The three pillars of fascism

Posted on September 7, 2022

Last week, President Biden declared that the “MAGA philosophy” is “semi-fascism,” and right-wing heads exploded. It seems they have no idea what fascism is. So, let’s talk about it.

But first, remember we’re talking about fascism, not Nazism. The Nazis were a unique type of fascists who engaged in virulent anti-Semitism, genocide, and a fanatical effort to achieve world domination. That’s not really comparable to fascism as seen in Italy, Spain, Argentina and elsewhere. As Umberto Eco summed it up, “There was only one Nazism… But the fascist game can be played in many forms, and the name of the game does not change.”

While fascism is always right wing, it does not have a particular governing program. Fascism is, instead, a series of tactics for gaining and holding power. The three essential fascist tactics*** are: (1) demonization of domestic enemies; (2) preposterous lies; and (3) contempt for democratic institutions.

Let us consider each in turn.

(1) Demonization of domestic enemies

Fascism creates a myth of victimhood, that the majority population is in a humiliating decline from a past greatness because of singled-out minority populations. It’s an us-against-them crisis, the myth goes. The targeted racial, ethnic, religious or gender minorities, and the “liberals” who support them, are thus framed as not just opponents but enemies, demonized so the majority can feel justified in hating and repressing them.

In fact, “Make America Great Again” is the quintessential fascist slogan. It’s a myth that celebrates the good ole days of white supremacy.

There is science behind this kind of persuasion. Psychology tells us that a great deal of average people’s self-image comes from their social identity – the group or groups that they see themselves as a part of. Social identity divides the world into us and them, the in-group and the out-group. Social identity can include something harmless, like a favored sports team. But used to support fascism, social identity politics is about a favored race or ethnicity. Being part of the group makes followers feel good inside. And crucially, followers also enhance their self-image by blaming, being prejudiced against, and discriminating against their out-group.

Fascism, going far beyond simple racism, requires the debasement of scapegoats. It insists that the out-groups “deserve” punishment and the in-group should feel the pleasure of inflicting humiliation. (“Ha, ha! Owning the libs!”) The fascist leaders, in turn, praise followers for that crudity and cruelty, releasing them from all constraints of law, reason and decency. (“Let’s go Brandon!”)

Aside from enriching the rich, MAGA policies are overwhelmingly attacks on the out-groups. They are intended to hurt and mock, and thereby satisfy and entertain the right-wing base. The Trump Administration could have enacted positive programs; it could have passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, for example. But programs to proactively benefit Americans, even white Americans, were never the point. The GOP didn’t even write a party platform in 2020, for the first time in 144 years. That’s because their cause had devolved to a fascist cult of white victimhood.

(2) Preposterous lies

Fascism relies on outrageous and absurd disinformation, “Orwellian” lies, designed to distort its supporters’ perception of reality, bending “truth” to fit the fascist mythology. Because it is based on lies, fascism must be anti-intellectual, anti-science and anti-logic in order to defend itself, which means it must oppose and attack news media outside its control. Trump’s continuous attacks on the free press, calling them “fake news” and the “enemy of the people” could not be more stereotypically fascist.

One of the oldest-known and best-proven cognitive biases is called “confirmation bias.” This is when people seek out information that conforms to what they already believe or want to believe, while – inside their minds – ignore or refute information that disproves those assumptions. It is a selective use of evidence through which people reinforce to themselves whatever they want to believe.

Fascism takes advantage of confirmation bias to reinforce beliefs with indiscriminate lies. In fact, the idea of fascism is that its foundational myths are more truthful than whatever facts stand in the way. So indiscriminate lies are “truth” to the fascist leader, and they become sincerely believed truths to the followers, with objective reality waved away.

This is Orwellian, akin to “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” It is a manifestation of the fascist “Big Lie,” generally described as, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Or, as Madeleine Albright quotes Benito Mussolini, “The crowd doesn’t have to know, all they have to do is believe and submit to being shaped.”

Although the list of Trumpian lies is endless, COVID-19 demonstrated how cold-heartedly the MAGA movement will use dishonesty. Comparing the U.S. to other counties, it is clear that hundreds of thousands of Americans died unnecessarily; their deaths were entirely avoidable if not for the MAGA lies. There is no parallel in U.S. history. No other president would have lied this way, not the Bushes or Reagan or Nixon. It’s inconceivable.

This is fascism. The myth becomes more important than objective truth, even if it means the deaths of countless innocent people, even if it includes the fascists’ own friends and relatives.

(3) Contempt for democratic institutions

Fascism encourages contempt for democratic institutions, particularly elections, and the rule of law. Instead, it calls on the majority group to turn over power to a strongman and his lieutenants, while glorifying the use of violence in support of fascist myths and goals.

To persuade people to surrender their democratic power, fascists attack democratic leaders and institutions. If we are inquiring whether a group is fascist, Madeleine Albright wrote in 2018 that we should question:

Do they encourage us to have contempt for our governing institutions and the electoral process? Do they seek to destroy our faith in essential contributors to democracy, such as an independent press, and a professional judiciary? If defeated at the polls, will they accept the verdict, or insist without evidence they have won? Do they go beyond asking about our votes to brag about their ability to solve all problems put to rest all anxieties and satisfy every desire?

Some historians were unwilling to say that the MAGA movement is fascism before January 6, 2021, because violence is a prerequisite of fascism. But now, MAGA acolytes commit, plan or threaten violence all the time. There have been MAGA threats and violence against Democrats and Republicans, against doctors and teachers, against law enforcement and judges.

All of this is unique in American history. It’s true we’ve always had nutcases and extremists, but rank-and-file conservatives have, in prior years, honored our Constitution and democratic traditions. This wholesale rejection of the American system is astonishing and disgraceful. It is clear that the MAGA movement will stop at nothing because, to them, power is everything.

MAGA is fascism

At this point, the main reason why most Democrats and the media haven’t clearly declared that MAGA is a form of fascism is that, unlike the 1920s and 30s, the movement’s apparent leaders are clowns. Donald Trump? Rudy Guiliani? Marjorie Taylor Greene? They’re far more like Colonel Klink than Hermann Göring.

But Trump and his cronies don’t really run MAGA. Right-wing media, especially social media, have turned so many conservatives into fascist mythology-believing extremists that candidates have to mirror that extremism to win Republican primaries; nearly every Republican candidate who rejects fascist lies is doomed. In other words, the real leaders of the movement, the billionaires who finance extremist media, are as clever and determined as any fascists from history.

So sorry that MAGA leaders are upset to be called fascists. Sure, it’s a slap across the face. But the mainstream media, pundits and average Americans need that slap. Millions of Americans are simply unaware of the danger we face; they don’t know the stakes.


*** Condensed from Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works: the politics of us and them (New York, Random House, 2018), Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism (New York, Random House, 2004), Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A warning (New York, Harper, 2018), and Umberto Eco’s essay Ur-Fascism: Freedom and liberation are an unending task (New York Review of Books, June 22, 1995).