An Urgently Needed Definition of “Fascism” as the West Fights It Anew at Home and Abroad

Happy New Year!  Sadly, in 2023 and beyond, we will and must confront a dreadful specter of the past not only abroad but also at home: fascism.  In our current era it is on the rise, but one of the most important aspects of fighting anything is clearly defining it and that is a battle in this war that we are losing.  Herein, then, in this very timely moment, is my discussion of what fascism truly is, drawing on some of the great minds spanning decades and written six years ago as part of a two-part series that represents some of the best and most important work of my career.

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By Brian E. Frydenborg (Twitter @bfry1981LinkedInFacebook) January 1, 2023; see related articles from February 17, 2017: Welcome to the Era of Rising Democratic Fascism Part I: Defining Democracy, Fascism, and Democratic Fascism Usefully, and Spin vs. Lies and Trump, the Global Democratic Fascist Movement, Putin’s War on the West, and a Choice for Liberals: Welcome to the Era of Rising Democratic Fascism Part II

John Moore/Getty Images

SILVER SPRING—Not even a full month after Trump’s inauguration, I published a massive two-part essay discussing what I called the rise of “democratic fascism,” with Trump’s victory and being sworn into office one of largest developments on this front.

This is not a democratic fascism as in the Democratic Party of the U.S., but in terms of fascists nonviolently and legally winning elections, using their resulting power to chip away enough at what I have called the four main pillars of democracy—1.) popular elections, 2.) a law enforcement and highly-independent judicial system that is applied relatively equally and not used as a political tool for aggrandizement or persecution (“rule of law”), 3.) a free press that can hold all parties accountable and provide an accurate picture of reality to the public, and 4.) a public free to express itself and not stupid enough to be manipulated too much by propaganda and demagogues, that can make at least somewhat informed decisions based on reality—to twist the system into unfairly favoring themselves and keeping themselves in power as they continue to enact illiberal policies that only further stack the political and societal deck in their favor.

The first part of the two-parter focused on definitions of important terms like “democracy,” “fascism,” and my conception of what I called “democratic fascism.”  In particular, the term “fascism” is highly overused and often poorly understood or defined, a lot like the word “terrorism,” an issue I have previously discussed in detail: as I argued some time ago, “terrorism” must mean more than simply violence or threats of violence from people and organizations we personally dislike, and, similarly, fascism must mean more than the politics of someone or something we personally dislike.  The first part also discussed the difference between political spin and outright lies and how fascism embraces outright lies, as fascism is, among its other horrendous characteristics, a war on truth and reality itself.

In the second part, I looked specifically at why Trump very much fit the definition of “democratic fascist” as I had defined it.  As the word fascist is so strongly associated with Nazis, the Holocaust, and mass arrests and mass executions, I felt separating the traditional conception of fascism from the current wave that was, at least for the time being then, eschewing violent means to achieve and maintain power was useful back in 2017.  But in the roughly five years since Trump’s democratic fascist movement emerged to take over the Republican Party—one of America’s two major parties—and transformed it into a cult of Trump, the leader himself and bulk of that Trumpist movement have clearly transitioned already to accepting and embracing violence and overthrowing the rule of law illegally in their quest to achieve and maintain power, as most notably demonstrated in the culmination of the Trump Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021.  That coup attempt did not stop with its failure on that day, but has since continued through the present

Once their embrace of violence and their failure to repudiate Trump’s insurrection became clear, I have felt “fascist” became more appropriate label for them, as the Trumpists are now trying to use undemocratic and/or violent means to achieve power, the latest being MAGA Republican Kari Lake trying to use false lawsuits to overturn her clear defeat in the Arizona governor’s race (I think she is a favorite to be Trump’s vice presidential-nominee in what I think will be his highly successful quest to rewin the Republican Party’s nomination for president).

The rest of my second part detailed how Russia’s Vladimir Putin was leading a global fascist movement as part of his war on Western democracy and how all who opposed such fascism needed to put pettier differences aside to defeat it (a spirit recent political victories in France, the United States, and Brazil embody).

Ukraine Mordor Painting
The Great Battle of Ukraine with Mordor, painting, 2022, Oleg (Oleh) Shupliak

As fascism has very much become an important theme in global politics today—from the Trumpist movement to Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, from multiple political parties in Europe to Putin’s Russia and its war on Ukrainian democracy, from Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel to the Narendra Modi’s India, from the Taliban’s Afghanistan to Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, I think it is important to revisit the definition of “fascism.”  In this spirit, I am reposting parts of part one of the two-part piece discussed above because I think they are deeply relevant to our current circumstances. Not all fascism will be as obvious and violent as Putin’s Russian fascism, so a common definition is essential to fight fascism in all its forms (and on a side note, please do see the 10/10 spectacular Andor television series for a beautiful meditation on the nature of fascism and of resisting it).


Excerpt begins:

Fascism comes in many forms; if Hitler and genocide can be one end of the spectrum, there’s plenty of room for fascism that falls far short of that standard, eschewing pogroms and other forms of mass violence, forms of fascism that include what we are seeing now: a democratic fascism (small “d” referring to democracy in general, as opposed to a capital “D” associated with America’s Democratic Party) empowered by populations, media, and elections that rewards and empowers those willing to feed off division and fear as it overwhelms norms, dissenting minorities, and even the law. As this democratic fascism rises, the losers are the liberal democratic governments that have been dominant since the end of WWII; in effect, it is no longer a question of if, as I posed nearly a year ago, but how fast we will see the unraveling of the post-WWII U.S.-led international order. What we do now will define the West and the world for decades to come, but the growing far left must grow up quickly and act within the clear choices of present reality if we are to have a good chance of stopping democratic fascism from destroying our societies, the West, and the international order as we know it.

“American fascism will not be really dangerous until there is a purposeful coalition among the cartelists, the deliberate poisoners of public information, and those who stand for the K.K.K. type of demagoguery.”— Henry A. Wallace, 1944, Vice President of the United States 1941-1945

One can easily go back to the domestic tyranny of Athens’ democracy in ancient Greece, of the will of the demos often trampling over minority rights, to begin a long history of systems that were democratic in that a majority had power and chose leaders or voted on legislation, but with that being the extent of the democracy. In fact, as happens all too often, people—especially when consumed by fear and hate—will choose someone who merely reflects the base instincts of their majority, will use democracy to create a political culture of persecution, intolerance, and even brutalization of those who are not in the majority, will create a system designed to favor and perpetuate the rule of this majority, and will actively suppress those speaking, acting, and organizing against it. 

This is a Tocquevillian tyranny of the majority on steroids, a system where only the people in power and those who support them can even approach having the feeling they live in a democracy or that their opinions count in the public square, while everyone who feels differently is made to understand that even expressing their counternarrative, their dissent, their dissatisfaction will carry consequences for their level of freedom, or even their health, up to and including the lethal variety. Such “democracies” exist to empower the majority or the plurality of those supporting the current leader/government/system and only them; the rest of the population is made to feel that they are tolerated at best by the good graces of those in charge and to embrace their second-or-third-class status meekly and enthusiastically, to be deferential to their oppressors’ views and whims, or else…

Such a system uses democracy to destroy it. Such a system embraces limited (and the most salient) forms of democracy, mainly elections and the right of those winning the elections to rule (and in this case, rule uncontested)…

…the following quote illustrates, if in a slightly oversimplified way, some of the dynamics behind this as far as people and mentalities are concerned:

The following joke circulated in Italy in the 1920s. According to Mussolini, the ideal citizen is intelligent, honest, and Fascist. Unfortunately, no one is perfect, which explains why everyone you meet is either intelligent and Fascist but not honest, honest and Fascist but not intelligent, or honest and intelligent but not Fascist.—Maurice Herlihy and Nir Shavit, The Art of Multiprocessor Programming

Yes, as before, a cadre intelligent people willing to be extremely dishonest are leading a new move towards fascism that wins the hearts and minds of the unintelligent who are honest with their backwards beliefs, leaving a cadre of intelligent, honest, non-fascists to be in the unenviable positions of selling less attractive trusts juxtaposed to often more attractive fascist lies. Sure, there are rich exceptions, but you could do far worse as far as accuracy than categorize most people in politics these days into one of these three categories.

No, it’s not the 1930s, but today, the democracies of the world are collectively facing a cancer of populist, and, yes, democratic fascism that threatens to erase democratic norms, destroy liberal democratic values, and that seeks to remake many of the world’s leading democracies in the image of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and its “democracy” that relies on an intolerant majority that understands democracy simply as the gratification of their emotional desires, with dissenters, minorities, and others who don’t agree with them be damned, their complaints of abuse at the hands of the state dismissed and ignored.

Yet terms like democracy and fascism are thrown about quite casually, and not necessarily in a way that is accurate; in fact, I earlier engaged in an exercise in defining the word “terrorism” usefully that amply demonstrates how important it is for a reasonable and universal definition of certain commonly-used-in-our-political-discourse terms to be sounded out so that the terms are spared from being bandied about in a way that virtually anyone can use to make any point, rendering them meaningless and their use pointless.

In his seminal 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell expressed his understanding of how slippery the uses of both “democracy” and “fascism” not only could be, but were when he wrote that

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable”. The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

Such tendencies that flourished in Orwell’s time still, sadly, flourish today, over 70 years both after Orwell penned those thoughts and after the defeat of fascism in Europe. We shall do our best to avoid such traps in the discussion below by discussing the definition…of…“fascism.”…

Defining Fascism

Which brings us to a discussion of what we should understand fascism to be…

“Fascism” as a word in English comes into English in the 1920s from the Italian fascismodescribing the movements (maybe gangs is a better word) that would eventually put Mussolini in power in Italy but a word also alluding to the ancient Roman symbol of authority, the fasces. The English definition of “fascism,” according to the Oxford English Dictionaryis mainly twofold: “An authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization” and a subdefinition: “(in general use) extreme right-wing, authoritarian, or intolerant views or practices;” both are useful, and, especially, the subdefinition is applicable here, but a further, less vague, and more detailed definition is needed for our discussion.

Like “terrorism” and “democracy,” “fascism” as a term can easily become overly and poorly used. Writing in 1944, Orwell noted how “there is almost no set of people — certainly no political party or organized body of any kind — which has not been denounced as Fascist.” Still, even noting the sharp disagreements of the people of his day over who or what was fascist, he noted that “[b]y ‘Fascism’ they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class. Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’.”

The enthusiastic admirer of Orwell and recently (and very sadly) late Christopher Hitchens, unsurprisingly, echoes some of what his hero had to say, but goes farther; for Hitchens, “[h]istorically, fascism laid great emphasis on glorifying the nation-state and the corporate structure,” is “based on a cult of murderous violence that exalts death and destruction and despises the life of the mind…[and is] hostile to modernity (except when it comes to the pursuit of weapons).” He also describes fascism as “bitterly nostalgic for past empires and lost glories,” as “obsessed with real and imagined ‘humiliations’ and thirsty for revenge,” as “chronically infected with the toxin of anti-Jewish paranoia (interestingly, also, with its milder cousin, anti-Freemason paranoia),” as “inclined to leader worship,” and as a “threat…to civilization and civilized values;” perhaps Hitchens’ most pithy description is as follows: “[t]he historic essence of Fascism is the most retrograde people using the most revolutionary rhetoric.”

For Rebecca West, writing in 1935, “Fascism…is a headlong flight into fantasy from the necessity for political thought…persons supporting Fascism behave as if man were already in possession of principles which would enable him to deal with all our problems, and as if it were only a question of appointing a dictator to apply them.”

In his preface to the Third Edition of his The Mass Psychology of Fascism, written in 1942, Wilhelm Reich notes that:

In its pure form, fascism is the sum total of all irrational reactions of the average human character. To the narrow-minded sociologist who lacks the courage to recognize the enormous role played by the irrational in human history, the fascist race theory appears as nothing but an imperialistic interest or even a mere “prejudice.” The violence and the ubiquity of these “race prejudices” show their origin from the irrational part of the human character. The race theory is not a creation of fascism. No: fascism is a creation of race hatred and its politically organized expression.

For U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), one of the handful of men who can be said to have been a primary architect of the successful plan to defeat fascism in the 1940s, he felt that “the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself,” and what stood out for him was that “[t]hat, in its essence, is Fascism—ownership of Government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.” In other words, when one ruler/party/faction/group considers that it owns the state and that the state’s machinery, power, and largesse exist as personal tools for those in power, when that controlling entity does not feel it needs to share the state, and its machinery, power, and largesse with others different from themselves, we have fascism.

Henry A. Wallace, FDR’s Vice President before Truman, told The New York Times in 1944 that

A fascist is one whose lust for money or power is combined with such an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends. The supreme god of a fascist, to which his ends are directed, may be money or power; may be a race or a class; may be a military, clique or an economic group; or may be a culture, religion, or a political party.

Wallace notes how American fascism is different from Nazi German fascists in a way that is quite relevant today when we are attempting to discuss democratic fascism:

The American fascist would prefer not to use violence. His method is to poison the channels of public information. With a fascist the problem is never how best to present the truth to the public but how best to use the news to deceive the public into giving the fascist and his group more money or more power.

For Umberto Eco, whose own childhood took place in Mussolini’s fascist Italy, fascism was something that could be any combination of a number of key elements. Writing in 1995 in an incredibly prescient and far-too-underappreciated essay on what he termed “Ur-Fascism”—that eternal and incoherent fascist current within humanity—the Italian master saw fascism as something that espouses a “cult of tradition” in a way that was “syncretistic” and produced little if anything original (in this, Eco’s fascism resembles the evil forces in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which is described here in The Lord of the Rings in a discussion of the nature of Sauron’s orc minions: “The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to Orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them.”). He also saw it as a “rejection of modernism” and, in turn, an embodiment of “irrationalism.” For Eco, fascism values “action for action’s sake” in a sense that despised deliberation and intellectual discourse and the intellectual world in general; building upon this, he also noted how fascism is unable to “withstand analytical criticism” to such a degree that “disagreement is treason.” As a natural follow-up to this, he notes fascism’s hatred of diversity and its “exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference,” that (nascent) fascism’s “first appeal…is an appeal against intruders,” making fascism “racist by definition;” it feeds on “individual or social frustration” in a way that is an “appeal to a frustrated middle class” that is “frightened by the pressure of lower social groups;” Eco feared that “the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.” The psychology of fascism is obsessed with identity, particularly appealing to those lost and confused in a changing and challenging world, and offers them a crude way out based on nationalism (for Orwell, “power-hunger tempered by self-deception”), a nationalism defined by exclusion of “enemies” of the nation; this psychology is based on “the obsession with a plot” against them, domestically and internationally. Those subscribing to such a fascist movement “must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies” but also “be convinced that they can overwhelm” them (leaving them “constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.”) With such movements, “pacifism is trafficking with the enemy” and “life is permanent warfare” such that even in victory, there is still a pervasive sense of insecurity, unspoken inferiority, and anxiety. Eco’s fascism is also embodied by a “contempt for the weak” that is crucial for its “popular elitism:” the leaders of the movement convince their mass followers that they are the true elite, even as they thrive by exploiting the weaknesses of their captains and both, in turn, exploit the weaknesses of their mass followers, who feel superior to those not in the movement in a dynamic of trickle-down elitism (“Every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on,” as Sinclair Lewis writes in his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, in which a man remarkably like Donald Trump becomes president running a campaign remarkably like Trump’s and ends up transforming America into a fascist dictatorship). Here, Eco continues, “everybody is educated to become a hero” in a sense that engenders a constant hero martyr-complex (often literally reached by death or sending “other people to death”). In fascism, Eco also finds a misogynistic, homophobic machismo that addresses its sexual inadequacy through the “ersatz phallic exercise” of “play[ing] with weapons.” He also finds fascism to be based on a “selective populism” that is “qualitative” not “quantitative” in nature; “the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction,” and “[t]here is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.” Fascism, then, is “against ‘rotten’ parliamentary [i.e.., democratic] governments,” and “[w]herever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism.”

Pondering the reality of a fictional German Nazi and Imperial Japanese-occupied America in the 1960s in Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle, a Nazi defector to Japan’s Pacific States of America defines the fascist system of insanity and its adherents as one explained by:

…something they do, something they are. It is their unconsciousness. Their lack of knowledge about others. Their not being aware of what they do to others, the destruction they have caused and are causing. No, he thought. That isn’t it. I don’t know; I sense it, I intuit it. But—they are purposelessly cruel… is that it? No, God, he thought. I can’t find it, make it clear. Do they ignore parts of reality? Yes. But it is more. It is their plans. Yes, their plans…Something frenzied and demented…

Their view; it is cosmic. Not a man here, a child there, but an abstraction: race, land. VolkLandBlutEhre. Not of honourable men but of Ehre itself, honor; the abstract is real, the actual is invisible to them. Die Güte, but not good men, this good man. It is their sense of space and time…

…They want to be the agents, not the victims, of history.

For long-time New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik,

What all forms of fascism have in common is the glorification of the nation, and the exaggeration of its humiliations, with violence promised to its enemies, at home and abroad; the worship of power wherever it appears and whoever holds it; contempt for the rule of law and for reason; unashamed employment of repeated lies as a rhetorical strategy; and a promise of vengeance for those who feel themselves disempowered by history. It promises to turn back time and take no prisoners. That it can appeal to those who do not understand its consequences is doubtless true.

*****

From these writers, thinkers, and leaders, then, like democracy, we can approach a definition of fascism that avoids the pitfall of being too specific but is still meaningful past use as a simple pejorative, thus avoiding Orwell’s trap as well.

For a brief, poetic, and literary understanding of what we may now say about fascism, allow me to satirize Paul’s lovely passage on love from First Corinthians (by far “Saint” Paul’s best work when compared to the rest of his generally contemptible legacy):

Fascism is impatient, fascism is cruel. It is jealous, is pompous, it is inflated,it is rude, it seeks its own interests, it is quick-tempered, it broods over injury, it rejoices over wrongdoing but does not rejoice with the truth. It bears only itself, believes only itself, hopes only itself, endures only itself. Fascism always fails.

Furthermore, fascism is hateful, irrational, fearful, childishly boastful; it thrives and survives on misinformation and disinformation, lies and deceit; it brooks no criticism and is an eternal enemy of intellectual discourse, debate, diversity, inclusion, and being part of the wider world, relies on racism, bigotry, ignorance, misogyny, and brute bullying in all manners of ways, loves cultish leader-worship, lusts after a false imagined past and “tradition,” is corporatist, nationalistic, incoherent, and contradictory, and is all of these things not mildly but intensely; it takes more typical, offensive, intolerant, and reactionary right-wing politics to a far more elevated level, so that even liberals will wistfully miss their old right-wing nemeses with the advent of the new fascism. There may not be a clear line where it is absolutely obvious where one has passed the realm of the more banal, typical right-wing politics into the realm of the far more dreadful (but still banal) and less manageable fascism (democratic or otherwise), but when one is well past that ill-defined line there can be a sickening clarity, a retroactive realization of one’s fetid new surroundings and a sheer terror that there may not be any going back anytime soon…

Henry A. Wallace…was onto the same truth that Orwell would most masterfully present to the world in his masterpiece 1984 with its concept of Newspeak, a formal language of propaganda, deception, and control: “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of [the regime], but to make all other modes of thought impossible.” In his earlier-cited essay, Eco also identified Orwell’s Newspeak as the final enumerated element of fascism, noting how it makes “use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning. But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.” Eco also echoed Wallace when he noted that

Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world.

End excerpt


It is my earnest hope that, with the above discussion perhaps shared widely and profusely, we can more easily combat fascism by agreeing on what fascism is, and I do believe that herein I have presented a useable and workable definition by citing minds far greater than my own. From our elections at home to the battlefields of Ukraine, nothing is more urgent than defeating this fascism and calling it out by name and agreeing on what that name means is a crucial step to defeating it.

See related articles from February 17, 2017: Welcome to the Era of Rising Democratic Fascism Part I: Defining Democracy, Fascism, and Democratic Fascism Usefully, and Spin vs. Lies and Trump, the Global Democratic Fascist Movement, Putin’s War on the West, and a C; hoice for Liberals: Welcome to the Era of Rising Democratic Fascism Part II and see all Brian’s Ukraine coverage here

Brian’s Ukraine journalism has been praised by: Mykhailo Podolyak, a top advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky; Scott Shane, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist formerly of The New York Times Baltimore Sun (and featured in HBO’s The Wire, playing himself); Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), one of the only Republicans to stand up to Trump and member of the January 6th Committee; and Orwell Prize-winning journalist Jenni Russell, among others.

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks at flag with portraits of Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin on March 6, 2020- GETTY IMAGES

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