists made use of paramilitary squads—such as Italian blackshirts and German brownshirts—who applied intimidation, and who were often armed and eager to engage in violence. The violence both silenced opponents and demonstrated the hollowness of the law, demoralizing the supporters of democracy and leaving a vacuum that the fascists themselves filled. While “brownshirt” tactics are necessary to make a fascist, they are not sufficient. Four aspects of the fascist doctrine also merit attention here.
First, fascism in general and national socialism in particular were collectivist ideologies based on what we might today call racial or ethnic “identity politics.” Mussolini left the camp of Marxism-Leninism because he ultimately found communism’s collectivist obsession with class less satisfying than a collectivist obsession with nation, defined in group terms as the (Italian) people. National socialism offered an extreme version of this view, focused on an elaborate racial theory in which “Aryans” were good, superior, and entitled to rule, while others were inferior, and at worst either useless or malevolent. As Hitler himself declared in Mein Kampf, the folkish state “has to put the race into the center of life in general.” As part of its racial doctrine, Nazism was virulently anti-Semitic, more so than most other versions of fascism. Altogether, fascism was a politics based on accident of birth and on group membership. Individual identity, not to mention individual worth or individual rights, had no place.
A second key principle of fascism was the importance of placing unquestioned authority in the hands of a leader. Whether in Germany under Hitler, Italy under Mussolini, or in milder cases such as Argentina under Juan Peron, a cult of personality was created. Again carrying this concept to its furthest extension, the Nazis lived (and died) by the fuhrer prinzip, or “leader principle.” The citizen and soldier must, in this view, surrender independent thought to the leader who is the infallible embodiment of the group, as well as to the subordinate leaders who answer to the supreme leader. Hence the first two mandates for party members in the Nazi Party Organization Book were “The Fuhrer is always right!” and “Never go against discipline!” German soldiers in 1934 were required to swear an oath not to the German people or to the German constitution, but to Adolf Hitler. To question Hitler, or to challenge the discipline of the hierarchical structure, was tantamount to treason.
Third, both the theory and practice of fascism denigrated rational discourse and celebrated the “will to power.” Democracy was condemned largely because it fostered an unending debate in which all ideas were required (and allowed) to compete and to prove themselves with logic and evidence. In order to function, democracy requires freedom of thought and speech. No fascist regime could tolerate that, and every fascist movement did what it could even before taking power to curtail a free exchange of ideas through intimidation. Violence and dogma were elevated to high virtues, replacing empty “parliamentarism.” Although opponents called the fascists “reactionary,” they saw themselves as progressive, futuristic, and even revolutionary: a new wave of “activism,” as Mussolini called it, uninhibited by bourgeois constraints.
Finally but not least, the historic fascist devotion to collectivist identity politics, the leader principle, and the suppression of independent thought all led to a deep hostility to limited government and the free market. Indeed, Mussolini coined the term “totalitarian” to describe his system. “If the XIXth Century was the century of the individual,” Il Duce wrote, “this is the collective century, and therefore the century of the State…The Fascist State is not a night-watchman.” Fascists presented themselves as a third way between Marxist-Leninist state socialism and capitalism. In it, the state might deign to permit continued private ownership of the means of production but only at the price of state control. Nazi theoretician Ernst Rudolf Huber declared that “The concept of personal liberties of the individual as opposed to the authority of the state had to disappear…All property is common property.” Consequently, the Nazis collectivized agriculture, introduced four-year plans, and dictated labor allocations. In both Germany and Italy, fascism was based on state-directed “corporatism,” not the free market.
Although each form of fascism manipulated segments of religious opinion to gain support against their avowedly atheistic communist adversaries, fascism was essentially opposed to the Judeo-Christian basis of Western Civilization. Mussolini himself was an atheist, while the attitude of Nazism was summed up in Hitler’s personal secretary Martin Bormann’s circular to local Nazi Party leaders entitled “National Socialism and Christianity Are Irreconcileable.” Fascism’s racial/ethnic identity politics was, indeed, fundamentally incompatible with the doctrine of Imago Dei, or man created in the image of God. Its virtual deification of the leader and the state, as well as its glorification of violence, were also fundamentally incompatible with basic Judeo-Christian precepts. Recognizing this conflict, varying fascist movements, including the German and Italian, portrayed themselves as alternative “spiritual” phenomena in their own right. “That fascism is vital,” Mussolini wrote, “is shown by the fact that it has aroused a faith.”
It is not difficult to see a number of similarities between fascism and communism. Both communism and fascism employed violence and intimidation to gain and keep power. Both grounded themselves in a version of collectivist identity politics. Both led in practice to all-powerful dictators supported by cults of personality. Both were enemies of liberty, hostile to the free market, property rights, limited government, and independent civil society. Both saw themselves as “revolutionary” and sought to displace God with a secular religion of totalitarian ideology. Although Mussolini coined the term, totalitarianism—total government control over every aspect of life—was more fully realized in Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao’s China than in fascist Italy. Indeed, one might easily conclude that fascism and communism were two versions of the same thing engaged in a bitter family dispute—two overlapping branches of the left wing rather than two opposite things. The similarity between Germany under Hitler and the Soviet Union under Stalin was noted by clear-eyed observers, including such former communists as Arthur Koestler.
Nevertheless, two cardinal theoretical distinctions can be made. Where fascism fixated on race and ethnicity as the basis of collectivism and dehumanization, communism fixated on economic class. Where fascism adopted an explicitly oppositional attitude toward rational discourse, communism purported to be based on scientific principles, even though communists in practice made a mockery of such pretensions.
What is Antifa Really Anti?
Returning to the present, it goes without saying that the self-professed neo-Nazis in Charlottesville are authentic fascists. One hardly needs to linger over the conclusion that people who give the Nazi salute and chant anti-Semitic slogans are likely to be fascists. Their conduct is undeniably thuggish, and they stand out for the virulence of their white-identity politics, rejection of the norms of reasoned debate, positive embrace of violence, and mindless repetition of 80-year-old German slogans about blood and soil. Their coalition partners in Charlottesville, the neo-Confederates and the alt-right, share in their ignominy.
Once the shock of seeing swastikas in the shadow of Monticello wore off, attention has turned to the neo-Nazis’ rivals in combat. Their rhetorical emphasis on equality would seem to place groups such as Antifa and Black Lives Matter outside the philosophical borders of fascism as it is usually understood. And, of course, Antifa stands for “anti-fascist.” In their own minds, at least, the idea of their association with fascism must seem ridiculous. Many Antifa activists have openly declared themselves to be communists or anarchists. For that reason, Washington Post columnist Marc A. Thiessen has called Antifa “the moral equivalent of neo-Nazis” because he judges them to be communists, and communism to be morally equivalent to Nazism.
In reality, the radical movement, encompassing Antifa, BLM, and others, represents a broad, even amorphous, collection of groups and individuals, and there is not a uniform view among them. It undoubtedly includes many individuals who sincerely believe they are fighting against fascism, racism, or police brutality. However, one can construct a composite of today’s radical Left and test it against our checklist of historical fascism. What one finds is that, on balance, today’s radicals have much more in common with fascism than most analysts have recognized.
Violence: Radicals have frequently employed violence and force to fight their enemies or to impose their will and silence debate, as noted by political commentators including liberal Peter Beinart and conservative Ben Domenech, who has catalogued over two dozen episodes of violent mob action fomented by the radical left since 2011. Even Nancy Pelosi condemned Antifa by name after its August 27, 2017 rampage in Berkeley. Like fascist violence, Antifa’s violence is undergirded both by a calculated goal of undermining order and by raw hate. Bay Area news anchor Frank Somerville reported, after spending time in the midst of the Antifa crowd in Berkeley, “their words were filled with venom, anger, hate, and intolerance… Hate is hate. And I experienced it first-hand today.”
While Antifa openly embraces violence, the Black Lives Matter movement does not. Nevertheless, BLM protests have featured chants calling for violence against police—“pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon”—and several have turned violent in reality, including in Baltimore, St. Paul, Baton Rouge, and Dallas, where a shooter inspired by (though not affiliated with) BLM killed five police officers at the end of a BLM demonstration. Some members of the movement have also been implicated in attempts to silence critical speakers through intimidation and physical force.
Racial collectivism and anti-Semitism: The dominant ideological strain among the radicals strives to “put race at the center of life,” revolving around collectivist racial identity politics in which individuality is submerged beneath broad racial categories. Accidents of birth are central to this understanding of the human condition, while common humanity or individual worth are denied or downplayed. “White privilege” is the monocausal explanation for everything wrong in the world, and race is often the determinant of how a person is judged. Fascists built racial or ethnic solidarity by promoting resentment and grievance; Black Lives Matter declares that it is “unapologetically black” and “an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.”
Antifa apologists like to claim the movement is opposed to anti-Semitism, and note that there are even Jewish Antifa chapters. The website “Fight the New Anti-Semitism” reports, however, that “there is a new trend on American university campuses linking Antifa with BDS,” the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel. Black Lives Matter has also officially endorsed BDS. Of course, it is possible to oppose particular policies of Israel without being anti-Semitic, but the Anti-Defamation League observes that “all too often, BDS advocates employ anti-Semitic rhetoric and narratives to isolate and demonize Israel.” Moreover, the objective of BDS—the so-called “right of return” of all Palestinians to Israel—is a transparent attempt to obliterate the State of Israel. In practice, it is almost impossible to separate BDS from anti-Semitism.
Obedience to leadership: Is individual thought set aside by the radicals in favor of groupthink systematically dispensed and enforced by the movement? There is not yet a single leader figure at the national level (which is true also of the white nationalists), but participants are nevertheless instructed from above on the identities and qualities of a “fascist” or “racist,” ever-broadening categories that now include all Trump supporters, capitalists, mainstream but controversial conservatives, police officers, and others. Dissent from the party line is seen as treason and brings swift retribution on social media, a terrifying prospect for the young.
Statism: The radicals are clear opponents of limited government and free markets, preferring instead state control and direction of society, economy, and education (as long as the “right” people are in charge of the state). Antifa has declared capitalists an enemy, and BLM has endorsed an economic program of massive taxation, redistribution, reparations, and government control. The radicals have also focused great attention on education, working to impose an ideological straightjacket on college campuses. It is not yet clear whether this adds up to totalitarianism, but it represents at the least a strong authoritarian streak that accepts no clearly-defined upper limit on state power.
Ideology as religion: Have the radicals turned their ideology into a secular religion, with its own rituals, dogmatic beliefs, and punishment for heretics? This tendency was noted by numerous analysts after the February 2017 incident at Middlebury College in which social commentator Charles Murray was attacked and a professor injured. At that time, Andrew Sullivan identified the overarching radical ideology of “intersectionality” as a secular religion, and likened the attack on Murray to a scene from The Crucible or a “secular exorcism” that reached a “frenzied, disturbing catharsis.” Others, such as Peter Beinart, have noted that BLM is harsher and more violent than the civil rights movement of the 1960s partly because, unlike the previous movement, it has largely rejected Christianity in favor of a secular ideology of resentment.
Denigration of reason: In his article in New York Magazine, Sullivan also noted that activists “shut down the [Murray] event because intersectionality rejects the entire idea of free debate, science, or truth independent of white male power.” Instead, their ideology explicitly extols emotive themes and a priori assumptions. As one Antifa protestor told the newsman Somerville, “We’re not interested in talking to you!”
Unlike neo-Nazis, the radicals do not declare in favor of genocide. That feature of national socialism, however, was extreme even among fascists. Moreover, the radicals and their defenders may underestimate the potential long-term danger posed by their toxic cocktail of hatred, racial collectivism, dehumanization and constant broadening of enemies, and self-righteousness. In the end, the radicals share fascistic tendencies on most dimensions. And on the two matters that most distinguish the idea of fascism from the idea of communism—denigration of reason and evidence, and obsession with race—they are nearer to fascism than to communism.
A Campus Demonstration
For evidence, one could consult events in Claremont on April 6, 2017, when journalist Heather Mac Donald was scheduled to speak on the subject of her new book, The War on Police. To the radicals, her criticism of BLM was unforgivable. Four days before the talk, a student at Pitzer College created a Facebook event calling for Mac Donald’s talk to be shut down. Mac Donald, the student declared, was a racist, fascist, imperialist, and capitalist who must not be allowed to speak. A crowd of around 200 blockaded the event venue, preventing the audience from attending. The talk was live-streamed, though the question and answer period was cut off because police feared the screaming crowd might succeed in breaking into the venue. Mac Donald was then whisked out the back with heavy police escort.
The episode demonstrated the congruence of the radical forces with not just one but nearly every defining feature of fascism. The protestors used physical force, intimidation, and the threat of violence to impose their will and deprive others of their rights to speak, to hear, and to think for themselves. The blockaders embraced race-based identity politics, anti-semitism (made evident by the noticeable selection of anti-Israel signs in the crowd), and statism (one of Mac Donald’s crimes, after all, was that she was a “capitalist”). The protest organizers openly dismissed freedom of speech and dialogue among varying viewpoints as meaningless tools of white oppression. Not least, it was doubtful that more than a handful of blockaders had ever read The War Against Police or any of Mac Donald’s multitudinous other pieces on crime. Indeed, the vast majority had probably never heard of her a week before. They simply accepted the characterization of Mac Donald as a racist and swung into action against her, showcasing the surrender of independent thought and blind obedience to the movement. We have entered the age of the social media gauleiter, commanding the social justice zombie.
Where does this leave us?
At the moment, both white nationalists and radicals are carnival sideshows, aberrations in a country that still, by and large, values peace and freedom. Nevertheless, we are in a place few would have expected a decade ago. One set of newly bold extremists includes self-conscious national socialists as well as other overlapping forces driven by white identity politics. Though covered with a façade of egalitarianism, an alternative extreme has much more in common with the tactics and even philosophical framework of fascism than even it understands. Both groups of extremists seem determined to provoke the other into more and more serious confrontations. A feckless president has contributed to polarization by giving comfort to the alt-right—as his equally feckless predecessor did by endorsing BLM—and seems at a loss when confronted with the consequences. And an increasingly concerned and leaderless center witnesses what looks to some like the unraveling of their country, and are uncertain what to do about it. Weimar America? Not yet. There are even scattered signs that an important corner may have been turned, among them Pelosi’s denunciation of Antifa and the suspension of some of the Mac Donald blockaders by Claremont McKenna College. But one fears we are closer to the beginning than to the end of this story.
Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Political Science at Claremont McKenna College. For more information, click here.