Trump and Mussolini: 11 Key Lessons from Historical Fascism

Italian fascism provides a better model for our moment than Nazi Germany—and the comparison is not encouraging.

Photo Credit: By Muzej Revolucije Narodnosti Jugoslavije (USHMM Photograph #89908) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fascism is a religion. The 20th century will be known in history as the century of fascism.
— Benito Mussolini

I’d like to draw some comparisons and contrasts between our present situation and that of fascist Italy between 1922 and 1945. I choose fascist Italy rather than Nazi Germany because it has always seemed to me a better comparison. Nazi Germany was the extreme militarist, racist and totalitarian variant of Italian fascism, which was more adaptable, pragmatic, rooted in reality and also more incompetent, ineffectual and half-hearted, all of which seem true to our condition today. Italy was the original form, while Germany was an offshoot. Although there have been many European and some Latin American varieties of fascism since then, the Italian model was the first and the one that has had the most lasting influence.

Mussolini drew on strong existing left-wing European currents such as anarcho-syndicalism, wanting to offer the world an alternative to what he saw as the failures of the Western democracies. His was a revolutionary agenda, designed to turn the world order upside down, rooted deeply in romantic and even avant-garde sensibilities. To see fascism as stemming ultimately from liberalism might sound surprising, but this is true of both socialism as well as fascism, because finally it is liberalism’s principle of human perfectibility from which these impulses derive. Fascism, we might say, is liberal romanticism gone haywire. In its healthy state, liberalism gives us constitutional democracy, but in its unhealthy state we end up with totalitarianism.

Futurism, one of the leading modernist movements of the time, fed easily into fascism. F.T. Marinetti, who believed in war as “hygiene,” was a keen Mussolini supporter, as was the playwright Luigi Pirandello, though he had a different aesthetic tendency. Many philosophers, academics and artists were already sick of the mundane, transactional, enervating nature of democracy under leaders like Giovanni Giolitti, prime minister several times in the two decades preceding fascism.

Benedetto Croce, on the other hand, was the great Italian idealist philosopher, an optimistic Hegelian who believed that liberal constitutionalism was forever on the move, boosted by the Italian Risorgimento (unification) of the mid-19th century, even if its progress couldn’t always be detected. Mussolini never openly persecuted Croce, partly for reasons of credibility — some internal criticism had to be allowed, to preserve the façade of diversity of opinion — but mostly because, with a slight twist, Croce’s Hegelian logic can easily lead to fascism.

To discuss Italian fascism in the context of Trumpism is not to draw silly one-on-one comparisons, because many material factors are different today, but to understand current developments there must be some historical basis for analysis. What this exercise attempts is to show that the myth of American exceptionalism is just that, a myth, and that we have traveled so far from our national founding impulses that other tendencies, namely forms of what used to be considered peculiarly European anxieties, have now become the defining features of our polity.

1. Fascism rechannels economic anxiety

The German condition in the 1920s, with the economic instability then prevalent, is well known, but this was also true of European countries in general in the wake of World War I. Especially after the Russian Revolution, the urgent question for all of Europe became: Was socialism the right path, or capitalism? And in either case, was a new political order required?

In Italy, socialism became quite popular after the war, making industrialists and large agriculturalists very worried. The fascist squads, which at first had arisen spontaneously, came in handy to break the back of socialist cooperatives, both in industry and agriculture, particularly in northern Italy which was more advanced than the south. In the early part of his career, the opportunist Mussolini was anti-war (he didn’t want Italy to join the war), as were socialists in general. But during the course of World War I he changed his tune. Evidence shows that he was financed by oligarchic foreign interests who wanted Italy to get into the war, which of course it did.

For the same money men, the question became, after the war, what to do with the mobilized energy of the arditi, or the squadrists? The original fascists, Mussolini included, were very socialist in inclination, and their manifestos reflected that. Mussolini’s initial program for fascism could pass, with some changes, as an egalitarian dream. The founders of fascism were big on workers’ rights, expropriation of leading industries and even women’s right to equality. The violent contest between socialists and fascists in the countryside had already abated by the time Mussolini came to power. Yet the oligarchic powers sought, in Mussolini, a figure to permanently channel and mobilize the violent social energy on behalf of capitalism.

The most recent phase of globalization, which took off during the 1990s, has created similar anxieties around the world as the class dislocations did following World War I. For the elites who propagated the “Washington consensus” in the 1990s, supported by such popularizers as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, there was nothing complicated about globalization: Incomes would rise around the world, inequality would fall and liberal tolerance would flourish. This rosy picture is so far from reality as to be laughable, and it is a truth evident to the world’s peoples, except for the transnational elites still beholden to the abstract propositions. Thus the question arises again, with as much urgency as in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution: What shall be the world’s economic order? Is it possible to conceive, at this late date, of globalization with a human face? Or is something more revolutionary needed?

The problem today is that socialism, unfortunately, became discredited in the eyes of liberals in the West because of the failed Soviet experiment. Socialism did not have to go the authoritarian route, but that is sadly how it turned out. So today we have a clear problem, i.e., burgeoning inequality on an almost unprecedented scale, and no ideological solution in sight, at least not one that majorities of liberals can agree on.

Into this vacuum, fascists all over the Western world are entering to redirect the majority white population’s nervousness into xenophobic and imperialist aims. Each country, depending on its power structure, will pursue these aims, once it succumbs to the fascist virus, differently. It is worth remembering, however, that it was liberalism, with its absurd triumphant mentality in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, that took away movement toward any form of socialism as a legitimate path, and therefore made the rise of fascism inevitable.

2. Liberal institutions have already been fatally weakened

We are currently lamenting Trump’s evisceration of the media and other institutions of democracy, but he would not be having such success, at least with half of the population, if those institutions were not already seriously compromised. It is easy to dismiss his mockery of the “fake media,” but before Trump did anyone take the media, with some venerable exceptions, seriously anyway? The mass media have never been interested in the nuances of policy, and are focused instead on personality, celebrity and spectacle. Most of the print media are also compromised because of loyalty to American exceptionalism.

It is no coincidence that Trump has merged his critique of the “fake media” with exceptionalism, because it allows him to present the media as tools of a discredited ideology. Before Trump, the media were tied, as a general rule, to the consensus on neoliberalism, and their bias became all the more evident during the last campaign. When it comes to telling the truth about power, the media have not been interested in doing so for a long time. They may now be reacting viscerally against Trump, because of the crude way in which he takes on their shallowness, but it doesn’t mean anything to his supporters. Trump’s critique of the media applies to all our liberal institutions prior to his arrival on the scene.

Mussolini’s fascist program landed in the middle of deep disillusionment with liberal institutions. Italy had experienced a rapid spurt of growth due to industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but the rewards weren’t equally distributed. The south was poor and undeveloped, overcome by feudal values, while the north was unsure about empowering labor to share the fruits of growth. The strong labor movement started shading into anarcho-syndicalism, quite similar to the original fascist manifesto. The situation is not exactly comparable today, because ours is a mature economy with declining traditional industrial sectors, while Italy’s was an emerging economy with growing industries. But the sense that the institutions of democracy were failing to support a fair standard of living was widespread.

The Italian parliamentary system was marked by a tendency toward transformismo or “transformism,” to which our strongest parallel would be Bill (or Hillary) Clinton’s triangulation. In many ways Clinton can be seen as a parallel to Giolitti, with the same ability to throw doubt on the health of liberal democracy, even as deals are cut right and left). Transformismo, or triangulation, appeals to career civil servants, politicians and media people, but its chameleon-like tendency to absorb the ideas of the opposition and to neutralize them and make them invisible leaves a profoundly disillusioning aftertaste. Ideology desperately wants to make a comeback, which was true in transactional Italy, and is certainly true of America now.

3. Internal strongmen tussles don’t mean anything

In the beginning Mussolini didn’t seem the most obvious choice to lead the fascist movement. Italy’s best-known provocateur, Gabriele d’Annunzio, a flamboyant writer with a continental reputation, beat him to it by organizing a militia to lay siege to Fiume, a small territory on the northeast coast, part of the unredeemed lands claimed by the irredentist movement. In his short-lived siege, d’Annunzio perfected a fascist style — harangues prompting back-and-forth exchanges from balconies overlooking vast public squares, the symbolic elaboration of the myth of martyrdom in the cause of the nation and the articulation of an emotional method for communicating reality — that Mussolini, and all later fascists, would adopt. D’Annunzio — a legendary womanizer and decadent — was one of the most colorful of all Europeans, and his peculiar interpretation of Nietzschean values has become a permanent challenge to liberal democracy.

But when push came to shove, Mussolini was seen as the more pliable agent of fascist change by his corporate benefactors, and Mussolini was quick to sideline d’Annunzio’s claim to leadership. There were always more assertive fascists around than Mussolini — for example, Roberto Farinacci, the ras (or leader) of Cremona, who later became fond of Hitler’s henchmen — but Mussolini was able to keep them in check. He was a master at playing one competitor against another, exploiting their vulnerabilities to always stay in power. The squadrist militias under control of the provincial ras, like Farinacci and others, were at first used by Mussolini to send terror into the hearts of wavering capitalists and later, in different stages, were controlled and even neutralized as competing power centers, all of them absorbed in the mostly subservient National Fascist Party (PNF).

At the moment, Trump is our Farinacci, the most assertive of the ras, compared to whom all the Cabinet secretaries — even the ones who most frighten us for their racism (Attorney General Jeff Sessions) or Islamophobia (Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly) — seem tame in comparison. No matter the insanity of the secretaries in charge of the environment, education, energy or other departments, none seems as willing to openly flout the rule of law as Trump. Or we can say that in our case the showman d’Annunzio has taken power, rather than a more grounded journalist-turned-politician like Mussolini. We confront the speculative exercise of trying to imagine how it would have turned out for fascism had d’Annunzio, not Mussolini, been the leader.

Nonetheless, we ought not to be swayed by the temporary ascendancies of this or that group within the fascist hierarchy, whether it is Steve Bannon or Michael Flynn who rises or falls. Fascism is greater than the individuals who make up its core at any given moment. Fascism requires the strongman at the center to make it move, yet if a given personality fails to do the job, another can be found as replacement.

4. Fascism keeps mutating

Before fascism was formalized by Mussolini in 1919, organizing the scattered energies of the displaced combatants, it was in many ways an aesthetic movement. It was certainly radically socialist in orientation, with a strong attraction to equality for workers. Then, just before taking power, it became a movement for capitalist law and order, suppressing the demands of socialists. Once in power it adopted some of the modes of parliamentary behavior, but with great irritation, as it sought to preserve a democratic façade. After the consolidation of the dictatorship in 1925, it became almost a developmental state, strongly interested in Italy’s economic growth. A corporatist state, with strong autarkic goals (such as the “Battle for Wheat,” to make Italy self-sufficient, or the reclamation of the Pontine Marshes), was clearly articulated, eliciting approval from the world’s leading capitalist powers.

With the onset of worldwide depression, however, fascism realized the intractability of economic problems and turned its attention to imperialism. The PNF, which had become relatively quiet during the period of capitalist development, was revived as a harsh ideological force, with growing tentacles in every part of Italian society. This phase began in the early 1930s and lasted until defeat in World War II. Fascism was not particularly racist to begin with, as Mussolini, like most Italians, took exception to Nazi anti-Semitism; but as Italy threw in its lot with Germany in the late 1930s, “scientific” racism became a central fascist platform. After Mussolini was overthrown by his own Grand Council in 1943, for the last two years of the war he held fort in the Republic of Salò, in the northern part of Italy, supported by Hitler’s fading power. The Republic of Salò backtracked to the original socialist principles enunciated at the formation of fascism.

What this shows is that fascism is highly adaptable to different needs and conditions, just as its opposite, democracy, is similarly flexible. This also suggests that fascism is a viable ideology just like democracy, because it can appear in different guises at different times, even under the same leadership, without losing credibility. In considering Trump and the movement he has sparked, we would be better off looking at the overall aims of the regime, rather than get carried away by feints in one direction or another. Their aim, it should be clear, is to end democracy, since that is the energy fascism feeds on.

Trump is fully capable of showing an apparently “presidential” side, for example in his first speech to Congress. The priority has shifted from eradicating immigrants to passing the neoliberal agenda on taxation, social spending, education, energy and the environment, so a slightly modified relationship is needed with the corporate world and the media for the immediate future, which Trump should easily be able to accomplish. Mussolini, though an inveterate atheist, made peace with the Vatican, in the famous Lateran Accords of 1929, abandoning his most cherished beliefs in order to gain the complicity of the Catholic church. Earlier in the 1920s, he installed corporate-friendly ministers to work with Italy’s industrialists to enact an agenda they could be comfortable with. Such mutations are par for the course for fascists, they’re nothing to get excited about.

5. Fascism is eternally recurring

Just as democracy is eternal, so is fascism. There have always been authoritarian or dictatorial responses to democracy since the beginning of modern civilization, but fascism, with its imprint of spectacle, theater and mass communication, was a particular permutation that arose once the Western democracies had been consolidated. Italy and Germany were two of the late bloomers, but democracy had mostly been attained by the time they turned to fascism. Fascism could not have arisen were democracy still an evolving condition, as was true of parts of the West in the 19th century. So fascism is an indication of maturity, once democracy’s initial bloom is off.

Many historians were eager to write off Italy’s fascist experience as an aberration, as something so abnormal that it did not properly belong to Italian culture, but the opposite is true. Fascism will often borrow the symbolism, legal architecture and academic norms of pre-existing society, rather than throw them overboard. In Italy’s case, all the existing tendencies of aesthetic modernism came in handy, as well as the legacies of socialist, anarchist and syndicalist cultures. In northern cities like Turin and Milan, fascism flourished side by side with avant-garde political and cultural thinking. Once the dominant liberal culture succumbed, it wasn’t as difficult to impose fascism’s content upon the less democratic south’s institutions.

Fascism was not an aberration for Italy, nor is this the case anywhere it occurs. It is inherent in the DNA of any given culture, an authoritarian side that goes along with, and is even a necessary prop for, democracy. The interwar years marked industrialization’s maturity in the Western world, which had been preceded by a huge burst of globalization, leading up to World War I. A fascism drawing energy from the masses employed in industrialized occupations, as was the case between the wars, is going to manifest very differently than the post-industrial environment of 21st-century America. But the differences are more stylistic than foundational.

6. Of course it’s a minority affair

To note that Trump did not win the popular vote (as was true of George W. Bush in 2000), does not take away from the power of fascism. Given civilized norms in a democratic society, it is always going to be difficult for fascists to muster an outright numerical majority. The point is their relative strength in terms of raw power. Moreover, in periods of emergencies (such as Bush after 9/11 and in the lead-up to the Iraq war), more than a majority can usually be cobbled together. This speaks strongly to the hidden patriotic foundation of what passes for liberalism, its inherent weakness which can so easily be converted to mass militarism.

Mussolini, though he established his regime on the myth of the March on Rome, was actually appointed by King Victor Emmanuel III when Mussolini seemed like the only figure, compared to the discredited liberal politicians, who could bring order to the country. Trump too is trying to make predictions of chaos and violence a self-fulfilling prophecy, but this is a staple of all fascist regimes: They bring about and thrive on the disorder that they then claim to be the only ones to be able to suppress. There was actually no such thing as the March on Rome; the king had already invited Mussolini to Rome to come and form the government when the march took place. Had the king given the order — and this looked possible until the last fateful moment — the army would easily have crushed the ragtag bunch of nobodies who had showed up from all parts of Italy.

Only a small minority need give overt consent. The rest can be quiet, or complacent, or complicit, unless they feel their personal security threatened, for example because of war that might spin out of control. That is all that’s needed for fascism to go on its merry way, so it’s quite beside the point to argue its minority status. Most bloody revolutions are minority affairs.

7. There is an ideology behind the chaos of ideologies

Just as Italian historians after the fact claimed that fascism was an aberration that didn’t belong to Italy’s history proper, contemporary observers often insisted that there was never a fascist ideology. Partly this is because of the mutational aspect of fascism. But primarily this is due to intellectual laziness. Liberal scholars, after all, are not likely to credit their mortal opponent with ideological clarity. We too, lazily, ascribe the same lack of ideology to Trumpism, and interpret events in terms of personality and contingency. I would say that fascist ideology has always, since its inception a hundred years ago, been so strong that it takes democracy an extremely favorable environment, and a huge amount of luck, to sustain itself.

Fascist ideology aims for nothing but to weaken and end democracy. It is democracy’s successes, whether in Weimar Germany, or in a strange way in Giolitti’s Italy, or in countercultural America of the 1960s, that breed the opposite tendency which wants to swallow it up.

Mussolini pursued imperialistic goals in wanting an empire in North Africa, East Africa and the Balkans, but was his pursuit of empire (the New Rome) the same as Britain’s, for example, in the 19th century? For Britain, the empire made financial sense. For Italy, all its wars were financially ruinous (and this has been true of our own wars after 9/11 as well), exerting unsustainable pressures. To the extent that the wars undermined democracy, breeding fascism at home, they were certainly successful. In our present and future wars, that is the criterion we must keep in mind. It’s not what a particular policy is doing to the budget or our diplomatic standing or the state of the culture, but how a policy serves to undermine democracy.

8. Its cultural style makes no sense to elites

This is where I felt the Bush incarnation of fascism fell short, and this is where Trump too is having a difficult time. Milo Yiannopoulos proved in the end to be too exotic even to his sponsors at Breitbart, and the campy, decadent d’Annunzian style, of which Milo is an heir, has its limits in evangelical America, committed to bourgeois verities despite the fascistic overlay. Our homegrown brew of Fox News, Breitbart, Alex Jones, border militias like the Minutemen, millenarian Christianity, the Tea Party and gun culture, combined with simplistic beliefs in “free market” capitalism and American exceptionalism, seems to me a particularly tame cultural concoction. It doesn’t have traction with anyone with the least amount of liberal education. Mussolini was working with more resonant cultural stuff, as the emergence of industrial capitalism since the Risorgimento had set up a cultural platform that was malleable enough to work for fascism.

Trump and his successors will have to work with less potent stuff. So-called conspiratorial thinking is a unifying strand — I already mentioned Alex Jones — which connects many of the strands of ultra-conservative ideology throughout the past century. The Reds become Jews and then Muslims; the substitutions are not that difficult to make. But although the elites will remain incredulous toward fascism’s cultural style, there seems to be enough of a momentum, with all the tendencies beginning to attain critical mass together. Thus the successful transition from Bush to Trump, which suggests that our homegrown fascist style is strong enough now not to need a leader.

Masculinity — or shall we say faux masculinity — is an important part of this cultural style, perhaps the principal reason why Yiannopoulos couldn’t last. It is a reaction to the perceived effeminacy of liberalism, and is a blast (along with racism) against what is seen as the failed order. Fascism relies on activation of our most atavistic, violent and primitive selves, by wanting to return women to invisibility, along with condemning the darker races. Needless to say, Italian fascism reconstructed women as facilitators of warrior-masculinity in all the active fields of life, depriving women of organizational visibility even when they were outstanding fascists.

9. Fascism leads inexorably to suicidal war

It’s possible to argue that Mussolini was sucked into World War II against his will, He knew it was going to end his regime since Italy was not prepared. We might credit it to Hitler’s powers of manipulation over Mussolini that Italy entered a disastrous war. The truth is that from the beginning Mussolini had been biding his time to exert Italian power abroad. He had no respect for diplomats, exactly like Trump, and chose to go his own way, believing himself to be a master strategist. He made increasingly assertive forays into war-making, from the little adventure in Corfu in 1923, all the way to the massive commitment to the Ethiopian war in 1936, along the way proclaiming himself “protector of Islam.”

Fascism, like all forms of government not based on the consent of the majority, requires more and more energy to keep the population under control as time goes by. Once the façade of virile domesticity starts getting exposed, war becomes the only option to keep the regime going. Fascism always claims that war is not of its choosing, that it is forced into war by others, but it is a voluntary, even eager, action to perpetuate the regime. At some point, the boomeranging negative energy — violence inflicted upon the fascist power in return — is so great that the tide of opinion turns. Even if war might be fought to an end, the internal consensus, including among fascist believers, is gone. We are, obviously, a long way from that.

10. Racism is inherent to fascism

It is absolutely key that Trump began his campaign by proclaiming a genocidal manifesto against Mexicans — and then Muslims and Arabs — and has continued to keep it as his central point of action. Because fascism is not competing on an even ideological terrain — most people in any civilized country are not given to violence — it must imagine enemies powerful enough to sustain a majority reaction.

Mussolini and his lieutenants used to mock Hitler’s racial animus, both before and after he became chancellor, holding that Italians had no anti-Semitic sentiment, which was quite true. Some of Mussolini’s most ardent early supporters were Jewish, and he had prominent Jewish lovers, like his biographer Margherita Sarfatti. But after the goodwill from the Ethiopian war started fading in the late 1930s, and a closer alliance with Germany became inevitable, Italy turned around and instituted an official anti-Semitism that deprived Jews of their honor, property and basic rights. The situation never got as bad as in Germany, with most Italians harboring deep suspicions toward the newfound anti-Semitism and the construction of Italians as a superior Aryan race, but the damage was done.

Just as war is inevitable, so is virulent racism. Both go together in fascism. One provides an external enemy while the other provides an internal enemy. If they can be linked together — the worldwide Jewish banking conspiracy, or the worldwide Islamic terror conspiracy — so much the better. War becomes more comprehensible, for fascist supporters, when the internal enemy is attached to the endless cycle of wars abroad, which is said to stem from the same root threat to virile nationalist probity.

11. No form of resistance works

Finally, how do you fight fascism? Is there a magic formula, has anything ever worked? Or are we, too, assuming that we are launched on our own fascist cycle, doomed to repeat the familiar pattern until the end? Can liberalism awaken itself in time, once it recognizes the mortal danger, to defeat fascism? Will the citizenry in a liberal democratic nation, once prompted to the threat, find resources it hadn’t counted on before to invalidate and eventually suppress fascism? Can violence, in short, be defeated by nonviolence? We would have to presume this to be true, unless we accept that liberals would take up arms to defeat fascism, which is not likely and probably defeatist anyway.

The Italian press, when Mussolini took over the country, was extremely vigorous. Political parties of every persuasion were highly energized, and they all had their vocal newspapers. Mussolini himself had run socialist newspapers — first Avanti! and then Il Popolo d’Italia — for the majority of his adult career, and knew that to neutralize the press was his first order of business. He did so in stages, eventually ushering in a regime of complete censorship after 1925, particularly after failed assassination attempts gave him the excuse. He installed fascist stooges at all the newspapers and carefully monitored their every word for the rest of his regime. Loyalty oaths were likewise instituted everywhere, from higher education to civil service. The institutions appeared the same; they were not abolished, but they had been hollowed out.

The press went underground, numerous political activists went into exile, particularly in France, and the communists, socialists, conservatives, liberals, monarchists and Catholics bided their time, engaging in resistance when they could, hoping for an awakening of mass consciousness. Neutralizing the church with the Lateran Accords, and thereafter depoliticizing Catholic Action — the organization competing with Mussolini’s numerous social and leisure organizations — was important, and the church never regained its full voice. Exiles abroad were killed or injured in large numbers; many died in the Spanish Civil War. It was not until Mussolini’s own Grand Council deposed him in 1943, when it was clear that Italy had lost the war, that the country divided into two and the partisans emerged to slowly recover Italian democracy in stages.

Italians tried every form of resistance we can imagine, including getting themselves and their families killed or imprisoned, as countless lives were lost in the fascist tyranny. Nothing worked. Nothing ever works until fascism’s logic, the logic of empire, stands discredited to the point where no denial and no media coverup is possible anymore.

Some final thoughts

The thing to notice is that fascism, in all the places it’s been known to arise, converts an admittedly minority point of view into a mass energy that soon overwhelms every civilized instinct. Perhaps Trump doesn’t need to do this footwork; perhaps much of this foundational work was already accomplished in the Bush era. What should really concern us is that fascism now seems to have a certain stability that we have not seen in earlier models that relied on a single charismatic leader. Despite the Obama interlude, Trump has resumed where George W. Bush in his most feverish mood had left off. This suggests that fascism has become permanently stabilized in this country. It is the most worrisome aspect of the present situation.

Fascism would never have gotten such traction here had liberalism not already succumbed, over the course of 40 years, to various abridgments of rights in the name of community or security or risk-aversion, which defines much of liberal discourse today. Fascism cannot thrive on true individualism, which is inherently opposed to mass delusions, but liberalism took the lead long ago in giving up individualism for forms of imagined community. This is ultimately the breeding ground for fascism, and this is why it is an affair that envelops all of us, not just a certain segment of the population that we can condemn as fascist and be done with it.

One remarkable similarity — among many others — between Trump and Mussolini is their total preoccupation with coverage in the media. Trump regularly consumes the “shows,” apparently getting most of his news and information from TV, and has little use for time-consuming memoranda and policy documents. He obsessively monitors what the media says about him. Mussolini, it could be said, was almost a full-time journalist during his 23 years of power. Just as Trump’s Oval Office desk is littered with the “papers,” so was Mussolini’s time taken up with controlling every word that was printed about the regime. Obsessively detailed veline went out every day to the country’s newspapers, instructing them on how to interpret every event. There were to be no pictures of Mussolini appearing in less than heroic posture, no mention of crime or poverty or violence, no disparagement of the fascist regime.

The inordinate amount of time Mussolini (and Trump) spent cultivating his image does not have anything to do with a personality disorder. It has to do with democracy’s failure to live up to its egalitarian ideals, so that the lie about equality becomes more important than actual equality. The liberal democratic and fascist authoritarian versions of this lie have much in common. It is futile to look for tanks on the street as a marker of fascism; there were no tanks in the streets in fascist Italy either. What is important to notice are the weak spots of liberal democracy, which fascism exploits, such as the gradual loss of faith in our voting and electoral systems. What is important to notice is the symbolic order, which becomes more and more different until one day it becomes a vehicle for a different ideology than the majority ever bargained for.

 

Anis Shivani’s books in the last year include Soraya: Sonnets and Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish: Poems. His book Assessing Literary Writing in the Twenty-First Century comes out in early 2017. 

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