President Biden has just had the courage – or perhaps the political nous – to call out America’s radical right-wingers for what they are: ‘semi-fascists’. (See https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/08/30/fascism-biden-trump-american-history/.) The f-word has been bandied about for a few years now – back to the start of Trump’s presidency at the latest – but always against the objections of more moderately-inclined people, as well of course as the semi-fascists themselves, that it was grossly unfair: a typical liberal smear, and even a libellous one. I’ve used the word myself, albeit always (I think) with a qualifier, as in Biden’s case: ‘semi-’ for him, ‘proto-’ or ‘neo-’ or ‘quasi-’ for me; and always conscious of the danger that it might mark me as an unhinged Lefty doomster – the equivalent on my side of the political fence of the Rightists who confuse social democracy with ‘communism’.
Some of this derives from too narrow a view of ‘fascism’: the one that equates it with Nazism, which in fact was only the most extreme version of it. Of course Trump didn’t intend to gas all American Jews, or even Mexicans, or Leftist liberals; but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t be regarded as ‘semi-fascist’ in other ways. Fascism doesn’t have a precise definition, which adds to the confusion; but embraces a variety of attitudes and policies, including anti-democracy (except in the distorted form of ‘populism’), the Führerprinzip (see https://bernardjporter.com/2022/08/25/das-fuhrerprinzip/), anti-liberalism (except in its economic form: i.e. capitalism), anti-alienism, authoritarianism, disciplinarianism, militarism, censorship, irrationalism, anti-intellectualism, exaggerated ‘patriotism’ (usually based on a skewed history: see my latest book), masculinism, a victim mentality, and general hatred. That’s a lot to choose from. A modern semi-fascism could be woven out of any number – ideally a majority – of these. And it could also take on a softer, more cuddly, outer appearance than it did in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Marching up and down in brown shirts behind fasces may be fun for testosterone-filled young men who find comfort in the comradeship it brings them, but is by no means essential to fascism in all its forms. Nor is knowing that you’re a fascist. That only makes you a card-carrying one.
In Britain’s case the signs of incipient fascism – probably of the ‘semi’ and ‘cuddly’ kind – are all around us. Many of them centre around our extraordinary Home Secretary Priti Patel: abolishing Human Rights laws, curtailing the right to protest, planning at one time to prosecute captains of ships for saving refugees from drowning, sending asylum-seekers to rot in Ruanda, and much more, I’m sure, if she continues in the job; but other ministers too (or ex-ministers, soon) are veering almost as close: attacking judges (and hence the rule of law), acting unconstitutionally, mocking expertise (Gove), confusing democracy with populism, labelling opposition as ‘treachery’, and behaving as corruptly as any fascist dictator in the past. And of course they still have the Daily Mail. If Boris had survived – and he may yet emerge from his political grave, as ex-minister Rory Stewart has warned recently (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/aug/29/boris-johnson-wants-to-do-a-berlusconi-back-to-power-says-rory-stewart) – he would be the one to clothe the new regime in its more acceptable – cuddly – dress. (Maybe that’s the reason for the Boris-loving Tories’ backing of Liz Truss as his successor: so that when she turns out to be as hopeless as is widely predicted, people will turn back to him.)
But – and this is the other reason for people’s not taking the possibility of fascism in Britain seriously – it couldn’t happen here, surely? We’re not Germany in the 1930s. – Well, in fact we are in the ’30s in many ways, or might be soon: depression, inflation, an unstable world, various kinds of fascism abroad (Russia, Hungary…), and the new – or newly realised – existential threat of climate catastrophe. As for ‘not being Germany’: what does that imply apart from an assumption of British national superiority – or at least difference – which comes perilously close to the racism that we associate with fascism. How are we different? Culturally we share many of the same characteristics as pre-war Germany, with only cricket and Marmite really setting us apart. We’ve boasted of our liberalism, peacefulness and moderation in the past; but none of these differences stands up to much scrutiny when we take our imperial history (and Anglo-Ireland’s) into consideration; and all these qualities exerted almost as powerful a hold in pre-‘30s Germany (especially in the Rhineland) as in modern Britain. In fact there are as many precedents for ‘fascism’ in our national history as there were in Germany’s. So, if it isn’t our culture or history that separates us and makes Britain immune to fascism, it can only come down to our ‘race’ (or ‘races’, more accurately, if ‘race’ means anything). That incidentally is what Churchill thought.
But as well as being intrinsically racist, this is clearly not something we can rely on to preserve us from fascism (or semi-fascism) in the future. If you doubt how close we may be to it, look at some of the comments on social media these days, especially the illiterate ones; usually by young men, but some from women. (That I have to admit has surprised me, as a somewhat naïve and idealistic feminist. But Priti should have cured me of that.)
In any case, warning of incipient fascism in Britain or America is emphatically not being alarmist. The only way to prevent it – semi-fascism turning into echt fascism – is to be alive to the semi signs of it before it becomes echt. Joe Biden, take a bow.