What is Fascism, Anyway?

Mussolini Headquarters in Rome.

The word “fascism” gets thrown around so casually that it has lost meaning. It can be a clever way to call your boss a “jerk.” Or it can be a political accusation, used by left or right, to strongly disagree on policy.

The word has a real meaning, though. We would be wise to stay sensitive to what fascism looks like.

The fasces was a symbol of power in ancient Rome. A fasces is an ax surrounded by wooden rods. Notorious dictator Benito Mussolini used the symbol for his political party– the National Fascist Party.

After the first World War, Italy was down and out. Though they helped the victorious Allied Powers, they felt disrespected, left out, underappreciated. Mussolini used this sentiment to disparage Western democracy and build a coalition around himself, asserting Italian strength.

When Adolf Hitler was competing for power in a fractured Germany, he looked to Mussolini for an example. Many of Hitler’s tactics came directly from the Fascist playbook.

The fascism of Italy and Germany had a few things in common:

  • a nationalist spirit, trying to reinvigorate their country’s previous glory
  • belief that the path to restoration needs a strong leader
  • building a cult of personality around that leader
  • working to silence critics and control the media
  • consolidating industry, business, and military around the leader’s intentions
  • scapegoating and attacking “outsiders” for being disloyal or hurting the country
  • strong-arming the democratic process to gain more power
  • manipulating events and circumstances to suspend civil liberties and take total control

We know how things turned out back then. Just remember they didn’t happen overnight.


We take political freedom for granted in the United States. It’s an automatic assumption. It’s what we have. We’ve always had it, and we always will.

That is a dangerous fallacy. According to the Freedom House, only 40% of the world’s population enjoy true political freedom, measured by the existence of competing parties, the universal right to vote, valid elections, and a free press. The Greek and Roman democratic governments, from which our government is modeled, both fell into autocracy. And they didn’t fall in a day.

My generation has never experienced a serious threat to our way of life. Our biggest frustration is not climbing the ladder as fast as our parents. We get bashed for being self-absorbed. We are the selfie generation. Our faces glued to phones and TV screens, awaiting the next burst of entertainment. Self-expression bought and posted online, carefully compared to those around us. Politics, another fad, another way to express myself– as a contrarian, or an accepting and compassionate person. Or a blissfully aloof soul.

After the Constitutional Convention, someone asked Benjamin Franklin, the aging diplomat, what kind of government the Founding Fathers came up with. He replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

Thousands of passionate heroes over the years have sacrificed to keep it, or to define it.

My fear is that, as we play with our shiny objects, we will lose it.


I used to think the answer to “real engagement with the world” was shutting down and logging out. Can’t even count the number of times I have deactivated Facebook or deleted all social media apps from my phone. Always to come crawling back. Lately, I feel like I am stoking a fire of online connection. Trying to stay warm, but not get burned. Sometimes I open a book or newspaper with the intention to read, and spend the next 30 minutes scrolling through Twitter, watching pro-Trump and anti-Trump users hurl insults at each other. Depressing. During those times I feel like I am managing a drug addiction.

Balance is needed, but I don’t know how to achieve it.

Anyway, the best advice I have seen on how to approach the next four years came from a tweetstorm. By an independent 2016 presidential candidate out of Utah named Evan McMullin, who has become the most vocal conservative critic of our president-elect.

He says:

If Trump governs as an authoritarian like he has promised, it will be critical that Americans do the following 10 things:

  1. Read and learn the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Know that our basic rights are inalienable.
  2. Identify and follow many credible sources of news. Be very well informed and learn to discern truth from untruth.
  3. Watch every word, decision and action of Trump and his administration extremely closely, like we have never done before in America.
  4. Be very vocal in every forum available to us when we observe Trump’s violations of our rights and our democracy. Write, speak, act.
  5. Support journalists, artists, academics, clergy and others who speak truth and who inform, inspire and unite us.
  6. Build bridges with Americans from the other side of the traditional political spectrum and with members of diverse American communities.
  7. Defend others who may be threatened by Trump even if they don’t look, think or believe like us. An attack on one is an attack on all.
  8. Organize online and in person with other Americans who understand the danger Trump poses and who are also willing to speak up.
  9. Hold members of Congress accountable for protecting our rights and democracy through elections and by making public demands of them now.
  10. And finally, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, have “malice toward none, with charity for all” and never ever lose hope!

These words are more than a recipe for Trump-resistance. They are basic guiding principles to keeping a republic and building a better society.

For further reading on this topic:


Author: Billy

High school teacher and blogger.

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