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Opinion The difference between Trumpism and fascism

President Trump. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

So many excitable Americans are hurling accusations of fascism, there might be more definitions of “fascism” than there are actual fascists. Fascism, one of the 20th century’s fighting faiths, has only faint echoes in 21st-century America’s political regression.

Europe’s revolutionary tradition exalted liberty, equality and fraternity until revolutionary fascism sacrificed the first to the second and third. Fascism fancied itself as modernity armed — science translated into machines, especially airplanes, and pure energy restlessly seeking things to smash. Actually, it was a recoil against Enlightenment individualism: the idea that good societies allow reasoning, rights-bearing people to define for themselves the worthy life.

Individualism, fascists insisted, produces a human dust of deracinated people (Nietzsche’s “the sand of humanity”), whose loneliness and purposelessness could be cured by gusts of charismatic leadership blowing them into vibrant national-cum-tribal collectivities. The gusts were fascist rhetoric, magnified by radio, which in its novelty was a more powerful political tool than television has ever been.

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The Enlightenment exalted freedom; fascism postulated destiny for those on “the right side of history.” Fascism was the youthful wave of the future: Mussolini was 39 when he became Italy’s youngest prime minister until then; Hitler became chancellor at 43; Franco was 43 when he ignited the 1936 military insurrection in Spain. In “Three Faces of Fascism” (1965), Ernst Nolte said that Mussolini, who “had no forerunners,” placed “fascism” in quotation marks as a neologism.

Fascism’s celebration of unfettered leaders proclaiming “only I can fix it” entailed disparagement of “parliamentarism,” the politics of incrementalism and conciliation. “Democracy,” said Mussolini, “has deprived the life of the people of ‘style’ . . . the color, the strength, the picturesque, the unexpected, the mystical; in sum, all that counts in the life of the masses. We play the lyre on all its strings.”

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Fascism was entertainment built around rallies — e.g., those at Nuremberg — where crowds were played as passive instruments. Success manipulating the masses fed fascist leaders’ disdain for the led. Hitler described them as feminine, the ultimate fascist disparagement. Imagine the contempt a promiser feels for, say, people gulled by a promise that one nation will pay for a border wall built against it by another nation.

Mussolini, a fervent socialist until his politics mutated into a rival collectivism, distilled fascism to this: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” The Nazi Party — the National Socialist German Workers’ Party — effected a broad expansion of socialism’s agenda: Rather than merely melding the proletariat into a battering ram to pulverize the status quo, fascism would conscript into tribal solidarity the entire nation — with exceptions.

Fascism based national unity on shared domestic dreads — of the media as enemies of the people, of elites, or others who prevented national homogeneity and social purification. Jews were reviled as “cosmopolitans,” a precursor of today’s epithet: “globalists.”

In the 1920s, fascism captured Italy, in which, it has been said, the poetry of the Risorgimento — national unification achieved in 1870 — was followed by “the prose of everyday existence.” Mussolini, the bare-chested, jut-jawed, stallion-mounted alpha male, promised (as Vladimir Putin today does in diminished, sour Russia) derivative masculinity for men bored by humdrum life in a bourgeois “little Italy.” “On to Ethiopia!” was Mussolini’s hollow yelp of restored Roman grandeur.

Communism had a revolutionary doctrine; fascism was more a mood than a doctrine. It was a stance of undifferentiated truculence toward the institutions and manners of liberal democracy. “The democrats of [the newspaper] ‘Il Mondo’ want to know our program?” said Mussolini the month he came to power in 1922. “It is to break the bones of the democrats of ‘Il Mondo.’ ”

In the 1930s, Spain acquired a bland fascism — fascism without a charismatic personification: nervous nationalism, leavened by clericalism and corruption. Spain’s golden age was four centuries past; what was recent was the 1898 humiliation of the Spanish-American War. Paunchy Francisco Franco, a human black hole negating excitement, would make Spain great again by keeping it distinct from modern Europe, distinct in pre-Enlightenment backwardness.

Donald Trump, an envious acolyte of today’s various strongmen, appeals to those in thrall to country-music manliness: “We’re truck-driving, beer-drinking, big-chested Americans too freedom-loving to let any itsy-bitsy virus make us wear masks.” Trump, however, is a faux nationalist who disdains his nation’s golden age of international leadership and institution-building after 1945.

Trumpism, too, is a mood masquerading as a doctrine, an entertainment genre based on contempt for its bellowing audiences. Fascism was and is more interesting.

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