George Orwell said that “as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless.” He’s not wrong. Since Mussolini’s original Partito Nazionale Fascista rule began in Italy in 1922, “fascist” has become an epithet that’s as easy to dismiss as it is to use.
Yet the term remains important as well as loaded, especially in an American election season when an argument has broken out over whether the Republican nominee for president meets its definition. Writing in The Atlantic in January, Gianni Riotta addressed this question, answering that Donald Trump is not a fascist. And he would know; he grew up in the rubble of the original Italian fascism, lived its recent history, and labored under personal threats from groups of lingering fascists during their moments of revival.
Here is how Riotta defines “fascist” and why he thinks it’s overwrought to use it to describe Trump:
Trump will never master the techniques laid out in 1931 by the then-fascist journalist Curzio Malaparte in his Coup D’etat: The Technique of Revolution, which detailed the clear requirements of the fascist manifesto: Seize and hold state power with a sudden attack, coordinated with cunning and force. There is no fascism without this rational, violent plan to obliterate democracy. From Hitler’s Mein Kampf to Mussolini’s speeches on the Palazzo Venezia balcony, fascists told the crowd openly what their goals were and kept a nefarious, disciplined pace to realize them. Mussolini boasted about reducing Italy’s Parliament “to a fascist barrack,” “stopping any antifascist brain from thinking,” and “creating a new Roman Empire.”
Notwithstanding some obvious shades of “make America great again” and “the experts are terrible” in Mussolini’s sloganeering, by Riotta’s definition Trump is indeed not a fascist—that is, assuming that on November 9, Trump is having one of the days when he says he’s inclined to respect the results of the democratic election, and not one of the days when he’s not.
But the debate over the definition of fascism is much richer than Riotta covered. Some readers of his piece quibbled that there are shades of fascism and that Trump sits somewhere worryingly far along:
Perhaps it’s more accurate that Trump is “fascistic” or “with fascist tendencies” (or, more ominously, “proto-fascist”).
Another reader suggested:
Though all the comparisons to Hitler and Mussolini are off base. Trump is more like Goering in attitude and temperament: pompous, full of himself, and attracted to power.
Fascist-y? Fascist-esque? Generalissimodious?
Clearly the strict binary Riotta lays out doesn’t leave room for people to invoke some of the expressive power of the F-word that Trump seems to compel some to.
How about “Ur-Fascist”?
“Ur-Fascism” is a 1995 essay by the great Italian author Umberto Eco, who was born under Mussolini’s regime in 1932. The essay takes up the challenge that Orwell laid down in 1944 when he called “fascist” nearly meaningless. Even Orwell didn’t propose to abandon the term entirely, merely to “use [it] with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.” Eco takes this seriously, and in doing so he provides the loudest response to Riotta’s definition of fascism as explicitly evoking Mussolini’s worldview:
It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. 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.
Just because the term is mutable does not mean it’s meaningless. The starting point of Eco’s understanding is, quite unlike Riotta’s, that the modern word has a history in Italian fascism but it need not share precise features with Mussolini’s system. It’s a synecdoche—a part that stands as a symbol for the whole phenomenon of 20th century strongman authoritarianism—in which Italy’s system figures deeply but not definitively.
See if you think Eco was onto something with predictive power in the following passages from his essay. The first:
Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. To have a good instance of qualitative populism we no longer need the Piazza Venezia in Rome or the Nuremberg Stadium. There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.
And here are Trump’s tweets from Election Day 2012, when President Obama won reelection with 332 Electoral College votes over Mitt Romney’s 206 and with a four-point margin of victory in the popular vote:
We can't let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2012
This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2012
Or how about this passage from Eco?