Suppose someone were to say to you: “Donald Trump is a fascist.” And suppose you were to reply: “A fascist? Not even close.” Is there any meaning in this conversation? What if neither of you knew the meaning of “fascism” or “fascist”? What if you each had a different concept of what these terms mean?
In meaningful conversation, one might expect those conversing to be reasonably precise in their use of language. That, however, is rarely the case and we must guess what a speaker means based on the context in which he or she is speaking.
I would want to have a clear definition in mind before I accused someone of being a fascist. I would look up the word in my favorite dictionary, the 1959 College Edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (The World Publishing Company). There I would find several definitions of “fascist” including the circular sounding definition “A person who believes in or practices Fascism.” I would then look up “fascism” and find a more precise sounding definition:
a system of government characterized by rigid one-party dictatorship, forcible suppression of the opposition (unions, other, especially leftist, parties, minority groups, etc.). the retention of private ownership of the means of production under centralized government control, belligerent nationalism and racism, glorification of war, etc.: first instituted in Italy in 1922.
If I were to look at Wikipedia, I would find two pieces on the subject. One piece, entitled “Definitions of Fascism” begins: “What constitutes a definition of fascism and fascist governments is a highly disputed subject that has proved complicated and contentious. Historians, political scientists, and other scholars have engaged in long and furious debates concerning the exact nature of fascism and its core tenets.” This Wikipedia article as it exists today discusses the views of 19 authors on the subject and ends with use of the term as an epithet. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definitions_of_fascism
Perhaps no one has better described the different and imprecise meanings given to the word “fascism” than George Orwell in his brief essay “What is Fascism?” Written in 1944, the essay concludes with the following discussion:
It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.
Yet underneath all this mess there does lie a kind of buried meaning. To begin with, it is clear that there are very great differences, some of them easy to point out and not easy to explain away, between the régimes called Fascist and those called democratic. Secondly, if ‘Fascist’ means ‘in sympathy with Hitler’, some of the accusations I have listed above are obviously very much more justified than others. Thirdly, even the people who recklessly fling the word ‘Fascist’ in every direction attach at any rate an emotional significance to it. By ‘Fascism’ they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class. Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.
But Fascism is also a political and economic system. Why, then, cannot we have a clear and generally accepted definition of it? Alas! we shall not get one — not yet, anyway. To say why would take too long, but basically it is because it is impossible to define Fascism satisfactorily without making admissions which neither the Fascists themselves, nor the Conservatives, nor Socialists of any colour, are willing to make. All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.
I think it wise to keep Orwell’s admonition in mind: that the words “fascist” and “fascism” should be used with “a certain amount of circumspection” and not “degrade[d] to the level of … swearword[s].” When the term “bully” is sufficient to describe someone, why use the word “fascist”? The answer, I suppose, is that the word “fascist” applies to a bullies and others who, as Orwell states, support a political and economic system that is “cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class” or, as the dictionary states, support “a system of government characterized by rigid one-party dictatorship, forcible suppression of the opposition (unions, other, especially leftist, parties, minority groups, etc.). the retention of private ownership of the means of production under centralized government control, belligerent nationalism and racism, glorification of war, etc. ….”
I am not ready to classify President-Elect Trump as a “fascist” despite his obvious displays of so many of the behaviors Orwell attributes to fascists. As time passes, it appears more and more clear that he supports a political system which meets Orwell’s description “cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class” but falls just short of the dictionary definition in that he has not yet fully advocated “rigid one-party dictatorship.” Even so, with control of all three branches of the United States Government and those of many states falling under the control of the same party, it can be argued that we will drift into fascism unless people of good will step forward soon and say “No, we will not allow some of these policies and actions to stand.”
A friend who voted for Trump recently told me that he would not support Trump on everything and would speak out if Trump crossed certain undefined lines. I keep wondering when these Trump voters and Republican leaders who say they will oppose Trump when he crosses the line will begin to speak. Soon? Or after it is too late?
To read Orwell’s full essay “What is Fascism?” online, go to http://www.orwell.ru/library/articles/As_I_Please/english/efasc. For another recent post discussing this issue, see http://www.openculture.com/2016/12/george-orwell-tries-to-identify-who-is-really-a-fascist.html.