Even though everyone agrees that fascism in its most significant form began in Mussolini’s Italy and reached its peak in Hitler’s Germany, it’s hard to say exactly what fascism is. In The Anatomy of Fascism, historian and political scientist Robert Paxton probably does as well as anyone could.
After a wide-ranging, sometimes repetitious discussion of fascism’s historical roots, its small-scale presence in many countries, and its brief success in Italy and Germany, Paxton offers a definition in the final pages of his book:
The moment has come to give fascism a usable short handle, even though we know that it encompasses its subject no better than a snapshot encompasses a person.
Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence, and without ethical or legal restraints, goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
Paxton offers this definition almost against his will, since he believes that the best way to understand fascism is to study its history and compare it with other political systems, especially other authoritarian (or “totalitarian”) systems. He argues that “the ideas that underlie fascist actions are best deduced” not from what fascists say but from what they do. Nevertheless, he lists some “visceral feelings” or “mobilizing passions” that animate fascism, including (in his words):
- A sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;
- The primacy of the group … and the subordination of the individual to it;
- The belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;
- The need for authority by natural chiefs … culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny;
- The superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;
- The beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success;
- The right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint … right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.
Paxton repeatedly emphasizes that fascism has always arisen in response to the perceived failure of democratic systems to deal with some crisis or other, and that its ascension to power has always required the support of existing right-wing elites who see fascism as a counterweight to socialism or communism. Given this historical record, it’s natural to wonder whether America might one day adopt fascism:
Today a “politics of resentment” rooted in authentic American piety and nativism sometimes leads to violence against some of the very same “internal enemies” once targeted by the Nazis, such as homosexuals and defenders of abortion rights. (But) the United States would have to suffer catastrophic setbacks and polarization for these fringe groups to find powerful allies and enter the mainstream….No swastikas in an American fascism, but Stars and Stripes (or Stars and Bars) and Christian crosses. No fascist salute, but mass recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance….An American fascism would transform them into obligatory litmus tests for detecting the internal enemy…. Its targets would be the First Amendment, separation of Church and State, … controls on gun ownership, desecrations of the flag, unassimilated minorities, artistic license, dissident and unusual behavior of all sorts that could be labeled antinational or decadent.
We can find … (the most) ominous warning signals in situations of political deadlock in the face of crisis, threatened conservatives looking for tougher allies, ready to give up due process and the rule of law, seeking mass support by nationalist and racialist demagoguery.
Americans tend to be individualists, which conflicts with being good fascists. But given a sufficiently serious crisis and a sufficiently charismatic demagogue, it could happen anywhere.