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What Is Fascism?

The fascist salute has murky origins but it does not come from Ancient Rome as is often asserted.

The fascist salute has murky origins but it does not come from Ancient Rome as is often asserted.

A Threat to Democracy

Some political scientists suggest that fascism is pushing democracy aside as dispirited voters seek to blame the establishment for their economic struggles.

Certainly, plenty of unscrupulous individuals are happy to exploit unhappy voters with platforms that contain elements of fascism, but are they true fascists? Let's take a look at the ideology to decide.

The Strongman Leader

Robert Paxton is a history professor at Columbia University, New York. He’s one of the world’s leading experts on fascism. He says it’s a complex ideology that centres around the concept of the strongman leader.

This strongman leader persuades his supporters that their country is under attack from internal and external forces: “Give me complete control and I will slaughter our enemies” is the simplistic call for support. This message is hammered home through the sophisticated use of propaganda.

Followers are persuaded to give up many civil liberties so their leader is not held back in his ability to “get things done.”

Opposition to fascism

Opposition to fascism

Fascist Ideology

Fascists are against a lot of things.

  • They hate socialists, don’t like liberals, and frown on conservatives.
  • They are not fond of foreigners and are suspicious of immigrants.
  • They see democracy as a messy interference in the leader’s ability to make their country great again.
  • They are opposed to an open media, especially when it is critical of the leader, who discredits journalism and then finds ways to shut down a free press.

Here are a few definitions of fascism:

  • Writing for The Telegraph, Tim Stanley points out: “The thinker and historian Ernst Nolte argued that fascism was the great ‘anti’ philosophy that united people frightened by social and economic change: anti-Semitic, anti-socialist, anti-feminist, anti-democracy.”
  • Fascism plays on emotions stirred up by a leader who appeals “to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.” (
  • Historian George L. Mosse called fascism a “scavenger ideology.” By this he meant that it picks up bits and pieces from other ideologies and patches them together; there is no well-planned body of thought.
  • It is built around the myth of a once-great nation that has been brought low by evil forces. Fascism is also about racial purity and the use of violence as a political tool.

The Poet Who Invented Fascism

It seems odd that an ideology that is very dark should come from a poet. However, writer Gabriele D’Annunzio is seen as the architect of fascism.

He was born in southern Italy in 1863 and raised in a privileged family. At the age of 19, he ran off with the daughter of a duke and then abandoned her. This set the lifelong pattern of his treatment of women.

He was a very talented writer and made millions from his work. He was also talented at spending his money and was constantly in debt.

When World War I broke out, he suddenly became very political. He saw the conflict as an opportunity for Italy to win back land it had lost years earlier to Austria. Half a million Italian soldiers and an equal number of civilians died in a futile effort to get the territory back. And the treaty that ended the war gave Italy almost nothing.

This infuriated D’Annunzio. In September 1919, he gathered together 2,000 recently released soldiers and marched on Fiume at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea. The people of the port city were mostly of Italian heritage, but the peace treaty placed them in the newly created country of Yugoslavia.

D’Annunzio seized the city and ran it as a dictator for 15 months. During this time, he invented fascism.

Gabriele D’Annunzio

Gabriele D’Annunzio

Elements of Fascism

From his all-powerful position as head of a small city state, D’Annunzio created the ideology of fascism that others would copy and adapt. His foundational idea was that society had decayed morally and needed to be cleansed. (This from a man who was a master philanderer.) The strongman leader steps forward, seizes all power, and efficiently cuts out the rot.

D’Annunzio was a brilliant and captivating speaker. He organized mass marches and rallies aimed at stirring up nationalist sentiments. He was going to lead the people back to the glory days when the Roman Empire ruled the known world. National pride was going to halt the slide into corruption.

He surrounded himself with thugs in black shirts whose job was to protect him from anyone who challenged his supreme power. The undisciplined police and soldiers used violence against ethnic minorities.

He wrote a constitution for Fiume that enshrined an economic system that was neither socialist nor capitalist. There was strong government involvement in the economy aimed at encouraging successful business people. Profits were to be shared with the people, who also had to carry the burden of losses.

At the same time, unions were dismantled. Because of the focus on national interest above all else, international trade was discouraged.

The Superman Leader

Gabriele D’Annunzio was building his philosophy on the work of others. One of them was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who famously declared that “God is dead.”

Sean Illing is a former university philosophy teacher. He explains (Vox) that Nietzsche “meant that science and reason had progressed to the point where we could no longer justify belief in God, and that meant that we could no longer justify the values rooted in that belief.”

But without a moral compass to guide them, Nietzsche worried that people might turn to destructive philosophies, such as nationalism. So he came up with the idea of “will to power,” which teaches people to overcome their weak values. Instead, they had to develop heroic values of courage and self-denial.

The person who is successful at overcoming these weaknesses he called “superman” (or “Übermensch” in German). These supermen would operate under their own rules and would not be restricted by weaker people.

D’Annunzio Ousted

Eventually, Gabriele D’Annunzio’s behaviour became so erratic it was an embarrassment to the government of Italy.

Yugoslavia and Italy signed a treaty that led to D’Annunzio being pushed out. Italy sent a battleship to shell the dictator’s palace and that was enough to convince him to leave.

But in Italy, there was a man who was carefully watching the Fiume experiment with fascism. That man was Benito Mussolini, a longtime political activist.

Like D’Annunzio, he felt Italy should have come out of World War I with more to show for its fighting with the winning side. With the support of unemployed war veterans, he formed the Fascist Party, dressed his followers in black shirts, and turned them loose on his political opponents.

In 1922, the Italian government was sliding into chaos, so Mussolini led his Black Shirts in a march on the capital, Rome. He announced that he was the only person who could fix the country’s problems and he was invited to become prime minister.

He tore down Italy’s democratic institutions and declared himself “Il Duce”—The Leader. A few years earlier, Gabriele D’Annunzio had given himself the exact same title. Benito Mussolini’s Italy became Fiume writ large.

And just as Mussolini learned his lessons from D’Annunzio, another man was watching the Italian dictator and taking notes. That man was Germany’s Adolf Hitler.

Through the wrenching chaos of World War II, fascism was defeated. But it was only wounded, not killed.

Mussolini and Hitler, the ascending fascist leaders

Mussolini and Hitler, the ascending fascist leaders

Fascism's Rebirth

A question often asked since Donald Trump became U.S. president in January 2017 was “Is he a fascist?”

We can turn to former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for some enlightenment. She had a long and distinguished career as a politician and diplomat. As a child in Czechoslovakia, she lived through the fascist dictatorships that tore Europe apart in World War II.

In April 2018, she published her book Fascism: A Warning. In it she saw a rise in the popularity of the strongman leader and authoritarianism. Racism was growing and she saw worrying similarities between Trump and the fascists of the 20th century.

Trump certainly has the instincts of a fascist, but Eliot Cohen says people should not be too worried about that. The former State Department official has written that Trump is “… too incompetent to be a successful fascist.”

Now he's out of power and reduced to stirring up trouble from the sidelines. However, a new team of real fascists has taken to the playing field in Italy, where it all began a century ago.

Giorgia Meloni and her far-right Brothers of Italy party came out on top in the country's September 2022 election. Ms. Meloni's party has risen, through several iterations, from the ashes of Mussolini's banned National Fascist Party. One of Ms. Meloni's close associates proudly announced that the party's members “are all heirs of Il Duce.”

Writing for Salon, Marina Catucci describes the game plan of the Brothers of Italy: create the feeling of “a permanent state of emergency, justified by inflammatory rhetoric; stoking fear against immigrants and refugees; endless descriptions of a country in shambles and social-moral decay.”

Meanwhile, Democracy Now points out that Giogria Meloni is not alone in Europe by listing “Spain’s far-right Vox party, Poland’s ruling nationalist Law and Justice party, and the Sweden Democrats party, which emerged out of its neo-Nazi movement” as gaining traction with voters.

Bonus Factoids

  • Several countries have had fascist governments. The list includes: Austria, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Romania, and Hungary.
  • The Silver Legion of America was a fascist movement founded in 1933. At its peak, it claimed to have 15,000 members. Leader William Dudley Pelley ran for the presidency in 1936 for the Christian Party but got less than 2,000 votes. The Silver Legion was effectively shut down when America declared war on Germany, Japan, and Italy in December 1941.
  • During the Roman Empire, the word fasces described a bundle of sticks. One stick alone can be broken easily, but bundled together and tied to an axe the sticks are much stronger. Bodyguards to a Roman imperial magistrate carried fasces to indicate his unchallenged authority. The word fascism comes from this source and describes a country in which everybody is bound together in obedience to the leader.
A Roman official carries his fasces.

A Roman official carries his fasces.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor