Fascism Comes to America: A Century of Obsession in Politics and Culture
By Bruce Kuklick
University of Chicago Press, 264 pages, $35
Speaking to a group of donors in Rockville, Md., in August, President Biden declared that support for Donald Trump constituted a kind of “semi-fascism.” It is the latest expression of a century-old tradition of Americans calling their political enemies fascists. In Fascism Comes to America, historian Bruce Kuklick provides the newest analysis—a brief but reasonably comprehensive survey of the bewildering variety of ways in which the “f-word” has been used in the United States during the past century, often in an attempt to distract from the real sources and contours of contemporary Western proto-authoritarianism.
Indiscriminate and ubiquitous usage to denigrate adversaries was made standard propaganda practice by the Soviet Comintern in 1923, but Kuklick’s focus is on American practitioners. The author, a retired professor at the University of Pennsylvania, employs an impressively broad lens that goes beyond politics and what passes for theory to culture and entertainment. This produces a thoroughly engaging work that, more than any previous account, reveals the bewildering range of usage and conjecture associated with the term in the United States.
Kuklick recognizes at the outset that fascism, as an epithet, has little to do with fascism as a historic reality. His book isn’t a treatise in political history, but in the history of political language and images, accomplished with precision and insight. Its greatest achievement is to reveal for the first time the full extent, both chronologically and speculatively, of the rhetorical usage of the term in America. Its employment began earlier and its application has been yet more indiscriminate than even informed observers have been aware.
Initially, Italian Fascism received a warm reception from many American progressives. Polemical use emerged during the New Deal, and from the start in the 1930s, the f-word was thrown about more widely and indiscriminately than most of us have thought. Aside from Roosevelt himself, the most common lightning rod was Louisiana’s Huey Long, who first called FDR a fascist for the New Deal’s initial effort to coordinate big business and in turn was himself so termed for his radical populism. Then Long even applied the word to himself on a few occasions, though probably tongue-in-cheek. New Dealers applied the epithet to enemies, who hurled the word right back at them. The only common denominator was imprecision and vague polemics.
Since the earlier work of historian John Diggins, scholars have long been aware that Italian Fascism enjoyed a rather favorable press in the United States early on, as indeed it did in much of Europe. Thus, the early application to political rivals, though intended to be alien and denigrating, lacked the demonic connotation of later times. Beginning in 1935, when, as Kuklick accurately puts it, “Hitler contaminates Mussolini,” the word’s connotations became more confusing and extreme.
Fascism came to have some common meaning during and immediately after World War II, when Germany, Italy, and Japan were lumped together as the fascist enemy. This was so even though almost no one was really concerned about Italy; the fact that Japan lacked any fascist movement of consequence was also not considered an obstacle. This focus to a large extent continued for some two decades after the conflict was over.
The Cold War complicated perception and usage, as communism, at least for a while, came to seem as bad as fascism. By the early 1950s this had encouraged a concept of pan-totalitarianism that included both communism and fascism, something that had been advanced by certain European analysts in the 1930s. Still, primary usage remained focused on fascism as applied to the defeated powers and any possible lingering adherents.
This “historic era” of discourse on fascism ended with the political and cultural changes of the 1960s, the Vietnam War, and the rise of the New Left. Renewed imputations of fascism then took wildly divergent forms. This had been presaged by the cultural critique of the acolytes of the Frankfurt School during the 1950s, as they found fascism to be a fundamental danger within the contemporary Western world, especially casting fascism as an ever-present menace within the American system.
All this coincided with the “fascism debate” among professional scholars during the 1960s and ‘70s, which sought to understand historic European fascism more fully, asking whether or not any such thing as a “generic fascism” had ever really existed. This reached a limited consensus and began to peter out before the end of the century, but that discussion isn’t a significant part of this study, since scholarly inquiry had little or no effect on political usage in America.
In fact, as Kuklick suggests, the remarkable thing is how little effect history, historical change, and historical study have ever had on use of the f-word. Never had a major new force in modern times been so quickly and thoroughly defeated as historical fascism by 1945, yet its obliteration had little effect on the prominent place of fascism in political imagination and discourse. Only briefly, during the most intense years of the Cold War, did communism hold an equivalent place, but as the latter conflict stretched out over the decades without producing world war, fascism once more became the dominant menace in the political and rhetorical imaginary, encouraged even further after collapse of the Soviet Union. The neoliberal world domination of the 1990s did little to reduce the trend, while the tensions of the present century have raised it to a new high.
In the process, the term has lost all specificity. Its usage isn’t merely wildly contradictory, but applied in the most directly and specifically opposite ways. The only entities known to history that were indisputably fascist were the Italian National Fascist Party, founded in 1921, and the Mussolini dictatorship, set up four years later, for they were the inventors of the term and the only notable organizations ever to use it officially. A major problem is that Italian Fascism was one of the more moderate of the major dictatorships of modern times—not given to mass violence or genocide, and for the greater part of its history not prone to military bellicosity or antisemitism. According to common notions, therefore, Italian Fascism was scarcely “fascist.” But all this is irrelevant to the political imaginary, dominated by fantasy and subjectivism and oblivious to empirical reality. Italian Fascism can thus be dismissed merely as an imperfect version of the real thing. The term fascist is now primarily used to evoke Hitlerism, though the Nazis themselves did not employ the word.
A striking feature of Kuklick’s book is its treatment of the depiction of fascism in American popular culture, from the movies to theater and literature. Almost everyone is aware that Hollywood’s favorite villains are fascists, but the impressive thing is the extent to which this was the case even at the height of the Cold War. Over the decades, this has taken an innumerable variety of forms and representations, from the farcical to the apocalyptic.
The current radicalization of American politics, beginning slowly from the shrill denunciation of the second Bush administration after 2004, has naturally encouraged such expression. The candidacy and election of Trump raised it to a new height. Kuklick rejects the idea that Trump was a fascist, pointing to Trump’s aversion to military initiatives and his tendency toward quasi-isolationism rather than expansionism, together with his emphasis on federalism and localism rather than growth of the centralized state.
Despite the insistence by some that the term fascism has become an “empty signifier,” meaning either anything or nothing, Kuklick won’t go quite that far. Though concluding that the only common meaning of the term is to denote “contempt,” he affirms that “people may be warranted in their contempt, even if they cannot articulate the reasons for it or are ignorant of them.” Such a weak and potentially contradictory argument is unlikely to convince the most rigorous readers, and it mars this otherwise admirable book.
Those seeking a more detailed examination of the way in which the f-word has been employed in recent years, together with persistent exaggerations of dangers from the radical right, should turn to the recent study by Jeffrey M. Bale and Tamir Bar-On, Fighting the Last War: Confusion, Partisanship, and Alarmism in the Literature on the Radical Right. Their carefully researched account documents case-by-case myriad examples of rhetorical hypertrophy in the current century, examining in detail the sort of thing that Kuklick has treated in his grand tour d’horizon of this strange phenomenon in America.
To get at the underlying reason for this fixation, Kuklick speculates that Americans are somehow unable to deal with the reality that they live in a huge, complex, imperfectly democratic country that has evolved (or strayed) far from the very delimited constitutional system with which the Founders had sought to discipline majoritarian representation. This is probably too subtle. More likely the reason for the mindless ubiquity of the f-word is simply that the era of World War II focused a polemical “fascism” as the only major destructive political alternative to emerge from within Western civilization itself since the 18th century, while association with Hitlerism and the Holocaust lent it a uniquely demonic connotation. All this serves as a mental and political smokescreen. The “really existing” form of Western proto-authoritarianism doesn’t stem from small, scantily armed “militias” and disoriented “insurrectionists,” nor from a chaotic demagogue such as Trump, but from the state apparatus already functioning. Government by executive decree rather than elected legislatures, politicized intelligence services, and a biased, coercive judiciary are its key constituents. In advanced democracies, such things function more from the inside out than from the outside in.