Yale Professor Jason Stanley Identifies 3 Essential Features of Fascism: Invoking a Mythic Past, Sowing Division & Attacking Truth

New books on fas­cism are pop­ping up every­where, from inde­pen­dent press­es, for­mer world lead­ers like Madeleine Albright, and aca­d­e­mics like Jason Stan­ley, Jacob Urowsky Pro­fes­sor of Phi­los­o­phy at Yale Uni­ver­si­ty. Stanley’s lat­est book, How Fas­cism Works: The Pol­i­tics of Us and Them, has been described as a “vital read for a nation under Trump.” And yet, as The Guardian’s Tom McCarthy writes, one of the ironies Stan­ley points out is that—despite the wide­spread cur­ren­cy of the term these days—fascism suc­ceeds by mak­ing “talk of fas­cism… seem out­landish.”

Is it?

The word has cer­tain­ly been dilut­ed by years of mis­use. Umber­to Eco wrote in his 1995 essay “Ur-Fas­cism” that “fas­cist” as an epi­thet was casu­al­ly thrown around “by Amer­i­can rad­i­cals… to refer to a cop who did not approve of their smok­ing habits.” When every author­i­ty fig­ure who seems to abuse pow­er gets labeled a fas­cist, the word los­es its explana­to­ry pow­er and its his­to­ry dis­ap­pears. But Eco, who grew up under Mus­soli­ni and under­stood fas­cist Europe, insist­ed that fas­cism has clear­ly rec­og­niz­able, and portable, if not par­tic­u­lar­ly coher­ent, fea­tures.

“The fas­cist game can be played in many forms,” Eco wrote, depend­ing on the nation­al mytholo­gies and cul­tur­al his­to­ry of the coun­try in which it takes root. Rather than a sin­gle polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, Eco argued, fas­cism is “a col­lage… a bee­hive of con­tra­dic­tions.” He enu­mer­at­ed four­teen fea­tures that delin­eate it from oth­er forms of pol­i­tics. Like Eco, Stan­ley also iden­ti­fies some core traits of fas­cism, such as “pub­li­ciz­ing false charges of cor­rup­tion,” as he writes in his book, “while engag­ing in cor­rupt prac­tice.”

In the short New York Times opin­ion video above, Stan­ley sum­ma­rizes his “for­mu­la for fascism”—a “sur­pris­ing­ly sim­ple” pat­tern now repeat­ing in Europe, South Amer­i­ca, India, Myan­mar, Turkey, the Philip­pines, and “right here in the Unit­ed States.” No mat­ter where they appear, “fas­cist politi­cians are cut from the same cloth,” he says. The ele­ments of his for­mu­la are:

1. Con­jur­ing a “myth­ic past” that has sup­pos­ed­ly been destroyed (“by lib­er­als, fem­i­nists, and immi­grants”). Mus­soli­ni had Rome, Turkey’s Erdoğan has the Ottoman Empire, and Hungary’s Vik­tor Orban rewrote the country’s con­sti­tu­tion with the aim of “mak­ing Hun­gary great again.” These myths rely on an “over­whelm­ing sense of nos­tal­gia for a past that is racial­ly pure, tra­di­tion­al, and patri­ar­chal.” Fas­cist lead­ers “posi­tion them­selves as father fig­ures and strong­men” who alone can restore lost great­ness. And yes, the fas­cist leader is “always a ‘he.’”

2. Fas­cist lead­ers sow divi­sion; they suc­ceed by “turn­ing groups against each oth­er,” inflam­ing his­tor­i­cal antag­o­nisms and ancient hatreds for their own advan­tage. Social divi­sions in themselves—between class­es, reli­gions, eth­nic groups and so on—are what we might call pre-exist­ing con­di­tions. Fas­cists may not invent the hate, but they cyn­i­cal­ly instru­men­tal­ize it: demo­niz­ing out­groups, nor­mal­iz­ing and nat­u­ral­iz­ing big­otry, stok­ing vio­lence to jus­ti­fy repres­sive “law and order” poli­cies, the cur­tail­ing of civ­il rights and due process, and the mass impris­on­ment and killing of man­u­fac­tured ene­mies.

3. Fas­cists “attack the truth” with pro­pa­gan­da, in par­tic­u­lar “a kind of anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism” that “cre­ates a petri dish for con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries.” (Stanley’s fourth book, pub­lished by Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press, is titled How Pro­pa­gan­da Works.) We would have to be extra­or­di­nar­i­ly naïve to think that only fas­cist politi­cians lie, but we should focus here on the ques­tion of degree. For fas­cists, truth doesn’t mat­ter at all. (As Rudy Giu­liani says, “truth isn’t truth.”) Han­nah Arendt wrote that fas­cism relies on “a con­sis­tent and total sub­sti­tu­tion of lies for fac­tu­al truth.” She described the phe­nom­e­non as destroy­ing “the sense by which we take our bear­ings in the real world.… [T]he cat­e­go­ry of truth vers­es false­hood [being] among the men­tal means to this end.” In such an atmos­phere, any­thing is pos­si­ble, no mat­ter how pre­vi­ous­ly unthink­able.

Using this rubric, Stan­ley links the tac­tics and state­ments of fas­cist lead­ers around the world with those of the cur­rent U.S. pres­i­dent. It’s a per­sua­sive case that would prob­a­bly sway ear­li­er the­o­rists of fas­cism like Eco and Arendt. Whether he can con­vince Amer­i­cans who find talk of fas­cism “outlandish”—or who loose­ly use the word to describe any politi­cian or group they don’t like—is anoth­er ques­tion entire­ly.

FYI: You can down­load Stan­ley’s new book How Fas­cism Works, as a free audio­book if you want to try out Audible.com’s no-risk, 30-day free tri­al pro­gram. Find details here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Umber­to Eco Makes a List of the 14 Com­mon Fea­tures of Fas­cism

Han­nah Arendt Explains How Pro­pa­gan­da Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Moral­i­ty: Insights from The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism

George Orwell Tries to Iden­ti­fy Who Is Real­ly a “Fas­cist” and Define the Mean­ing of This “Much-Abused Word” (1944)

20 Lessons from the 20th Cen­tu­ry About How to Defend Democ­ra­cy from Author­i­tar­i­an­ism, Accord­ing to Yale His­to­ri­an Tim­o­thy Sny­der

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (22)
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  • Dennis Davis says:

    Amaz­ing how the intol­er­ant vio­lence-threat­en­ing left accus­es con­ser­v­a­tives of being fas­cist.

  • Bobster says:

    Hon­est­ly, this “fas­cism” can indeed describe the cur­rent left zeit­geist. Trump (not defend­ing him, mind you) can be seen as a reac­tion to the con­stant redfin­ing of terms and cul­tur­al chaos, and the denial of sci­ence when it suits the left (as does the right). As far as a Myth­ic Past, cast­ing all whites as gnarling slave own­ers when it was only a very small per­cent­age, act­ing as if there was a gold­en era before colo­nial­ism could also be seen as mak­ing up a past.

    Not argu­ing the pro­fes­sors list, just say­ing it can apply to more than one polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy, even at one time. Oppose Trump’s poli­cies, but please, name call­ing is not help­ing.

    FWIW, ide­o­log­i­cal­ly fas­cism is an out­dat­ed term that should only be applied to Mus­solin­i’s regime.

  • Bill W. says:

    “Fas­cism” to today’s Left­ists (specif­i­cal­ly Pro­gres­sives), means ANYONE to the right of Stal­in, clas­sic-lib­er­als includ­ed. The word, like “big­ot,” “racist,” “hater,” and oth­ers before it, have been so mis­used and thrown-around so care­less­ly that it’s orig­i­nal mean­ing and impli­ca­tions have cheap­ened, deval­ued of it’s true mean­ing. Too many of those who like to use that word, are actu­al­ly pro­ject­ing their own beliefs and attitudes–mask-wearing peo­ple who car­ry weapons destroy­ing prop­er­ty, and ver­bal­ly and phys­i­cal­ly attack­ing any­body who dis­agrees with their rad­i­cal, nar­row-beliefs comes to mind. No, I’m not talk­ing about the almost non-exis­tent and decades-defunct KKK-bogey­man, either! Mean­while, Com­mu­nists, with their mil­lions more dead than Nazism, loom in the cor­ner, com­plete­ly unno­ticed by those wor­ried about total­i­tar­i­an­ism…

  • JustSayin says:

    3a: Accuse the oth­er side of the very things you’re most guilty of. It’s an effec­tive pro­pa­gan­da tool. Rhetor­i­cal ju-jit­su. Thus, the left is unique­ly “intol­er­ant” or “big­ot­ed” or “dan­ger­ous” or “vio­lent” or “want­i­ng to per­pet­u­ate slav­ery.” (That last one’s espe­cial­ly rich com­ing from Repub­li­cans.)

  • TexasHoldEm says:

    The coor­di­nat­ed stream of pro­pa­gan­da and hatred com­ing out of the news media since elec­tion night on 2016 is exact­ly what you’d expect from a fas­cist nation, except the fas­cist lost, but they still con­trol the micro­phones and TV broad­casts, and can’t tol­er­ate being called out for what they are.

  • Ralph Musgrave says:

    I’m amused by the way Jason Stan­ley sup­ports his claim that the word fas­cism has been over used for a long time by refer­ring to some­thing writ­ten in 1995. Actu­al­ly George Orwell point­ed out in the 1940s that the word had become mean­ing­less thru over-use.

  • Ralph Musgrave says:

    Left­ies repeat the word “fas­cist” like dement­ed par­rots because like par­rots, dogs, cats etc they have dif­fi­cul­ty in enun­ci­at­ing more than about ten nois­es: fas­cist, racist, Nazi and that’s about it…:-)

  • Plum says:

    … so it isn’t the same at all.

  • Jesus says:

    Das Kap­i­tal would beg to dif­fer!

  • Thomas R Bowes says:

    how any sane per­son can­not see a direct link to fas­cism by the demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties behav­ior is insane.
    try­ing to con­trol the media, shut­ting down free speech,conjuring fake charges against peo­ple they want to elim­i­nate, call­ing all oppos­ing views “hate speech” etc.its appalling
    when the back­lash kicks in i hope all of the evil sick peo­ple suf­fer

  • Richard Purdie says:

    This is fine from Jason Stan­ley, yet he miss­es a cru­cial ele­ment whose under­stand­ing is vital for those who would pre­vent a fas­cist resur­gence: name­ly the recruit­ment of a Street army of thugs equipped to employ vio­lence to destroy oppo­si­tion

  • Dan Grossman says:

    Those are apt points, and those three fea­tures were cer­tain­ly ways that fas­cist lead­ers tried to gen­er­ate sup­port for their cause. In oth­er words, they pro­vid­ed the “appeal” of fas­cist ide­ol­o­gy. But fas­cism is not just about “style” (the ways fas­cists seek to gen­er­ate sup­port) but also sub­stance (the poli­cies advo­cat­ed, and adopt­ed once in pow­er). The SUBSTANCE of fas­cism (as opposed to the rea­sons for its appeal) involved the elim­i­na­tion of polit­i­cal free­doms (press, speech, etc.) and cen­tral­ized gov­ern­ment con­trol of all pri­vate activ­i­ty (indus­tri­al, pro­fes­sion­al, social, etc.) exer­cised by one leader.
    The three things in this arti­cle do describe ways that fas­cists of the past tried to make their ide­ol­o­gy appeal to peo­ple, but they also describe ways non-facists tried to gen­er­ate sup­port as well. These tac­tics have been used by both fas­cists and non-fas­cists, and the exis­tence of these par­tic­u­lar fea­tures do not define whether or not a par­tic­u­lar politi­cian or polit­i­cal move­ment is “fas­cist.”


    Now it is Feb­ru­ary 2020. If any­one thinks Trump has NOT become more deeply entrenched in his desire to cre­ate an author­i­tar­i­an sys­tem answer­ing only to him, then they are seri­ous­ly mis­read­ing the evi­dence. The bizarre gaslight­ing and “no, the left is the one who is fas­cist” non­sense here would be fun­ny if it were not dis­turb­ing. I have a PhD in His­to­ry from UC Berke­ley (2011). The way that Trump’s rise rhymes with that of Mus­soli­ni and Vik­tor Orban is clear.

  • Alex Mavro says:

    Just like the fed­er­al grab-bag pos­see in DC and Port­land, cor­rect? “Vio­lence to destroy oppo­si­tion,” indeed!

  • Janice K Filley says:

    Now it is 2021.

  • TommyD says:

    EXACTLY. Of course, this is a clas­sic Saul Alin­sky tac­tic of accus­ing your oppo­nent of exact­ly what you your­self are doing.

  • TommyD says:

    The NAZIS (Nation­al SOCIALIST Ger­man Work­ers Par­ty) were, duh, LEFT WING SOCIALISTS. Every­thing about the Hitler and his Nation­al SOCIALISTS was LEFT WING from their nation­al­ized health­care to their defac­to cen­tral­ly planned econ­o­my.

    Heck, it was Hitler him­self who com­mis­sioned the design and cre­ation of Lib­er­al’s favorite car, the Volk­swag­on. Even the car’s names (The Peo­ple’s Car) is Left­ist meme invok­ing the Col­lec­tive. Had a Con­ser­v­a­tive invent­ed the VW it would have been name the Free­dom Car invok­ing the indi­vid­ual.

  • TommyD says:

    Hey, Just­Sayin,

    DEMS were the slave own­ers
    DEMS lead the Con­fed­er­a­cy
    DEMS found­ed the KKK
    DEMS wrote the Jim Crow Laws
    DEM Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son seg­re­gat­ed the Fed­er­al Gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary
    DEM Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son pro­mot­ed the KKK to its zenith of pow­er and respectabil­i­ty
    DEM Super­hero MAGARATE SANGER was a rabid, racist, White Supremist who dreamed of elim­i­nat­ing Blacks from the human gene pool. She also proud­ly pub­lished in the April 1933 issue (just after Hitler came to pow­er) of her Birth Con­trol Review mag­a­zine an arti­cle by Ernst Rudin who was a key intel­lec­tu­al archi­tect of the Halo­caust. Hillary Clin­ton and Nan­cy Pelosi both proud­ly accept­ed, with tears in their eyes, the cov­et­ed (by Lib­er­als) MARGARET SANGER AWARD.

    Today’s DEMS think Blacks are too stu­pid to get VOTER ID. Almost no DEM lead­ers will denounce the rapid anti-Semi­te Louis Far­rakhan. Vir­tu­al­ly all DEMS sup­port Planned Par­ent­hood (found­ed by White Supremist Mar­garet Sanger) which tar­gets Blacks for abor­tion.

  • TommyD says:

    To: Bill W

    Stal­in was a Left Wing COMMUNIST. I’m sure you knew this and I appre­ci­ate your “ANYONE to the right of Stal­in …” expres­sion, but it per­pet­u­ates the idea that Com­mu­nist dic­ta­tor Stal­in was some­how Right Wing.

  • Oliver Surpless says:

    Nev­er unex­pect­ed to see such fan­ci­ful notions, but after the arti­cle has Stan­ley quot­ing “fas­cism suc­ceeds by mak­ing “talk of fas­cism… seem out­landish.”, pulling out the “Nazis were social­ists!” canard is a real

  • Oliver Surpless says:

    phe­nom­e­non in itself…

    For­tu­nate­ly we have schol­ar­ly arti­cles like this read­i­ly avail­able:

    “The Nazi eco­nom­ic the­o­ry, as laid down in the Offi­cial Par­ty Pro­gramme, is not worth the paper it is print­ed on. The so called social­is­tic ele­ments were final­ly purged on June 30, 1934, because they object­ed to the way things were going, and because their orga­ni­za­tion, the S.A. (Brown­shirt­ed Stormtroop­ers) was con­sid­ered dan­ger­ous by the pow­ers in the state.

    But it was clear at a much ear­li­er stage that the social­is­tic talk in the Nazi Par­ty was not to be tak­en seri­ous­ly.” — Star­gardt, 6 — https://www.jstor.org/stable/20631220

    And the mere fact that Star­gardt had fig­ured this out before the war was EVEN over (writ­ing in 1944) sug­gests that there is a delib­er­ate effort to obfus­cate his­to­ry on the lev­el of the Lost Cause…

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