The ten indicators of fascist politics

Kanishk Tharoor | Updated on May 17, 2019

Go-to slogans: The tendency to invoke a mythic past is obvious in the language of US President Donald Trump, whose political catchphrase ‘Make America Great Again’ promises a return to a golden era.   -  REUTERS/ YURI GRIPAS

Comparisons between Hitler’s genocidal terror and the excesses of today’s wannabe authoritarians may be hyperbolic, but the parallels should ring alarm bells

I first remember using the word ‘fascist’ as an impassioned teenager, when struggling to think of anything worse to call someone. The positions of a centrist political leader I disliked were fascist, but so too were overbearing teachers, and, perhaps once or twice, the inconvenient requests of parents. It was a term that channelled the charge and heft of another era, a time of clearly drawn lines between good and evil. To describe something or somebody as fascist — whether they deserved it or not — was to summon an almost cosmic level of disdain.

The subjects of my ire back then were not at all fascist, of course. But now talk of fascism is back in a big way. In recent years, with the rise of strongman leaders in countries as disparate as the US, the Philippines, Brazil, India, Hungary and Turkey, many observers have been foraging in the 1930s for lessons for the present. Is fascism on the march? Are the ugly authoritarian ideologies of the early 20th century resurfacing? It is a touch hyperbolic to draw straight lines between Hitler’s genocidal terror and the excesses of today’s wannabe authoritarians, but there are clear parallels that should ring alarm bells everywhere.

“History doesn’t repeat itself,” Mark Twain supposedly said, “but it rhymes.” In his book How Fascism Works (2018), the American scholar Jason Stanley outlines 10 indicators of fascist politics. He traces these themes from a study of the strife-ridden early 20th century, when fascist movements took power in Italy, Germany, Spain and elsewhere. Set against the developments of the 21st century, this checklist makes for revealing reading not just for Stanley’s American readership, but also for people around the world.

The first pillar of fascism, according to Stanley, is the political invocation of a mythic past. That tendency is obvious in the language of President Donald Trump in the US (his catchphrase ‘Make America Great Again’ promises a return to a golden era), but it’s even more palpable in the ideology of the BJP and its allies, who glorify a Hindu India unspoilt by the influences of ‘foreign’ cultures and religions.

Next is the use of propaganda and of a culture of promoting ‘anti-intellectualism’ and ‘unreality’. Stanley argues that fascists deliberately undermine confidence in the media, dismissing it as fake news; they vilify experts and universities (think of the habitual furores in both India and the US over the ‘anti-national’ activities of college students); and they spread conspiracy theories and misinformation. Fascist politics relies on polarising opinion, making people scornful of public discourse in general, and appealing to the crudest emotions and passions of the public.

The fifth pillar is hierarchy, the idea that one group of people in society has a greater claim to that society than others. Trump’s rhetoric in the US privileges white, ‘native-born’ Americans over people of colour and immigrants; Hindutva insists that Hindus are the truest Indians and that all others are, to some extent, distant from the essence of the country.

The inevitable complement to that claim is the next pillar of fascism, victimhood. Stanley gives examples in the US context of right-wing politicians and cultural figures representing men as victims of feminism, or of whites being victims of criminal acts committed by blacks and immigrants. In Nazi Germany, ordinary Germans were depicted as poor victims of the machinations of Jews. In the Indian context, Hindutva ideologues insist that Hindus constitute a downtrodden group, their identity and traditions besmirched and even suppressed both by adherents of other faiths and by the ‘secular elites’.

The last four of Stanley’s pillars of fascism refer to a paranoia about law and order (think of the vilification of Muslims as terrorists or illegal immigrants); a sexual anxiety about the vulnerability of women in the dominant group to other men (think of the frenzy around ‘love jihad’); the notion of ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’, a resentment of cosmopolitan, urban elites as decadent, mongrel and corrupt (as opposed to the moral sturdiness of the average citizen), and, lastly, the claim that the enemy group is lazy and needs to work harder. (The chilling German phrase arbeit macht frei — work shall make you free — lined the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp.)

With minor exceptions, you can find ground for almost all these pillars in the rise of Hindutva in India. Likewise, the ever-rightward creep of the Republican Party and its base in the US can be sketched across Stanley’s anatomisation of fascism. Stanley doesn’t have a monopoly on the definition of fascism — there are other schema, like the 14 typical features of fascism isolated by the great Italian writer Umberto Eco — but it is clarifying to read these pronounced patterns across time.

Of course, calling modern political leaders and parties fascist draws inevitable pushback; it trivialises the atrocities of the 20th century to compare the likes of Hitler to a self-aggrandising demagogue like Trump. Instead, it’s more useful to recognise that societies at a broader level are complicit in the ascendency of hateful, domineering politics. If we are not vigilant against the demonisation of people in our midst, if we let our history be reduced to simple sagas of triumph or woe, and if we let blundering emotion rule over calm and scrutiny, then we court fascist disaster.

Kanishk Tharoor   -  BLink


Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among Stars, a collection of short fiction

Twitter: @kanishktharoor

Published on May 17, 2019

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