During the past few years, I’ve read a number of definitions of fascism, which have been mostly lists of personality traits or philosophical assumptions or political tendencies.
The problem with these lists is that while they are traits, assumptions and tendencies often found in fascists, they also are commonly found among people who definitely aren’t fascists.
A blogger named Ian Welsh challenged his readers to produce benchmarks that would be definite evidence that fascism has arrived or was about to arrive.
That’s tough! During the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, we had the executive claiming the authority to (1) arrest enemies of the state without legal process, (2) torture enemies of the state, (3) order the assassination of enemies of the state without legal process, (4) put the entire population under secret surveillance and (5) start wars without approval of the legislative body.
All these things are characteristic of fascist regimes. All would be powers that a fascist dictator would try to claim.
But I can’t really see the Bush and Obama administrations as fascist in the same way that, say, Chile under Pinochet was fascist.
Racism, misogyny, religious intolerance and extreme nationalism are characteristic of fascist governments, but not all racists, misogynists, religious bigots or nationalists are fascists.
For what it’s worth, here is my list of defining characteristics of fascism:
- Deification of a leader.
- A requirement to pay lip service to a ruling ideology.
- Arrests of opponents of the government on trumped-up charges or no charges at all.
- Fear of making criticisms of the government.
- Arbitrary power and lack of due process of law.
- Lynchings and pogroms.
- Death squads.
- Concentration camps.
The problem with making such a list is that the mere absence of death squads and concentration camps can be taken as evidence that the United States or any other country is a free country.
There is no bright line between being free and un-free, and it seldom happens, in the absence of military coups or violent revolutions, that a country is free one day and un-free the next. Rather countries move through away from freedom into a grey area with autocracy on the other side.
The benefit of such a list is that you have a set of criteria for deciding whether to pay attention to the latest cry of “fascist.”
George Orwell, writing in the 1930s, said the word “fascism” was used so loosely that it meant hardly anything except “something not desirable.” This takes away the power to recognize real fascism when and if it comes.
Afterthought [11/19/2016]. It strikes me that few if any of the liberals who equate Trump with Hitler are preparing to respond as if he really were like Hitler—that is, hiding their opinions except from those they trust, preparing to flee the country, preparing to go underground. There is a faction in the USA that is preparing for the possibility of future armed resistance, but it doesn’t consist of liberals and progressives.