Fascism Studies After Trump

Fascism Studies After Trump

Since the arrival of Donald Trump, the eruption of national populism across Europe, and the violent emergence of the alt-right, fascism is all the rage. This has been the largest uptick in scholarly and popular publishing on the subject in decades, with many careers being built entirely on their research interests suddenly, and painfully, becoming relevant. Now that we are heading into a post-Trump era, where the continuity of the most horrifying predictions was broken with Trump’s loss, a new slew of books are coming out trying to predict the future of fascist movements. This has produced an incredibly diverse cross section of titles that are even more conflicting and specific than most books and studies were for the second half of the 2010s. The reality of the far-right, its ups and downs, has broken the tacit consensus that had emerged amongst those who study these movements, and now people are looking for answers from a variety of positions. With that in mind, I looked at some of the most pressing scholarly monographs on the subject, which stake their claim on understanding the future of the far-right by taking a close look at the past.

Amongst this new slew of books, one figure from the past still looms large. George Mosse is one of the most defining scholars of what became known as “comparative fascism studies,” an academic look at fascism’s contours, ideologies, and continuities, attempting to draw some generalities in an effort to understand what this dangerous political force even is. Mosse passed away at the turn of the 21st Century, but his decades of work are canon for those trying to understand the transnational and transhistorical force of fascism, particularly books like 1977’s Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism, which tries to analyze the way that the history of racialist science and philosophy formed into a genocidal national socialism.

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Mosse’s books are being reissued one by one by the University of Wisconsin Press, often with critical Forewords that help to contextualize the books. The most recent is The Fascist Revolution: Toward a General Theory of Fascism, which, originally published first right before his death in 1999, collects multiple essays he wrote that unpack the minutia of fascist philosophy, aesthetics, and self-identity, with a particular eye on National Socialism. Roger Griffin, the person most identified with contemporary fascism studies and who coined the “new consensus” approach to understanding fascism (he broadly defines it using the phrase “palingenetic ultranationalism''), writes the Foreword to the book. This is perhaps the most perfect pairing since Griffin is a good example of a generation of scholars who inherited Mosse’s legacy, then refined it further. Griffin’s commentary here is absolutely essential, framing Mosse’s ideas in their particular historical place, critiquing what he is missing when necessary, and even summarizing ideas with a clarity that Mosse never did (such as writing a definition of fascism for Mosse, since Mosse does not provide a concise definition himself). Mosse often looks at cultural features to draw out the underlying ideological beliefs of a society, and here he analyzes things like German theater, art, and views on homosexuality as a way of unpacking what ideological forces that can energize a fascist movement. For those studying fascism, this book should not be missed, part of a career that is absolutely indispensable for understanding the far-right today. What is most striking about Mosse’s book is that, while discussing movements deep in our past, his ideas perfectly capture contemporary movements like the alt-right, “patriot” militias, or the identitarians in Europe. Mosse’s insights remain astute, which lends to the perennial nature of his definitions and analysis, illustrating that what we are encountering now is the contemporary evolution of the same fascist movement we encountered in the interwar period.

The world of the far-right has changed dramatically since the interwar period, taking on a characteristic that contemporary fascism scholar Roger Griffin referred to as the “groupuscular right.” This is best characterized by less formalized organizations, broader horizontal social movements, and identities with porous boundaries and constantly shifting membership. This is certainly what defined the white nationalist alt-right movement, but is even more what characterizes the larger world of “identitarianism.” The Identitarian movement, built by it’s best known representative, France’s Génération identitaire, is a fascist social movement meant to use metapolitics, mass movement tactics, popular memes and messaging, and street actions to fight for a nationalist vision of Europe, one that (allegedly) rejects the more violent racism and party forms of fascism’s past. Inspired by the Nouvelle Droite (French New Right) intellectual current, which as scholars like Tamir Bar-on have noted developed a new branding and rhetorical exposition for fascist ideas, the identitarians are where much of the energy is in anti-imigrant, anti-Muslim, and xenophobic youth movements. Understanding this force is absolutely essential for determining how modern fascist movements work, which today are most archetypal in the Identitarian Movement. This makes José Pedro Zúquete’s book The Identitarians: The Movement Against Globalism and Islam in Europe from University of Notre Dame Press in 2018 is an important piece of reading.

The book covers the identitarian movement from start to finish, including every member organization and region, from Germany and France down to Italy and even over to Argentina, Chile, and the United States. It makes a clear case that there is ideological (and, at times, tactical) continuity to fascist movements of the past (as groups like Italy’s CasaPound make explicit), but they are recalibrating those ideas for the present. The revolt against modernity, global capitalism, and “mass culture'' are all motivating this youth-centric movement, which is attempting to play on the same social movement playing field that Black Lives Matter and other antiracist groundswells have.

Zúquete captures the movement with the perfect amount of expository detail, giving the kind of survey that is rare in academic publishing, allowing us a really nuanced and complex picture. At times, this can actually be to its fault, as many of the most problematic claims from the Identitarians get reproduced without commentary. The tone is intended to be dispassionate, as good scholarship often is, but that does not require Zúquete to simply provide an unchallenged platform to arguments made in bad faith, that include lies, or which are meant to stoke racism. That said, this is hardly Zúquete’s intention, and he has put himself on the line to produce a book that will be as critical as any for understanding this movement. “A sort of therapeutic, healing finale,” writes Zúquete, “would be antithetical to an endeavor that, from the opening pages, has described the realities and dynamics of groups and movements that truly see themselves engaged in the Identitarian battle for the future and the survival of Europe. And this, as much as possible, was done in order to capture their self-understanding in full, without holier-than-thou lecturing or toning down and softening what was said, done, or predicted, regardless of the potential unpleasantness felt by readers.” (364) The most important thing for scholarship on the far-right to do is give us the tools we need to understand it inside and out, and Zúquete has done this as well as anyone in the past two decades.

Over the past several years there have been a slew of books published about the Second Era Ku Klux Klan, which became a sizable force in the 1920s. Built around anti-immigrant xenophobia and, particularly, anti-Catholocism, the movement hit the millions and was influential enough to have a central role in picking the country’s political leaders. The reality of the Klan is also dramatically different than it has often been portrayed: it had a lot of resonance in cities, it’s claim to violence was often hidden, it had a central role for women, and its growth was tied to a range of issues like a shifting economy and the popularity of secret societies. As is common in academia, scholars who study arcane issues often look for ways to write a book that will appeal to modern readers, usually finding some corollary between a past they know well and a modern phenomenon everyone is talking about. This is what runs behind many of the books on the Second Era Klan, which has been incredibly well documented and about which we have archives full of primary sources.

Rory McVeigh and Kevin Estep’s book The Politics of Losing also takes up this mantle, but does so in an inventive enough way to stay fresh while rehashing pieces of the Klan’s history. They make an incredibly astute observation right off the bat: the Second Era KKK, which was an above ground political organization that was popular far beyond just far-right radicals, is mirrored closely by the movement built around Donald Trump. To analyze this dichotomy, the authors study the ways that these movements held a common thrust, citing both a density of existing political data and running their own studies, to show where Trump’s success was and how conditions, politics, and cultural markers are largely similar between the two movements. This makes the legacy of the Klan more instructive than in other books, because we are invited to see what exactly led the Klan to be the dominant force it was in the 1920s and, maybe more importantly, what led to its rapid decline.

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The world of MAGA grifters, political charlatans, racist demagogues, and disingenuous populists that have coalesced around this piece of the GOP are not disappearing, but they aren’t invulnerable either, and this is a story well lived before. What The Politics of Losing does so well is help us understand the changing world of politics with a useful and sober look at the past, explaining what the data means and where the comparisons fall short, something rarely provided with this much usefulness to the reader.

Amongst the various egregious incidents that have marked both American and global politics the past few years, nothing has surprised commentators like the full descent into grand dishonesty. Few people would cast historical politicians as bastions of truth telling, but in the era of Trump, lying has become the way by which you create a narrative center to a movement whose anchor is increasingly in conspiracy theories disconnected from material reality. This is why fascism scholar Federico Finchelstein put together his brief, but immensely relevant, book A Brief History of Fascist Lies, which locates the use of deceit and grand narrative at the heart of fascist movements. “By questioning rational definitions of truth, fascists insisted on the hidden meaning of truth. For them, truth was a secret revealed in and through power,” (26) writes Finchelstein, looking at the way that the mythic dimension of fascist movements challenges the popular imagination as to what the reality of our political situation actually is. “The mythic dimension of fascism was antidemocratic. Democracy has historically rested on notions of truth as the opposite of lies, mistaken beliefs, and erroneous information. In contrast, fascists presented a radical notion of truth in dictatorship.” (15)

Fascist movements do not present themselves simply as open ideology, if they did then their deviance from the standards of liberal democracy (which they emerged from and hope to challenge) would make them untenable. Instead, they have to tell a new story about the world that allows their political and social solutions to seem more reasonable, and that depends not just on lies, but fantastically manufactured dishonesties. The idea that races have different intelligences, that the Jews are controlling world affairs, that white people are facing genocide, or that “antifa” is about to overthrow the government are all such a profound break with established reality that they throw conventional solutions into question. In this new world, fascists offer themselves as the answer to this newly created question: how do we solve this world that I have now told you exists? As Finchelstein suggests, it is only possible to get the mass classes from below on board with this program if they have a fundamentally distorted view of the world around them. If they didn’t, few would participate in the movements that destroy their own economic bargaining power and community flourishing.

Finchelstein’s purpose is clearly to hone in on the lies we are seeing at an even more rapid pace in Western countries and then situate them into the larger continuum of fascist politics. The world of Tucker Carlson, Fox News, and the emerging leadership of the post-Trump GOP have operated on this “Big Lie” structure, which lends credence to the idea that the infrastructural dishonesty in America is profound enough to sustain a large-scale fascist movement. The bigger question here is how those lies are changing the electorate and larger community formations because when a fascist movement erupts it must depend on that participation “from below.” The exasperation of false consciousness inspired by lies and conspiracy theories will mutate the class consciousness of most people, shifting that energy into a reactionary force to be turned back on marginalized people instead of the wealthy who are benefiting from inequality. This is why truth and honesty is a central antifascist feature: people have to see how the world works if they are to fight back against a fascist movement. Finchelstein is part of a contemporary fascist studies milieu that sees dishonesty as a central concern, and he makes his case clear in proving that fascist movements have always had this in common and it is what makes the term relevant when discussing today’s far-right movements (including when critiquing established right-wing parties like the GOP or Likud).

The far-right is not disappearing anytime soon, so research and scholarship on the subject is likely to only increase as the phenomenon moves from incidental to permanent. With that in mind, we are going to need more conflicting scholarship, new ideas that are not simply repackaging the past. These new releases are an especially bright spot in this field, showing promise as we try to make sense of a rapidly changing political landscape, which threatens our safety, democracy, and the values of equality we claim to cherish.