Last summer, I had the opportunity to see Donald Trump speak at Freedom Fest. It was early in his campaign—before his bizarre, eerily brilliant antics had become so familiar. He boasted about his wealth and popularity, spoke ominously of trade deficits, criticized the press, and stoked racial tensions. I didn’t have a word in mind for what I was seeing at the time. Within months, every political journalist I read was calling it out: fascism.
Christian Caryl, editor at Foreign Policy, has noted the increased interest in the meaning of the term “fascism.”The term made the leap from an all-purpose political curse word to an ideologically descriptive term, indicating an existing reality.
In the article—which has gone viral—Caryl attempts to cut through all the wild accusations and hyperbole and come up with a precise and historically informed understanding of what real fascism looks like. He comes up with six traits:
- Racial anxiety. This is fundamental, he suggests, and speaks to massive changes in populations and migration patterns of the late 19th century. The unity of the nation was being threatened. Fascism attempted to addressed this, in part using the then-modern pseudoscience of eugenics.
- Supremacy of the state. Whereas left-socialism had a single model for society, fascism was more flexible, and incorporated existing mainstream culture. Whatever existed in the nation, however, had to be directed toward serving the state as the dominant institution in society. Even private property was fine, so long as it was regulated.
- A single strongman embodies the state and gives orders. Fascism always involves a heroic figure at the top who in his personality embodies the ideals and ambitions of a whole nation.
- Military supremacy, because the military serves as a proxy for the people. This military must be exalted in its political role, which is why “aggressive, expansionist foreign policy has been a trademark of many fascist regimes,” according to Caryl.
- Fascism sneers at rationality—more on this shortly.
- Fascists see themselves as a third way, neither socialist nor capitalist but correcting for the excesses of both and thereby directing all economic activity of a nation to a central purpose.
Caryl’s model is distinct for its brevity but most of this has been said before. Trait #5 in particular, paints facism as anti-reason.
Here is where Ayn Rand’s own ideas about fascism are prescient. Contrary to myths, Rand was as much an anti-fascist as she was anti-communist. Even more fundamentally, she saw fascism and communism as versions of the same collectivist spirit. It’s true that under fascism there is private ownership and under communism citizens retain some ownership rights in name only. But so long as the supremacy of the state is presumed, authentic and individual control over property (and therefore life) is considered treason. “In either case,” Rand wrote, “the government officials hold the economic, political and legal power of life or death over the citizens.”
Fascism as anti-reason
What’s most interesting about Caryl’s model is what is most often missed in critiques of fascism as a social and economic system: its fundamental irrationality. Caryl points out: “The roots of classical fascism go back to the Romantic period — a lineage that’s apparent in fascism’s stress on emotion, will, and organic unity and its rejection of the Enlightenment values of individualism and critical thinking.”
In an interview with The Atlas Society, Caryl elaborated: “There is no question that fascism emerges from a deeply felt rejection of Enlightenment values… [Romantics...] ended up becoming consumed by grand notions of Spirit and Nation that ultimately negated individualism.“
Rand herself couldn’t have described it better. Every form of despotism is ultimately an attack on the individual human mind and our capacity to make rational decisions in the struggle for a flourishing life. State power displaces volition with dictate, thinking with command, the working of the mind with the threat of coercion. The Enlightenment values to which Caryl refers can be summed up in the discovery that leaving humans free to use their own reason, based on their own self-interest, creates better outcomes than any central authority.
To goad whole populations into an attitude of compliance and obedience relies most fundamentally on undermining people’s confidence in their own thoughts, values, and will. The individual mind must be surrendered to the will of the masses, to the superior strength of the strong man. This was obvious at the height of the interwar period, during fascism’s appogy: the rallies, the songs, the colors, the uniforms, the symbols -- all of it structured to encourage a form of brainlessness, all of it deployed to encourage obedience.
And to what end? For the “public good,” Rand explains which is conceived of as antagonistic to the good of the individual:
"Under both fascism and communism, sacrifice is invoked as a magic, omnipotent solution in any crisis—and “the public good” is the altar on which victims are immolated. But there are stylistic differences of emphasis. The socialist-communist axis keeps promising to achieve abundance, material comfort and security for its victims, in some indeterminate future. The fascist-Nazi axis scorns material comfort and security, and keeps extolling some undefined sort of spiritual duty, service and conquest. The socialist-communist axis offers its victims an alleged social ideal. The fascist-Nazi axis offers nothing but loose talk about some unspecified form of racial or national “greatness.” The socialist-communist axis proclaims some grandiose economic plan, which keeps receding year by year. The fascist-Nazi axis merely extols leadership—leadership without purpose, program or direction—and power for power’s sake."
(Ayn Rand, “The Fascist New Frontier”)
What, then, is the answer to fascism? Reject the strong man, yes. Reject the military model of organizing society. Embrace authentic ownership of property, which always implies individuals controlling their property, too. Reject the notion that there really is a third way between slavery and freedom. Above all else, the answer to fascism is what Rand herself dedicated her life to advance: thinking. In the end, individual rationality is the ultimate protection against tyranny.