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How Do You Tell an Authoritarian From a Fascist These Days?

In the 21st century, the line between fascism and authoritarian populism is becoming increasingly blurred.
Alessio Scopelliti, James F. Downes, Valerio Alfonso Bruno, Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, fascism definition, authoritarian populism definition, is Trump a fascist, is Trump an authoritarian, authoritarianism vs fascism, US Capitol Trump supporters news

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January 07, 2021 10:44 EDT

Recent developments in global politics, such as Donald Trump’s reelection campaign or the rise of illiberal democracies across Central and Eastern Europe, have arguably led to a misinterpretation of what many refer to as a “return of fascism.” Although authoritarian populism shares numerous similarities with fascism, these two ideologies differ markedly, both in terms of their ideological nature and of their danger, as well as the very real challenges that they pose to liberal democracies in the 21st century.

Donald Trump: The Worst Kind of Populist


The term “fascism” is a complex ideological label that has found historical prominence in both 20th century Italy and in Nazi Germany between the two world wars. The concept is currently applied broadly in academic literature to identify radical-right political parties, right-wing authoritarian (or military) regimes or even movements sympathetic to fascism. However, the term is more properly used when referring to the ideology that was promoted and implemented by Benito Mussolini in Italy in the interwar period.

Fascism Versus Authoritarianism

Historically, fascism derives its roots from nationalism, totalitarianism and the myth of violence. Firstly, through the advent of nationalism, fascism does not only try to achieve ethnic homogeneity of the members of the community but also introduces the concept of national superiority over other peoples and nations.

Secondly, to comprehend totalitarianism, it is necessary to keep in mind the impact of the Great War and the depersonalization of the individual. For fascism, an individual is a “tool” used to pursue the interests of the state, which coincide directly with the interests of the fascist party. However, fascism is not limited solely to obedience, as has been shown, among others, by Hannah Arendt. It claims legitimacy by obtaining the consent of the masses and, to accomplish this, fascism as an ideology is mobilized and tends to encompass all sectors of society. As the self-styled Italian philosopher Giovanni Gentile remarked, “for fascism everything is in the state and nothing is outside the state, in this sense the state is totalitarian.”

Finally, the myth of violence is one of the most important tenets of fascism. Enemies are everywhere, and fascism must assert itself through violence (extreme, if necessary). This pattern inevitably undermines any forms of pluralism. For this reason, for fascist ideologues, this eventual clash is inevitable, and, eventually, all the principles of both liberal democracy and representative institutions fall.

In defining authoritarian populism, we can refer to the “fourth wave” in the radical-right literature as outlined by Cas Mudde. Mudde argues that there are three core patterns that make up this ideology, comprising nativism, authoritarianism and populism. Firstly, nativism refers to the “membership” of the nation, which is determined by ethnic terms. This notion is also related to the exclusionary pattern of radical-right parties that tend to argue that multiculturalism should be considered as a threat to the national heritage and cultural traditions. Consequently, the state should impede access to those immigrants who differ from the majoritarian ethnic group; or, alternatively, immigrants should entirely adopt the national culture and fully assimilate.

Secondly, authoritarianism refers to what extent a society should be strictly controlled by the state in order to maintain security and order within the borders of the country. This pattern is linked to the strong emphasis on law and order which “is directed not only against external threats (immigrants and asylum seekers) and criminal elements, but also against its critics and political opponents.” Finally, the notion of populism refers to the well-known definition of conflict within current societies, between the people (represented by the radical right) and the elite (mainstream politicians and the political establishment).  

The Cult of the Leader

It is clear from the above analysis that fascism and authoritarian populism are different, ideologically speaking. Nonetheless, there are two elements that are significantly comparable in both ideologies. The first is the cult of the leader, or fanatism. The fascist leader isn’t just someone to obey or support, but also serves as an image in which the electorate can feel represented. This image is one that is omnipotent and omniscient. For example, Mussolini was portrayed as a hero in all fields — “a hard worker, an athlete, an airplane pilot” and so on — in order to create a cult of personality.

A similar cult of personality was also portrayed in Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler, via the Führerprinzip — the leader principle. In this regard, US Present Donald Trump also (indirectly) reminds us of this type of leader. Trump often boasts of his “unlimited” knowledge and unprecedented achievement in various fields, from science and defense to economics and race relations.  

Trump also speaks through his body. For example, after the first presidential debate against former Vice-President Joe Biden, President Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19. Once recovered, he staged a dramatic return to the White House to demonstrate strength in having defeated the virus and being immune from it. A not too dissimilar scene also played out in Brazil, with President Jair Bolsonaro also contracting COVID-19 but dismissing it as nothing more than an ordinary bout of flu.

In both fascism and authoritarian populist ideologies, the leader is presented as an invincible figure that most of the times is described (most often by the state propaganda machine) as the savior of the homeland from ruin. So, Mussolini should have restored the ancient splendor of the Roman Empire, while Trump was supposed to “Make America Great Again.”

Creation of the Enemy

The second analogy is the creation of an enemy. Recalling how fascism was founded on the myth of violence, conflict does not take place only on ethnic or religious, but also on political grounds. Thus, anybody who represents a danger to the stability of the fascist authority in the country should be eliminated (for the good of the nation itself).

As the Soviet author Vassily Grossman explains in his famous 1970 novel “Everything Flows,” the “scalpel is the great theorist, the philosophical leader of the twentieth century.” With this image, Grossman exemplifies how totalitarianism (including fascism) envisaged a certain political project — founded on purely abstract ideological principles applied in the real world — and everything that is not included in this project must be eliminated and overthrown.

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Fascism does not foresee discussions or compromises with the other side. In this same regard, even authoritarian populism does not offer dialogue to the opposition, since its raison d’être is to interpret society as a Manichean conflict between “the pure people versus the corrupt elite,” which does not include dialogue between these “two homogeneous and antagonistic groups.”

For example, during his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump declared several times that he would have Hillary Clinton jailed and later accusing former President Barack Obama of “some terrible things” that “should never be allowed to happen in our country again.” This is an example of how Trump, an authoritarian populist leader, identifies the political counterpart as an enemy, thereby leaving no space for discussion or disagreements. Scholars such as Matthew Feldman, the director of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, have even recently remarked about the fascist ideological nature of President Trump. Recent events in the United States, such as yesterday’s storming of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, by pro-Trump rioters hoping to overturn the election result, give rise to fears about a neo-fascist wave.

Ideological Differences

Although fascism and authoritarian populism share two important ideological features, it might be easy to forget that fascism was, on the one hand, a conservative militia with the goal of subduing communist mass strikes of workers and peasants. On the other hand, it was born as a revolutionary movement. Indeed, the main historical goal of fascism was to overthrow the modern state “with its connotations of industrialism, individualism and bourgeois values.”

Put simply, the project of fascism was to reject liberal democracy, political pluralism and the market economy. Authoritarian populism’s aim is not to overthrow the democratic regime — instead, it is a part of the democratic system. Even though authoritarian populist leaders can achieve political power in government, they are not immune from the overall democratic process, especially when they lose power. President Trump’s loss in the 2020 US election, despite his claims of voter fraud, demonstrates this fact.

The year 2020 will surely be remembered for the significant impact that COVID-19 has had on globalized societies. During the first wave of the pandemic, national governments called for nationwide solidarity, and many succeeded in achieving it. At the same time, the past year may have ushered in authoritarian populism as the new zeitgeist of the next decade: The long-term impact of COVID-19 may benefit radical-right parties as the second wave of the pandemic wave has caused an even longer period of economic and social deprivations.

Authoritarian populism may play a legitimatizing role in democratic regimes, and it is important to note that this ideology has become increasingly mainstreamed and normalized. While authoritarian populists should not be defined as fascists if they do not abolish democratic institutions, this normalization process represents the main threat to liberal societies across the globe in the 21st century.

In contrast to neo-fascist movements, which are significantly opposed to democracy, the leaders of authoritarian populist movements are allowed to participate in the democratic game, to fuel protests politics among citizens and to capitalize on these in order to achieve power. Donald Trump’s insistence that the election was stolen from him to spur his supporters to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden’s victory has left four dead. As the world watched an “insurrection incited by the president” at the heart of the world’s oldest democracy, it is clear that the line between fascism and authoritarian populism is becoming increasingly blurred.

*[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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