The key difference between populism and fascism

All fascists may be populists, but not all populists are fascist.
All fascists may be populists, but not all populists are fascist.
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Brexit, Donald Trump’s US presidential election, the ascent of France’s Marine Le Pen, Italy’s Five Star Movement: The whole Western world appears to be in the thrall of populists. For many, this seems like a bit of a dejà vu, evoking the 1920s and 1930s, with their looming threat of fascism.

There are, indeed, similarities between today’s political landscape and what Europe experienced in the buildup to World War II, as well as with other times when populism eventually turned into fascism—such as Francoist Spain, or Peronist Argentina. But while fascism usually is rooted in populism, starting with populism doesn’t inevitably mean you’ll wind up with fascism.

Federico Finchelstein, a professor of history at the New School in New York City, pointed out to Quartz that the two political doctrines share some core traits.

Here’s what makes a figure like Trump a text-book populist:

  • division of society into two camps, “the people” and “the elites”
  • a proud antagonism toward intellectuals
  • the rejection of culture and knowledge in favor of instinct
  • the promotion of polarizing views
  • demonization of one’s opponent
  • a contempt for judiciary, military, and political powers
  • a strong intolerance of free press

But while America’s democracy may be facing some trying times, there is still a key difference between populism and actual fascism: the use of violence.

The adoption of violence to impose fascist authority is a key element of fascism both as a movement and as a regime, says Finchelstein. It expresses itself as street violence first, and then through the militarization of government. Fascist leaders take power not just through popular support, but thanks to the action of squads that violently attack opponents, and that are then incorporated into the running of the state as paramilitary formations.

On the other hand, Finchelstein explains, “populism combines low level actual violence with high level rhetorical violence,” applying it to “an authoritarian way of understanding democracy.” In that is another important distinction between fascism and populism: “fascism is never a democracy, while populism undermines democracy, but doesn’t remove it.”

While fascism and populism both use democratic ideals to legitimize a non-democratic style of leadership, fascism is typically upfront about its outright rejection of democracy. When Benito Mussolini rose to power and seized it through the coup-like March on Rome, for instance, he openly spoke about his intention to crush the power of the parliament. Similarly, Adolf Hitler attempted a coup years before his party became the biggest in parliament.

Of course, there’s no assurance that America’s democracy will prevent violence by the state. “The fact that a movement is populist doesn’t mean that it won’t turn fascist,” says Finchelstein. But, he adds, things usually don’t go that way—and there are even examples of former fascist movements that turned populist. In Italy, for instance, former fascists decided to abide by democratic laws, founding parties (Movimento Sociale Italiano, then turned into Alleanza Nazionale) whose members are still in parliament, and the political sphere, today.

“There’s no question that we live in a kind of neo-authoritarian moment,” Aviel Roshwald, a professor of history at Georgetown University, told Quartz. “It’s almost impossible,” he said, not to think of analogies with proto-fascist Europe. But, he added, “hopefully it’s just a moment, and not an era in world history.”

However, as novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco argues in his 1995 essay titled Ur-Fascism, distinguishing between populism and fascism may not even be necessary—it’s enough for a political doctrine to share the archetypal elements and values of fascism to be part of what he calls ”eternal fascism.” These elements and values include:

  • the cult of tradition and the past, of action over thought, of machismo
  • the fear of difference
  • the appeal to a frustrated middle class
  • the obsession with international conspiracies
  • an exaggeration of the power of enemies
  • the demonization of “rotten” parliamentary governments
  • the use of simple, impoverished language
  • the glorification of the people as a monolith holding common views

We do have one safeguard against fascism now, Roshwald said. Most countries facing today’s populist wave “have traditions and institutions of liberal pluralism that are much older and deeply established and rooted in society than they were in Italy in 1922s and Germany in 1933.”