What Makes Fascism Fascist?
Nate Hochman's Demarcation Problem
The above tweet is part of a thread by National Review writer and Conservative wunderkind Nate Hochman, who, if I understand the lay of the land of the contemporary right, leans towards the nationalist-populist side of the movement. Mr. Hochman comes out of the Claremont Institute, which I believe is essentially a seditious conspiracy and is cooking up a kind of fascism or authoritarian rightism with American characteristics. Now, his tweet above may appear like an own goal. The obvious dunk here is to point out that maybe young Mr. Hochman is having trouble distinguishing conservatism and fascism because they are essentially the same thing. Naturally, this joke has been already been done to death, much to Mr. Hochman’s irritation. But also, I actually want to take seriously what Hochman is asking, because it’s an interesting question.
I’m not sure what Hochman is reading or what he considers “mainstream” and “normal,” but historians and sociologists tend to distinguish conservatism and fascism fairly clearly. Historically, these were competing movements and ideologies although they shared the goals of social order and national cohesion. In fact, academics distinguish types of authoritarian nationalism from fascism proper in ways that many lay readers might find to be pedantic or hair-splitting. But, in every case, fascist seizures of power were accomplished with the assistance of conservatives or fascist movements and themes ended up as a minor part of a more traditional right-wing coalition.
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While both imagine a “traditional” and “wholesome” social order characterized by certain hierarchies—husbands and fathers over wives and children, bosses over workers, the nation over all, etc.—fascists and conservatives have different notions of how to assert and maintain them. The first distinction concerns the degree of national crisis: conservatives may shake their heads at declining mores, and propose alternatives, fascist propaganda is hysterical and shrill: they believe things have gotten so bad that only a radical move to break the present regime can save the nation. Fascism has an aesthetics of doom, decline, and catacylsm, to be replaced by grandiose renewal and triumph. This is what Roger Griffin calls, “palingenetic ultranationalism.” Second, while conservatives tend to believe that the existing elite, or at least its right-flank, ought to stay in power, fascism—at least on the level of its propaganda—is populist: it speaks of the entire existing ruling class as corrupt and hopeless. While conservatives believe that there might be a class or caste naturally born to rule, fascists fixate on one particular man and create a cult around this leader as a providential savior figure. And while being populist, fascism is also elitist: the fascist movement elevates its members of its own ranks as the best possible representatives of the national project. Stanley Payne writes, “The most unique feature of fascism...was the way in which it combined populism and elitism.”1 Fascism is an elito-populism: the people are an elite, a special breed, either racially or historically, while its elites are popular, embodiments of the “real” people. This populism is envisioned as a cross-class union, even if the middle class usually predominates: no one stratum of society represents the nation as a whole, rather there are true members of the nation in every class. Conservatives tend to emphasize the patriarchal and staid parts of traditional masculinity—the stern but beneficent father as pillar of community stability and so forth—but the fascists’ cult of masculinity is hyper-macho, vitalistic, and explicitly centers violence and war.
While authoritarian conservatives can countenance a break with constitutional legality, they would prefer this to originate within the existing elite of the state , in aristocratic statesmen of long-standing or in the high ranks of the military, for example. Fascists strive for a putsch “from below,” originating from their own cadre. In general, mass mobilization is a desideratum of fascists, while conservatives generally would prefer to not stir up the public and disturb the social order. Stanley Payne writes: “Most fascist movements did not achieve true mass mobilization, but it was nonetheless characteristic that such was their goal, for they always sought to transcend the elitist parliamentary cliquishness of poorly mobilized liberal groups or the sectarian exclusiveness and reliance on elite manipulation often found in the authoritarian right.”2 Michael Mann: “What essentially distinguishes fascists from the many military and monarchical dictatorships of the world is this ’bottom-up’ and violent quality of its paramilitarism.”3 While the paramilitaries do employ real violence, their political role is far more complex than mere thuggery. The paramilitaries themselves function as a kind of propaganda: they cannot hope to actually fight and defeat the state’s existing security forces. Mann, again: “Paramilitarism thus offered them a distinctive approach to electoral democracy and existing elites, both of which they actually despised. Paramilitarism must always be viewed as entwined with the other two main fascist power resources: in electoral struggle and in the undermining of elites. It was paramilitarism – caging the fascists, coercing their opponents, winning the support or respect of bystanders – that enabled fascists to do far more than their mere numbers could. Thus paramilitarism was violence, but it was always a great deal more than violence. It certainly did not confer enough effective violence for fascists to stage coups if that meant taking on the state’s army. Paramilitary was not the equivalent of military power.”4
Whatever reservations or distaste conservatives had for fascist methods or leaders, in the end they allied with them out of a sense of necessity or opportunism. The fascists sought to dominate the conservatives but also had to reach accommodations with them. Fascist regimes were actually quite pluralist in their way: there was a constant balancing of different interest groups. But fascists also had to deal with their own movement chieftains, often with more radically populist and anti-capitalist ideas, and who resented and resisted the new amalgamation with the old conservative elites they thirsted to beat up and kill as well. In the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler dealt with both: he got rid of rowdy paramilitaries who were perturbing the army brass and also conservatives who were not getting fully in line.
In places where fascist or quasi-fascist movements did not successfully take over, like in France, the boundaries between the mainstream and extreme right were hazy. Many figures moving in out of paramilitary-type organizations and electoral politics, and fascistoid organizations limiting their activities during periods of conservative ascendancy and then picking their tempo back up or even resorting to terrorism during governments of the left.5 In places where conservative authoritarians triumphed over fascists, they often did so by out-fascisting them: “Other members of the authoritarian family kept them at bay, though only by stealing so many fascist clothes that it becomes difficult to distinguish who was truly a fascist.”6
What does this all have to do with the contemporary United States? It seems to me that the Trumpist movement is at the very least proto- or semi-fascist: there is a concerted effort of a providential leader figure to use illegal means to overthrow the existing Constitution, as we saw on January 6th there is some degree of paramilitarism working towards this goal, even if it is not nearly as large or well-organized as interwar fascism. And beyond people who buy into the Trump personality cult, there is a broader tendency on the right to take seriously anti-liberal, ultranationalist, and reactionary ideas. Mann speaks of an authoritarian right “family” that nurtured the fascist movements.7 I believe unfortunately an authoritarian right family exists today in the United States, even if it is fragmented and relatively small. Some of them are more national populist, some more Protestant Christian nationalist, some explicitly antisemitic, some Catholic integralist, some technocratic-utopian, some “national socialist” or Sorelian and made up of disaffected former leftists, but together they form a kind of cultural matrix of far right politics. Like the extremist paramilitary movements among hardcore neo-Nazis and Klan-types, all of them took Trumpism to be, if not exactly their ideal, either the kind of political phenomenon they’d been hoping for or recognized in it interesting possibilities. Without being overly alarmist, I think it’s worth keeping an eye on what shape emerges next from this proto-fascist ooze. And, if you are a conservative, you might ask yourself if you’ve already been sucked into the blob—Especially if you are already having trouble differentiating your own politics from fascism.
Payne, S. G. (1995). A History of Fascism, 1914-1945. United Kingdom: UCL Press. 14
Mann, M. (2004). Fascists. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. 17
see Millington, C. (2019). A History of Fascism in France: From the First World War to the National Front. India: Bloomsbury Academic.