The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump has blurred the line between populism and fascism in a dangerous way

Populists traditionally abided by electoral results, while fascists scorned the will of the majority. Trump has changed that.

President Donald Trump shakes hands before a dinner with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro at Mar-a-Lago, on March 7, 2020, in Palm Beach, Fla. (Alex Brandon/AP)

A key difference between populism and fascism is that, for populists, actual electoral results matter. In contrast, fascism implies permanent power, irrespective of the ballot box. Populism affirms the authoritarian idea that one person can fully personify “the people” and the nation — but it must be confirmed via electoral procedures.

Whereas fascism has reveled in lies, populism has respected the truth of the ballot box. This doesn’t mean it always advances democracy — indeed it frequently manipulates it. But it still derives power and depends on the integrity of the electoral system. That is why populist leaders have long recognized the value of respecting electoral results, even if they came out on the losing end of the democratic process.

But this distinction is beginning to fade. In this sense, President Donald Trump has been a trailblazer for global autocrats. Especially in his denial of the election’s results and embrace the "big lie” about voter fraud, Trump represents a historical turning point in populist politics, enabling and inspiring others — just like fascist dictators before him.

Consider the case of Juan Perón and Peronism, the movement he created in Argentina.

Perón was the strongman in a military junta dictatorship that ruled from 1943 through 1946. Despite coming to power by force, in 1943, Perón encouraged and participated in free democratic elections in 1946.

After the global defeat of fascism at the end of the Second World War, fascism, coups and military dictatorships had become toxic. So former fascists and militants of dictatorships tried to regain power through democratic electoral means.

In the early postwar period, politicians like Perón understood that elections provided a critical source of political legitimacy. He ran on a populist ticket that put forward a third way position beyond capitalism and communism. He won the 1946 presidential election, becoming the first populist leader in history to come to power.

Peronist populism borrowed elements of fascism. It was anti-liberal and created a messianic cult of leadership. It denounced the ruling elites, thwarted independent journalism and advanced a deep dislike for pluralism and political tolerance. But Perón was popularly elected, and thus distinct from fascists.

Like Perón, other Latin American populists in countries like Brazil, Venezuela and Bolivia came to power by affirming the legitimacy of electoral results in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Holding power depended upon winning real elections.

Perón, like his Brazilian, Venezuelan and Bolivian populist counterparts, was popular. When they were ousted from power, it was by coups, not elections — which their movements kept winning.

More recent populist leaders, like Silvio Berlusconi in Italy or Hugo Chávez in Venezuela showed the same pattern. They avoided baseless claims of fraud because they staked their grandiose claims of embodying popular will upon the democratic idea that elections represented the will of the people. Berlusconi lost elections in 1996 and 2006, while Chavez lost the 2007 Venezuelan constitutional referendum about abolishing presidential term limits. Both accepted the results even though they lost by extremely slim margins.

By contrast, many autocratic losers lie their way out of actual or potential electoral defeat. For example, fascists in the 1930s like the German Nazis saw no value in the electoral system and only used it to claim legitimacy and leadership when it benefited them. Then, they worked to destroy democracy from within.

Indeed, fascists believed that elections and patriotism were essentially opposed because the true leader was not necessarily the one who got the most votes. As Benito Mussolini wrote in “Doctrine of Fascism” in 1932, “Fascism is therefore opposed to that form of democracy which equates a nation to the majority, lowering it to the level of the largest number; but it is the purest form of democracy if the nation be considered as it should be from the point of view of quality rather than quantity, as an idea, the mightiest because the most ethical, the most coherent, the truest, expressing itself in a people as the conscience and will of the few, if not, indeed, of one.”

Adolf Hitler agreed with this logic, seeing democracy itself as a “fraud” because fairly elected politicians could not represent the true will of the people — which only Nazism, and Hitler himself, personified. Hitler stated in “Mein Kampf” in 1925 that Nazis had “the right but also the duty to emphasize most rigidly that any attempt to represent the folk idea outside of the National Socialist German Labor Party is futile and in most cases fraudulent.”

When fascist regimes in Italy and Germany became full dictatorships, elections were no longer needed as a source of legitimacy because the will of the leader was now perpetually embodied in the people.

This was not only a European situation. In 1923, Argentine fascist Leopoldo Lugones equated electoral procedures with demagoguery and claimed that dictatorship was the answer to “electoralism.” The fall of Argentine democracy followed a few years later in 1930 when Gen. Jose F. Uriburu staged a military coup. Uriburu asked Lugones to write his regime’s founding proclamation. Similar critiques of democratic electoral procedures and the need to override them with the will of the leader were presented by fascists all over the world from Brazil and China to Spain and Mexico.

In short, fascism denied the very nature of democracy, the legitimacy of democratic procedures and their electoral outcomes. Its proponents claimed that votes were only legitimate when they confirmed by referendum the autocratic will of their leader.

Populists, in contrast, have used elections to stress their own democratic nature even when they advanced other authoritarian trends.

These differences matter today as Trump, and others, deny the electoral legitimacy of their opponents. Leaders like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and Keiko Fujimori in Peru are using falsehoods about systemic deception to create an alternative reality where they can rule, now or in the future, without democratic procedures. Bolsonaro recently said he would not accept the results of the country’s 2022 elections unless the voting system was changed to involve paper ballots, and later repeating his false claims that elections might not be “clean.” Bolsonaro even threatened not to hold them at all. Most polls indicate Bolsonaro’s disapproval ratings are rising to an all-time high.

The more we know about the past fascist attempts to deny the workings of democracy, the more worried we should be about present post-fascist and populist forms. Trump’s calls for “reinstatement” based on the legitimacy of a fake past, namely a bizarro world in which he “won” the election, are blatant forms of fascism that cannot be enabled or accepted.