In the wake of Brexit and Donald J. Trump’s victory in the US presidential election last November, the term fascist is heard increasingly within Western democratic societies.
However, as the historian Robert O. Paxton writes in The Anatomy of Fascism (Allen Lane, 2004), the word has been predominantly associated with Italy under the dictator Benito Mussolini between 1922 and 1943 and Germany under the dictator Adolf Hitler between 1933 and 1945.
That’s the scholarly analysis. Then there’s the vernacular. In Fascists (CUP, 2004), Michael Mann wrote that in contemporary usage, fascist is “a term of imprecise abuse hurled at people we do not like”. Currently, the man most hated by the self-proclaimed anti-fascist Left is President Trump.
This was evident on ABC TV’s The Drum last Monday. Paul Bongiorno, Network Ten’s contributing editor who appears regularly on the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster, declared “it’s worrying frankly” that Trump’s attack on sections of the American media “has within it the seeds of fascism”.
The team at The Drum was so pleased with Bongiorno’s hyperbole, it tweeted out the comment. Needless to say, The Drum’s presenter, John Barron, did not query Bongiorno’s claim when it was made live on air.
Soon after, economist Nicki Hutley weighed in. After criticising the Trump administration’s economic and foreign policies, she said the US President’s attack on the media “does smack of the 1930s, I’m sorry”.
Hutley was not apologising for her exaggeration but, rather, for Trump’s criticism of the American media.
From the time Hitler took power in Germany, he and the Nazi movement unleashed an ethos of violence aimed against real and perceived opponents. The violence continued unabated, with Jews as specific targets, until Nazi Germany was defeated in 1945 by the Allies from the west and the Soviet Union from the east.
The case against Trump enunciated on The Drum turned on Trump’s tweet that The New York Times, NBC, ABC, CBS and CNN are “the enemy of the American People!” since they engaged in the production of “fake news”. As Bongiorno and Hutley should understand, this is a long way short of the violence, incarceration and murder engaged in by the Nazis in Germany and the lesser reign of terror presided over by Mussolini.
The likes of Bongiorno and Hutley made no complaint when Barack Obama railed against Fox News and prevented its journalists from attending some media briefings. Which suggests the Left has one rule for Democratic Party candidates and quite another for occupants of the Oval Office who got there on the Republican Party ticket.
As Trump conceded to the Fox and Friends breakfast show this week, he has not communicated his program well during his six weeks in the White House. However, Trump’s case against the left-liberal media in the US is not without merit. No newly elected US president in modern memory has been subjected to such widescale attack, including false claims, as Trump.
Virtually every day, Fairfax Media’s Washington-based correspondent Paul McGeough pumps endless anti-Trump propaganda into Australia. He led his report on Sunday with the following comment: “By the measure of his spokesman, Sean Spicer, Donald Trump is tracking towards dictatorship — how else do you explain Spicer barring ‘enemy’ reporters from a White House media briefing just weeks after he said open media access was ‘what makes a democracy a democracy versus a dictatorship’.”
In fact, all reporters were given a “feed” of the media conference. It’s just that The New York Times and CNN were not granted access to the briefing room and, hence, denied the possibility of asking questions. This may be fair or unfair, wise or foolish, but it is hardly the first step towards the creation of a dictatorship.
And that’s what real fascism amounted to. The term fascism is not as precise as Nazism or communism. However, it is generally acknowledged that fascist systems of government are dictatorships presided over by a charismatic leader who espouses an ideology to which all citizens must agree.
Judged by this criterion, Trump’s America does not contain even the resemblance of a dictatorship. The US president does not control the congress, or the judicial system, or the 50 states. Moreover, even if he wanted to, Trump cannot control the media. Indeed, according to The New York Times, Trump’s criticism of the paper has led to an increase in online subscriptions.
The tendency of otherwise considered journalists to lose all judgment when assessing right-of-centre politicians is also increasing within Australian national politics. Last Saturday, Laura Tingle, The Australian Financial Review’s political editor, commenced her comment piece with an attack on former prime minister Tony Abbott.
Tingle wrote: “Politics is full of catastrophic debacles and tragedies that nonetheless finish up in weed-covered, neglected dead ends. The Soviet Union comes to mind. All that work. All that butchery. All those millions killed. And then pffft! It was gone. Similarly, Tony Abbott. Okay, not the millions dead, but what an utter destructive force, an utter waste of space this man has been on the Australian political landscape.”
Again, the suggestion that Abbott is in any way comparable to the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution a century ago is fanciful. Even excluding the millions murdered, the likes of Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev were appalling economic managers. Most dictators are.
As to the “catastrophic debacles and tragedies” that allegedly occurred under Abbott, Tingle could only point to Abbott’s alleged negativism when prime minister. It’s a long way short of one of Lenin’s five-year plans or Stalin’s forced deportation of nationalities.
The point about democracies and democratically elected leaders is that they cannot be properly compared with dictators. Trump could remain President for up to eight years. When he steps down, the US will still be a democracy. On any dispassionate assessment, Australia did relatively well during Abbott’s two-year prime ministership.
Hyperbole invariably creates attention. But it distorts reality.