by David Silverberg
“Fascism” is a term thrown around a lot these days, especially in Florida.
However, are the kinds of repressive, extreme and anti-democratic measures being proposed and imposed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and the Florida legislature actual Fascism, as their critics charge? Is the rise of the Make America Great Again (MAGA) right in America actually fascism as the ideology and movement have historically been defined?
To answer those questions, one has to reach back into history to Fascism’s origins and evolution.
In America, Nazi Germany has always defined the image of fascism in the popular imagination. However, it was in Italy immediately after World War I that the name “fascism” was used for the first time, Fascism first developed as a political movement, and fascists seized government power.
Fortunately, there’s a recently published book on exactly that subject: Blood and Power: The Rise and Fall of Italian Fascism.
(A note on style: This article follows both the Associated Press and the Chicago Manual of Style, which hold that nouns and adjectives designating political and economic systems of thought are lowercased, like fascism and socialism, as opposed to the names of political parties like the National Fascist Party, or formally titled movements like Nazi or Fascist.)
Published in September 2022 by Bloomsbury Publishing in London, Blood and Power is by English historian John Foot, a professor of modern Italian history at the University of Bristol. Foot has written extensively on topics of Italian history and knows this subject thoroughly.
Violence from the start
“Italy invented fascism,” Foot writes in his prologue, and from its beginning at two little-noticed meetings in Milan in March 1919, fascism was violent.
“Fascists embraced violence, both in their language and on the streets. At first, they were overshadowed by a socialist uprising where revolution seemed inevitable during the ‘two red years’—biennio rosso—of 1919-20. But soon, groups of fascists, known as squads, dressed in black, were on the march in the countryside and cities of Italy, destroying a powerful union movement, crushing democracy and spreading fear through the country; 1921-22 were the ‘two black years’—the biennio nero.”
In 1922 the fascist squadristi marched on Rome. Their leader, former socialist Benito Mussolini, was named prime minister when the king of Italy and the government caved in to their demands.
“Having taken power through murderous violence, Italian fascism held onto it through further bloodshed and occupation of the state. In power, fascism eliminated all vestiges of free speech,” Foot writes. Further, fascism “eliminated its opponents with gusto or reduced them to a state of fear. It also rewrote its own history, painting the fascist movement as a glorious defender of the fatherland as a revolutionary and modernizing force, but also as a return to order. Fascism was built on a mound of dead bodies, cracked heads, traumatized victims of violence, burnt books and smashed up cooperatives and union headquarters. Most of those who ended up governing Italy had committed crimes for which they were rarely investigated, let alone tried.”
Foot acknowledges that “There has been considerable historical debate about the meaning of Italian fascism.” He asks: was it forward-looking or backward-looking? (Or put in a modern American context, did it aim to “make Italy great again?”)
Foot’s answer: “Italian fascism looked forwards and backwards.” It built both radically modernist structures and neo-classical throwbacks, both daring art and unimaginative tributes to Il Duce, Mussolini’s title. “It understood the power of the media and advertising, but it also glanced back longingly to a rural Italy that was fast disappearing. It was at times radical, but also radically reactionary, and often simply pragmatic. It claimed to be anti-system and anti-political, but most of its leading proponents were corrupt, and enriched themselves. These contradictions were also its strengths.”
In this history Foot emphasizes the ground-level violence that fascists employed against their opponents and competitors—and against democracy and its mechanisms. American histories of the era often overlook the street brawls, maulings and fights that accompanied fascism’s rise. They’re summarized in a word or paragraph, whether they took place in Italy or Germany.
Foot, however, is at pains to show that violence was integral to fascism. “Without violence, both before and during the regime, fascism would never have come close to power. It was fundamental, visceral, epochal and life-changing: both for those who experienced it, and those who practiced it.”
The same reliance on street-level violence in the onset of German fascism has been referenced in numerous accounts of the rise of Nazism.
What Foot documents very well was the relentless, violent hammering at all the institutions and aspects of democracy by Italian fascists. Whether in town or provincial councils or the national parliament, fascists attacked the mechanics of parliamentary process and procedure, as well as those who were trying to maintain it. Time after time they stopped government at all levels from functioning, whether by disrupting parliamentary proceedings or beating or killing those who administered it.
This reliance on violence was partially driven by the fact that Fascists were in the electoral minority. Socialism was very popular in Italy after the First World War and socialists were often democratically voted into office. Fascists had to smash democracy to impose their will on the population.
In Bologna in 1920 fascists succeeded in forcing the dissolution of an elected city government through terrorism in the streets and an assassination in the city council chamber. To this day it’s unclear whether they deliberately killed one of their own councilors. Regardless, they used Bologna as a model and went on to destroy local democratic governments throughout Italy, culminating in their march on Rome two years later and takeover of the nation.
There was strong, often equally violent resistance to this effort. But the decisive change came when the instruments of the state, the police, the Carabinieri and Royal Guards either stood by or joined the fascists. Fascists gradually grew confident that they wouldn’t be prosecuted or jailed for their crimes or else they could intimidate or dominate the forces of law enforcement and the judicial system.
With both the cudgels and daggers of the squadristi and the authorities of the state arrayed against it, democracy was gradually ground into dust. It simply couldn’t function in such an atmosphere and those who believed in it failed or were unable to take the kind of action necessary to preserve it.
It would be much easier to oppose fascism if there was a single, definitive expression of its meaning and beliefs, the way there is with the Communist Manifesto.
Mussolini had been a journalist and an editor but perhaps because he didn’t serve a jail term as fascist leader he never collected and organized his beliefs into a single document. Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf was so peculiar to Germany that it couldn’t really serve as a template elsewhere, although it succeeded in conveying his racism and anti-Semitism to the world and layed out a blueprint for German conquest.
As a result, today in America it’s difficult to recognize Fascism as a formal movement. Its adherents don’t march waving little black books the way Chinese communists waved red-colored copies of Mao Zedong’s sayings. Even the neo-Nazis and racists who demonstrated and rioted in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 did not formally call themselves Fascists.
Nonetheless, Americans will clearly recognize themes, beliefs and practices that hearken back to the classic fascism of Mussolini and Hitler.
Foot is well aware of these patterns and points them out in his epilogue.
“More recently, Donald Trump has often been compared to Mussolini,” he writes. “His speaking style…his policies (nationalism, racism, autarchy, a corporate state, a distaste for democracy itself)—have led to associations with Il Duce.”
He continues: “Democracy does not last forever. Indeed, it is often extremely fragile. Italian fascism showed how democracy, and its institutions, can quickly crumble in the face of violence, disaffection and rage. Some of this was seen in the USA after 2016, and not just in the armed attack on the Capitol in January 2021. When the ‘forces of law and order’ are also on board, things can quickly disintegrate. Collusion between parts of the state and the fascists was a key factor in Mussolini’s victory.”
Lastly, he warns: “Fascism’s historic attempt to ‘deliberately…transform its lies into reality’ certainly chimes with much of what is happening today on the far right, and more widely on social media. Fascism will not return in the same form yet may still make a comeback in some way. It could be argued that this might have already happened in different times and various places.”
Fascism and Florida
Today Florida is the laboratory for an American anti-democratic experiment. A former president in residence, a radical right governor and an extremist legislature are following unmistakable paths that were plowed almost exactly a century ago in tumultuous Italy.
One of these is the attack on the autonomy of local governments. (“In push to the right, Florida cities and counties become focus for DeSantis and lawmakers,” Tallahassee Democrat, Feb. 17, 2023.)
Another is the effort to muzzle the press. (“DeSantis, GOP lawmakers pursue bill to gut press freedom,” Miami Herald, Feb. 25, 2023.)
A third is the effort to constrict and restrict the vote. (“DeSantis signs additional voting restrictions into law before cheering crowd,” Florida Phoenix, April 25, 2022.)
A fourth is the assault on freedom of thought in schools and universities. (“FL Governor DeSantis’ proposals on higher education pose a grave threat to academic freedom and free speech at public colleges and universities,” PEN America, Feb. 2, 2023.)
A fifth is the attempt by the governor to create his own military force answerable only to himself. (“DeSantis seeks $98 million to fund Florida’s own military,” Click Orlando, March 9, 2023.)
In the legislature, state Sen. Blaize Ingoglia (R-11-Citrus, Hernando and Sumter counties) is attempting to outlaw the Democratic Party in Florida through “The Ultimate Cancel Act” (SB 1248). This is clearly an effort to create a one-party state of the kind that Mussolini and Hitler established in Italy and Germany.
Ingoglia may want Florida to be a one-party state but in fact his own party is facing its own two distinct anti-democratic movements built around their leaders.
Trumpism, which centers on former President Donald Trump, is not only threatening for its fascistic tendencies, but more closely resembles classic fascism in its propensity for violence. After all, Trump encouraged violence throughout his 2016 presidential campaign, during his term in office and then incited the insurrection and assault on the US Capitol and Congress on Jan. 6, 2021. Trump directly attempted to overthrow the duly elected national government and negate a free and fair election. It was a leaf not only out of the fascist playbook, it mirrored what Mussolini and the fascists did in Italy.
What might be called DeSantism (or Florida+Fascism=”Flascism”?) has not expressed itself in violence—yet. Nonetheless, DeSantis’ war on what he calls “woke” clearly follows classic fascist strategies. As mentioned above, these include: reducing local autonomy, muzzling or intimidating the press, restricting the vote, and assaulting freedom of speech and thought. Add to this mix his anti-competitive gerrymandering of election districts, his dominance of a wide variety of boards and panels and his bullying of private enterprises like the Disney Corp., for their ideological dissent.
It’s worth remembering that both Italian and German fascist movements represented themselves as revolutionary resistance efforts against what they saw as looming threats. They focused on specific causes for their countries’ plights and they targeted scapegoats on which all blame could be heaped. In the early 1920s in Italy the threat was Bolshevism, the plight was Italy’s “mutilated peace” and the scapegoats were Socialists. In Germany, the threat was Communism, the plight was the Versailles Treaty, and the scapegoats were Jews.
For Donald Trump the threat is “radical, leftist Democrats,” the plight is a supposedly stolen election and among his many scapegoats is billionaire George Soros. For DeSantis the threat is a “woke mob,” the plight is liberal “woke” ideology and the scapegoat is the media—and also, George Soros.
The specifics may be different but the patterns are the same. Only a century separates them.
But it would be remiss not to note the differences.
When Fascism arose in Europe it was at the end of a world war. Both Italians and Germans felt defeated, dissatisfied and humiliated. Russia had fallen to Bolshevism and a militant communist movement appeared ready to dominate the world through revolutionary violence. Both countries had millions of demobilized men with military training, accustomed to military regimentation and were looking for causes transcending themselves. Fascism provided an outlet for their energies and experience and a focus for their rage.
America in 2016 presented a very different picture. It was wealthy and confident. It was the dominant power in the world. Its culture and the rules it had established with its allies ever since World War II governed global trade and diplomacy. Its chief opponents, the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, were gone and their successors sought Western acceptance. Communism was dead as an active force. American forces had captured and killed Osama bin Laden and largely destroyed the terrorist jihadist threat from abroad. America was stable politically, economically and socially. Its population was largely united on the fundamentals of its Constitution, laws and believed in its mission in the world. And it was the world’s oldest, continuously functioning democracy, the value of which was unchallenged.
Running against this reality, Donald Trump had no chance of winning the presidency. To pose as America’s savior, he had to create American carnage first. He had to create a situation of dissatisfaction and disorder and so he conjured up phantom dangers, conspiracies, plights, grievances and scapegoats. He exaggerated the threat from his political opponents, painting them as treasonous, dangerous and monstrous. He worked to destroy a moderate, middle political ground, dividing Americans into absolute loyalists or absolute enemies. He and his allies, who included Russian President Vladimir Putin and Fox News, spun an unreality that was the polar opposite of the true state of affairs and then tried to impose it on an otherwise moderate populace.
In 2016 the majority of Americans rejected Trump and Trumpism, delivering 48 percent of their votes to Hillary Clinton compared to Trump’s 46 percent, a difference of 2.9 million ballots. However, with razor-thin margins in key Electoral College states and Russian help, Trump gained the presidency and America has been crippled ever since.
For DeSantis, the chosen path to power was to conjure a “woke” threat that made simple open-mindedness, free thought, an obscure academic theory and social tolerance into an apocalyptic phantasmal “woke” peril of grooming, racism and coercion.
Now this battle is continuing in Florida as Trump and DeSantis compete for the Republican Party presidential nomination, the White House and ultimately, control of the nation. The state of Florida has the misfortune to be their initial battleground. Trump is using his national platform to spread Trumpism throughout Florida and beyond; DeSantis is promoting DeSantism and imposing its precepts on the state through his power as governor, while openly hoping to propagate it nationwide.
Analysis: The verdict
So is Florida a fascist state?
Perhaps at this point it might be most accurate to label it as “fascistic” rather than overtly Fascist.
Florida cannot simply be labeled Fascist because it does not have a registered Fascist Party by that name. It is not seeing the kind of pervasive political violence that accompanied the rise of European fascism. While Trump is still advocating violence (warning of “potential death & destruction” if he was arrested), DeSantis is not, nor is political violence evident in everyday life. There are still multiple legal political parties, although this is threatened in the legislature. Laws still govern, although their authority is becoming shaky as is the application of national laws and the Constitution. (e.g., “DeSantis: Florida won’t cooperate with Trump extradition.”).
That said, there are strong currents propelling the state in a fascistic direction, as detailed above.
But the triumph of fascism in Florida is no more assured than it was at its outset in Italy or Germany.
The strongest defense against fascism is simply the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, which when actively applied prevents the kind of oppression imposed by fascism.
One potential countervailing force is an active and vigorous effort to preserve democracy at the grassroots. This means protecting parliamentary democracy at the city and county level and even in local school boards. Key to this is defending the voting franchise for all eligible citizens and encouraging active participation. It is especially important that the public preserve its right to petition government for a redress of grievances and to freely express opinions to lawmakers, a right already threatened in Florida at the state and local levels. (“Just 30 seconds? Despite complex bills, Floridians are limited on public testimony in Legislature,” Florida Phoenix, March 14, 2023.)
Simply ensuring that elections are free, fair and their results counted accurately and without impediment or interference by impartial, non-partisan, professional election supervisors, is another defense. This is threatened by DeSantis’ special “election police” who have the potential to negate election results he doesn’t like and by MAGA attempts to dominate election of supervisors at the local level.
Another defense is ensuring that candidates commit in advance of their elections to accepting the tabulated results and a willingness to concede if they lose. At every debate and in every press conference, candidates should be pressed to state that they will accept the official results. Trump’s fantasies of a stolen election and his refusal to accept defeat has been incredibly damaging to the United States and it spawned imitators like Arizona’s Kari Lake. Candidates need to be clear and unambiguous that they will accept election results without qualifications or caveats, otherwise they should be condemned and disqualified.
But asking firm questions and holding candidates to the results requires a free and independent press. That is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. The danger of an independent and inquiring press to fascism was fully recognized by Mussolini and Hitler and they did all they could to suppress it. Russian President Vladimir Putin also recognizes the threat that truth and real information pose—as does Trump and DeSantis and extremist Florida legislators as they hammer away at press freedoms.
But perhaps the single most important defense of democracy against fascist encroachment lies in a neutral, impartial police and the equal and vigorous application of law to all citizens regardless of status or stature.
As Foot shows in Blood and Power, once the state authorities entrusted with the tools of coercion and force stood by or joined the fascists, the game was over. This was also true in Germany. When the forces of the state stood firm against Hitler and his Nazis in 1923 when they attempted a putsch, the Nazis were stopped in their tracks and law prevailed. When the Nazis took state power in 1933 and directed Germany’s civil authorities to enforce Nazi doctrine with criminal penalties, Germany became a completely tyrannical state.
This is why exceptions cannot be made in charging a political figure like Trump for any criminal acts he may have committed, whether in office or not. He cannot be granted immunity just because he wants it and those who argue that he deserves it are aiding and abetting fascism, whether they know it or not. There is a large contingent in Florida making exactly that case—but would these people have argued that Mussolini shouldn’t have been held accountable for his crimes? Or Hitler? The case is the same.
But apolitical law enforcement is also essential at the local level, perhaps even more so. When Sheriff Grady Judd of Polk County, Florida tells potential Floridians: “So we only want to share one thing as you move in hundreds a day. Welcome to Florida. But don’t register to vote and vote the stupid way you did up north, or you’ll get what they got,” that is a fascistic threat. When Sheriff Kevin Rambosk of Collier County endorses a “Bill of Rights Sanctuary” ordinance that seeks to nullify federal law in his jurisdiction, that erodes democracy at the grassroots.
There is no doubt that fascism had its attractions a century ago and still has them today. But America, like no other country, committed to democracy at its founding and defended it repeatedly over the past two centuries.
As Foot notes in Blood and Power, “Democracy does not last forever. Indeed, it is often extremely fragile. Italian fascism showed how democracy, and its institutions, can quickly crumble in the face of violence, disaffection and rage.”
But one might also respond that democracy and its institutions can stand firm, strong and resilient when its defenders are aware, united and determined.
And in Florida, even if its government is trending fascistic today, that does not mean it has to be Fascist tomorrow.
Special to Big Mouth Media from The Paradise Progressive. Originally published on April 17, 2023.