US students in the 40s, when this salute was still part of the Pledge of Allegience
There’s an ugly current running through Western politics, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we know what it is. Just like in Weimar Germany, from France to the US, there are people struggling with an identity crisis, scared of threats from without and within, and worrying they’re being left behind in the modern economy. And for these people, champions are rising. They are strong leaders. They say all the things, the necessary things, no one else dares to say. They will get things moving, protect the ordinary people, restore order, restore greatness, do what needs to be done. They are people like Donald Trump, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen. They are fascists.
There’s no clear-cut definition of fascism, and there’s no simple equivalent for Hitler or Mussolini today. However, academic Christian Caryl offers some criteria, so let’s see how Trump especially, but also the others, fit:
- Racial purity: Wilders and Le Pen focus more on religion then race, but all of them share an obsession with an ‘other’ contaminating society and taking it over, be it “Mexican rapists and criminals”, “criminal Moroccan” or simply “Muslims”, and they will stop all immigration to get rid of this other.
- “The state reigns supreme”: Seeing as none of them are in power, this is hard to judge, but they are certainly all extremely focused on law and order and ‘the nation’.
- The strongman: All three, especially Trump, play on this idea of needing a strong leader, and it’s something their supporters look for.
- Focus on the military: This is something Trump has mentioned a lot – and which is slightly less relevant in Europe – the need for a strong military and foreign policy.
- Hatred of ‘rationalism’ and ‘decadence’: Trump almost glories in being an anti-intellectual, barely bothering to make rational arguments. All of them have attacked the current government and system for weakness, softness and elitism.
- The Third Way: None of them are left or right, but just like the Nazi party, bring in elements of both – the rightist emphasis on law and order and the nation together with the leftist opposition to globalisation and financial elites (ironically in Trump’s case).
Now you can argue that people like Wilders and Trump are just populists, swaying from issue to issue, and that they’ll never be elected anyway. And that is certainly true, they are extremely populist. But these fascist positions are the ones on which they are running, and the ones that are making them some of the most popular politicians in the country. That can’t be ignored.
These people don’t only pose a direct threat to democracy if they are elected. Their very rhetoric poisons the atmosphere; it tells people that it is alright to voice their darkest fears and their basest hatreds. Their policies are not just free speech in a marketplace of ideas, where the good ones will win out, they are beginning to contaminate the others and sway the centre of debate. What was once extreme, now becomes acceptable.
The media plays a role in this too. Just this morning I heard an interview with Trump on ABC, where the interviewer asked “Do you regret your ban on Muslims entering the country, a policy which many have labelled un-American?” How can you ask such a question with a straight face? It’s like asking Hitler “Do you regret barring the Jews from public life, a policy which many see as anti-Semitic?’ Of course his plan is un-American, of course it’s un-democratic, and of course it’s fascist. Why isn’t that being said?
This may seem overblown, and you can argue that they will never be elected, or that their star will fade away. Fair enough, that’s hopefully and probably true. But the last time large proportions of Europe were swayed by fascism, it led to the worst conflict the world has ever seen, and the worst crime the world has ever seen – the systematic extermination of millions of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and many others. There are some threats that are very unlikely, but the consequences of which are so dire that they have to be faced no matter how remote they may be. Fascist rhetoric is one of those threats.
Last week Hilary Benn, in one of the best speeches I’ve seen in recent times, declared that Islamic State is fascist, and “fascists must be fought”. This is true – but sometimes the fascists are on the inside.