What Is Fascism? A Detailed Guide to a Dangerous Philosophy

A Guide for Americans

Now that I’ve explained how we got here and the history of fascism, let’s take a closer look at the characteristics of fascism so you can recognize a fascist. Heck, you may be one!

A few Notes

I don’t intend the fascist label as a cudgel to bash those who think differently than I do. My aim is to create discussion and discussion can’t happen with disdain. Whether or not you prefer the label “fascist,” we must unite against this philosophy. If someone you know fits the descriptions below, they have fallen prey to a dangerous ideology that has put endangered democracy.

Because fascists and “alt-right” nationalists try to take ownership of patriotism, I’m going to conclude each section with the distinction between a nationalist and a patriot.

This series is concerned with identifying American fascism, though the issues discussed may apply more broadly I am aware this focus is ethnocentric.

Fascism in Detail

Just as Americans trust conservatives to safeguard Americans from moving towards communism, the American left is the safeguard against fascism. The left has utterly failed in this role. We have failed to call out fascism when we see it, for fear of sounding extreme, for fear of breaking Godwin’s law, for fear of using labels, for fear of making life uncomfortable at Thanksgiving dinner or the work Christmas party.

That ends today. Because from here on out we must call out fascism wherever we see it.

Starting with…

Fascists Demand Unquestioned Patriotism

retro girl with rose says, "True patriots fight fascism"


Nationalism is the defining characteristic of fascism. All the other features of fascism are tied in one way or another to nationalism.
When the nation-state is threatened, people don’t abandon their nationalistic identities. But when people face scarcity, they naturally become tribal—they must protect their own, but they still identify their country as their “tribe.”

Nationalism makes fascism harder to identify. Communism everywhere looks the same, but fascism always looks like the country it is born in. Fascist Italy sought to return to the glory of Rome. Nazi Germans longed for a third reich, but most Americans couldn’t even tell you what the first two were.

But American fascism must glorify the trappings of Americana: picket fences, apple pie, classic rock and the nuclear family. The music, food, clothing of other cultures can be offensive to the fascist because they feel their own culture is under attack.

Regardless If You’re Conservative or Progressive…

Patriots are engaged citizens who understand that part of shaping policy may require criticism or even protest. A fascist believes that no one should be allowed to speak out against their chosen faction and those who do should be met with violence.

Fascists Always Have a Scapegoat

what-is-fascism-islam-protected-by-first-amendment

This is the second-most important feature of fascism, behind nationalism. Other political groups may fear their country has fallen into disgrace, but fascism always aims the blame on outsiders who are changing the definition of what it means to be American. Because fascists fear their culture is being threatened, they are hostile to immigrants and those who don’t fit the nationalist ideal (e.g. queers, druggies, African-Americans, etc.). Under the pressures of real economic hardship, the fascist believes the problem can be solved by getting rid of of some undesirable group. Even people who who are against racism in a general sense may turn to scapegoating when they feel their country is changing in frightening ways. Times are tough and they have to protect their own.

After Trump’s deportation of immigrants (and after the refugees are sent home to die) doesn’t cure America’s economic woes, will the anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican movements be stopped? Or will they begin to target Mexicans and Muslims who were born here? Once a group has determined to spurn its own citizens, there is no “away” to send them to. The next step is for them to be imprisoned or murdered. Because fascism cures nothing, the quest for purity is a downward spiral that ends in genocide.

Regardless If You’re Conservative or Progressive…

The American patriot is proud of the words on the Statue of Liberty, “give me your tired, your poor huddled masses,” and proud to be a safe haven built on promise and human rights. The fascists shrink the definition of human rights so that it applies not to all people, or all Americans, but to an ever-smaller tribe.

Fascists Are Authoritarian

Vox has a fascinating article every American should read, about how authoritarianism may be triggered by feelings of loss and fear from the changes brought by foreigners. Don’t like reading? Here’s a short video from Vox.

The Cult of Personality

Their leader is a father figure, both disciplinarian and protector. Of course every president fills this role, but as a revolutionary the fascist leader comes from outside the political establishment. Fascism is in reaction to the failure of the state to provide for the people, both Democrat and Republican.


The fascist leader offers easy solutions. A showman, he uses simple, superlative language. Bureaucracy? Regulation? The fascist is suspicious of any policy that takes a book’s worth of text. If it can’t be understood by the “common man,” it’s probably malarkey. Thus, fascists don’t unite around a policy or economic plan. Rather they entrust their future to a leader who promises a new golden age, using whatever might is necessary. This leader must captivate the people or they won’t fall for the snake oil of scapegoating immigrants and minorities.

Fascists Are Reactionary

Back when America was "great"
American Fascists yearn to make America white again

Frightened of a changing world, the American fascist wants to return to a time when the American Dream felt possible, and working men had pension plans and two-car garages and enough money to raise a family. The American fascist believes minorities and elites are the reason this dream is broken, and since those people aren’t “true Americans” the best solution is to free us of their influence…by imprisoning, deporting or executing them.

It’s not a coincidence that fascism comes to fading empires. People are more likely to turn to xenophobia and brutality when the future they inherit can’t compare with the one they were promised. At the heart of every fascist is someone who wonders, “why can’t we just go back to the good old days.

Regardless If You’re Conservative or Progressive…

A patriot knows there is no man who is above the rule of law, a fascist believes their leader has the authority to ignore and reshape the law as he pleases. The patriot doesn’t see the past through rose-colored glasses. Nor is the patriot willing to sacrifice fundamental rights to return her country to its greatest glory.

Fascism Is Populist…but Anti-Intellectual

Illustrated retro woman and the prase "facts matter"

The best thing fascism has going for it is that it’s a movement of the people. This was hard to understand when reading our history books. How could people advocate genocide and authoritarianism? (The answers: anger [at their “stolen” country] and fear [a strong leader will protect them.]) Populism is a wonderful thing, but the philosophy and emotion of fascism is like an angry mob. They disdain measured, rational responses and prefer swift acts of violence that prove our nation’s strength.

 Fascists Disdain Intellectuals

Fascists (both historically and presently) tend to be from the shrinking middle class, such as small business owners. Despite this, fascists tend to idealize the hard-working salt-of-the-earth common man, ready for action. The opposite of the common man is the intellectual: lazy, entitled, sitting in his ivory tower, with his cushy taxpayer-paid job, making new rules the nationalist must follow. It’s easy to disdain those who don’t trust science and reason. But can you blame them? Trusting the elites led their empire to crumble and fall. “A new study” always seems to contradict last week’s study. So they don’t trust studies. They don’t respect the authority of scientists or professors. In a working society, intellectuals can be trusted. But when society is failing, people will look to all expertise with skepticism.

Historically both Mussolini and Hitler were fans of action for action’s sake. In Mussolini’s “Doctrine of Fascism,” he says “Fascism desires an active man, one engaged in activity with all his energies: it desires a man conscious of the difficulties that exist in action and ready to face them.” The spirit of think-first-ask-questions-later doesn’t align with quiet study and contemplation.

As fascism scholar Robert Paxton said,

It’s…the aggressive style, the assertion of strength and the image presented of somebody who’s not going to be bothered by little things like the rule of law or political correctness or being polite, and will actually get things done.

Regardless If You’re Conservative or Progressive…

The Age of Enlightenment, a period of history that sought to improve the world through reason, culminated in the American Revolution. The patriot wants their president to make decisions based on research, not hunches. Regardless of our party, patriots value what our scientists, academics and scholars can do to make the world better.

Fascists Advocate Violence

To be clear, most revolutionary movements advocate violence. The fascist movement only endorses violence when it is in service of obedience to the leader, as a punishment for minorities, or in the name of the nation. Violence from the bottom up is never to be tolerated. Violence from the top down is seen as equivalent to justice. The state is the source of what is right and wrong, so it is impossible for their actions to be condemned.

Fascists Believe in Obedience

fifties woman quote: the beatings will continue until moral improves
Like this but not a joke

The fascist believes society is falling apart. They see too much decadence, too many loose moral values, too much materialism. The society must be punished, severely if necessary, like a father disciplines a naughty child.

To the extreme nationalist, total devotion must be entrusted in the protectors of the state: the military and police. Those who do not obey deserve punishment. Thus if the media or protesters criticize their chosen leader, they deserve bad things to happen to them. The leader is not to be questioned.

As a revolutionary movement, fascists do not obey those in power before them. Thus plenty of fascists are happy to criticize past leaders or even members of their own party. The fascist doesn’t see themselves as represented by the establishment of either party.

Fascists Reward Violence Among Their Followers

Fascists believe its a dog-eat-dog world. It’s a movement born of people coping with the fall of empire. Fascists have suffered, and they want it to stop, even if it means that someone else must suffer in the process. Some of them see violence as a temporary, unpleasant necessity to purify the nation, so it can be reborn great again. Others believe in social Darwinism, and view liberal ideas about fairness as naive.

They were promised something (e.g. the American dream), feel entitled to it, and that dream seems increasingly impossible. Thus when their compatriots embrace violent rhetoric or action, they are praised.

When many recoil in horror from the violence at Trump rallies, collectively Trump supporters feel stronger. It doesn’t bother them when Trump hints second Amendment advocates should murder journalists, because he’s on their side. He’s protecting them from a harsh world.

Fascists Glorify the Military, Police

As the arbiters of obedience, police are idealized in a fascist state. In an altercation between police and citizens, the police are always right. Police violence against undesirable/decadent people is thought to be deserved regardless of whether or not a crime has been committed. Undesirable people include protesters, minorities, immigrants, queers and political opposition. They believe authority in general and police in particular should be respected and obeyed. They have nothing to fear from the police, which is just an arm of the state, their father/protector from the barbarians at the gate.

Regardless If You’re Conservative or Progressive…

The American patriot is protected from the violence of the state by the Bill of Rights. Regardless of your political party, you know you must grant these to each and every American. To the fascist, the Bill of Rights is just a piece of paper.

Fascists Are Against the Press

fifties gal in blue bikini says As an American I have the freedom to criticize my government.

One of the dangers of extreme nationalists is that they will not tolerate any criticism of their country. This puts them at odds with journalists looking to expose their scapegoating, violence and lies.  Moreover, because fascists are anti-intellectual, they will turn against any media that doesn’t parrot the narrative of their leader. If the people running the country are going to spout lies, journalists will be their natural enemies.

This is why the free press is so critical to a functioning democracy. They act as an additional, but independent, check on the government.
Try to imagine what it must have felt like to see your candidate mocked at every turn on The Late Show, The Daily Show, SNL and basically every show that touches on social commentary. Try to imagine every news show (save Fox of course) saying over and over your candidate couldn’t possibly win, because Americans couldn’t be that stupid. Bad journalism has engendered the idea that American journalism can’t be trusted.

Regardless If You’re Conservative or Progressive…

“Freedom of the press” is not a nicety. The patriot understands that meddlesome journalists are critical to a functioning democracy. Fascists cover their ears when they hear any voice that counters the view of their leader.

“Hey, That’s Just Like, Your Opinion Man…”

Please do your own research. If you find points that dispute mine, don’t be shy to share them.
Here are some concise sources on historic fascism and its definitions, which have informed this series.

I have a degree in sociology, and I’ve read some books here and there, but these are complicated issues no doubt. With the rise of Trump, I finally feel like I really “get” fascism. Before, I could never see how people stood by while leaders like Hitler and Mussolini killed millions. I could never understand why so many people would turn to racism as a solution. But seeing the current moment, and seeing my own friends and family support Trump, it’s all so clear to me now. People are frightened of the future and the economy, and they’ve been swindled by someone offering easy solutions. But there are no easy solutions. The jobs are not coming back. And even if they did, the effects of climate change or going to wreak havoc on the economy. The future looks grim. But scapegoating isn’t the answer.
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