I am trying and failing to get the old time religion today
Back in the year 2000 in my first year as a doctoral student I wrote a historiographical paper for one of my grad classes about the historiography of fascism, especially the discussions of its definition. After all, fascism was something so universally condemned in those days that you could not throw the epithet around without justifying yourself. Grad student me tended to think of the word as really having more of a historical than contemporary meaning. Back then I saw fascism as a moment in time after the crises brought on by World War I and the Great Depression, and less as a relevant political movement. Of course there were fascists still around, but they were on the fringiest of fringes.
Obviously, things have changed. At the same time, we lack a proper vocabulary to describe the phenomenon that includes Donald Trump, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Italy's Five Star Movement, the National Front, and Alternative for Germany. The American media uses the insipid phrase "populism," which is a political style rather than an ideology. All of these movements are made up of extreme nationalists using populist rhetoric as their vehicle. They are running campaigns for national regeneration predicated on mass action but enforced by state brutality. That sounds remarkably like, well, fascism.
I am beginning to think of this new wave as "Fascism 2.0." Why that terminology? Because fascism is a reactive phenomenon that emerges in times of crisis. What we are seeing now is less an attempt to be part of a longer fascist lineage, and more a reimagining of fascism for a new crisis in a new era. Fascism 1.0 featured paramilitaries and their leaders in uniform, an obvious influence from the Great War that birthed the movement its leaders had participated in. The nations currently getting hit by a fascist wave are not nearly so militarized, so that kind of thing doesn't make sense. People looking for fascism are looking for brownshirts, instead they should be looking at internet trolls, who are the modern day squadristi. They go around looking to do verbal violence to their opponents, to doxx and shame them instead of making them drink castor oil. The intention is the same, though: the clean the public sphere of the enemy.
Fascism 2.0 has adapted to our modern world. It knows to avoid flagrant fascist symbolism and to cling to respectability. It knows that once you deny something, i.e., "I was NOT flashing a white power symbol," the media will automatically report the controversy and give up on finding the truth. Fascism 2.0 is kicking Jean Marie Le Pen out of the party, but still espousing all of the old ideas. Fascism 2.0 uses the fringe nasties like neo-Nazis and Klansmen to pretend that it does not hold the same essential beliefs, that those hated groups are the "real fascists," not the Stephen Millers of the world (who so clearly are.) It knows not to reach for absolute dictatorship, but to leave just enough wiggle room to say "see, people here have freedoms." Orban in Hungary and Putin in Russia have perfected this sham, especially Orban. Countries where the system is rigged can avoid the fascist label by still having elections (which are manipulated) and opposition media (which is marginalized.) Old institutions are maintained, but subtly turned into tools for the regime. Just look at what's happened to the court systems of Poland and the United States. We think of fascists as totalitarians, but in our modern world where people are so atomized and cut off from each other that disconnection and apathy is a thousand times more powerful tool than propaganda posters. As Putin has learned, you can allow your opponents to speak, just make sure no one is able to hear them.
Make no mistake, Fascism 2.0 has the same worldview as the old version. It is based on redemptive nationalism, misogyny, anti-intellectualism, racism, xenophobia, contempt for international peace, and naked power over the rule of law. What scares me is that is able to work its way into power much more seamlessly than before.
I greatly fear that the future holds even worse things. Fascism 1.0 was an inherently self-destructive phenomenon. Its leaders lusted for the wars that would enlarge those borders, and it was war that brought those regimes down. The current crop of fascists is not so eager for a new conflagration (yet.) They also have in-built advantages the old fascists didn't have. The left is incredibly weak. Labor unions have been losing power and socialist parties are often the ones bleeding out their members into the National Front and Alternative For Germany. As Macron has demonstrated, the liberal center is ineffectual and compromised. Today's fascists have far less opposition than the old ones did, and their ability to grab power without resorting to totalitarian means makes opposing them even harder.
The global climate crisis will only increase their appeal. As David Astin Walsh wrote about on Twitter this morning, fascists are obsessed with scarcity and borders. They will use ever-growing refugee crises and battles over resources to make fascism even more appealing.
With each day I get more and more hopeless for the future. Fascism 2.0 is much bigger and more powerful than I initially thought. What's worse is that so many people don't even see it, and corporate media, refusing to break their bothsidesism, will never name the problem. Because there aren't brownshirts in the streets and Hitler salutes that doesn't mean that fascism isn't winning.
I hope I'm overreacting, but right now it looks like what little democracy we ever had is going to end not with a bang but with a whimper.