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The rise and meaning of democratic fascism

Across much of the world we are witnessing a shift in democratic politics whereby politics as a form of compromise, debate, and decision-making is being replaced by politics as a form of domination. The Lockean notion that the authority of governments should always be regarded as provisional is no longer a given or arguably even relevant in this contemporary context, in which the focus is on omnipotence and perpetual power. This political development has been evident in the administrations of Victor Orban in Hungary; Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil; Donald Trump in the United States; Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey; Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines; Russia’s Vladimir Putin; and, to a lesser but significant extent, Boris Johnson in the UK.

Some commentators refer to this modern form of right-wing governance as ‘illiberal democracy’. However, this idea seems too broad and ill-defined and therefore I prefer the term ‘democratic fascism’. Not only does the term democratic fascism offer a far more exacting and accurate set of defining characteristics, but it mirrors well, and is perhaps the antithesis of, Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism, which has emerged as a popular concept in mainstream political discourses.

Although, as the term suggests, democratic fascism works within the democratic process, it remains suspicious, contemptuous, and antagonistic towards many democratic values, such as constitutional convention; accountability; separation of powers; justice; truth; and checks and balances. This underlying hostility towards many liberal democratic norms represents but one essential characteristic of democratic fascism. Other key defining elements include:

1. Populism.

The foundation stone of democratic fascism is populism and the division of society into ‘us’, the people, and ‘them’, the corrupt and immoral elite. The democratic fascist professes to speak for ‘the people’ and be the voice of common sense and righteousness in an unfair world ruled by people different from ‘us’. Democratic fascism claims to represent the unrepresented, the underdog, and the forgotten despite its inherent viciousness and nihilism.

2. Manichaeism

Democratic fascism’s division of society into ‘us’ and ‘them’ is indicative of its broader tendency to perceive everything as a dichotomy. The worldview of democratic fascism is black and white, with no room for nuance, ambiguity, or shades of grey. Every issue is filtered through the lens of dualism: right and wrong; us and them; friend and enemy; native and foreign. Constructing the world as a series of binaries means that the democratic fascist presents politics in a crude and reductive form, but one that is accessible, appealing, and easily understood by many in the general public. This often contrived and always exaggerated construction of opposing sides foments division, resentment, and anger, which are all essential ingredients of democratic fascism. It also helps to identify enemies, which is also crucial to the democratic fascist’s modus operandi, for there must always be an enemy (often many) to attack, vilify, and blame.

3. Nationalism.

The democratic fascist uses the language of flags, patriotism, and the nation to present him or herself as the embodiment of the country and its truest ‘patriot’ and staunchest defender. Democratic fascism employs the nation as a prop — romanticized, tailored, framed — to bolster its legitimacy in the eyes of ‘the people’. Policies and pronouncements in the name of the nation rather than the party or leader transform the democratic fascist from a radical and potential despot into Great Leader, father of the nation, and ultimate patriot. Any opposition to the democratic fascist’s power is thereby denounced as an enemy not only of the government but also of the nation. Dissension equals treason. Indeed, the democratic fascist will always try to frame any opposition or criticism as ‘them’, the unpatriotic, nefarious traitors who hate the nation, against ‘us’, the nation.

4. Xenophobia

The nationalism of the democratic fascist is infused with xenophobia. Although xenophobia is not a particularly useful tool in domestic politics, it very much aligns with democratic fascism’s essential practice of demonizing and dividing. By nurturing and promoting fear and hatred of non-natives, other countries, other cultures, non-natives, and immigrants, it allows the democratic fascist to instill ever deeper notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and further fuel tribalism, which are both critical to the success of democratic fascism.

5. Realist worldview

In tune with its nationalism and xenophobia, democratic fascism perceives any domestic or international interaction as a zero-sum game. It is the philosophy of Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Thomas Hobbes, in which there are no allies or friends, only interests. Multilateralism, alliances, international treaties, domestic compromise and cooperation are anathema to democratic fascists. The world is a war of all against all with the only goal being to maximize wealth, power, and influence.

6. Consolidation of power

The democratic fascist considers electoral victory more than simply permission to govern the nation on trust until the next election but a mandate to consolidate power as much as possible. Democratic fascism tends towards despotism in which political power is not merely a matter of governance but omnipotence; maneuvering to control every facet of the county, such as the media, the courts, and even commerce. Often this involves structuring the nation as a fiefdom; filling as many state, federal, judicial, economic, and military roles with political appointees regardless of their credentials or qualifications; and using power as a vehicle to further their personal interests and those of their inner circle.

Thus, what we are seeing is a creeping form of voluntary authoritarianism. Part of the democratic fascist playbook is to demonize and incite enough hatred towards opposing voices so that supporters of democratic fascism are willing to surrender their individual liberty, national constitution, political freedoms, and democratic values to ensure the eradication of all opposition and dissent (‘them’) and accept one-party rule (‘us’).

7. The cult of personality

Democratic fascism relies very much on the Weberian concept of the charismatic leader. As a political philosophy, democratic fascism is often not appealing enough to win power on its own political merits, certainly in a mature democratic state with a well-developed political culture, but needs the hyperbole, rhetoric, and emotional lure of demagoguery. Democratic fascism does not appeal to minds but to hearts, using history, identity, tribalism, and hate to make people feel connected, both emotionally and personally. It is clear that many people find the contemporary world to be changing for the worse. It is too complex, alien, and disempowering and they are subsequently seeking a leader, protector, or savior, who they can relate to in an uncertain and transforming world; who can make sense of things; reassure them; and lead them to the great and glorious future (that the democratic fascist always promises). This makes democratic fascism especially vulnerable to the charlatan and phony or anyone who can project the right image, pinpoint the issues, and incite a workable amount of rage.

8. Anti-opposition

Democratic fascists do not believe in debate or the battle of ideas but negate opposition through attack (usually ad hominem), insult, and delegitimization. Democrat fascists prefer to appeal to the heart and emotion through vagueness, soundbite, rhetoric, and hyperbole rather than rational argument and engagement. This is supplemented by extreme aggression towards any dissenting voices who are invariably portrayed as radical lunatics, unpatriotic, or evil. Indeed, because democratic fascists perceive the world as a zero-sum game, they vehemently reject any questioning of their power. Therefore, democratic fascists loathe the media. Any media outlets that offer a supportive voice are tolerated, normally extolled, but all others are vilified as enemies of the truth, the people, and the nation. Any kind of negative coverage is savagely denounced as lies; a witch-hunt; a conspiracy against ‘the people’; the work of a corrupt cabal; or, as noted earlier, unpatriotic and treasonous.

Democratic fascism prefers to disseminate its message through carefully controlled channels; direct-to-citizen public meetings (performances); and via foot soldiers on indiscriminate and anarchic platforms where there is little oversight. This is because democratic fascism relies on misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, and rabble-rousing to spread its message and achieve airwave supremacy. It is a message in which truth is no longer an objective reality but is merely decided by how many people believe it to be true. Reality becomes what we are told by the leaders we choose to follow. This is crucial because the core constituency of democratic fascism (outside of the favored inner circle) is the less educated and less discerning citizen who is susceptible to crass and simplistic narratives as well as the distortion of truth. It is clearly no coincidence that the rise and success of democratic fascism has mirrored the decline of traditional journalism and the ascent of social media, viral content, and online news.

9. Militarism

Militarism is an important element of democratic fascism, in which the armed forces are a vicarious symbol of its own power and strength. Democratic fascists also have a predilection for surrounding themselves with uniformed personnel; passing bloated defense budgets; and organizing military parades. Certainly, the language of war permeates the discourses of democratic fascism (“battle”, “enemies”, “fight”) and the threat of violence and potential civil conflict invariably lurks menacingly beneath the political message. Interestingly, democratic fascists often have little personal military experience.

10. Ageism

A less obvious but telling aspect of democratic fascism is its tendency to attract the support of older people, often seniors, whilst having a distinct lack of appeal among the young. Perhaps democratic fascism is not just a response to whipped-up anger over globalization, alienation, and anti-elitism, but a more elemental response to socio-cultural transformation and the changing of the political guard. From this perspective, democratic fascism is an attempt, perhaps an extreme last stand, by the older generation to politically stymie the young and cement a mild form of authoritarianism indefinitely. Indeed, if democratic fascism has one specific enemy then it appears to be young people, who are often associated with liberalism, idealism, progressivism, atheism, environmentalism, pacifism, iconoclasm, and cosmopolitanism, all of which enrage the democratic fascist. Will the younger generation, who generally prefer freedom, choice, diversity, equality, justice, and kindness be curtailed by the older one, who prefer order, obedience, tradition, conformity, uniformity, and power?

Additionally, democratic fascism appeals to an older generation as it very much uses the past as a vision of better and greater times. It evokes nostalgia and sentimentality, regardless of its veracity, and blends it with contemporary populism and nationalism, thus beguiling the public with a mythical but glorious version of the country. Examples would be Russians yearning for the Soviet Union; Britons dreaming of Churchill’s wartime England; or Americans hankering for the Fifties or something even more whimsical and fantastical such as an evangelical theocracy based on Winthrop’s “city on a hill”.

Ultimately, democratic fascism is a tantalizing but toxic, seductive but simplistic, political philosophy. It mobilizes ‘the people’, most obviously the less educated, the old, the bellicose, and marginalized, through an incendiary mix of populism, nationalism, misinformation, Manichaeism, militarism, tribalism, division, and deceit. It embraces the democratic process but only as far as it accords power and legitimacy because its underlying character is repressive and authoritarian. In a time of continued globalization, fragmenting news sources, online discourses, a general disillusionment with democracy, and socio-cultural-generational change, it will be interesting to see how far and to what extent democratic fascism continues to reshape modern democracies.

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