WHY DID FASCISTS believe the manifestly untrue things that they did? This question has a great deal of contemporary relevance, given the resurgence of right-wing populism. Whatever differences the contemporary far right has from classical fascism of 1919–1945, both have peculiar relationships with the truth that go beyond the typical mendacity of politicians.
Federico Finchelstein, a historian at the New School, traces the lineaments of fascism’s lies in a new book — and he makes clear he means bald-faced lies, not a relationship with the truth, tortured or otherwise. He wants to see how this historic cognitive dissonance might be applicable to our new era of authoritarian populism.
A Brief History of Fascist Lies is a “companion volume” to his 2017 work From Fascism to Populism in History, in which he laid out a distinction between outright fascism and populism that resembled “politics in a democratic key.” The weight of his judgment came from Latin America, particularly his home country of Argentina, where the Peron dictatorships managed the transition from fascist to left-leaning politics while retaining the elements of leader worship from the past. This becomes the paradigmatic case of fascism’s transition into populism.
These two books share the same definition of populism, which pits the virtuous “people” of a given nation against a designated enemy, the “antipeople,” generally without lethal violence or suspension of democratic practices. It enshrines the union of people, nation, and leader as the true expression of democracy over the rule of law. Populism does not generally destroy the state and create a new one in the same way fascism does. People still vote; a populist can even lose power that way, and many have.
For Finchelstein, populism is not a gateway drug to fascism. Populism is an adaptation of fascism, to the “democratic key” in which post-1945 politics is played. American readers may associate “populism” with the agrarian Grange movement of the late 19th century and perhaps with the insurgent presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. How much that will pose a problem to a reader of A Brief History of Fascist Lies is perhaps a function of their attachment to the American image of populists and their engagement with populism-baiters in the popular press. But one doesn’t need to accept Finchelstein’s definition of populism wholesale to see his points about fascism and right-wing populism.
One element that remains consistent between fascism and populism, Finchelstein argues, is lying. Here it’s worth noting that all of the examples of contemporary populists Finchelstein cites in A Brief History of Fascist Lies, except for a brief reference to Chávez and Maduro, are right-wing populists: Bolsonaro, Orbán, Netanyahu, above all Donald Trump. Most notably, both fascists and populists lie about the “antipeople,” the opposition to their programs. For fascists, this was most typically Jews. Finchelstein notes how Hitler projected his own behavior — especially lying for propaganda purposes and seeking world domination — onto Jews. For right-wing populists, the enemy varies. In Trump’s case, it includes Mexicans and Muslims. For all populists, though, it includes the “elites” as domestic opposition.
For both fascists and populists, Finchelstein argues, myth replaces truth, and the leader’s words replaces the reality principle. The leader, the nation, the people, even God: all created a sacred realm of myth where facts did not matter. Truth was a performed action, a communion with a higher reality represented by the nation and its leader.
These basic elements are the heart of fascism, which was always at odds with other understandings of the relationship between the self and the truth. Psychoanalysis was held in particular suspicion. Fascists saw it as an abject Jewish lie subjecting the unconscious to Freudian degradation.
Most of all, fascist lies compelled destruction and murder in the killing fields of Eastern Europe. Fascists preached that war was the ultimate location of truth, and have followed that insight everywhere from fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia to the latest alt-right mass shooting.
How much of this relationship between ideology, lies, and outcomes can be transposed onto contemporary populism? Finchelstein refrains from predicting the future, but already populism’s relationship with truth follows fascist lines: the antagonism between “the people” and the antipeople and by the words and actions of the leader figure.
Today’s right-wing populism has more advanced means of lying than historic fascism did. Nowhere is this more clear than in the fate of the term “fake news,” originally a term used to describe troll farms and far-right websites before Trump and his movement seized the term to describe any news with which they disagreed. This is an especially worrying dynamic, as it shows that democracy’s immune system has not caught up with the virulence of right-populist lying.
Finchelstein leaves us with the importance of understanding mythic nationalist ideologies, and not simply the behavior of leaders who mobilize myths. Without them, the leaders could not function. Populist regimes across the world have attacked history as a shared understanding of the past, splitting it into an academically acceptable history and a narrative for “the people” as populists understand them. Fighting for history is a key part of fighting fascism under whichever guise or mutation it comes.
Especially given the honorable history of the term “populism” in American political memory, some of Finchelstein’s points might not be easy to swallow. But in both From Fascism to Populism in History and A Brief History of Fascist Lies, he shows how to get past facile comparisons to fascism to arrive at an understanding of how similar dynamics play out in the present day.