The author Umberto Eco was uniquely qualified to recognize fascism. He was eleven years old when Italy’s tyrant Mussolini died and the boy read the words “freedom,” “dictatorship,” and “liberty” for the first time in his life.
“I was reborn as a free Western man by virtue of these new words,” he wrote in a 1995 essay defining fascism in The New York Review of Books.
“We must keep alert, so that the sense of these words will not be forgotten again. Ur-Fascism [Eternal Fascism] is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. 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.”
In that essay, Eco laid out fourteen identifying features of fascism, warning that though some of them contradict each other “it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.” Eco, a prolific author, philosopher and university professor, died in 2016, eight months before our last presidential election. But in the context of Donald Trump’s minority-vote presidency his essay might have been written yesterday.
High on the list of defining characteristics is what he calls irrationalism, action taken for its own sake without previous reflection and with “distrust of the intellectual world . . . for having betrayed traditional values.” While “the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge,” to the fascist disagreement is treason.
As “disagreement is a sign of diversity,” fascism “seeks consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference” and intruders and is by definition racist.
Historical fascism, Eco wrote, appealed to social frustration, economic or political humiliation, and fear of lower social groups. “In our time, when the old ‘proletarians’ are becoming petty bourgeois . . . , the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.”
He also listed obsession with a plot and the communality of being born in the same country, xenophobia, machismo, disdain for women and preoccupation with weapons as “an ersatz phallic exercise.”
The penultimate characteristic is what he calls “selective populism” in which “individuals have no rights and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the popular will” with the leader as their interpreter. “Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction,” and the leader is “against ‘rotten’ parliamentary governments.”
“There is in our future,” Eco wrote in 1995, “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.”
Think Greenville, North Carolina, July 17, 2019, or any one of the other Trumpist political rallies.
The fourteenth and final characteristic is the use of what George Orwell called in his novel 1984“Newspeak,” which Eco describes as the “use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.” This, he warns, could “take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.”
Think Fox News.
Eco appeared to recognize even in 1995 how close the danger of fascism was in America’s future, for near the end of his essay he quoted a 1938 remark by President Franklin Roosevelt:
“I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.”