18 October 2020

Fascism, authoritarianism, totalitarianism

We must take care with the word “fascism” and use it, and related terms, precisely.


The term “authoritarianism” means something more broad than “fascism”, describing a range of conditions in which the powerful have their power unchecked by limiting institutions, tests of legitimacy, et cetera.

Fascism is an authoritarianism but not all authoritarianisms are fascist. The USSR, Gaddafi’s Libya, and contemporary Singapore are all authoritarian states with a distinctly different politics from fascism.


The term “totalitarianism” refers to a distinct form of authoritarianism which overlaps with fascism but is not simply the same. Not all authoritarian societies qualify as totalitarian.

In a totalitarian society, not only is power unchecked, it pursues limitless exercise of power over every aspect of life. East Germany was totalitarian, trying to put literally every single citizen under active surveillance by the secret police, torturing people for deviance from government wishes in the minutiae of their private lives.

The concept of totalitarianism helps us think about how Stalin’s USSR, late Nazi Germany, and ISIL have striking similarities despite very different ideologies and policy programs.


Scholars famously have a hard time tidily defining fascism because of how it adapts to particular conditions; each fascist movement has its idiosyncratic national and historical characteristics. I recommend spending time with Wikipedia’s suprisingly good index of definitions of fascism.

It can be useful to start by dismissing some ways we tend to misunderstand fascism.

Common confusions

Fascism is an authoritiarianism, but often does not understand itself that way, offering instead a kind of anti-politics which implies a rejection of the authoritarian power it seeks. Its logics drive it toward totalitarianism once it holds power, but this does not define it.

Fascism is a far right ideology — it holds that nothing less than revolutionary change is worthwhile (far) and opposes equality (right) — but fascism has sufficiently particular characteristics that not all far right movements are fascist. Consider neoreaction for an example of a far right movement in the US distinct from fascism.

Fascism confuses us in part because of blurring between political ideologies with a vision of society & governance (like liberal democracy, monarchism, or theocracy) versus ideologies with a policy program (like neoliberalism, socialism, or Islamism). Leninism has both a vision of the social & governance order and a policy program of socialist economics; it turns to authoritarianism in pursuit of those aims. Fascism is very different, defined entirely by its vision of society & governance, with a radical distinterest in policy: fascist movements shift policy positions whenever convenient to seize more power, often embracing absurd policy positions which drive focus away from policy.

Fascist disinterest in policy is part of why I reject how many leftists describe fascism as an instrument which capitalism or liberalism or neoliberalism creates to crush the left. Sometimes this invokes a canard about Mussolini describing fascism as “corporatism”. We must dread how capitalists and anti-left-liberals enthuiastically make a faustian bargain with fascists, but to imagine fascism as their creation misses how fascism emerges from impulses prior to elite manipulation.

Recognizing fascism

I think scholar David Griffin provides the best single thesis, summarizing fascism as “palingenetic ultranationalism”: a dream of violent national rebirth. He finds many other characteristics common among fascist movements, but with all the variation between them, he says that reflects its core.

I have my own distillation of that and other theories of fascism which I find useful in recognizing and understanding it even in cases where it does not hold the authoritarian power it craves. Fascism combines a myth and a method which together drive it toward totalitarianism and mass violence when it holds power.

Fascism’s myth

  • the essence of our nation is strong and great and virtuous
  • the essence of our people is good, united, unique, and distinct from all others
  • in the inexorable violent contest between peoples of the world our nation is destined to prevail
  • but alien, corrupting influences have created weakness and division which will destroy the nation
  • this corruption must be destroyed through violence at the direction of a strong leader of profound insight
  • our movement will produce a rebirth into greatness and unity and power, an escape from our national strife of petty politics

My later post The Conspiracy Theory addresses how that pattern relates to the fascist fantasy of responding to a corrupting force destroying the nation.

The Conspiracy Theory offers a paradoxically comforting nightmare. Someone is in control of All This. The world can be made right simply by eliminating Them. [⋯] Since Nazis put The Jews at the top of the list of Those Who Corrupt, drawing on the Protocols and its decendants, it is tempting to imagine that antisemitism is part of the definition of fascism. But neither fascism nor The Conspiracy Theory are always or simply antisemitic.

Fascism’s method

Fascism considers it a virtue to act in bad faith, because this destroys the libdem institutions & sensibilities they hate by abusing them. (Here “liberal” means not “neither conservative nor leftist”, but rather “rights and rule of law”.) Thus fascism will do things like …

  • yell “fire” in a crowded theater to discredit commitment to free speech
  • lie brazenly and to claim that the press are motivated solely by politics so that citizens stop trying to figure out what the truth is
  • sow violence in society so that limits on the use of force by the state seem pointless

Fascism in the US

The fascist sensibility has deep taproots in American political culture. We can see precursors to it in the logic of the Confederacy and the Klan in the Reconstruction era. We see echoes and rhymes with the fascist sensibility in the John Birch society and the “Patriot” movement.

And we have long had proper fascism. The 20th century revival of the Klan is arguably the first true fascist movement. We do not remember Timothy McVeigh as a fascist, but we should.

Our inability to see American fascism partly reflects how our deep rhetorical commitment to liberal democracy complicates our distinctive national fascist voice. (Again, not “liberal” as in “not conservative” or “not leftist”, but rather “liberal” as in “universal rights and rule of law”.) All of our politics references “freedom” and “rights” and so forth, which means American fascism needs to be more oblique in expressing its authoritarian rejection of libdem principle than other fascisms do.


For a long time, I referred to DJT and Team Trump as “para-fascist”: the differences from historical fascism were sufficient to make me hesitant, but the resemblances were too strong to ignore. Partly this reflected how Trump himself is barely interested in politics qua politics, rather being driven by his personal narcissism. Fascism reflects his fundamental urges rather than his considered ideology. It emerges at least as much from the team & movement around him as it does from him personally.

But as more and more pieces have fallen into place, it has become unmistakable one cannot understand “Trumpism” without reading it as a form of fascism. The movement’s key slogan “Make America Great Again” could not be a more perfect encapsulation of Roger Griffin’s “palingenetic ultranationalism” thesis. Not everyone who finds MAGA rhetoric appealing can be understood as a fascist, nor does all of American fascism identify or align itself with MAGA, but it is as good a locus as any for naming the fascist movement which we have to face.

Looking again at The Conspiracy Theory, we should recognize how American fascism has adapted to the pseudo-philo-semitism of Christian nationalism.

Many contemporary fascists cast trans people as Them, a frightening and frighteningly effective innovation, since in amplifying fascism’s anxieties about masculinity, in being a small-yet-pervasive population, in and many other ways trans people fulfill the function of Them in fascism and The Conspiracy Theory even better than Jews do.

Though MAGA fascism now dominates US conservatism and the Republican Party, we should recognize this as unstable in a time of transition. Movement conservatism, the style of conservatism which consumed the Party and US politics in the wake of Reagan and Fox News, sold itself to many voters with oblique dogwhistles which nourished fascist sensibilities, but was not itself fascist. MAGA is a move away from movement conservatism, reflecting voters’ dissatisfaction with movement conservatism’s failure to deliver the goods. The breakdown of movement conservatism has put the US into a major political reälignment; it is impossible to predict who will have a chair when the music stops.

After originally writing this post I came to rely on it heavily, and have thus made a number of edits since. In particular, the initial version implied that the Confederacy and original Klan were simply fascist, which was misleading — they differ in a fraught relationship with the Westphalian nation-state and other ways. In refining the phrasing on that point and many other things, I have tried to bring greater clarity without destroying the sense.

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