95 Foreign Aff. 39 (2016)
Populism Is Not Fascism: But It Could Be a Harbinger

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Populism Is

Not Fascism

But It Could Be a Harbinger

Sheri Berman

      sright-wing movements have
Amounted increasingly strong
        challenges to political establish-
ments across Europe and North America,
many commentators have drawn parallels
to the rise of fascism during the 1920s
and 1930s. Last year, a French court ruled
that opponents of Marine Le Pen, the
leader of France's National Front, had
the right to call her a fascist-a right
they have frequently exercised. This May,
after Norbert Hofer, the leader of Aus-
tria's Freedom Party, nearly won that
country's presidential election, The Guard-
ian asked, How can so many Austrians
flirt with this barely disguised fascism?
And in an article that same month about
the rise of Donald Trump, the Republican
U.S. presidential candidate, the conser-
vative columnist Robert Kagan warned,
This is how fascism comes to America.
Fascist has served as a generic term of
political abuse for many decades, but for
the first time in ages, mainstream observ-
ers are using it seriously to describe major
politicians and parties.
   Fascism is associated most closely with
Europe between the world wars, when
movements bearing this name took power
in Italy and Germany and wreaked havoc
in many other European countries.

SHERI BERMAN is Professor of Political
Science at Barnard College, Columbia University.


Although fascists differed from country to
country, they shared a virulent opposition
to democracy and liberalism, as well as a
deep suspicion of capitalism. They also
believed that the nation-often defined
in religious or racial terms-represented
the most important source of identity for
all true citizens. And so they promised a
revolution that would replace liberal
democracy with a new type of political
order devoted to nurturing a unified and
purified nation under the guidance of a
powerful leader.
   Although today's right-wing populists
share some similarities with the interwar
fascists, the differences are more signifi-
cant. And more important, what today's
comparisons often fail to explain is how
noxious politicians and parties grow into
the type of revolutionary movements
capable of fundamentally threatening
democracy, as interwar fascism did. In
order to understand this process, it is not
nearly enough to examine the programs
and appeal of right-wing extremist parties,
the personalities of their politicians, or
the inclinations of their supporters.
Instead, one must carefully consider the
broader political context. What turned
fascists from marginal extremists into
rulers of much of Europe was the failure
of democratic elites and institutions to
deal with the crises facing their societies
during the interwar years. Despite real
problems, the West today is confronting
nowhere near the same type of breakdown
it did in the 1930s. So calling Le Pen,
Trump, and other right-wing populists
fascists obscures more than it clarifies.

THE BIRTH OF FASCISM
Like many of today's right-wing move-
ments, fascism originated during a
period of intense globalization. In the

       November/December 2016      39

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