The emergence of a virulent new strain of authoritarian populism on both sides of the Atlantic has prompted many observers to draw (largely inappropriate and far-fetched) analogies with the rise of inter-war fascism.
That there is debate among conservative thinkers about whether the Republican nominee might in fact be a fascist is quite a thing, The Economist notes:
Andrew Sullivan thinks that to apply the label to Donald Trump might be an insult to fascism. Robert Kagan thinks Mr Trump is a precursor to a 1930s revival in politics. The problem with the comparison is that it comes with an accusation of impending genocide that overshadows whatever enlightenment might come from making it. Mr Trump is not a fascist, if by that you mean a successor to Mussolini or Hitler…..But there was more to fascism than those two ogres. In the mid-1930s fascist movements cropped up in most advanced democracies.
“Still, Germany’s slide into a popular embrace of authoritarianism in the 1930s offers a frame for understanding how liberal democracies can suddenly turn toward anti-liberalism,” argues Jochen Bittner, a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.
“Setting aside debate about whether the rise of Nazism was built into the German DNA, there were four trends that led the country to reject its post-World War I constitutional, parliamentary democracy, known as the Weimar Republic: economic depression, loss of trust in institutions, social humiliation and political blunder. To a certain degree, these trends can be found across the West today,” he writes for The New York Times:
First, the history. The Black Friday stock-market collapse of 1929 set off a global depression. …All this happened as traditional ways of life and values were being shaken by the modernization of the 1920s. ….. This produced a widening cultural gap between the tradition-oriented working and middle classes and the cosmopolitan avant-garde — in politics, business and the arts — that reached a peak just when economic disaster struck. The elites were blamed for the resulting chaos, and the masses were ripe for a strongman to return order to society.
Some people today imagine that Hitler sneaked up on Germany, that too few people understood the threat. In fact, many mainstream politicians recognized the danger but they failed to stop him. Some didn’t want to.… At the same time, even the imminent threat of a fascist dictatorship couldn’t persuade the left-wing parties to join forces.
“There is a tendency at times to try to fit current movements into understandable constructs — some refer to terrorist groups in the Middle East as Islamofascists — but scholars say there is a spectrum that includes right-wing nationalism, illiberal democracy and populist autocracy,” Peter Baker adds for The Times:
The 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent global recession were nowhere nearly as painful as the Great Depression. But the effects are similar. The heady growth of the 2000s led Europeans and Americans to believe they were on firm economic ground; the shattering of banks, real estate markets and governments in the wake of the crash left tens of millions of people at sea, angry at the institutions that had failed them, above all the politicians who claimed to be in charge.
Why, voters ask, did the government allow so many bankers to behave like criminals in the first place? Why did it then bail out banks while letting car factories go under? Why is it welcoming millions of immigrants? Are there separate rules for the elites, defined by a hypermodern liberal worldview that ridicules the working class — and their traditional values — as yokels?
“It seems to me in developed and semideveloped countries there is emerging a new kind of politics for which maybe the best taxonomic category would be right-wing populist nationalism,” said Stanley Payne, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We are seeing a new kind of phenomenon which is different from what you had” in the 20th century, he tells The Times:
Roger Eatwell, a professor at the University of Bath, in England, calls it “illiberal democracy,” a form of government that keeps the trappings of democracy without the reality.
“Elections are seen as important to legitimizing regimes,” he said, but instead of imposing one-party rule, as in the past, today’s authoritarians “use a variety of devices to control and/or manipulate the media, intimidate opponents” and so on.
Either way, it has found pockets of support on both sides of the Atlantic. Lilia Shevtsova (right) , a political analyst in Moscow, said neo-fascism in liberal societies in the West stems from crisis or dysfunction while in illiberal countries like Russia and Turkey it reflects an attempt to fill the void left by the failure of Western notions to catch on.
The problem, she added, is that “the Western political leadership at the moment is too weak to fight the tide.”
Countries don’t really recover from being taken over by unstable authoritarian nationalists of any political bent, left or right—not by Peróns or Castros or Putins or Francos or Lenins or fill in the blanks, The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik writes:
The nation may survive, but the wound to hope and order will never fully heal. Ask Argentinians or Chileans or Venezuelans or Russians or Italians—or Germans. The national psyche never gets over learning that its institutions are that fragile and their ability to resist a dictator that weak.
“On a world level, the situation that affects many countries is economic stagnation and the arrival of immigrants,” said Robert O. Paxton, a professor emeritus at Columbia University and one of the most prominent scholars of fascism. “That’s a one-two punch that democratic governments are having enormous trouble in meeting.”
In America and Europe, the rise of anti-establishment movements is a symptom of a cultural shock against globalized postmodernity, similar to the 1930s’ rejection of modernity, Die Zeit’s Bittner writes for The Times:
The common accusation by the “masses” is that liberal democracy has somehow gone too far, that it has become an ideology for an elite at the expense of everyone else. …Of course this isn’t 1933. Democratic institutions are much more stable today. But the power of nostalgia doesn’t depend on the times you live in. This is why, for all the differences, we are indeed witnessing another 1930s moment across the West.
*A member of the Editorial Board for the Journal of Democracy who delivered the National Endowment for Democracy’s 2014 Lipset Lecture on Russia’s Political System: The Drama of Decay.