NEW YORK – Are we seeing a new dawn of fascism? Many people are beginning to think so. Donald Trump has been compared to a fascist, as has Vladimir Putin and a variety of demagogues and right-wing loudmouths in Europe. The recent tide of authoritarian bluster has reached as far as the Philippines, whose president-elect, Rodrigo (“The Punisher”) Duterte, has vowed to toss suspected criminals into Manila Bay.
The problem with terms like “fascism” or “Nazi” is that so many ignorant people have used them so often, in so many situations, that they have long ago lost any real significance. Few still know firsthand what fascism actually meant. It has become a catch-all phrase for people or ideas we don't like.
Loose rhetoric has coarsened not only political debate, but historical memory, too. When a Republican politician compares US property taxes with the Holocaust, as one Senate candidate did in 2014, the mass murder of Jews is trivialized to the extent of becoming meaningless. The same is roughly true when Trump is compared to Hitler or Mussolini.
As a result, we are too easily distracted from the real dangers of modern demagoguery. After all, it is not hard for Trump – or the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, or Putin, or Duterte – to refute accusations of being fascists or Nazis. They may be repulsive, but they are not organizing uniformed storm troopers, building concentration camps, or calling for the corporate state. Putin comes closest, but even he is not Hitler.