Fascism to Populism and Back Again? [PODCAST AND LONG READ]

RevDem editor Ferenc Laczo (Maastricht University) talks with Federico Finchelstein (New School for Social Research, New York) about his two recent books: “From Fascism to Populism in History” and “A Brief History of Fascist Lies”. You can listen to the episode or read its edited transcript below.

Ferenc Laczó: You have published seven widely discussed books in English and other languages on subjects such as populism and fascism, the dirty war in Argentina, Jewish history, and the history of the Holocaust. He is Professor of History at the New School for Social Research in New York City, where he also acts as the Director of the Program in Latin American Studies. His two most recent books are From Fascism to Populism in History and A Brief History of Fascist Lies, both of which have been widely translated by now (in different languages such as Spanish, Italian, Turkish, Hungarian, and Portuguese, and forthcoming in Chinese and Korean). We shall be focusing on some key themes and questions in Professor Finchelstein’s recent books during our conversation. Let me begin with a rather general question regarding your conceptualization of fascism and populism. How would you distinguish between these two phenomena? Could you perhaps also tell us a bit about how you view the historical connections between them?

Federico Finchelstein: Fascism and populism are different chapters of the same history. This is the specific history of authoritarianism which starts with what historian Zeev Sternhell called the reaction against the Enlightenment, a reaction that eventually wanted to incorporate dimensions of popular politics into what had been a reactionary critique. With the passing of the years, this reaction against the Enlightenment arrives at a view of mass politics which rejects its egalitarian dimensions. 

We should distinguish between fascism and populism because populism is a form of mass politics within democracy that generally is against the basic tenets of liberal democracy but not against democracy itself. Beginning in the late 19th century and early 20th century, populism has in fact been a form of opposition. Early representatives, for example, Karl Lueger in Vienna were sources of inspiration for fascists though. 

Fascism is a subsequent chapter in the history of those who do not like the enlightened and egalitarian dimensions of democracy, and yet are faced with the fact that to be successful in politics, they need to engage in mass politics. Even if they like old empires and old monarchies, the idea is not, to take the most famous case of the Nazis, to return to the Second Reich but rather to create a different empire, a Third Reich. Fascists will eventually destroy democracy from within to create a totalitarian dictatorship. This is a key element in the definition of fascism: not every dictatorship is fascist per se, but there is no fascism without dictatorship. 

In my book From Fascism to Populism in History, I present many further elements of each. Instead of repeating these arguments one by one, let me focus on four elements which are central to the distinction between fascism and populism, distinctions that need to be approached as part of a history. When the fascists were finally defeated in 1945, there were various people who have been dictators and fascists but somehow realized that fascism had become toxic. The most famous cases are those of Juan Peron in Argentine and Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, former dictators and even fascists (in the case of Perón) who decided to do the opposite of what the fascists did. If the fascists destroyed democracy from within to create a dictatorship, these politicians decided to destroy dictatorship from within to create a kind of democracy. 

The outcome is populism in power, or what I prefer to call modern populism and full-fledged populism. Populism is now not only an oppositional movement, but it is an ‘ism’ that has become a form of power. It is indeed essential to distinguish between their moment of critique and the moment populists gain power. 

These early populists in power reject and indeed leave behind four key elements of fascism. Thinking about those elements also allows us to define fascism historically. I already anticipated one of them: there is no fascism without dictatorship. Dictatorship is central and not just any kind of dictatorship but a totalitarian one. This element was left behind by the populists who created electoral democracies. 

Element number two concerns the issue of violence and the militarization of politics, politics as a form of war involving total enemies who shall be dealt with violently. The idea of politics as driven by paramilitary formations, by physical punishment and violence on the streets first internally and later externally as well, a sort of civil war, repression, and then total war on the outside, that is left behind by these populists as well. There is no fascism without the glorification of violence and the militarization of politics, which are both key aspects of this second element. Populists, on the other hand, will not be that violent. They may be violent, perhaps, in rhetorical terms, but in sharp contrast to fascism, the levels of violence and repression were, and still are, not really that high under populist regimes. 

Element number three is a totalitarian fascist way of lying, which is different to other forms of lying in politics. As Hannah Arendt said, and I certainly agree with her, politics and lying have been joined together for a long time – we could go all the way back to the ancient Greeks for that. Yet, fascists lie in specific ways: in both qualitative and quantitative terms fascist lying is different from lying in other political traditions. This element is left behind by the early populists in power who lie like liberals, communists, and other types of politicians. They reject total ways of lying and go back to a tradition of lying in politics which will not pretend, like the fascists did, to change reality in order for reality to be in accordance with lies.

The fourth element which populist will reject or even leave entirely behind is the politics of hatred, the politics of xenophobia, or to put it even more specifically: racism. There is no fascism without racism. There is a misconception that certain fascisms were not racists. This is historically wrong. It is also historiographically passé. Now most historians of fascism present racism as a key element of transnational fascisms. The question rather is who did different fascists define as their enemy? For Peruvian fascists, for example, the enemies were immigrants from China and Japan. Brazilian fascists would say that what made Brazil better than other nations is that Brazil had a combination of races – the European white races, black African races, and indigenous races from Brazil. This was the conception of fascism that Brazilians had and yet in this conception the Jews had no place in Brazilian society, so their racism was antisemitic as opposed to the anti-Asian racism of the Peruvian fascists. The forms of racism in Italy were initially also different from the forms of racism in countries like Hungary or Germany. You do have different variations, reformulations, mutual appropriations and so on. Yet, fascism always put their racist politics of hatred and xenophobia at the very centre. These are four key elements of fascism and not all the elements of fascism, of course. 

Earlier populists leave behind these four key elements of the fascist tradition – they leave behind racism, violence, dictatorship, and total lies. That basically explains the main differences between historical populists and fascists. 

And what is going on today? The point in my research is that we are witnessing a kind of return from populism to fascism with people like Trump, Orbán, Bolsonaro and others who are re-incorporating these elements of fascism. The history I tell in my book From Fascism to Populism in History is exactly the opposite shift in history. However, I have already noted in that 2017 book of mine that populists are unmaking their quasi-democratic ways and showing signs of returning to fascist ways.

Ferenc Laczo: That’s certainly something we would like to address in greater detail later but let me first ask you a question about Latin America and the way you see the place and the role of Latin America in the global history of fascism and populism. You are a well-recognized expert on Latin American history. I was wondering what your views are on how a stronger focus on Latin American experiences could change the mainstream Western understanding of this history.

Federico Finchelstein: It is important to study not only the so-called centre but also the margins, the places that are described or perceived and sometimes indeed behave as part of the geopolitical margins. If you work on Latin America or if you work on say Zimbabwe, China, India, Japan, or Hungary, you will see that you know much more about works from the centre while those works ignore what is going on at the margins. There is an imbalance here which does not work to the benefit of those scholars who only work on the United States and the west of Europe. And by ‘the west of Europe’ I only mean a couple of countries because in the same way that the historical experiences of a country like Hungary or Argentina or Zimbabwe or India tend to be ignored, the same happens to Spain, Portugal, or Italy. The most influential studies of populism are on the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, and perhaps the US. Models are created that ignore important interconnections but also key dimensions of relevant histories.

I also referred to the fact that it is important to study an ideology and a movement not only in opposition, but also in power, so you need to study countries in which that has been the case. In that sense, the study of Orbán in Hungary or Bolsonaro in Brazil or Modi in India is even more important than the studies on populist movements in opposition in say Denmark or Germany. If you do the latter, then you will only see the glass half empty, so to speak. To find out about the entire story, you will need to study cases in which populism has been in power and, historically, that was first the case in Latin America. This is not necessarily great news if you are interested in the development of democracy and democratic values, it might not be great for many citizens of Argentina, Brazil, India, or Hungary, of course, but these countries are key to understanding populism. This is one of the arguments in my book, where I often talk about the Global South, but we should also talk about the margins.

Let me be a little crude here. Experts can sometimes be Eurocentric, Western-centric or even ethno-centric and conclude that things are one way just because that happens to be the case in France, the US or Denmark, which can indeed be very myopic. When faced with this critique, such experts often say that France is not like Hungary and Germany is not like Brazil. My problem with that kind of argument is that it does not provide an explanation of why these cases are different. It rather starts with a sort of prejudice about the supposed underdevelopment of “those other countries.” Sometimes such arguments draw explicitly on prejudices such as these are “authoritarian societies,” that these are “machoist societies” and so on, without actually analysing those societies or even just reading people who work on them. Reality is much more complex than the stereotype would make us believe according to which Latin America has a kind of machismo whereas Western Europe is simply free of the problem. Interestingly, when the question is raised about Berlusconi in Italy – an obvious case of what I call macho populism –, such experts might tell you that it is different in southern Europe. I just do not think that qualifies as analysis but is rather a stereotype or even a form of prejudice.

My point is that we should be humbler and try to learn from each other to develop a more global perspective on those who are against democracy. If you say this is typical of societies like Argentina, Brazil, or Hungary, then you just cannot understand why the same problem emerges in your society. I think the problem could be acutely observed in the United States where people were so perplexed about Trump and Trumpism. They practically wasted years thinking Trump will become more presidential, that the institution of the presidency will change him. If you were studying fascism or populism, you knew that was very unlikely to happen. And that is because the experience of Trump and Trumpism is comparable to that of Orbán in Hungary, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and other previous experiences. 

Let us go back to the historical dimension of your question. Why was Latin America the first place where historically you had this kind of reformulation of dictatorial experiences, this reformulation of fascism in a democratic key? As I said, populism is an authoritarian form of democracy, a form that combines democracy and dictatorship, meaning that it is an authoritarian, anti-liberal democracy or, as Orbán will call it, an illiberal democracy.

Let me discuss different parts of the world in turn. In most of Central and Eastern Europe, that kind of reformulation of fascism in a democracy was not possible after 1945. What you had there were communist dictatorships and populism cannot thrive in a dictatorship. That also applied to other big chunks of the world, including Asia and Africa, where there was no democracy to downgrade or minimize in the first place. In Western Europe and for different reasons also in the US, the fascist brand was extremely toxic. In countries like Germany, Italy or France, the constitutions were to an extent explicit in their anti-fascism. It is not that people did not make attempts in these countries at all, but those attempts just did not work politically.

In these countries, it took till the 1980s for neo-fascist solutions to gain some appeal. That happens, for example, in Italy. However, by then these forces consist mostly of post-fascists, i.e. of populists. There was a similar switch in France, so to say from Le Pen the father to Le Pen the daughter, where the daughter distanced herself and her movement from the neo-fascism and antisemitism of her father. In short, French neofascists were now post-fascists. They were no longer into dictatorship and became populists. Why did this kind of breakthrough, like the rise of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, happen in Europe around this time? I would say because the anti-fascist legacy, the idea that democracy had to be anti-fascist and anti-racist was eroded to some extent. 

Now a comparable thing happened in Latin America some four decades earlier. Latin America was different because in Latin America the fascist brand was not that toxic, and fascism had not been defeated in Latin America. Latin America was thus ripe for this kind of a situation, which is not an axiomatic claim but rather part of historical analysis. There were no anti-fascist constitutions in place, fascism had not really been defeated and there were democracies. You had the kind of combination here which you will also have in Hungary later – you know more about it than I do that in Hungary you had a democracy without a strong anti-fascist constitution, which had then been appropriately and reformulated in a very nationalistic or even xenophobic way by an illiberal leader. Orbán is in many ways like Peron and yet he is different because, as I said earlier, he is returning to things earlier populist would have rejected. 

Ferenc Laczo: Let us turn to your most recent book titled A Brief History of Fascist Lies. What motivated you to write this book? How do you view the role of truth and lies in fascism? To put it differently, why should we take fascist lies seriously?

Federico Finchelstein: To start with your last question: because they have had grave and even lethal consequences. Politics and lies generally go together, most politicians are liars, but they tend to be liars who do not believe in their own lies. This leads me to a key distinction between two kinds of politicians. I start the book with a couple of quotes from Trump, Hitler, and Mussolini. Hitler and Mussolini say that they are on the side of the truth, they are with the truth and that the truth shall prevail. They are in fact racist fascist liars, of course, but this then begs the question: what kind of truth are they talking about, what do they understand as the truth? 

Then I have placed a quote from Trump who infamously told his followers that they should not believe in what they are seeing. How is it possible not to believe your own eyes, not to believe what you are witnessing or experiencing? I claim that this is at the centre of the fascist notion of the truth. In fact, the fascists themselves explained this. I approach fascists from all over the world in my book who tried to clarify what they understood to be the truth. Now most of us will realize that what they understand as the truth means things that cannot be demonstrated or are empirically known to be the opposite. 

The truth to them means that the leader is always right, or the leader knows best what is good for the nation, that truth is a matter not of empirical demonstration, but rather a matter of faith, of belief in the word of the leader, that the truth should be at the service of ideology, at the service of the cult of the leader. Leopoldo Lugones, an Argentine fascist, stated that they believed in a truth that went beyond empirical truth and constituted an absolute truth. As I said, this is a truth of faith. When fascist ideology says something should be this and not that way, then it is implied that the problem is with the empirical observation of the world, not with their faith in what should be. 

Let me give you an example, which is one of the most horrible examples of this idea of the truth, which for the rest of us is a lie. If we take the Nazi racist lie that Jews are inherently dirty and spread disease, that is a lie. It could not in any way have been empirically demonstrated. A regular person would say that if that cannot be shown to be the case in any way, it is not true. But what did fascists do with that? They created ghettos and concentration camps. They put Jews from all over Europe in those places with horrible sanitary conditions and without food. 

These were laboratories where what was a lie could become true in the sense that these people, Jewish people who had been forced into such situations, became dirty, and even started to spread disease. This was the case only because the Nazis created a new reality for their lies to become true. Jews obviously were not like that but in this new, manufactured reality they were then killed. People were turned into living examples of the truth of ideology, which in fact is not a truth but rather an ideological imperative to prove a lie. Like I said, this is one of the most horrible examples to illustrate my larger point.

Ferenc Laczo: Your book also explores the relationship between fascism and psychoanalysis, a topic that you have devoted quite some attention to already in your previous work. I was wondering whether you would mind speaking about the role of the unconscious in fascism and how those ideas regarding the unconscious relate to the Freudian ones?

Federico Finchelstein: They do not and that is a key distinction. And yet, I was wondering why so many fascists were so concerned about psychoanalysis. What was their problem with it which, of course, they often articulated in racist terms? 

Psychoanalysis presented an idea of the unconscious that was quite complicated. To simplify it, the idea, according to Freud, is that whatever violent or destructive drive emerges out of the unconscious needs to be mediated and even repressed through language and culture for people to be peaceful and stable and, I would add, for them to be democratic. For Freud, the unconscious could be the source of a lot of violence and a lot of terrible things that needed to be mediated through reason, so that even if individuals would feel an urge to be violent, they would know that was not good and not ethical. 

It was the exact opposite in fascism. According to fascists, everything that emerges from the inside, from the unconscious – fascists sometimes talked about instincts or the soul in this context when they were referring to the urges to be violent and destructive – was good and would be tainted by the application of reason. This is obviously an attack on thought and reason. They will identify everything that emerges from the inner workings of the soul as part of the ideological truth of fascism, as the truth that should prevail. This is an extremely a Hobbesian view of the state of nature if you wish. The idea here is that everything that emerges from the inside should be expanded as the unconscious is the source of legitimate political drives. 

They thought that people should connect to the leader through affect and aesthetic notions rather than thinking. They saw another problem with psychoanalysis because they saw nothing sexual in such urges and desires. This is something that Walter Benjamin and many other thinkers also observed and critiqued: fascism is about a politics of spectacle. The idea was that people should not follow fascism because of their program, which did not really exist, but rather because they felt an irrational connection with the leader. People like Freud and later, Adorno, Horkheimer and many others thought that this was extremely dangerous and could be the source of a lot of violence. It was also the source of fascist ideas of truth, which were in fact lies. 

Ferenc Laczo: Let me ask you a slightly different question. You already alluded to the current discussions about Bolsonaro, Modi, Orbán and how in a certain sense they are reviving parts of the fascist tradition to move back from populism and closer to the fascist original. Would you mind speaking about how you relate to the ongoing fascism debate in the US now that Trump is out of office? How does that change the situation in your view?

Federico Finchelstein: Trump started his campaign with the politics of hatred, what German Social Democracy long ago called the socialism of fools. He started his campaign by accusing Mexicans, which in the context of the US means Latinos or Hispanics as a whole, of being rapists. He started the campaign with a racist statement, a new politics of xenophobia in which many people heard, and I think rightly so, echoes of fascist ideas. 

Let us go back to the four elements that we were talking about earlier. When you see a politician who is openly xenophobic, who lies both in quantitative and in qualitative terms in ways that are not typical ways of lying in politics but rather fascist ways, a politician who glorifies violence and engages in repression very actively, and even promotes the militarization of politics through support for the formation and legitimisation of militias, neo-Nazis and other armed groups like that, then it is legitimate to ask, how connected is this to fascism?

At the same time, I think that in the US discussions, this important dimension has tended to be presented in a simplified and even rather silly way, through asking whether it is this or that. The interesting question is not whether Trump is a fascist or not, but whether there is a risk of fascism in his politics. Even if you forget about the important events of January 6, what you see is that of the four elements, three were in place well before: violence and the militarisation of politics, racism, and lies. However, Trumpism was lacking a key element of fascism and that is dictatorship. 

What you saw on January 6 was an attempt at a coup d’état. How can you define the rule of a President who had not been re-elected and remains in power contrary to the result of the elections? Had his attempt succeeded, Trump would have become a dictator. In that case, it would have been fair to think of him as a fascist.

I have always called him a wannabe fascist, by which I mean an authoritarian leader who would like to become a dictator. Nowadays there are lots of forces against such authoritarian leanings in the US, Brazil, Hungary, and many other places, and so the leaders cannot do what they would like to. In the case of Hungary, for example, we see the formation of a kind of anti-Orbán front. 

However, if Orbán is defeated at the next elections and then attempts to remain in power through extrajudicial means, then there will be a switch from the illiberal, anti-democratic state that he has created into an actual dictatorship. Then it would be possible, I think, to really see how far he has moved from populism to fascism. For more than two years now we have been seeing such politicians at the threshold of populism and fascism. They have not been full-fledged fascists because they are not dictators. And that is why I think that the US debate whether Trump is a fascist or not is often myopic. These questions are more complex than that.

Ferenc Laczo: I wanted to ask you a final question in connection with your recent book, which I read as a treatise on history and myth and through that also on democracy and dictatorship. We talked quite a bit about the role of lies and the role of myth in dictatorship already. Would you mind speaking a bit to the role of history in democracy?

Federico Finchelstein: It is at the centre of this authoritarian way of lying to have a problem with other actors. You can tell why they would have a problem with the free press because, as opposed to propaganda, an independent press provides empirical data for the population to develop an interpretation of reality. That is why authoritarians inevitably have a problem with the free press because more free press means more empirical analyses which go against their lies, propaganda, and indeed myths. 

The same happens with the work of historians because history is supported by facts. History is, after all, an interpretation of facts whereas political myth is an interpretation of fantasies and propaganda. The latter is not related to and does not necessarily rely on facts. Authoritarians therefore always have a problem with an interpretation of the past supported by facts –what we call history.

In the Trumpian case, one of the slogans was ‘make America great again.’ A historian would ask, what was so great about America before civil rights that he is referring to? What was supposedly great in the eyes of such people is that minorities were strongly repressed and there was something close to apartheid in the US. I think it is fair to compare US democracy to other young democracies, such as, for example, Spain. How could you call the US democratic before the civil rights reforms when there were people who, just because of the colour of their skin, couldn’t fully vote?

This is what the myth of the past as enabled and re-enacted by Trumpism provide: an idea of the US past, which does not correspond to the reality of that past. And that is why people who are not into that saw it for what it was: a racist myth of the nation.

Collaboration: Karen Culver

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