In an era of Trumpism and fake news, the word ‘fascist’ is thrown around with increasing ease and little attention paid to its origins and history. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, political commentator and historian at New York University, recommends the best books for understanding fascism's history and recognizing it today.
Fascism is your area of historical expertise. Because the word ‘fascist’ is so often used and misused, first I want to ask: How do you define it?
There is no simple definition of fascism. It’s a movement anchored to the cult of the strong leader that sees nation as more important than class. It toys with the rhetoric of revolution. It mobilizes the masses, but its aim is to install a dictatorship that ultimately subjects everyone—of every class, race and gender—to its rule.
As an Italianist, could you offer insights into the root of the word?
Fascism’s roots trace back to the word fasces, which is Latin for ‘bundle of rods.’ When Benito Mussolini founded his movement in 1919, he wanted to distinguish it from a political party. He gave his movement the name Fasci Italiani di Combattimento, to identify it as a league. To get to power, they became a party in 1921, but initially the fascist movement was made up of loose groupings, squads of blackshirts who perpetrated all the violence.
Anatomy of Fascism, by Columbia University political scientist Robert Paxton, is your first recommendation. Why did you choose it?
The Anatomy of Fascism has great strengths. Paxton set out to look at what fascists do, not what they say. He does an excellent job of looking at how Hitler and Mussolini in Germany and Italy were able to use ‘conservative complicities’, as he calls them. They wouldn’t have gotten to power without conservative elites, who wanted to use them to get rid of the threat presented by the left. Throughout the book, he looks at how the pacts fascists made to get into power played out during the dictatorship. He’s very good at mapping the geography of power, and what I call the ‘authoritarian bargains’ among groups, parties, organs of the state and leaders.
“The eternal mystery of fascism is: Why did so many people buy into it?”
The book has been criticized for shortchanging the role of ideology in wanting to show what fascists did and not what they said. He argues that fascists like Mussolini and Hitler had “empty and contradictory rhetoric.” This goes back to an old school of thought in Italy, represented by Noberto Bobbio and others, who argued, in essence, that fascism had no culture; it was just violence. In my way of thinking, this is not a helpful way to proceed to understand how fascism appealed to so many people. In my work, I look at how ideology and rhetoric precede and influence action, including violence.
Paxton posits that fascism is a protean phenomenon. What does he mean by this point?
The eternal mystery of fascism is: Why did so many people buy into it? The protean nature of fascism is key to unlocking that mystery.
Its ideology was protean, if not inherently contradictory. Mussolini, who was a great sloganeer, said in 1921, “fascism is a revolution of reaction.” What does that mean? Fascism took from the left, in its ideas about revolution and its practice of disrupting everything. And yet fascism was profoundly conservative: it wanted to turn back the clock on female emancipation and worker autonomy. Fascism is a revolution to impose order. In that sense, it is protean.
Get the weekly Five Books newsletter
It’s also protean because leaders like Hitler and Mussolini had many different policies to enfold different people in the fascist state. For example, they had social welfare policies, like pre- and postnatal assistance, to appeal to women.
Walter Benjamin pointed out that fascism replaces reasoned debate with theatrics. That point seems central to your next fascism book, Fascist Spectacle by sociologist Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi.
Fascist Spectacle is a valuable book from a sociologist who is quite theoretical but also very, very attentive to how policies play out in daily life and to the connection between rhetoric and action.
Falasca-Zamponi looks at how fascism used aesthetics in every realm of life as an anesthetic. She examines their rallies, newsreels and rituals like the adoption of black shirts. She makes the important point that these rituals made people into uncritical automatons who were willing to trust what they were told, even when it was contradictory to what they saw, heard or sensed.
“Fascist leaders appeal to sore points in the psyche”
Today, Trump tells his followers the exact same thing: “what you’re seeing and hearing is not what’s happening.” That statement has a very long genealogy. Authoritarian-minded rulers want us to lose all trust in ourselves. Falasca-Zamponi shows us the role of fascist spectacle in getting people to believe that reality was what the leader said it was.
In your book Fascist Modernities, you explored how Mussolini’s fascist program seduced Italian intellectuals. Could you tell us more about that?
Intellectuals bought into fascism for many reasons. Fascist leaders appeal to sore points in the psyche. In the case of Italy, Mussolini knew that intellectuals were sensitive to the idea that Italians were backwards, soft, sentimental, mandolin-playing old men, rather than a modern and martial forward-looking people. So, Mussolini proposed a utopian vision of modernity and invited different groups to express their own fascist vision. The mirage of modernity and empire that Mussolini offered seduced some. The book also includes cameos of eminent intellectuals who were initially antifascist, but who became collaborators after many years of living under the Mussolini machine.
Do you see similarities between black shirts and red hats? Before the election of Donald Trump, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright pointed out that Trump seemed to have swiped some of Mussolini’s rhetoric, like his call to “drain the swamp” in the nation’s capital. How strong are the stylistic similarities between fascism and Trumpism?
Watching a Trump rally is what prompted me to do political commentary. When I saw the ecstatic emotion around his person, how he bonded with supporters by stoking hatred toward a common enemy like immigrants, when I saw the rituals of chanting “lock her up” about his political opponent, and of course, how he demonized the press—all of this was familiar to me as a scholar of fascism.
“Watching a Trump rally is what prompted me to do political commentary”
The stylistic similarities certainly extended beyond his rallies. The way he retweets racist propaganda and seduces people with mirages about “making America great again.” The right wing in the United States has a very long tradition of mocking the liberal press, but Trump goes far further. In the tradition of what fascist leaders do, he turns his supporters against any voices that are independent of his own.
The Origins of Nazi Violence, by Cornell historian Enzo Traverso, is your next recommendation.
The Origins of Nazi Violence is a wonderful book that identifies the roots of the Nazi killing machine. Traverso is a historian in the European mode, in that he is quite philosophical and also includes some of his own family history, having grown up in an area formerly occupied by Nazis. All of his work is fabulous, but given how concerned we should be now about how authoritarian movements come to power, this is an invaluable introduction. It’s the right book for right now.
Both you and Traverso show how imbuing supporters with an existential dread of others is integral to fascist movements. Can you describe this process?
To have people buy into a state policy of internment of immigrants—including babies, which is what the United States has now on its border—you have to deploy the panoply of propaganda techniques to get people to fear others enough to support such extreme policies.
Support Five Books
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.
Trump proudly uses repetition, as Hitler did. The reason Trump did so many rallies during his campaign and since taking office is that mass gatherings can catalyze hatred and help keep it alive. In my research for my next book, Strongmen, I found that Trump thought, once he was in office, that Hillary Clinton chants were no longer needed. So, he went to a rally and said, we don’t need this anymore.
But that wasn’t a popular stance with his base. So, ever the marketer, he reintegrated the “lock her up” chants into his rallies, fanning the flames of misogyny and hatred. And he still uses it two and a half years after the election.
Next, let’s talk about one of the most important books of the 20th century, Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.
Your readers may be familiar with The Origins of Totalitarianism and her historical genealogies of the main components of Nazism, which begin with the imperial mindset and imperial methods of repression during the colonial period.
Her most useful (and her most chilling) conclusion for today is that totalitarian tools were not specific to Nazism or Stalinism or any ideology. The Hitler and Stalin and Mussolini regimes used a common set of tools to create certain kinds of subjects. The key thing in totalitarianism is the isolation of the individual that causes the inability to distinguish between fact and fiction.
“The key thing in totalitarianism is the isolation of the individual that causes the inability to distinguish between fact and fiction”
Civil society healthy depends on horizontal bonds—with churches, with family, through networks—rather than the vertical bonds between the ruler and the people. Once people who no longer know what truth is and are ruled by fear, the horizontal bonds of community that keep civil society together are severed and the totalitarian bond becomes difficult to break.
Many of her observations have application far beyond the regime she was talking about. Her words should be studied today by those who want to do what to prevent the further spread of authoritarian regimes and the ideologies they are propagating.
Arendt suggests that totalitarianism was a “novel form of government” that “differ[ed] essentially from other forms of political oppression known to us such as despotism, tyranny and dictatorship.” Is that right?
Not entirely, but the 20th century did produce the phenomenon of totalitarian dictatorships with personality cults fed by mass media. That was the basis of the regime of Mao, of Hitler, and of Mussolini. Mass media enable these men to efficiently propagate and standardize the messages of their regimes. That distinguishes modern dictatorships.
I am skeptical of some of the categories used today. For example, “soft authoritarianism.” We need to take all of these categories with a grain of salt. However, authoritarian regimes can be seen as part of a continuum.
“The 20th century produced the phenomenon of personality cults fed by mass media”
In certain states, like China under Mao and the Soviet Union under Stalin, rule by terror and control extended through the bureaucracy, throughout society to the individual. While Mussolini was a terroristic ruler, responsible for the death of millions, the pope and the king were always alternate sources of authority and emotional attachment in Italy; control was never as complete.
Finally, the last of the fascism books you recommend is a 1963 novel by Natalia Ginzburg.
Family Lexicon, which is more like a novelized memoir, is a valuable testimony of how private life unfolded during Fascist Italy. The family in question was anti-Fascist and half-Jewish and the bonds and private language of the family are effectively set against the encroachments and tyranny of the Fascist state. The perspective of the female narrator is also important given the predominance of testimonies from anti-Fascist men.
What does Family Lexicon teach about life under fascism that will be useful to 21st-century readers?
One lesson of the book is the importance of family ties in creating spaces of autonomy from the dictatorship. Another is that the normalization of authoritarianism is a creeping process, parents who knew something about life under democracy often felt differently about Mussolini than children who grew up only with him as leader and saw his face everywhere. We are at the opposite end of the authoritarian arc, we are at the start, in a period of declining democracy. In this case the task is not to hide away and become apolitical, nor to accept all the small changes in policy, and tone of public life without doing something to protest against it, using the freedoms we have now.
In 2017, you wrote, “Trump is not a Fascist. He does not aim to establish a one-party state.” Lately, you’ve written about Trump’s efforts to undermine faith in elections. Do you think you need to revise your distinction?
I don’t. I think it’s very important to distinguish leaders of the past, who wanted to have one party dictatorships. Few exemplars of those types of dictatorships remain, the most prominent ones are China and North Korea. Today you don’t need a one-party state to do what you want to do as an autocrat. Putin and Orban retain the semblance of democracy and have elections but they are not free or fair ones and the opposition press barely exists. Nor would Trump and Bolsonaro need a one-party state. Orban tries to legitimize this system calling it “illiberal democracy” but I prefer “new authoritarian.”
Your book project is underway and seems to focus on all the current political figures you just mentioned. Can you please tell me about that project?
Strongmen is a history of the authoritarian form of rule and how it has evolved over a hundred years. Post-Communists like Putin and Orban are in the book but no Communist rulers, since my aim is to study how these men ruined democracies. Most of the chapters are organized thematically. So the reader can learn, in turn, how the use of propaganda, violence, corruption, masculinity, etc. have evolved from the time of Mussolini up to the time of Trump and Erdogan today. This way we can isolate what is off-the-table, such as mass killing on the scale of Mao or Stalin and what is still used effectively today. So to come back to the question: Is Trump fascist? He is not a fascist, but he uses tools, such as rallies and propaganda and personality cults, very effectively and these tools come from the fascist past.
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org