Six UCSD faculty members from four different departments contributed to this document.
Fascism. The word evokes totalitarianism, authoritarianism and government repression. It recalls Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War. Fascism was an ultra-nationalist, anti-liberal, anti-communist movement that sought a revolutionary transformation of society through a mass organization led by a charismatic leader. Fascists believed the nation was decaying and sought national renewal and rejuvenation. The linchpin of this ultra-nationalism was a notion of victimhood. A certain group of people, fascists believed, were being victimized, and the blame fell on particular groups, particularly outsiders and people not associated with their idea of the nation and its authentic spokespeople. Historically, fascist regimes scapegoated, expelled or even exterminated people they labeled deviant and charged with standing in the way of national redemption. These included disabled people, Jewish people, gay people, left-wing activists and workers in unions. People can become useless to those in power for many reasons. More on the history and definition of fascism >>
We don’t live in Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy. By most definitions, we do not currently live under fascism. But there are some parallels with Interwar Europe, which suffered devastation and displacement from WWI and mass unemployment and poverty from the Great Depression. Today, we live in times of widespread economic insecurity and social anxiety. We face high costs of living, large wealth inequality, and a global economy that is controlled by distant institutions. People feel like they are falling behind. They can’t pay their mortgage, their health care, or education for their children. They want clear answers and clear hope. They are searching for something new.
Trump spoke to those feelings (and very real economic grievances). Trump’s solutions were radical, and radically simple. Keeping jobs here. Generating wealth. Deportations. A wall. Calling out Washington corruption. For many, it felt like someone was finally going to do something. It felt tangible, concrete, and understandable. These concrete proposals also positioned some of us, our families, and our neighbors as the causes of national decline: Muslims, immigrants, Americans with “Mexican” last names, for example. He offered a solution: not deepening democracy, but concentrating power in himself — only Trump and his charismatic leadership could save the nation from decay and decline in the face of outside threats.
However, Trump does not address people’s real problems — inequality, poverty, insecurity and environmental destruction. These problems are rooted in government and big business working together to fix the rules of capitalism; they privilege corporations while eroding protections for workers. These problems are also rooted in a lack of democratic accountability in government. Even worse, Trump’s political strategies can slip into fascism. White supremacy and racism have a long history in the US and they are built into our habits and institutions in ways that many find hard to see. White supremacy and fascism both blame the vulnerable to justify hierarchy. Both have used powerful, aesthetic experiences — rallies, and street violence, for example — to give the frustrated an outlet without democratically distributing power. Both cover up or even justify exploitation — inadequate pay for work, or even slavery — in service of those who hold power. White nationalist and neo-nazi organizations as well as far-right militias (like those that target immigrants) have been empowered by Trump, and there is evidence that their memberships are growing. Resisting fascism means working to understand and undo the racism that divides our collective, democratic power.
We must resist the slip into fascism. What can history teach us?
Stay vigilant, even if things seem normal in your world right now. Fascism does not announce itself as it builds. In Italy and Germany, fascism took years to germinate, build roots, and finally take power.
Fascists relied on paramilitary power and terror to control people. We see KKK rallies, attacks on Muslims in the street, and the rise in hate crimes since Trump began running as warning signs for all of us. The proliferation of fake news online spreads rumor and fear that divides us.
Fascists called on us to place our fates in the hands of an all-powerful state that promises national salvation, whatever the cost. Attacks on particular communities seen to be responsible for national decline are the bread and butter of fascism. Trump, like fascists, have a particular idea of who belongs in the nation and how it can be redeemed (or, in his case “made great again”). Trump’s threats to strip people of citizenship are warning signs for all of us. Those threats violate the constitution. Databases of Muslim citizens violate our civil liberties. Mass deportation of immigrants is a violation of human rights. All of these proposals and threats scapegoat and repress, echoing the tactics of fascist regimes.
Fascists did not tolerate dissent from their vision once in power. Trump has readily attacked the media for criticizing him and has threatened to jail his political opponents (Clinton). These are dangerous precedents to set.
Fascism and its pursuit national purity restricted women’s freedom. Women’s sexual and reproductive freedoms were constrained to assure the reproduction of the pure, national race. Trump ran a misogynistic campaign that empowered right-wing groups who seek to undermine women’s rights. The forms of reproductive restriction could intensify and even shift.
Even those whose ideals are opposed to fascism can enable its rise to power. Historically, the enablers of fascism included some of the political groups fascists despised the most: elites who favored some form of representative government. In Germany, for example, fascists came to power encouraged by industrial elites. They thought they could control fascists and use their mass social base and ideologies of community to beat back social democratic and socialist movements after World War I. They could not control fascism. This brought fascists from the margins of German politics to the center. In fact, many elites benefited enormously politically and economically from fascist states. Today, mainstream media unwittingly enabled Trump’s rise. They reaped huge profits publicizing his every word. Media organizations once critical of Trump now find themselves playing by his rules to retain access.
Don’t let this become the new normal.
As we go to class, eat with friends, and worry about exams, we have to remember that this situation is not normal. There is a myth that fascism could never arise here in the United States. His brand of right-wing populism is already very dangerous for its authoritarian tendencies, racism, and sexism, and some of the conditions for its radicalization into a kind of twenty-first century fascism do exist: continuing economic anxieties, the return of right-wing ultra-nationalism in Europe, and a growing disillusionment with our representative government. These conditions could worsen with time, fuelling Trump or people like him to enact right-wing/fascist policies and perhaps threaten our already very fragile democracy. His political program will fail to address the root structural causes of economic inequality by supporting corporate profits over the needs of people. Meanwhile, he will continue to use racist bigotry to pit people against one another. Preventing right-wing populist, authoritarian, and fascist thinking from deepening and preventing these conditions from worsening requires our action.
The time to struggle against this kind of politics is now.
We need to get organized, prepare to support ourselves and neighbors, and create progressive alternatives to a destabilizing, exploitative political system. We need to support the most vulnerable among us. We need to stand up to racist and other fascistic and right-wing modes of thinking that foster authoritarianism and violence and divide us by race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.. We need to build inclusive working-class movements of women and men, of black, brown, white, of gay, transgender, and straight to demand social justice for everyone. We need to strengthen and support activist organizations, civil liberties groups, etc. that fight for inclusive and progressive forms of democracy and the rights of all the working classes and all oppressed peoples. This kind of activism begins now. Learn, converse, stand up, participate, and strike. Social justice, tolerance, inclusion, civil liberties, and indeed the well being of our planet now depends on your actions.
A Small History and Definition of Fascism
What is fascism? To arrive at a short definition, we need to look at what fascism came to mean in inter-war Europe. Fascism was an ultra-nationalist, anti-liberal, anti-communist movement that sought a revolutionary transformation of society through a mass organization led by a charismatic leader. Fascism opposed ideals of equality, constitutionalism, and civil liberties, favored authoritarian modes of government, and promoted strict social hierarchy and military-style discipline. It was also virulently nationalistic. Fascists believed the nation was decaying and sought national renewal and rejuvenation. The linchpin of nationalism was a notion of victimhood: a certain group of people, fascists believed, were being victimized, and the blame fell on particular groups, particularly outsiders and people not associated with their idea of the nation and its authentic spokespeople. Fascist leaders mobilized these “victims” into mass-based political organizations against the outsiders and scapegoats who they then oppressed, exploited, or, in some cases, sought to exterminate. Fascist leaders also demanded unconditional support from their followers. Only they could rejuvenate the nation, often times through some form of national expansionism and foreign conquest. Fascist leaders were charismatic demagogues adept at spreading misinformation and hatred towards certain groups of people while forging a myth of a lost national grandeur that only their political program could restore. Fascist leaders resorted to violence, enacted by paramilitary or state police forces, to squash opposition and patrol the boundaries between “us” (the true national people) and “them” (the outsiders who threatened national renewal). Fascism enjoyed a mass following and cultivated a sense of national belonging through spectacles such as street rallies and acts of violence. Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy are the classic examples of fascism. Japan, Spain, Portugal and other countries had fascist forms of government during the twentieth century. Fascist movements have existed almost everywhere since the beginning of the twentieth century, and even when they haven’t taken power, their ideas have informed many repressive and authoritarian governments.
Fascism gains traction in times of political and economic crisis. Europe after WWI was shattered. There was widespread displacement, economic ruin, and large numbers of soldiers unable to find work. The costs of war fell particularly heavy on Italy and Germany, and many came to see their countries as victims of foreign powers. Fascists took advantage of and helped create feelings of national betrayal and victimhood. The scapegoating of minorities and liberal and left-wing activists was made easier by bleak economic conditions and social anxieties.
Educating ourselves further
The American novelist Sinclair Lewis wrote an excellent novel in 1936 titled It Can’t Happen Here precisely to combat the myth that fascism could never happen here.
Maybe Q-Tip from Tribe Called Quest, on the Daily Show, explains it better.
Q-Tip: “You felt it in the underbelly of this country that there were disposable people. People who don’t add to the economic gains. In this society, capitalism, the bottom line is truly money. Right?
And then you have all of us as citizens, here we are coexisting.
In order for someone to truly capitalize on the situation, there has to be something that’s weak. The tenet of capitalization is that there is something someone can take advantage of, expose, or exploit. It’s a concept we’ve been dealing with for a while. Of cheap labor. The epithets of true, deep, in the gut racism — I hate you because your race, or your sexual orientation, or I hate you because of your religion. It’s easy to float that and to cause that kind of dissention amongst all of us. Those who are true aggregators of power and who have the true interest of high wealth can come in and subdue the citizens.
Part of that is because there is a fear.
We wanted to pose the scenario, within music, within song, within art, to present this tapestry that really shows the truth that we are joined together truly. There aren’t these divisions that are floated out there.”