On the heels of Donald Trump's election, fascism seems to be having a moment — at least according to a few measures.
George Orwell's dystopian fiction "1984" has risen to the top of Amazon's bestsellers list, with plans to make it into a Broadway musical. Margaret Atwood's “The Handmaid's Tale” — about life under a totalitarian regime — is coming to Hulu. “Fascism” is in the top 1 percent of words people are looking up on Merriam-Webster online. A Holocaust Museum poster listing what it calls the telltale signs of fascism has gone viral on Twitter.
The trend is clearly evident on Google, where searches for “fascism” this month have spiked to unprecedented levels, at least since Google began tracking search trends in 2004.
The chart above represents the share of queries for “fascism” against all searches in a given time period. So far in February 2017, fascism's share of all searches is more than five times that of its share of searches before 2016.
We can get some sense of the total volume, however, by comparing this with a search for something that we'd reasonably expect to pull in big numbers. Like say, American heartthrob and “La La Land” star Ryan Gosling?
Or what about hit reality TV series “The Bachelor”?
So, there are your benchmarks: Fascism is currently bigger than Ryan Gosling, who recently received an Oscar nomination for best actor, but smaller than “The Bachelor.”
But what do these searches actually mean?
Google can't peer into the souls of its users, but we can learn a bit about what they're up to by examining what they're searching for in addition to fascism — in Google parlance, their “related searches.” In the past 90 days, the top related searches include phrases like “what is fascism” and “fascist definition,” suggesting that people are simply trying to figure out what fascism actually is. For the record, Merriam-Webster defines it as
a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.
Is this because of Trump? It seems likely that some of it is attributable to debate over the new president. Some critics, both on the right and left, have been accusing Trump of harboring totalitarian or fascist tendencies. These anti-Trump voices include Russian dissident Garry Kasparov, Michael Kinsley of Vanity Fair, Peter Bergen of CNN and historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat of New York University — who, by way of example, point to things like Trump's attacks on judges and the media, his expression of admiration for strongman leaders, and his embrace of ethnic nationalism.
So if people are throwing the word “fascism” around, other folks are going to look it up online to see what it means.
Trump supporters say he's simply exhibiting the “strong leadership” that he promised during the campaign, or that his more outlandish statements shouldn't be taken literally, or that, in the end, facts don't actually matter.
More to the point, we can correlate the amount of search interest in Donald Trump with the amount of search interest in fascism. Here's what that looks like.
Between Nov. 1 of last year and Jan. 31 of this year, generally speaking days that saw more search interest in Donald Trump also saw more interest in fascism. You can see that in the chart above.
Or it could be the opposite — searches for fascism predict searches for Trump. If critics or members of the media start throwing the word “fascist” around, people are going to start looking the term up. These numbers don't say anything about causality. But they do provide a solid indication that the current interest in fascism is related to the rise of Trump.
Of course, in today's hyperpartisan political environment, looking for the worst in your opponent has become routine. For instance, in the wake of Barack Obama's election in 2008 searches for “socialism” spiked in a way similar to what we're seeing for fascism searches today.
Here are fascism and socialism plotted together for comparison (that second big spike in socialism in February 2016 appears to correspond with a survey release showing millennials having a higher opinion of socialism than of capitalism).