At the moment, fascism has to be the most sloppily used term in the American political vocabulary. If you think fascists are buffoonish, racist, misogynist despots, the people who support them are deplorable, and a political leader who incites paramilitary forces against protestors is not much different from Mussolini unleashing his black-shirted thugs against unarmed workers, you may be tempted to call the current president of the U.S. a fascist. But then the president, too, has taken to labelling his enemies fascists. And who wants to argue about semantics in that company?
Make no mistake: Understanding what fascism meant in its time, 1920 to 1945, is absolutely crucial to understanding the gravity of our own current national political crisis—as well as to summoning up the huge political creativity we will need to address it. But we won’t get close to that understanding if we keep confusing fascism, the historical phenomenon, with fascism, the political label.
If you grew up as I did, in the United States after the Second World War, everyone seemed to be an anti-fascist, at least at first. America had fought the good fight, and triumphed. I ached at my father’s war stories about the misery of the newly liberated Italians, studied army snapshots of him in front of a mound of corpses at Dachau, and suffered nightmares at learning what the Nazis and the Fascists did to the Jews.
But the picture grew complicated. From my Jewish American mother, a New Dealer and later a communist fellow traveler, I learned that McCarthyism was the form fascism took in America. After my study abroad in Italy during the 1960s, where I had joined student and worker demonstrations against the country’s still-vivid authoritarian streak, I came home rhetorically armed to denounce fascists. America seemed riddled with them—starting with those “fascist pigs” in the Princeton, New Jersey, police force who hauled the Black kids (and my little brothers) into custody for Halloween pranks and held them indefinitely, as if habeas corpus didn’t apply to juveniles. My Smith College dorm mother was a fascist for enforcing fascistic-patriarchal rules in loco parentis, as were a couple of professors who argued that fascism and communism were opposite sides of the same coin. The ranks of the fascists included LBJ for Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger for many reasons, and even my father (who also supported the Vietnam war) for his haywire libertarian politics.
Calling people “fascists” has been as American as apple pie for as long as I can remember. But, after becoming a scholar of fascism, I came to see the phenomenon of fascist labeling very differently.