Totalitarian Recall

The New Faces of Fascism: Populism and the Far Right BY Enzo Traverso. Verso. Hardcover, 208 pages. $24

There was a time, according to A. B. Magil and Henry Stevens, authors of the urgent 1938 tract The Peril of Fascism: The Crisis of American Democracy, when “fascist” was “the most commonly used epithet in the American political vocabulary.” Do tell!

What existed back then was an entrenched, self-identified fascist regime in Italy; a newer, kindred one in Nazi Germany, which had adopted the Italian ideal of a “totalitarian state”; a quasi-fascist government in Japan; and a fascist-inspired revolt in Spain, not to mention sympathetic parties and youth movements throughout Europe.

But what do we mean when we say “fascism” today? In The New Faces of Fascism, historian Enzo Traverso calls the concept of fascism “both inappropriate and indispensable” for grasping current political reality. Herewith, a selection of newspaper headlines culled from the New York Times and The Guardian during a single week: “‘I’m Not a Fascist’: E.U. Leader Apologizes for Comments on Mussolini’s Legacy” . . . “He Used to Call Viktor Orban an Ally. Now He Calls Him a Symbol of Fascism” . . . “Do the Christchurch Shootings Expose the Murderous Nature of ‘Ironic’ Online Fascism?” . . . “Eco-Fascism Is Undergoing a Revival in the Fetid Culture of the Extreme Right” . . . “Why Is Israel’s Justice Minister in an Ad for ‘Fascism’ Perfume?”

In each case, fascism is a code word for the nationalist or racist reaction against liberal democracy. Both communists, Magil and Stevens viewed fascism as a violent, dictatorial manifestation of bourgeois capitalism in decay. Where others might define fascism as a lawless one-party authoritarian regime predicated on a charismatic leader, Marxists understood it to be a rival, reactionary Bolshevism. A year after Mussolini took power, Clara Zetkin called fascism “a punishment of the proletariat for failing to carry on the revolution begun in Russia.”

Dissident communists like Victor Serge saw fascism and Stalinism as two forms of totalitarianism. Others hold that classic fascism is distinguished by both extreme nationalism and fervent anticommunism—so much so that, Traverso maintains, fascism could not have existed without communism. Yet just as anti-Semitism can exist without Jews, so it would seem that fascism can exist without communism, instead opposing global elites and liberal democracy with a virulent national populism. Whether or not this tendency is a senescent reaction, as Traverso suggests, or a new cultural revolution, it has filled the vacuum left by communism: Progressive “resistance movements have proven unable to outline a new project, a new utopia, to break out of the mental cage that has been fixed in place since 1989.”

Traverso questions the notion of “Islamic fascism,” a term popularized by Christopher Hitchens in the aftermath of 9/11. Allowing that Mussolini defined fascism as a “religious conception,” Traverso notes that ISIS is not a reaction against democracy, but a phenomenon emerging from the lack of democracy that does not privilege a specific homeland.

Where so-called Islamic fascism resembles classic fascism is in its reactionary modernism. Like the Nazis, ISIS uses newfangled means of propaganda, as do white supremacists and national-populist rabble-rousers like Steve Bannon. But, however up-to-date in their use of social media, these movements are essentially nostalgic. “Surrogates for the utopias that have now disappeared,” per Traverso, all seek a return to an imaginary past. And each, he writes, “feeds off its opposition to the other”—fascism against fascism.

Traverso has little to say about Marxist-Freudians like Wilhelm Reich and Erich Fromm, who saw in fascism not only class struggle but class pathology. Reich identified National Socialism as a movement of the lower middle class: “Fascist mentality is the mentality of the ‘little man,’ who is enslaved and craves authority and is at the same time rebellious.”

This seems a useful point of entry into national populism. And that brings us to Donald Trump. Is Trump a fascist? Antistatist yet authoritarian, an isolationist eager for acceptance, a protectionist who loathes regulation, a libertine greed-head pleased to restrict individual rights, not to mention a loudmouthed bullying schmuck (politely described by Traverso as “an uncontrollable and unpredictable loose cannon”), Trump embodies enough contradictions to be a genuine star and thus the tribune of xenophobic reaction, personifying, to quote Traverso, “the resentment of the whites who are becoming a minority in a land of immigration.”

Traverso characterizes Trump as “a post-fascist leader without fascism,” adding that, as Trump has likely never read a book on Hitler or Mussolini, his “fascist behavior is unconscious and involuntary.” (Trump’s childhood formation notwithstanding, I wonder how close his dad was to the pre–World War II German-American Bund, and what the dinner conversation might have been chez Trump.) Unconscious fascism underscores the notion of pathology—Trump as Thanatos, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as Eros. In any case, “applied irrationality” (as Theodor Adorno, who basically saw Nazism as a racket, called fascist propaganda) is part of the program.

Traverso credits Trump’s TV-honed instincts with his success as a demagogue, enabling him to attract a “mass of atomized individuals.” I’d call it a critical mass, remarkably hardcore in its devotion to its Leader. Indeed, Traverso does acknowledge that many MAGA-hatzis might have been rated F for Fascist according to the scale employed in the classic American Jewish Committee study The Authoritarian Personality.

Trump might not be a fascist but, to paraphrase Andrew Gillum, the fascists believe he’s one because he plays at being one. More than just providing entertainment, Trump’s lies enable people to lie to themselves. “The fascist agitator is usually a masterly salesman of his own psychological defects,” Adorno observed, adding: “Hitler was liked, not in spite of his cheap antics, but just because of them.”


J. Hoberman’s Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan will be published by the New Press in July.