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THIS IS THE 41st in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University and the author of Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present (Norton, November 2020).
BRAD EVANS: Despite those who argue that mainstream fascism has been consigned to the pages of history, you continue to insist upon the need for a more urgent and considered appreciation of the term. This seems altogether more prescient given what’s happening in the United States today. With this in mind, I’d like to begin by asking you what exactly do you understand the term “fascism” to mean? And do you think it’s useful to speak about fascism in the 21st century?
RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Fascism as it unfolded in the 1920s and 1930s is a political system that depends on dictatorship, on a one-party state led by a charismatic leader. It is a system of state-organized violence that preaches xenophobic nationalism, racism, class unity rather than class conflict, anti-feminism, and imperialism.
Mussolini, its creator, had been a socialist, and the original fascist movement he founded in 1919 took some elements from socialism: the idea of revolution as a lever of historical change, for example. Yet the idea, parroted by the right-wingers from Jair Bolsonaro to Dinesh D’Souza today that fascism was a left-wing movement is absurd. Leftists were the fascists’ earliest and most consistent targets.
I leave the term fascist for these interwar movements, because to say that fascism is back today paradoxically lulls many people, who associate fascism with a regime that allows no opposition parties or press, to say, “Well, you see? We don’t have that here. There’s nothing to worry about.”
That doesn’t mean that fascist tactics have not endured, from personality cults to the designation of state enemies, to myriad other things. In August 2016, to warn about just such recurrences, I wrote a piece for The Atlantic about the similarities between Trump and Mussolini.
But today, authoritarianism works differently: it keeps a veneer of democracy, allowing (and then rigging) elections; it keeps a pocket of opposition; it may not use much physical violence, opting for threat and legal harassment, as Viktor Orbán does in Hungary. I call this “new authoritarianism,” others call it “electoral authoritarianism,” or, Orbán’s own self-serving term, “illiberal democracy.” We are still searching for a language to describe what is unfolding.
Like many people, I have been horrified watching what’s been happening in the United States over the past few months as it moved from pandemic to an intense period of racial unrest. When describing these conditions, Cornel West even went as far as to call Trump a “neo-fascist.” What has most concerned you over the past few months?
The widespread police repression happening now is the outcome of deep-seated racial hatred, long encouraged by the GOP and extremist tendencies with footholds in police and other security forces. It took a president like Trump, who encouraged those racist and extremist ideas from the moment he appeared on the political scene, to make these rogue actors feel they were legitimated by the White House and the Department of Justice — a powerful thing indeed. When Trump and Attorney General William Barr say that Antifa will be defined as a terrorist group, it’s a threat with no legal standing, since Antifa is not an organization. But it’s an important message to the police, National Guard, military, and other constituencies, telling them that they should feel confident that they can treat protestors as though they were terrorists — i.e., with maximum force.
Without a doubt, these attitudes have their roots in fascism. I would say that Trump’s administration has fascist elements, but I prefer the more capacious term authoritarianism, which encompasses both fascism and right-wing regimes like Augusto Pinochet’s, which used the military for domestic repression.
Mindful of these important distinctions, how then do contemporary authoritarian regimes differ in terms of their violence when compared to fascism in the 20th century?
Fascism was the political expression of a view of violence as the lever of social change and history that came out of World War I. Fascism gave violence an absolute as well as instrumental value; it was an end in itself. Once in power, fascist rulers like Mussolini and Hitler used propaganda to convince their people to view violence differently, giving a patriotic and moral value to acts of persecution that protected the nation from its internal and external enemies.
Today’s rulers use violence differently: outside of communist regimes like North Korea, the leaders I call the new authoritarians, like Putin, tend to avoid mass killing of their own populations outside of war. Putin uses targeted violence, like poisonings and murders, some staged as accidents, of high-level critics, while Erdoğan favors mass detention for state enemies labeled as terrorists. Torture is still practiced by both. If you factor in gun violence and police killings of people of color, the United States is of course a far more violent country in the absolute. No other country that is not counted as a “failed state” has 400 million guns in private hands, or so many militias.
When we personally met a few years ago, you brought to my attention the silhouette image of Trump entering into the Republican Party convention in 2016, which you noted was symbolic for so many reasons. How do you think about that image today?
I’m glad you brought up that image, which filled me with dread. It was all so clear: the menacing opaque figure dominating the scene; the smoke blowing around him, referencing his stardom; and the message that he would not only not be showing us his tax returns but if elected would create a government founded on the lack of transparency, the lack of accountability, and the presence of threat.
Trump is a visual creature. Everything he does is about optics and spectacle, based on his background as a marketer and television producer and star. Even the idiosyncratic style of his tweeting, with its capital letters, is designed to focus the eye on the slogans he wants you to remember.
Then there is the constant barrage of photos of crowds of white males operating the government. This is a kind of psychological warfare he wages every day and an undoing, through images as well as policy, of the Obama years. Like other authoritarian leaders, Trump’s aim is to make things easier for financial, environmental, and sexual predators — to make it easier to harm women, for example, and erase them from existence. It is not widely known that in 2018 his government partly decriminalized domestic violence, making certain kinds of psychological and physical abuse no longer a crime. The removal of women from the photographic record of the administration links to this. More recently, the military occupation of the District of Columbia generated photographs meant to fill us with terror — like the hard-to-identify brutes who lined the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Flooding the public sphere with unidentified heavily armed men was an effective operation of psychological warfare of the kind Trump is expert at.
A central concern throughout much of your work is the importance of memory in the face of historical denial. I am also reminded at this point of Henry A. Giroux’s notion of the violence of organized forgetting. Why would you insist that the study of history is particularly important today? And how can we mobilize it to counter the effacement of not simply truth but decades of critical awareness and more humane insight?
History is essential today on several levels. First, we’re living through a period of assault on the truth, on evidence-based inquiry, and the histories that respect that. Second, authoritarian states and their ideologues and trolls are organized to rewrite history to fit their needs. To return to the claim the fascism is left-wing, the agenda here is to cleanse the right of violence so the right can more easily commit violence again.
In my research for my book Strongmen, which looks a century of authoritarian regimes, a commonality of fascist regimes, Pinochet’s Chile, Gaddafi’s Libya, and now Putin’s Russia is the aggressive rewriting of history. Mentioning the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is banned today in Russia. In America, there is the assault on the concept of civil rights: the term now is attached to the rights of white Christians to practice their faith and to right-wingers to be able to express themselves freely on campuses and elsewhere. It’s not just the forgetting of violence in play, but the invalidation of the idea that such violence was a crime. The focus is, again, to legitimate new violence in the present.
When I engage in my own teachings on both fascism and authoritarianism from the past, I am invariably drawn to the harrowing testimonies of Primo Levi along with Alain Resnais’s devastating film Night and Fog. While these two historical documents alone should be compulsory reading and viewing for anybody trying to make sense of the human condition, I am also mindful that if we simply begin with mass genocide and concentration camps then we are in danger of overlooking the subtleties of oppression, which can be woven into the prejudicial fabric of the everyday. In terms of developing a viable critique, how might we better connect grand ideologies with everyday forms of intimidation and subjugation?
Your question circles back to the first one and to why I don’t label today’s developments as a return of fascism. Authoritarianism can be thought of as a process of colonization — of civil society, of minds and bodies and values and culture — and it happens over time, as well as with the grand repressive moments like after the Reichstag fire or Kristallnacht.
Living in a democracy under attack, I set out to track the small changes, which I do through my op-eds and interviews, to keep our attention on the changes around us happening every day. What Trump, Bolsonaro, etc., want is for us to be silent, out of fear. Instead, we’ve seen a flowering of protest, even under conditions of a pandemic, and a multifaceted program of legal, judicial, and other pushback in the United States and electoral strategies that, as with the 2018 midterm elections, brought a new political class into power.
I am a big fan of initiatives that keep such resistance in front of our eyes, like Robin Bell’s light projections on the facade of the Trump International Hotel and elsewhere. These are the images of a counternarrative that we must persist in recording. I have tried in my book to write the history of the present, in a way, based on my knowledge of the past.
To conclude, I want to bring this directly back to the question of violence. It is often argued that violence was absolutely necessary to defeat authoritarian regimes and nonviolence would have been completely ineffective when confronting the likes of Hitler. But what does this mean for how we counter authoritarianism today, which some maintain still requires a violent response to a violence that is uncompromising?
Research on the history of authoritarian rule shows that nonviolent protest is far more effective (Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth’s work on this is excellent) in building support for the end of a regime. In Pinochet’s Chile, communist strategies of violence backfired, costing the Party support. At the end of the 1980s, the socialists and center parties came together to have nonviolent mass demonstrations that proved important in the campaign for a return to democracy. In many cases, my personal view is that violence plays into the government’s desire to show that there are “extremists” out there, justifying power grabs and states of emergency. This is the case, I feel, in Trump’s America, where the right has been lumping together Nancy Pelosi and Antifa as “the radical left” for some time, just waiting for an excuse to shut everyone up. This is not to say that armed resistance was not necessary in the context of World War II, for example, but outside of the context of civil war or international conflict it is risky.
Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.