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What is fascism? And what does it mean in 2020 America?

Madeleine Albright's warning
Madeleine Albright talks fascism, "most undemocratic president" 07:15

It was April 2020, and Tesla founder Elon Musk was angry. The target of his ire: social distancing measures imposed by California state officials amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"If somebody wants to stay in their house, that's great," Musk said in an earnings call reviewed by CBS News. "...But to say that they cannot leave their house and they will be arrested if they do, this is fascist."

But is it? Before 2016, the word "fascism" popped up mostly in history lessons or political analysis of autocratic states or the occasional terror group. But President Donald Trump's years in office have seen a surge in "fascism" talk from both supporters and opponents using the word to describe their political adversaries. Can all of them be right? Of course not.

Before you think about using the term yourself, here's what you should know about what "fascism" really means… and what it doesn't.

Strictly speaking

Fascism is generally defined as a political movement that embraces far-right nationalism and the forceful suppression of any opposition, all overseen by an authoritarian government. Fascists strongly oppose Marxism, liberalism and democracy, and believe the state takes precedence over individual interests. They favor centralized rule, often a single party or leader, and embrace the idea of a national rebirth, a new greatness for their country. Economic self-sufficiency is prized, often through state-controlled companies. Youth, masculinity and strength are highly fetishized.

The first modern fascist parties emerged in the aftermath of World War I. The ideology swept through Italy — the birthplace of the term — then Germany and other parts of Europe. German intellectual Johann Plenge expected that class divisions would disappear in favor of "racial comrades," and that the future of Germany lay in "national socialism." That phrase is often shortened to "Nazism," which is a form of fascism.

The movement gave birth to infamous strongmen such as Adolph Hitler in Germany and Italy's Benito Mussolini, who, like many fascists, saw violence — violent revolution of governments, violent punishment of opponents — as key factors in fascism. 

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Munich, Germany, in 1940. Unknown

Fascists also tend to embrace imperialism and the conquering of weaker nations. Mussolini was especially impressed with the ambitious expansion and militarism of ancient Rome. Hitler, an early admirer of Mussolini and his tactics, modeled his Nazi party on Italy's fascism in the 1920s.

Fascist regimes often meddle directly in their national economies, casting a suspicious eye on the perceived decadence of a system that relies too heavily on capitalism. The result: nationalized companies and cartels in key areas, such as manufacturing. 

The end of World War II saw the downfall of several fascist regimes, but not all. In Spain, Francisco Franco, who incorporated fascist elements in his military dictatorship, hung around for several decades, while other governments, such as that of Juan Perón in Argentina, enacted a kind of fascism-lite, modeling its economy somewhat after fascist Italy.

Not a compliment

Amid the horrors of World War II, the word "fascist" eroded from a neutral description to an insult. 

"Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers," George Orwell wrote in 1944, "almost any English person would accept 'bully' as a synonym for 'Fascist'. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come."

More recently, people also started to use the word to — inaccurately — describe any kind of far-right or violent group, as well as a range of authoritarian socialist or communist regimes such as Cuba's. 

Then-Congressman Ron Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican, did not intend any compliments in 2012 when he warned, correctly or not, that America was "slipping into a fascist system." 

"We've slipped away from a true republic," Paul said. "Now we're slipping into a fascist system where it's a combination of government and big business and authoritarian rule and the suppression of the individual rights of each and every American citizen."

A rising threat

In the 21st century, foreign policy experts have raised the alarm about a number of government shifting in the direction of fascism, or, at least, fascism-lite.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has pointed to the emergence of increasingly authoritarian leaders in countries such as Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines, Poland and Venezuela.

"We should be awake to the assault on democratic values that has gathered strength in many countries abroad and that is dividing America at home," she writes in her 2018 book, "Fascism: A Warning."

But is Donald Trump a fascist?

President Trump's approach to campaigning and leadership has drawn comparisons to fascist-style authoritarianism. In a September 2020 interview, his Democratic rival Joe Biden pointed out some similarities.

Trump is "sort of like [Joseph] Goebbels," Biden told MSNBC, referring to the head of Nazi Germany's infamous propaganda machine. "You say the lie long enough, keep repeating it, repeating it, repeating it, it becomes common knowledge."

Political scientists see some troubling parallels, too.

"'Making the country great again' sounds exactly like the fascist movements. … That is a fascist stroke," Robert Paxton, a leading authority on fascism, told Slate. "An aggressive foreign policy to arrest the supposed decline. That's another one. Then, there's a second level, which is a level of style and technique. He even looks like Mussolini in the way he sticks his lower jaw out, and also the bluster, the skill at sensing the mood of the crowd, the skillful use of media."

Even some Hollywood stars have likened President Trump to fascist leaders. But is that comparison accurate?

It's true Mr. Trump has signaled encouragement for some of his more violent supporters, and he's sent federal forces into cities where protests were simmering. That "Make America great again" slogan does sound a lot like a call for a national rebirth. He has publicly flirted with holding onto the presidency beyond the legal limit of two terms, and has repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the 2020 election — prompting critics to warn those look like steps toward authoritarianism.

Deployment of federal agents in Portland raises constitutional questions and fears of fascism 10:48

But in at least a few key areas, the fascism label doesn't fit. President Trump has not embraced foreign military invasions as a way to make America great again — in fact, he campaigned on a promise to bring troops home. And he doesn't obsess over youth as particularly important in America's great rebirth.

Even Albright doesn't think Trump quite falls into the fascism category, though she's disturbed by the similarities. 

"I think Trump is the most undemocratic president I have ever seen in American history," she has said. "I'm saying that there's certain elements of the kinds of behavior that he has that reminds me of a variety of issues that have taken place." Among them, she said, were Trump's attacks on the press and acting "as though he's above the law."

Despite the differences, vocal opponents of fascism — such as the loosely affiliated activists who go by antifa (short for "anti-fascist") — generally see themselves as anti-Trump as well.

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