Why the Misuse of the Word “Fascist” is a Dangerous Thing

November 18, 2022
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni attends the swearing-in ceremony at the Quirinal Palace on October 22, 2022 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)

In recent years, the term “fascist” has been thrown out with reckless abandon. It’s become so fashionable and popular, in fact, that it’s worth a brief look at its true roots.

In October of 1922, one hundred years ago last month, Benito Mussolini and his fascists marched on Rome and muscled their way to power, just a few years after the end of World War I. Like many in Europe at the end of the war and beyond, Italians longed for national unity and real leadership. And Mussolini, the former socialist and journalist who founded the Milan newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia, said that fascism was the answer. Fascism would be the great uniter of the people.

Indeed, the term “fascism”—coming from the Italian word “fascio,” or “bundle” in English—sprang directly from the mind of Mussolini in 1919 and took shape in his movement to unite the people, many of whom also feared the spread of Communism after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Mussolini’s movement promoted (often violently) a forcibly monolithic nation controlled by an autocratic ruler, a nation in which class would, in theory, cease to matter under the weight, importance and worship of the nation. The nation was prized above all else, which meant that anything or anyone that threatened national unity was an enemy to be destroyed. Individual interests were repressed in favor of upholding and uplifting the sanctity of the state.

These days, many people think little of Mussolini when they hear about fascists, opting instead to reference Donald Trump and the GOP. Sure, when we talk about fascists most people also think about Nazism, which built on Mussolini’s fascism to create a special brand of barbarity. But in the U.S. it’s become standard to hear the term “fascist” used to describe certain if not all members of the Republican party. The most popular “fascists” of our time are those who voted for Trump.

And why shouldn’t people feel this way? I’ve lost count of left-leaning media outlets and political players who have recklessly deployed the term “fascist” to characterize nearly half of the country. But the left does not have a monopoly on using the term recklessly. In 2020, with the election looming, Trump warned his followers that Democrats would replace American freedoms with “left-wing fascism.” And in 2008, conservative Jonah Goldberg published his bestselling “Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.”

In other words, we’re all fascists whether we’re on the left or the right. Just ask the other side.

As a result, like other words these days (“Holocaust” and “racist” especially), “fascist” and “fascism”—words that should be heavy with meaning and significance—cease to mean much at all. A fascist is simply someone with whom we disagree. And recent American elections prove the point. Both the left and right envision themselves as the upholders of democracy, while everyone else is helping to usher in contemporary fascism.

Both the left and right envision themselves as the upholders of democracy, while everyone else is helping to usher in contemporary fascism.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing on both sides over the so-called rise of fascism. But real fascism is a terrifying proposition. It’s not just about lying politicians and differing points of view. It’s not just a term we use when we’re angry that the other side is winning and we’re too lazy to think about exactly why that might be. And it’s worth looking at the way we talk about it now in relation to what it really is.

Recently in Italy, where I live, a change in government leadership has brought the term “fascism” front and center with the election of Italy’s first female prime minister, Giorgia Meloni. Americans especially have been eager to frame Italian politics through a contemporary American understanding of fascism. Yes, there are Italian individuals and media outlets who see Meloni as a fascist, but it’s not the word on everyone’s lips here in Italy. The U.S., on the other hand, is a different story. The day after Meloni was elected, my husband and I were flooded with texts and emails from American friends, many of whom suddenly feared for our safety now that “Italy has descended into fascism once again.”

We found ourselves in an interesting position. Headlines from respectable American publications like The Atlantic were sounding the alarm with phrases like “The Return of Fascism,” and most mainstream publications used the terms “fascism” and “fascist” more times than one could count in every piece about Meloni and Italy’s new government. “What will you guys do?” texted one friend. “Will you leave now?” Another emailed: “Thinking of you guys. Must be very scary. What happens now?” Other messaged lamented that fascists were now in power all over the world.

We felt like we were in the Twilight Zone.

Right before the election at the end of September we were out to dinner with Italian friends and I committed the grave Italian sin of bringing up politics at a meal. I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to know what my friends—real Italians and not outsiders living on the inside like me—who I would describe as liberal, thought of Meloni, who was at the time the election front-runner. I was shocked to learn that they intended to vote conservative this time. They were rooting for Meloni.

It turned out that many of our Italian friends here (and we live in Tuscany, which has always had a strong communist, anti-fascist sensibility—the “red region”) voted for Meloni and have good reasons for doing so. On one hand I was surprised because some of her platforms are deeply problematic (particularly her insistence that LGBT people cannot adopt children as well as her hard-line stance on migrants and immigration), but initial American media reports about her were hysterical and misleading, and some of them are starting to own up to it. “Current foreign coverage of Meloni and her party,” writes Alexander Stille for The New Republic, “creates the impression of her as the heir of Mussolini, born, like Athena, from the head of Zeus, rather than the product of a much longer genealogy, three generations removed from fascism, that she actually is.”

Meloni is no fascist. If there are questionable connections to fascism in her past, she has worked hard to overcome them and to ensure Italians that she is closer to the center, that she is a moderate. Nor does she support Putin despite past comments that suggest otherwise. She recently rebuked her right-wing coalition ally Silvio Berlusconi for complimenting Putin, and has denounced Russia’s attack of Ukraine. She has pushed to convince the EU that she, and Italy, are part of the team. She has denounced antisemitism and the racial laws of 1938 as “the lowest point of Italian history, a shame that will taint our people forever.”

But Americans watching from afar don’t always do the deeper dive necessary to understand what is really going on. It’s not unlike how we understand what’s going on in the U.S. We’re not big fans of nuance. Headlines are all we need to know, and that’s especially true when it comes to what’s going outside the U.S. And, anyway, who has time to read beyond the surface or to talk with people on the other side?

Many Italians I know, like many liberal Americans I know, are so sick and tired of the left not dealing with real problems faced by average people—issues like illegal immigration, rising violent crime (which many say correlates with the rise in illegal immigration), unemployment, soaring energy costs—that they are willing to take a risk and vote outside of their comfort zones. Here in Italy, some people on the left are taking a hard turn right because they don’t see their concerns being taken seriously by their own party.

Here in Italy, some people on the left are taking a hard turn right because they don’t see their concerns being taken seriously by their own party.

If you’re an American, maybe this sounds familiar.

This is the downfall of the left. Rather than looking at why they are losing people, why their numbers are dwindling as people defect to the right, and trying to re-strategize in order to meet the people’s needs, they hurl insults and accusations of fascism (and racism, of course). And suddenly everyone who no longer trusts the left, anyone who votes conservative, is a fascist. It’s intellectually dishonest. It’s lazy. But more than anything—and I say this as a long-time liberal—it’s deeply disappointing. It’s deeply disappointing to watch the left spin out of control when people express different viewpoints. And it’s deeply disappointing to watch the left leave the working class in the dust while they focus on pronouns and Palestinians, while they ask Americans who are suffering economically to sacrifice for Ukraine.

I’m not saying these things don’t matter. They do. But to the average American they don’t matter as much as gas and energy prices. They don’t matter as much as employment and inflation. And they don’t matter as much as rising violence and rampant homelessness in certain communities.

If you’re a liberal American and you really think that Meloni is a fascist, that Italy has descended back into its fascist pit, I have one suggestion for you: Consider why this so-called turn has happened and why it might be a foreshadowing of what’s around the corner for Americans as well. My prediction is that people who historically have identified as liberals will be so fed up with the left’s focus on woke sensibilities at the expense of legitimate issues like violent crimes, the economy, and immigration that they will be willing to try anything in order to escape the current predicament. And that “anything” might be another round with Trump. The American left needs to start listening to what people are really concerned about. Italy and Europe are showing us that woke sensibilities have a shelf-life. The question is what comes after the expiration.

Monica Osborne is a former professor of literature, critical theory, and Jewish studies. She is Editor-at-Large at The Jewish Journal and is author of “The Midrashic Impulse.” Twitter @DrMonicaOsborne

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