One hears a great deal about fascism these days. Sadly, the cause is not a renewed interest in history or a serious concern to understand the roots of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes; that, after all, would entail a genuine interest in learning from history and would entail attention to that other, much more successful form of murderous ideology, Marxism, and its own mass-murdering leaders, such as Stalin and Mao. Rather, we are hearing about fascism and even Nazism on account of the efficacy of such terms in raising fear and loathing among the public. At times the term “fascist” is used with intentional irony, being thrown at the leftist crybullies currently running roughshod over our universities. More often, however, it is being used by the mainstream media and figures on the progressive Left to describe supporters of Donald Trump. Mr. Trump himself on several occasions has been likened to the Nazi dictator Adolph Hitler. One can and should decry this use of inflammatory branding language to delegitimize one’s political opponents. One also should seek to understand the reasons why the specific names are being used so often, as well as whether and how they are appropriate.
Clearly the aim of Mr. Trump’s opponents is not to tie him to the particular ideology of fascism. That ideology has much more coherence than progressives ascribe to Mr. Trump. Fascism, like Marxism, is a real ideology—a bad one, but a real one—with a vision of society, the good, and how it is to be achieved. Mr. Trump is said to have no discernable ideology of any kind—merely anger, pride, and a certain charisma appealing to supposedly ignorant, bigoted masses. And this brings us to the “Hitler charge.” For, where fascism is rooted in a corporatist conception of society, Nazism was fundamentally Hitlerism, looking to a singular “great” leader to embody the folk and to will its destiny into existence. Whatever one’s problems with Mr. Trump and whatever one’s concerns over his likely policies and behavior as president, the Hitler canard is just that, a false rumor. Trump the deal maker is perceived by his supporters as an enemy to entrenched interests who will “stand up for us” in making necessary bargains with powers foreign and domestic. He is not seen, and has not portrayed himself, as the embodiment of American will or destiny.
Nevertheless, the charge of fascism and Hitlerism will not go away. Part of the reason for the power of this epithet is found in the civil libertarian opposition to campus crybullies. Universities’ self-conceived social justice warriors (SJWs) are sometimes renamed fascists on the grounds that they like telling other people what to do, and they are not afraid to use and abuse the power of equally left-wing administrators on campus and, wherever possible, the government to stifle dissent. Moreover, the types of activities SJWs seek to stifle (casual sex and challenging speech chief among them) are expressive of an individualism which proponents of all forms of authority are assumed to oppose. Perhaps most important, civil libertarians eschew the more accurate epithet “Marxist” or communist because the latter term has been rendered harmless and even off-limits by decades of misinformation and successful indoctrination in our educational system; to call a communist a communist is to be labelled a new McCarthy, supposedly looking under everyone’s beds for enemies of the state.
In fact, extremists of both Left and Right have much in common. Both have a tendency to promote cults of personality, be they those of a Hitler, Stalin, Peron, or Kim Jong-un. Both centralize power in the hands of a leader who seeks to reconstruct society in some unitary image. Both misconstrue legitimate authority, which has many loci and diverse natural ends, as resting on adherence to a specific plan for society.
And this is why the fascism charge is both powerful and dangerous, for its misuse furthers ideological debate. That is, it focuses people’s minds, not on the character of persons and activities, but on their supposed goals. Campus crybullies know that they are telling people what to do—it is what they are all about. They must demonize their opponents because they are asking for unchecked, limitless power over the minds as well as the bodies of members of their communities. Thus, an SJW is not merely seeking to “liberate” individuals from social norms, for that would be the work of persuasion. The SJW instead is seeking to “eliminate oppression” institutionalized in families, churches, sexual conduct, and even the curriculum of a meaningful university. The charge of “institutionalized racism” or sexism (or heteronormism, etc.) is a way of empowering oneself, or at any rate one’s group, to seize power over all of life in the name of making it all more “just.” To justify such a radical, totalitarian program one must assert that the alternative is not merely wrong but evil. And to win such an argument one must silence even one’s most reasonable opponents by equating their very being with hatred, bigotry, and oppression.
There is no more recognizable word for “oppression” in the contemporary lexicon that “fascist.” This is why it is used so widely by people seeking to stifle opposition. As evidence of the power of this term one might remember the claim that “if only someone had stood up to Hitler” before he destroyed the Weimar Republic, or before he rearmed, or before he launched his murderous war of aggression and revenge, all would have been well in Europe. One murderous tyrant might have been stopped, but not all would have been well in a Europe mired in ethnic hatred, ideological extremism (including both fascism and communism), and economic chaos. Stopping a bad guy, although important, does not guarantee the good life. For one thing, there are many “bad guys” to defeat. Lest we forget, Germany was almost lost to communism before it was lost to Nazism. What is more, a constant search for bad guys undermines the civility on which republican government and the rule of law rely.
It is long past time to cease treating the tactics of crybullies and their political enablers as mere cries for justice. It is long past time to recognize that the demonization of all those who oppose our increasingly intolerant regime of political correctness is morally and politically illegitimate. SJWs have a right to express their opinions. They do not have the right to stifle expression of contrary opinions, let alone to egg, bully, and beat up their opponents. All Americans should demand the same treatment and protection from law enforcement, from other government institutions, and from institutions of higher education as they present their own views of the common good. And they should demand that universities in particular respect and teach the tradition that produced our civilization and its free institutions, abandoning or refusing to send their children to any that do not. Claims of fighting fascism by fighting open discussion and the right to free assembly—not to mention the right to learn about the tradition that gave rise to our republican form of government—should be recognized for what they are: claims to power resting on bad faith.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.