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What Is Fascism?

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Some political pundits suggest that fascism is pushing democracy aside as dispirited voters seek to blame the establishment for their economic struggles. But, what exactly is fascism?

The Strongman Leader

Robert Paxton is a history professor at Columbia University, New York. He’s one of the world’s leading experts on fascism. He says it’s a complex ideology that centres around the concept of the strongman leader.

This strongman leader persuades his supporters that their country is under attack from within and from outside “Give me complete control and I will slaughter our enemies.” This message is hammered home through the sophisticated use of propaganda.

Followers are willing to give up many civil liberties so their leader is not held back in his ability to “get things done.”

Fascists are against a lot of things. They hate socialists, don’t like liberals, and frown on conservatives. They are not fond of foreigners and are suspicious of immigrants. They see democracy as a messy interference in the leader’s ability to make their country great again. They are opposed to an open media especially when it is critical of the leader, who discredits journalism and then finds ways to shut down a free press.

Writing for The Telegraph, Tim Stanley points out that “The thinker and historian Ernst Nolte argued that fascism was the great ‘anti’ philosophy that united people frightened by social and economic change: anti-Semitic, anti-socialist, anti-feminist, anti-democracy.”

Fascism plays on emotions stirred up by a leader who appeals “to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument” ( Historian George L. Mosse called fascism a “scavenger ideology.” By this he meant that it picks up bits and pieces from other ideologies and patches them together; there is no well-planned body of thought.

It is built around the myth of a once-great nation that has been brought low by evil forces. Fascism is also about racial purity and the use of violence as a political tool.

The Italian Fascist Poet

It seems odd that an ideology that is very dark should come from a poet. However, Gabriele D’Annunzio, a poet, is seen as the architect of fascism.

He was born in southern Italy in 1863 and raised in a privileged family. At the age of 19, he ran off with the daughter of a duke and then abandoned her. This set the life-long pattern of his treatment of women; abuse them and cast them aside.

He was a very talented writer and made millions from his work. He was even more talented at spending his money and was constantly in debt.

When World War I broke out he suddenly became very political. He saw the conflict as an opportunity for Italy to win back land it had lost years earlier to Austria. Five hundred thousand Italian soldiers and half a million civilians died in a futile effort to get the land back. The treaty that ended the war gave Italy almost nothing.

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This infuriated D’Annunzio. In September 1919, he gathered together 2,000 recently released soldiers and marched on the Adriatic port of Fiume. The people of the city were mostly of Italian heritage, but the World War I peace treaty placed them in the newly created country of Yugoslavia.

D’Annunzio seized the city and ran it as a dictator for 15 months. During this time he invented fascism.

Gabriele D’Annunzio.

Gabriele D’Annunzio.

Elements of Fascism

From his all-powerful position as head of a small, city state, D’Annunzio created the ideology of fascism that others would copy and adapt. His foundational idea was that society had decayed morally and needed to be cleansed. The strongman leader steps forward, seizes all power, and efficiently cuts out the rot.

D’Annunzio was a brilliant and captivating speaker. He organized mass marches and rallies aimed at stirring up nationalist sentiments. He was going to lead the people back to the glory days when the Roman Empire ruled the known world. National pride was going to halt the slide into corruption.

He surrounded himself with thugs in black shirts whose job was to protect him from anyone who challenged his supreme power. These undisciplined policemen and soldiers used violence against ethnic minorities.

He wrote a constitution for Fiume that enshrined an economic system that was neither socialist nor capitalist. There was strong government involvement in the economy aimed at encouraging successful business people.

Profits were to be shared with the people, who also had to carry the burden of losses. At the same time, unions were dismantled. Because of the focus on national interest above all else international trade was discouraged.

Nietzsche's Superman

Gabriele D’Annunzio was building his philosophy on the work of others. One of them was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).

Nietzsche declared that “God is dead.” Sean Illing is a former university philosophy teacher. He explains that Nietzsche “meant that science and reason had progressed to the point where we could no longer justify belief in God, and that meant that we could no longer justify the values rooted in that belief.”

Without a moral compass to guide them, Nietzsche worried that people might turn to destructive philosophies, such as nationalism. So he came up with the idea of “will to power,” which teaches people to overcome their weak impulses. Instead, they had to develop heroic values of courage and self-denial.

The person who is successful at overcoming these weaknesses he called “superman” (or “Übermensch” in German). These supermen would operate under their own rules and would not be restricted by weaker people.

D’Annunzio Ousted

Eventually, Gabriele D’Annunzio’s behaviour became so erratic that it was an embarrassment to the government of Italy.

Yugoslavia and Italy signed a treaty that led to D’Annunzio being pushed out. Italy sent a battleship to shell the dictator’s palace and that was enough to convince him to leave.

But, in Italy, there was a man who was carefully watching the Fiume experiment with fascism. That man was Benito Mussolini, a long-time political activist.

Like D’Annunzio, he felt Italy should have come out of World War I with more to show for its fighting with the winning side. With the support of unemployed war veterans he formed the Fascist Party, dressed his followers in black shirts, and turned them loose on his political opponents.

In 1922, the Italian government was sliding into chaos, so Mussolini led his Black Shirts in a march on the capital, Rome. He announced that he was the only person who could fix the country’s problems and he was invited to become prime minister.

He tore down Italy’s democratic institutions and declared himself “Il Duce”―the leader. A few years before, Gabriele D’Annunzio had given himself the exact same title. Benito Mussolini’s Italy became Fiume writ large.

Just as Mussolini learned his lessons from D’Annunzio another man was watching the Italian dictator and taking notes. That man was Germany’s Adolf Hitler.

Benito Mussolini (left) and Hitler in 1938.

Benito Mussolini (left) and Hitler in 1938.

Is Donald Trump a Fascist?

The question in the subhead has been asked frequently since Donald Trump became U.S. president in January 2017.

We can turn to former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for some enlightenment. She had a long and distinguished career as a politician and diplomat. As a child in Czechoslovakia she lived through the fascist dictatorships that tore Europe apart in World War II.

In April 2018, she published her book Fascism: A Warning. In it she sees a rise in the popularity of the strongman leader and authoritarianism. Racism is growing and she sees worrying similarities between Trump and the fascists of the 20th century.

At his inauguration, Mr. Trump spoke about how the United States was falling apart in what he called “American carnage.” During the election campaign he boasted “I alone can fix it.”

A propaganda tactic of fascism is “The Big Lie;” tell a falsehood often enough and it begins to take on the appearance of truth. Trump launched into an unending campaign against the media by calling it “fake news.” He called the free press “The enemy of the American people;” Adolf Hitler used the same phrase in attacking the German media.

One of Benito Mussolini’s promises was to “drenare la palude,” or “drain the swamp.” This was one of Trump’s favourite campaign slogans.

Fascists don’t like international trade deals. One of Trump’s first actions on becoming president was to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and to threaten to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Trump certainly has the instincts of a fascist, but Eliot Cohen says people should not be too worried about that. The former State Department official has written that Trump is “ . . . too incompetent to be a successful fascist.”

And, Canadian journalist Susan Riley says Trump doesn’t have an ideology; “he only has impulses and grievances.”

Donald Trump may share some characteristics with fascists but he is not one himself. His only ideology is what’s good for Donald Trump.

Even after being defeated in the November 2020 election he maintained almost total control of the Republican Party whose members appear scared of him.

Bonus Factoids

  • During the Roman Empire the word fasces described a bundle of sticks. One stick alone can be broken easily, but bundled together and tied to an ax the sticks are much stronger. Bodyguards to a Roman imperial magistrate carried fasces to indicate his unchallenged authority. The word fascism comes from this source and describes a country in which everybody is bound together in obedience to the leader.
  • Several countries have had fascist governments. The list includes: Austria, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Romania, Norway, and Hungary. There are currently no fascist governments in the world.
  • The Silver Legion of America was a fascist movement founded in 1933. At its peak it claimed to have 15,000 members. Leader William Dudley Pelley ran for the presidency in 1936 for the Christian Party but got less than 2,000 votes. The Silver Legion was effectively shut down when America declared war on Germany, Japan, and Italy in December 1941.


  • “What Is Fascism and Are There any Fascists Today?” Tim Stanley, The Telegraph, August 23, 2017.
  • “The Horrid Little Man Who Invented Fascism.” Ben Steelman, StarNews, April 6, 2014.
  • “What Is A Fascist Economy?” World Atlas, April 25, 2017.
  • “Benito Mussolini (1883-1945).” BBC History, undated.
  • “Madeleine Albright Warns of a New Fascism - and Trump.” Robin Wright, The New Yorker, April 24, 2018.
  • “The Alt-Right Is Drunk on Bad Readings of Nietzsche.” Sean Illing, Vox, April 24, 2018.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor

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