Fascism is a complex political current that parasitizes other ideologies, includes many internal tensions and contradictions, and has chameleon-like adaptations based on the specific historic symbols, icons, slogans, traditions, myths, and heroes of the society it wishes to mobilize. In addition, fascism as a social movement often acts dramatically different from fascism once it holds state power. When holding state power, fascism tends to be rigidly hierarchical, authoritarian, and elitist. As a social movement fascism employs populist appeals against the current regime and promises a dramatic and quick transformation of the status quo.

Right-wing populism can act as both a precursor and a building block of fascism, with anti-elitist conspiracism and ethnocentric scapegoating as shared elements. (…) Fritzsche showed that distressed middle-class populists in Weimar launched bitter attacks against both the government and big business. This populist surge was later exploited by the Nazis which parasitized the forms and themes of the populists and moved their constituencies far to the right through ideological appeals involving demagoguery, scapegoating, and conspiracism.

The success of fascist movements in attracting members from reformist populist constituencies is due to many complex overlapping factors, but key factors are certainly the depth of the economic and social crisis (…) and the degree of anger and frustration of those who see their demands not being met. Desperate people turn to desperate solutions.

Chip Berlet & Matthew N. Lyons: Populism as Core Element of Fascism.

Introduction

For some time, the rise of the radical right, embodied for example by Marine Le Pen or Donald Trump, has been a central theme in European and American politics (and beyond!). A recurring question is what this type of right-wing populism is, as well as the potential connections one could make with fascism. It is this relationship between fascism and what is generally referred to as the ‘populist radical right’ that will interest us in this work. We will thus ask ourselves how we should interpret these two categories and their relationship: what are the continuities and ruptures between them?

The public and political use of the categories of populism and fascism are often criticised by those who study these subjects, such as historians of fascism who deplore their clumsy or polemical use. However, the choice of whether or not to use these two concepts is not only a matter of scientific and intellectual discussion, as there are very important political issues involved. 

Therefore, on the one hand, the rejection of using the term ‘fascism’ or ‘fascist’ must be adequately justified, as the risk of opting instead for euphemisms normalising such a totalitarian project cannot be neglected. Such conceptual work is also required with regard to the ‘populist radical right’.

The aim of this paper is to highlight the issues at stake in these theoretical distinctions, as well as to indicate some elements or avenues of response, all based on the work done by historians and political scientists who have studied these two objects.

Definitions

The issue of definitions is not just what is meant by fascism and the contemporary extreme right, but the relationship between them. In an article that marked this discussion, Prowe (1994: 292-293) described two main points of view:

Among this array of definitions it is important for our purposes to distinguish between two types, one of which speaks strongly for equating the present radical right movements with interwar fascism, while the other argues just as vehemently against such an equation. The first type of definition asks primarily about mentality, general political behaviour, and goals of the fascists, while the second kind stresses the specific historical setting from which the extreme rightist movements of the interwar years emerged.

In a similar way, we identify in this work two main tendencies in the interpretations of the different authors who have dealt with this topic. Bearing in mind that the different analytical perspectives are not reduced to this general opposition and contain nuances of their own, one perceives on the one hand a rather ‘dominant’ point of view which insists on a relatively strict separation between fascism and the contemporary ‘populist’ right. These authors tend to conceive of these two phenomena as more different than similar or equivalent; as Weinberg (2006: 405, cited in Copsey, 2018) puts it: ‘They agree that whatever else they are the parties are not fascist. “The second, minority type of conceptualisation supports the idea that a form of 21st century (post)fascism is manifested in certain contemporary political forms such as the Front National (known as the ‘Rassemblement National’) in France; or at least that it is a protofascism, a fascism ‘in the making’. 

As far as the ‘mainstream’ perspective is concerned, the work of Ignazi (1992; 2003), Prowe (1994), Kitschelt (1995) and Mudde (2007) was the main source and influence. This interpretation was briefly described by de la Torre in a recent book (2019: 20): 

Europeans first analyzed the rebirth of populism in the 1980s and 90s as the reappearance of fascism. Yet this view was abandoned because the populist radical right is nominally democratic: they use elections to get to power and based their legitimacy in the notion of the sovereignty of the people, whereas the fascists opposed these fundamental principles.

This is also what the historian of fascism Roger Griffin (2018) argues:

It is thus worth stressing that, in academic analysis and properly researched journalism, ‘populism’, or more precisely ‘the populist radical right’, is generally used to designate an illiberal but democratic and non-revolutionary form of politics driven by widespread (hence ‘popular’) mistrust of ruling political and economic elites, both domestic and international.

During Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States, this refusal to equate the contemporary radical right with fascism was evident in much of the commentary of political scientists and historians who were invited to give their views on the issue (Baker, 2016; Matthews, 2020; Eley, 2018).

This first perspective thus defines the relationship between fascism and the populist right primarily in terms of their relationship to democracy (and, in parallel or in conjunction, to political violence, to which we will also return). Nevertheless, it is important to stress that this is not a homogeneous approach, but one that includes a fairly wide variety of specific views on this issue, since most of the authors who have discussed it take this general view. There are thus a significant number of approaches to fascism that exclude any serious parallel or comparison with today’s situation, underlining, as Prowe indicated above, the constitutive specificity of the historical context of ‘classical’ fascism in the inter-war period. As Copsey (2018: 5) explains, from this perspective, 

Fascism was thus a radically novel phenomenon, so much so that this historically specific novelty becomes essential to its definition. Radical right-wing populism is something entirely different; it has emerged in a fundamentally changed historical epoch (…) Radical right-wing populism is thus essentially alien to the fascist tradition

Among this first approach, however, other historians do not adhere to this form of ‘antiquarianism’, as Finchelstein (2017: 56) puts it. It is precisely Finchelstein (2017, 2019a, 2019b) who has provided one of the most sophisticated approaches to the transnational and historical analysis of contemporary populism, which he inscribes in the lineage of fascism but in a fundamental break with it, precisely and above all in the rejection of both the political violence and the fundamental anti-democracy of fascist movements and regimes. In this historical reconstruction of the global evolution of fascism and populism, the author manages in particular to characterise the recent wave of the far right embodied by Trump and Le Pen in an original way (Finchelstein, 2019b). 

When intervening in the public debate around the applicability of the category of fascism to the Trump-led movement and government, some historians of fascism have also manifested this kind of more dynamic and open-ended analysis of the contemporary possibilities of fascism, offering a marked contrast to the responses of Stanley Pane and Roger Griffin, for example (Matthews, 2020). Jason Stanley, for example, raises an important point to open up thinking about the fascist potential or character of the Trump moment:

I think you could legitimately call Trumpism a fascist social and political movement – which is not to say that Trump is a fascist. Trumpism involves a cult of the leader, and Trump embodies that. I certainly think he’s using fascist political tactics. I think there’s no question about that. He is calling for national restoration in the face of humiliations brought on by immigrants, liberals, liberal minorities, and leftists. He’s certainly playing the fascist playbook. My definition is of fascist politics, not of a fascist regime. I think most of the other [fascism scholars] are just talking about something else. They’re talking about regimes.

As we will see throughout this work, the distinction between the distinct ‘moments’ of fascism and populism as a movement first and then – that is, if this stage does take place – as a regime, is very important.

The more ‘flexible’ views of Finchelstein, Stanley, Eley, Copsey (2018), etc., thus stand halfway between the first perspective we have mentioned and, on the other hand, the more radically critical and different approaches that bring fascism even closer to the contemporary radical right. They do not confine fascism to the interwar period, but also and above all they conceive fascism as “alive” and a concrete possibility. 

Two specific positions that manifest a certain rejection of the qualitative term “populist” to designate the contemporary radical right must be separated. As we will see later, different authors (Mammone, 2009; Stavrakakis et al. 2017) do not strictly formulate a continuity between the latter and fascism, but question the dominant categorisation of this right as primarily ‘populist’. As far as our research question is concerned, another point of view – critical and minority – is all the more interesting at this stage of the analysis, since it affirms the actuality of fascism. These are the approaches developed by Enzo Traverso (2015; 2019) and Ugo Palheta (2018), which have in common, among other things, the rejection of the category of ‘populism’ as a key to analysing the contemporary far right wave. Palheta rejects the category of populism altogether and speaks of the ‘actuality of fascism’, i.e. in a state of possible development and even already in gestation. Traverso considers populism as a political style, which does not allow us to understand the content of the contemporary far right; he prefers the concept of ‘post-fascism’.

The fundamental driving principle of this approach is expressed by Traverso (2015: 107) explicitly: ‘Thinking about fascism today means considering the possible forms of a fascism of the twenty-first century, not the reproduction of that of the interwar period. “

One can recognise here the normative commitment formulated by Umberto Eco (1995) in a famous essay on “eternal” fascism, or “Ur-fascism”: “Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances – every day, in every part of the world. “

Ideology

While the attempt to define the ideological content of fascism is generally not in itself questioned from a theoretical point of view, the same is not true of populism. The problem is that there is no consensus on whether there is a ‘populist ideology’ per se. On the contrary, the most common definition, formulated by Cas Mudde (2004), describes populism as a ‘thin-centred ideology’, i.e. not self-sufficient and having to ‘borrow’ from others… Berezin (2019: 4) explains this major problem in the following terms: ‘Populism defies definition because it typically represents a shifting aggregate of popular preferences without a clear ideology that unites them. 

Eatwell’s (2017) analysis represents such an ‘ideal-typical’ (and ideology-centred) perspective on our problem. Two ideal-typical definitions are formulated for fascism and for populism (based on Mudde), and the analysis leads to the following observation:

The main point of contact in practice has been a strategic use of aspects of populist discourse and style in an attempt to boost support- partly linked to the fact that the fascist view of man has encouraged manipulation by charismatic leaders and the use of populist language, though neither are necessary defining features of fascism. (…) Unlike fascism, populism is a form of democracy, albeit not liberal democracy (…) Populists can hold that the people may exhibit failings, even be “demoralized” by their exploitation, (…). But they cannot hold that an authoritarian new elite is required to foster a “new man” in order to achieve radical change.

This gives us a number of important elements, which will be taken up below. The main problem with definitions and approaches that focus on a ‘generic’ reconstruction of fascism and right-wing populism through the ideological-typical dimension alone is the exclusion of the historical, transnational and, above all, socio-political dimensions. As can be seen from Eatwell’s quote above, the ‘generic’ ideology is the starting point from which all other dimensions (strategic, political, …) are derived. 

To define the ideological content of fascism and the populist radical right, a socio-political view seems most appropriate, and Berezin (2019: 6) provides us with a useful lead, which furthermore incorporates the crucial distinction between the ‘moments’ movement and regime:

Culture and ideology figure differently at both stages. In the movement phase, they act as powerful mobilizing devices that frame the political beliefs of committed cadres of supporters. In the regime phase, they serve as conversion mechanisms to assure the consent of a broad public constituency.

We can now try to define – on the basis of the various works consulted (Traverso, 2015; Finchelstein, 2017, 2019a, 2019b; Copsey, 2018; Palheta, 2018) – the main ideological elements of fascism and the contemporary radical right and, above all, their relationship. 

‘Classical’ fascist ideology can be characterised in the following ways (non-exhaustive), : 

  1. Confusion of the people and the nation: translating the “idea of the unrepresented whole into a homogenizing idea of the nation as the social community of the people” (Finchelstein, 2017)
  2. Extreme nationalism: organic notion of the nation in a state of crisis and decline -> project of national regeneration -> ‘collective myth’ of a revolutionary and utopian nature
  3. Anti-democratic: not only authoritarian, but aimed at the destruction of democracy; dictatorial and messianic leader
  4. The ‘fabrication of a negative alterity’ (Traverso, 2015: 111): not only the ‘foreigner’ as an external threat but also and above all an internal enemy is invented and considered as a corrupting element that affects the healthy body of the nation.
    • Racialist (biologist and scientist discourse), xenophobic and especially – in most cases – antisemitic ideological framework.
  5. Valorisation of political and military violence as an end in itself (catharsis, virility) and as a means of realising the absolutisation of the nation to create a new civilisational order (realising the project of the rebirth of the nation) -> ‘militarisation of politics’ (Gentile)
  6. Anti-communism and anti-liberalism; the labour movement as a central enemy
  7. Producerism: “the fascist critique of capitalism was not against capitalism per se, but rather against forms of capitalism that according to fascists had ignored the needs of the people. “(Finchelstein, 2017: 76); producers are idealised in contrast to elements identified as parasitic to the national economy, such as the financial elites in 1930s Europe and the US.

As for the populist radical right, if we take up the above points, it has already been mentioned that there is, according to most authors, a rejection of totalitarian violence (5) and of the dictatorial form (3) of fascism. Many authors (e.g. Traverso 2015, 2019; Prowe, 1994; Palheta, 2018) have pointed out that the structuring role of anti-Semitism has been replaced by a generalized hatred of Islam. The decline of the labour movement and in particular of communism, as well as the simple difference in context between the present period and the interwar period (the end of the world war having ‘brutalized’ societies, revolutionary threats, etc.), is a major change that Traverso (2015, 2019) in particular emphasizes.

  1. Confusion of the people and the nation: translation of the ‘idea of the unrepresented whole into a homogenizing idea of the nation as the social community of the people’ (Finchelstein, 2017)
  2. ‘Nostalgic’ but non-utopian nationalism: discourse of nation in crisis and decline -> radical nationalism seeking to restore an idealised national past (Trump’s ‘MAGA’) but ‘has no ambition to mobilise the masses around new collective myths. Instead of making people dream, it wants to convince them to be an effective tool to express their protest against the powerful who dominate and crush them, while promising the restoration of order – economic, social, moral – to the possessing layers’ (Traverso, 2015: 109)
  3. “Antiliberal, authoritarian democracy” (Finchesltein, 2017): modern (post-war) populism constitutes a ‘democratic’ reformulation of the anti-liberal tradition of fascism, which is no longer viable as a model after 1945. The populist leader does not aim at founding his popular legitimacy in his role of dictator (as in classical fascism), but through elections.
    • “The populist leader is a leader because of the faith the people are supposed to have in her or his leadership. The leaders act as the personification of the popular will, and not only because they were elected by the people. This logic of extreme identification crisscrossed the populist universe and its history. The transformation of the leader into the people makes him or her a transcendental figure unlike any other human and renders the former homogeneous and akin to the latter’ (Finchelstein, 2017: 230-232)
  4. The ‘fabrication of a negative otherness’ (Traverso, 2015: 111): not only the ‘foreigner’ as an external threat but also and above all an internal enemy is invented and considered as a corrupting element that affects the healthy body of the nation.
    • Xenophobic and more ‘culturalist’ than racialist ideological framework, including – in most cases – Islamophobia (Traverso, 2015)
  5. Producerism: ‘Müller (2016, p. 23) deploys the term producerism to identify people who are more colloquially described as hardworking (…) Producers are those who make things that people can see-a car versus a derivative. (…) The emphasis upon those who make and those who push ideas around speaks to the anti-European Union bias in European populism and the protectionist bias that has made Trump’s anti-free trade positions so resonant. “(Berezin, 2019: 10)

In addition to the abandonment of fascist violence and dictatorship, it is the adoption of an ideological framework that is not racialist but ‘culturalist’ and ‘ethno-pluralist’ that is significant: ‘Racialism – a discourse steeped in scientism and biologism – has given way to a culturalist prejudice that points to a radical anthropological divide between “Judeo-Christian” Europe and Islam. “‘ (Traverso, 2015: 112) A number of authors (including Griffin, Bar-On, Rydgen, Mammone and Copsey, cf. Copsey (2018); Betz (2018); Campani (2015)) have indeed highlighted the fundamental role of the European New Right in the ideological formation of the populist far right: 

Radical right-wing populism has grown in sophistication largely due to the influence of neofascist theorists, particularly with regard to the adoption of ethnopluralist discourse. Absolutely central to this development has been the cross-national diffusion of the FN’s “master frame”-an interdependent process that encouraged similar parties elsewhere. When we accept the singular contribution of neofascism (the nouvelle droite) to this process, it surely is wrong to argue that neofascism plays a minimal role in defining the ideological and discursive praxis of the populist radical right. (Copsey, 2018: 14)

Repertoires of action and regimes

According to De Felice’s distinction (cited in Campani, 2015) Italian fascism was divided into two forms and moments before and after the conquest of power, which he considered fundamentally different: fascismo-movimento (or ‘fascism as a movement’) and fascismo-regime (or ‘fascism as a regime’). The question now is how fascism and far-right populism differ between the stages of movement or opposition and regime. The main issue is to define the nature of these movements and regimes, as well as the repertoires of action that are mobilised. 

As far as fascism is concerned, the exploitation of the electoral process and the rule of law can only be a temporary strategy to achieve state power, destroy this democratic order and establish a dictatorship. According to Finchelstein (2017: 82), 

As a movement, fascism was at times involved in political persecution, street fighting, and the assassination of the preconceived enemy, and it combined this extreme violence with a militarization of politics and the adoption of varied electoral strategies. Fascists often participated in the democratic game, but they were not democratic in any way. In fact they explicitly wanted to destroy democracy. As a regime, fascism became at all times a dictatorial formation, emerging from the democratic crisis of representation that came out of the ruins of World War I. However, it was also rooted in the modern principles of the people and the idea that the leader represents and conveys the desires of the national popular community.

The valorization of political violence and dictatorship translated in particular into systematic internal and external repression against any potential source of conflict or division, and the logic of ‘punishment’ and ‘purification’ of designated elements to revive the Nation. As a regime, Fascism used a combination of state organs and extra-state mechanisms.  

The modern metamorphosis of the far right’s repertoire leads Traverso (2015: 109) to the following observation: ‘Its modernity lies in its effective use of the media and communication techniques – its leaders dominate television screens – rather than in its message, which is entirely free of any millenarian mythology. “Nevertheless, Copsey (2018) points out that the activist and militant circles of the ‘populist’ right and neo-fascists are sometimes convergent: ‘It is an undeniable fact that within the activist cultures, there is a history of interaction between so-called radical-right actors and (neo)fascists. This interaction reveals itself through myriad forms, through such things as multiple membership and affiliations, joint mobilizations, transnational networks, social media, voicing support for particular election candidates, personal friendships, and so on.”

As for populism as a regime, Finchelstein (2017: xvii-xviii) suggests that, 

populism generally presents a stark contrast when it moves from the opposition to take on the quite different role of the regime. In opposition, populism appears as a protest movement and makes clear the limits that governing elites have in representing important segments of society, but it also claims that it represents society as a whole. As a regime, populism sees no limits on its claims to popular sovereignty, identifying the votes of electoral majorities who support the regime with the structural, transcendental desires of the people and the nation. As the opposition, populism often contributes to an understanding of the frustrations but also to the outing of the long-held prejudices of large elements of the population. As a regime, populism claims the full representation of an entire people and often translates this into the idea of full delegation of power to the leader. In this context, the leader claims to know what the people truly want better than they do.

Conclusion

Apart from political and public polemics, the use of the category of fascism to designate the contemporary radical right has generally been avoided, for various reasons. The issue of defining fascism includes the question of its temporal and geographical delimitation, which has often resulted in a desire to confine the phenomenon to interwar Europe. While historical contextualisation is always crucial, one cannot accept such an approach, which Finchelstein described as ‘antiquarianism’. Just as the search for a ‘generic fascism’ is questionable (Finchelstein, 2017: 53-57), the widespread definition of a ‘minimum populism’ proposed by Mudde (2004) is probably rather limited and reductionist (de la Torre & Mazzoleni, 2019). However, it is with this kind of conception that many of the authors who have addressed the subject that interested us in this work work work. For this reason, an attempt has been made to include critical comments – based in particular on the work of Finchelstein (2017) and Copsey (2018) – as well as elements of more socio-historical and socio-political reflection.

However, this work probably provides only some initial hints and ‘openings’ that should be further developed and completed. The overlap between two thematic areas (fascism and populism), whose specialists are not always the same and interact only to a limited extent, has made the exploration of the scientific literature rather difficult. It is above all the inevitable inexhaustiveness of this literary and theoretical research that is to be regretted, even if place and time are factors that come into play in the absolute.

Despite its reservations, the above analysis leads us to the following general conclusion, formulated by Copsey (2018: 12):

The reality is that it is not a simple either/or question. Radical-right wing populism is not neofascism (…), yet at the same time there is a close relationship between radical rightwing populism and neofascism, which makes demarcating the difference really quite problematic.

On the other hand, the distinction between fascismo/populismo-regime and fascismo/populismo-movimento is decisive, because as Jason Stanley mentioned when speaking about Trump (Matthews, 2020), the criteria for identifying fascism are regularly based on an implicit presupposition that one can only speak about a regime. On the contrary, fascism and populism cannot be reduced to their ‘ruling’ forms! As Stanley (Matthews, 2020) puts it,

If you’re only worried about fascist regimes, you’re never going to catch fascist social and political movements. The goal is to catch fascist social and political movements, and fascist ideology, before it becomes a regime.

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