NEW YORK – In 2015, “fascism” once again became the highest-octane political epithet in general use. Of course, the temptation to apply the fascism label is almost overwhelming when we confront language and behavior that superficially resembles that of Hitler and Mussolini. At the moment, it is being widely applied to cases as disparate as Donald Trump, the Tea Party, the National Front in France, and radical Islamist assassins. But, though the temptation to call such actors “fascist” is understandable, it should be resisted.
At its creation in the 1920s (first in Italy and then in Germany), fascism was a violent reaction against a perceived excess of individualism. Italy was scorned and Germany was defeated in World War I, Mussolini and Hitler claimed, because democracy and individualism had sapped them of national unity and will.
So the two leaders put their followers into uniforms and tried to regiment their thoughts and actions. Once in power, they tried to extend dictatorship to every corner of life. Even sports, under Mussolini, were to be organized and supervised by the state agency called il Dopolavoro.
The fascists set themselves up (and acquired elite support) as the only effective barrier to the other political movement that surged following World War I: Communism. To international socialism the fascists opposed a national socialism, and while they crushed socialist parties and abolished independent labor unions, they never for a moment questioned the state’s obligation to maintain social welfare (except for internal enemies such as Jews, of course).