For fascist parties and politicians to win elections, they usually must attract support from people who, if asked, would loudly reject the fascist label. But this need not be so difficult: voters merely have to be persuaded that democracy is no longer serving their interests.
NEW YORK – When Fascist Blackshirts marched through the streets of Rome at the end of October 1922, their leader, Benito Mussolini, had just been installed as prime minister. While Mussolini’s followers had already organized into militias and begun to terrorize the country, it was during the 1922 march, historian Robert O. Paxton writes, that they “escalated from sacking and burning local socialist headquarters, newspaper offices, labor exchanges, and socialist leaders’ homes to the violent occupation of entire cities, all without hindrance from the government.”
By this point, Mussolini and his Fascist Party had been normalized, because they had been brought into the center-right government the previous year as an antidote to the left. The government was in disarray, its institutions delegitimized, and leftist parties were squabbling among themselves. And Fascist violence had fueled disorder that Mussolini, like a racketeer, promised to resolve.
But while Mussolini presided over Fascism’s first real taste of political power, his movement was not the first of its kind. For that, one must look instead to the United States. As Paxton explains, “It may be that the earliest phenomenon that can be functionally related to fascism is American: The Ku Klux Klan … the first version of the Klan was arguably a remarkable preview of the way fascist movements were to function in interwar Europe.”
THE GREAT RACE TO THE BOTTOM
As important as these functional parallels between movements and organizations were, it is at the level of ideology that one finds the common denominator shared by American and European (especially German) variants of fascism. In 1916, the American eugenicist Madison Grant published The Passing of the Great Race, which decried the supposed replacement of whites in America by Black people and immigrants, including “Polish Jews.” According to Grant, these groups posed an existential threat to the “Nordic race” – America’s “native class.”
While Grant did not object to the presence of Black people in America, he insisted that they must be kept subordinate. His book was an exercise in scientific racism, arguing that “Nordic whites” are superior to all other races intellectually, culturally, and morally, and thus should command a dominant position in society. At the core of his worldview was a racialized version of American nationalism: Nordic whites were the only “real” Americans, but they were at risk of being “replaced” by other races.
Grant tapped into a powerful political current of his time. In the years that followed, the “America First” movement would emerge to oppose “internationalism” and immigration. As Sarah Churchwell of the University of London notes in her brilliant 2018 book, Behold, America: The Entangled History of “America First” and “the American Dream,” in February 1921 US Vice President Calvin Coolidge “wrote an essay for Good Housekeeping called ‘Whose Country is This?’” Coolidge’s answer, as Churchwell recounts, was unambiguous: “‘Our country must cease to be regarded as a dumping ground’ and should only accept ‘the right kind of immigration.’” By that, he explicitly meant “Nordics.”
It was also in 1921, Churchwell notes, that the Second Ku Klux Klan adopted “America First” as part of its official credo. With its fevered commitment to white supremacy and traditional gender roles, the Second Klan focused its efforts on spreading paranoia about Jewish Marxists and their attempts to use labor unions to promote racial equality. Meanwhile, the American industrialist Henry Ford had been financing the publication and distribution of The International Jew, a compilation of articles that placed Jews at the center of a global conspiracy. Jews, Ford claimed, controlled American media and cultural institutions, and were bent on destroying the American nation.
One finds the same kind of racialized nationalism running through Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s 1924 prison manifesto. Hitler was incensed by the presence of foreigners, and especially Jews, in Vienna, but he made clear that his hatred was not for the Jewish religion. Before arriving in Vienna, he writes, Hitler had rejected anti-Semitism, because he saw it as a form of discrimination against Germans on the basis of religion.
But Hitler came to see Jews as the ultimate enemy, portraying them as members of a foreign race who had become assimilated in Germany in order to take it over. This, he claimed, would be achieved by loosening immigration laws to “open the borders,” encouraging intermarriage to destroy the Aryan race, and using control of the media and culture industries to destroy traditional German values. According to Nazi propaganda, Jews were the force behind international communism and the source of the mythical “stab in the back” that had supposedly caused Germany to lose World War I.
Hitler drew inspiration from the US, which, following the rise of the America First movement, had adopted immigration policies that strictly favored Northern Europeans. Looking to the early American settlers’ genocide of the continent’s native peoples in the name of “Manifest Destiny,” he found a model for his own later actions in pursuit of Lebensraum (territorial expansion). And as historian Timothy Snyder shows in his 2015 book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, Hitler hoped to recreate the American Antebellum South’s slavery regime in Ukraine.
THE MISRULE OF LAW
The fact that American racialized nativism and German fascism embodied shared practices, not just shared beliefs, merits closer attention. As the American legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw has shown, legal practices historically have enforced and perpetuated unjust hierarchies of value in ways that often go unnoticed. Hence, the point of anti-discrimination laws is not to offer special protections for any specific group – say, Black women; rather, it is to ensure that the law does not reproduce discriminatory social, political, and historical hierarchies of valu
This is one of the central insights of critical race theory (CRT), which evolved from the work of Crenshaw, Derrick Bell, and other scholars who have explored how legal practices perpetuate discrimination – sometimes as a side effect of motivated reasoning by those in power, and sometimes as a policy’s explicit intent. And, because CRT has become one of the most important theoretical tools in anti-fascist practice, it is also the new bugbear of the white nationalist right.
CRT urges us to recognize law as the core manifestation of a political ideology. In the case of fascism, citizenship is based on racial identity, which in turn rests on a founding myth of hierarchy and superiority. While a race-based conception of national identity was not central to Italian Fascism, it was the driving force behind Nazism. With the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, German citizenship came to be based on Aryan superiority. Only those of “German blood” could be German citizens with political rights. Jews, by dint of being non-Aryans, were excluded from citizenship and therefore stripped of political rights.
Not by coincidence, Black Americans had long suffered similar treatment in the post-Civil War American South. As James Q. Whitman of Yale Law School documents in Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, Nazi ideology borrowed straightforwardly from the Jim Crow regime’s use of legal practice to structure the nature of citizenship. While the Allied victory eventually ended German racial fascism in 1945, America’s Jim Crow regime would survive for another generation.
FASCIST BIG TENTS
The defeat of Nazi Germany had required America to overcome the power of the isolationist America First movement at home. But the draconian immigration policies that the movement had inspired in the 1920s were still in place in the 1930s, when America infamously turned away many Jewish refugees attempting to flee Europe ahead of the Holocaust.
In a 1939 Reader’s Digest essay titled “Aviation, Geography, and Race,” the leading spokesman of America First, the aviator Charles Lindbergh, wrote: “It is time to turn from our quarrels and to build our White ramparts again. This alliance with foreign races means nothing but death to us. It is our turn to guard our heritage from Mongol and Persian and Moor, before we become engulfed in a limitless foreign sea.” Lindbergh advocated neutrality in the war between Britain and Germany, regarding both as allies against open immigration into Europe and the US by non-white peoples.
In Germany, fascists had entered government as a result of their rapidly rising popularity in electoral politics, starting in 1928. The German economy had experienced a series of terrible shocks, from hyperinflation to soaring unemployment. Hitler’s Nazis, naturally, blamed these problems on Jews, communism, and international capitalism. Like Mussolini’s Blackshirts, they violently attacked leftists and provoked open street fighting – and then presented themselves as the only force that could restore order.
Nazi ideology appealed to multiple constituencies. With its promise to strengthen the nation by supporting traditional gender roles and the creation of large Aryan families, it appealed to religious conservatives. And with its hostility toward communism and socialism, it promised to protect big business from organized workers. The Nazis opposed capitalism only as a universal doctrine – that is, as one that granted Jews the right to property – and portrayed themselves as the protectors of Aryan private property against “Judeo-Bolshevism.”
On the cultural front, it bears emphasizing that fascist parties have always been violent defenders of a strictly binary conception of gender. In the 1920s, Berlin was a cultural boomtown and a center of emerging European gay life, which Nazi ideology associated with Jews. The city was also the site of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexuallewissenschaft, a vast library and archive housing a wide variety of gender expression. That made him one of the Nazi Party’s main enemies. When the Nazis started burning books, Hirschfeld’s library was among the first targets.
It is no surprise that fascists have always found common cause with religious conservatives. While fascism and Christianity forged an alliance of convenience in Italy and Germany, they all but fused into a single ideology elsewhere. In Romania, for example, the Legion of the Archangel Michael was both the most Christian and the most violently anti-Semitic of the European fascist parties.
In Brazil, a Catholic integralist form of fascism was imported directly from Italy by Plínio Salgado. The role of Christianity is also obvious in the structure of the Russian fascism that is ascendant today. Russians and Russia are depicted as the last defenders of Christianity against the heathen forces of decadent Western liberalism and gender fluidity. And, of course, Christianity has always animated American fascism, with its ideological core of white Christian nationalism.
FROM PUTSCH TO PARLIAMENT
By the end of the 1920s, the Nazis had managed to appeal to multiple groups that did not regard themselves as Nazis. And owing to the widespread distrust of more mainstream political parties and institutions, they became the second-largest parliamentary party after the 1930 election, and then the leading party following the election in 1932.
Though German conservatives looked askance at the Nazis, they regarded Hitler as preferable to any option on the left. Thus, with the support of the conservative establishment, Hitler was appointed chancellor by Germany’s president in 1933. While Hitler had made his virulent opposition to democracy abundantly clear in his statements and writings, German conservatives handed him power anyway, demonstrating – at best – unforgivable naivete.
In fact, every canonical example of European fascists’ success in the twentieth century involved political parties coming to power through the normal electoral process, after having broadcast their anti-democratic sentiments and sometimes even their express intentions. Conservative leaders and voters chose fascism over democracy, believing that they would win out in the end.
For a fascist party to triumph, it must attract support from people who, if asked, would loudly deny that they share its ideology. This need not be so difficult: voters merely have to be persuaded that democracy is no longer serving their interests.
If we think of fascism as a set of practices, it is immediately evident that fascism is still with us. As Toni Morrison pointed out in a 1995 speech, the US has often preferred fascist solutions to its national problems. Consider, for example, the Prison Policy Initiative’s findings on global incarceration rates in 2021: “Not only does the US have the highest incarceration rate in the world; every single US state incarcerates more people per capita than virtually any independent democracy on earth.”
This is a burden that falls disproportionately on the formerly enslaved population of the country. And unlike in many other democracies, prisoners in 48 US states cannot legally vote. In Florida, strict disenfranchisement laws strip one million people – enough to shift the state’s partisan leaning toward Republicans – with past felony records of their voting rights. And under the state’s current Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, an election police force has been created to address a nonexistent epidemic of voter fraud. In the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections, there have been highly publicized arrests of Black people with felony records who thought they could vote (and who, in some cases, had received confusing messages about the matter from the state).
We should recognize this for what it is: the return of Jim Crow tactics designed to intimidate Black voters. Unlike the Third Reich, the Jim Crow regime never suffered defeat and elimination in war. Instead, its practices have quietly persisted in varying forms, often serving as a model for laws like those in Florida. In most cases, racist laws are made to appear racially neutral. Literacy tests for voting, for example, are ostensibly neutral but discriminatory in fact.
Nor is this tactic confined to the US. In India, the Hindu nationalist ruling party has created a national registry to codify citizenship and expel “illegal immigrants,” cynically exploiting the fact that a significant number of Indian Muslims lack official documentation. Hindu nationalists can now target Indian Muslims and threaten them with deportation to Bangladesh. At the same time, the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act gives non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan a fast track to citizenship.
The manipulation of citizenship laws to privilege one group as the true representatives of the nation is a feature of all fascist movements. As Tobias Hübinette of Karlstad University has pointed out, Sweden’s far-right party, the Sweden Democrats, has “a direct organizational lineage tracing back to World War II-era Nazism.” Its platform asserts a racially homogenous Swedish national identity, and its candidates have “campaigned openly for the installation of a repatriation program with the explicit purpose of making non-Western immigrants move back to their countries of origin.” In the September 2022 election, the Sweden Democrats became the second-largest party in parliament– echoing the Nazi Party’s achievement in 1930.
Far-right leaders elsewhere in Europe have also been openly campaigning against multiracial democracy, though Muslim minorities have been substituted for the massacred Jewish population as the Fifth Column in their “Great Replacement” theory. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has used the courts and the law to silence opposition media and peddle a Christian nationalist nostalgia for a lost greater Hungary. By stoking fears of sexual and religious minorities, he has shown how a leader can win elections time and again while openly campaigning against the press, universities, and democracy itself.
A NEW WAVE?
In the century since Mussolini’s March on Rome, leaders and parties who openly run against democracy all too easily prevail in elections. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has called for removing democratic institutions and repeatedly praised the country’s former military dictatorship. And despite his disastrous first term, he stands a decent chance of winning in the second-round vote on October 30. And in the US, the Republican Party has become a cult of personality beholden to a white nationalist leader who led an effort – most of which he plotted in the open – to overthrow American democracy.
Fascists can win when social conservatives decide that fascism is the lesser evil. They can win when enough citizens decide that ending democracy is a reasonable price to pay for achieving some cherished goal – like the criminalization of abortion. They can win when a dominant cohort chooses to end democracy in order to preserve its cultural, financial, and political primacy. They can win when they attract votes from those who merely want to thumb their noses at the system or lash out in resentment. And they can win when business elites decide that democracy is just a substitutable input.
Fascist parties feed a longing for national innocence, which is why they run on narratives of national glory that erase past crimes. Hence, some parents will support fascist parties – while vehemently disclaiming the label of fascism for themselves – to prevent their children from learning about the racist legacies that underpin the persistence of racist outcomes.
Today, as in the past, fascist movements often have a powerful symbolic dimension that makes them contagious internationally. In the figure of Giorgia Meloni, Italy has its first far-right leader since Mussolini. Having long promoted admiration of Mussolini’s legacy and hatred of immigrants and sexual minorities in her pursuit of party and government positions, Meloni’s ascension to the Italian premiership is a potent symbol for global fascism.