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opinion

Ian Buruma is professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College, and author of Year Zero: A History of 1945.

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Are we seeing a new dawn of fascism? Many people are beginning to think so. Donald Trump has been likened to a fascist, as has Vladimir Putin and a variety of demagogues and right-wing loudmouths in Europe. The tide of authoritarian bluster has reached as far as the Philippines, where president-elect Rodrigo ("The Punisher") Duterte has vowed to toss suspected criminals into Manila Bay.

The problem with terms such as "fascism" or "Nazi," however, is that so many ignorant people have used them so often, in so many situations, that they have lost any real significance. Few still know first-hand what fascism actually meant. It has become a catch-all phrase for people or ideas we don't like.

Loose rhetoric has coarsened not only political debate but also historical memory. When a Republican politician compares U.S. property taxes with the Holocaust, as one Senate candidate did in 2014, the mass murder of Jews is trivialized to the extent of becoming meaningless. The same is roughly true when Mr. Trump is compared to Hitler or Mussolini.

As a result, we are too easily distracted from the real dangers of modern demagoguery. After all, it is not hard for Mr. Trump – or the Netherlands' Geert Wilders or Mr. Putin or Mr. Duterte – to refute accusations of being fascists or Nazis. They may be repulsive, but they are not organizing uniformed storm troopers, building concentration camps or calling for the corporate state.

Still, there are other echoes of our darkest history in the current political bombast, which a few decades ago would have cast any politician who used it to the margins. Stoking hatred of minorities, fulminating against the press, stirring the mob against intellectuals, financiers or anyone who speaks more than one language, were not part of mainstream politics, because enough people still understood the dangers of such talk.

It is clear that today's demagogues don't much care about what they derisively call "political correctness." It is less clear whether they have enough historical sense to know that they are poking a monster that post-Second World War generations hoped was dead but that we now know only lay dormant, until obliviousness to the past could enable it to be reawakened.

This is not to say that everything the populists say is untrue. Hitler, too, was right to grasp that mass unemployment was a problem in Germany. Many of the agitators' bugbears are indeed worthy of criticism: the European Union's opacity, the duplicitousness and greed of Wall Street bankers, the reluctance to tackle problems caused by mass immigration, the lack of concern for those hurt by economic globalization.

These are all problems that mainstream political parties have been unwilling or unable to solve. But when today's populists start blaming "the elites" (whoever they may be) and unpopular ethnic or religious minorities for these difficulties, they sound uncomfortably close to the enemies of liberal democracy in the 1930s.

The true mark of the illiberal demagogue is talk of "betrayal" – the cosmopolitan elites have stabbed "us" in the back; we are facing an abyss; our culture is being undermined by aliens; our country can become great again once we eliminate the traitors, shut down their voices in the media, and unite the "silent majority" to revive the healthy national organism. Politicians, and their boosters, who express themselves in this manner may not be fascists, but they certainly talk like them.

The fascists and Nazis of the 1930s did not come from nowhere. Their ideas were hardly original. For many years, intellectuals, activists, journalists and clerics had articulated hateful ideas that laid the groundwork for Mussolini, Hitler and their imitators in other countries. Some were Catholic reactionaries who detested secularism and individual rights. Some were obsessed with the supposed global domination of Jews. Some were romantics in search of an essential racial or national spirit.

Most modern demagogues may be only vaguely aware of these precedents, if they know of them at all. In Central European countries such as Hungary, or indeed in France, they may actually understand the links quite well, and some of today's far-right politicians are not shy about being openly anti-Semitic. In most West European countries, however, such agitators use their professed admiration for Israel as a kind of alibi and direct their racism at Muslims.

Words and ideas have consequences. Today's populist leaders should not yet be compared to murderous dictators of the fairly recent past. But by exploiting the same popular sentiments, they are contributing to a poisonous climate, which could bring political violence into the mainstream once again.

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Project Syndicate