- - Monday, February 22, 2021

“Everyone is sure they know what fascism is,” wrote Columbia University historian Robert O. Paxton in his seminal work, ‘The Anatomy of Fascism.’

This may partly explain why in modern American politics both Democratic and Republican politicians, including most of the recent presidents, have been called fascists by their critics — everyone from antiwar protesters to TV commentators, from late-night comics to university academics.

If you believe U.S. politics are dominated by factions of conservatives and liberals, with a smattering of centrists, it might seem strange to see fascism — a hyper-nationalist, violent ideology founded by Mussolini and later personified by Hitler whose war resulted in Europe’s destruction in 1945 — thrown around so frequently.

Just as with socialism, fascism has become an insult to hurl at one’s political opponents as a chef throws salt and pepper on stew, a symptom of our hopelessly polarized political environment.

But there are legitimate reasons why fascism is the subject of so much conversation. Throughout the Trump presidency, groups of right-wing extremists, such as the Proud Boys, clashed with squads of Antifa activists in cities across the country.

The notion that the Trump administration possessed authoritarian tendencies, epitomized by the ex-president’s refusal to accept the 2020 election results and a peaceful transfer of power, also ignited interest in fascism.

“Because I have spent years studying fascism, I never call Donald Trump a fascist,” said NYU historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, in an interview for the latest episode of History As It Happens. “Many people push me to do that, but I don’t call him a fascist because I think it is unhelpful.”

Ben-Ghiat, the author of ‘Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present,’ a study of right-wing authoritarian movements, said personality cults and grievance politics — two important aspects of the Trump presidency – date from fascism “but to call [Trump] a fascist evokes a one-party state that, except for North Korea and China, is not how authoritarianism works today.”

“I see Trump as a person of authoritarian inclinations… the way that he was able to domesticate the GOP, the politics of threat and fear,” said Ben-Ghiat, who pointed to statements by Republican lawmakers who admitted to being afraid of voting for impeachment because it would incur Trump’s wrath as well as the anger of his loyal base.

“These dynamics changed under Trump and I believe they changed in an authoritarian direction,” she said.

Ben-Ghiat cautiously uses terms such as socialism and fascism because their misuse contributes to the further polarization of political discourse at a time when Americans are already deeply divided.

“One of the things that polarization requires is that there is no center anymore,” she said.

For more on Ms. Ben-Ghiat’s thoughts about fascism and authoritarianism, and how such movements have evolved over time, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.

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