On the day fascists first altered the direction of my life, I had barely mastered the art of walking. The date was March 15, 1939. Battalions of German storm troopers invaded my native Czechoslovakia, escorted Adolf Hitler to Prague Castle, and pushed Europe to the threshold of a second world war. After ten days in hiding, my parents and l escaped to London. There we joined exiles from all across Europe in aiding the Allied war effort while waiting anxiously for the ordeal to end.

When, after six grueling years, the Nazis surrendered, we returned home with high hopes, eager to build a new life in a free land. My father continued his career in the Czechoslovak Foreign Service and, for a brief time, all was well. Then, in 1948, our country fell under the control of Communists. Democracy was shut down and once more my family was driven into exile. That Armistice Day, we arrived in the United States, where, under the watchful eyes of the Statue of Liberty, we were welcomed as refugees.

To protect us, and to make my life and those of my sister, Kathy, and brother, John, seem as normal as possible, my parents did not tell us what we would learn only decades later: that three of our grandparents and numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins were among the millions of Jews who had died in the ultimate act of Fascism, the Holocaust.

I was eleven when I came to the United States with no goal more ambitious than to become a typical American teenager. I ditched my European accent, read stacks of comic books, glued my ear to a transistor radio, and became stuck on bubble gum. I did everything I could to fit in, but I could not escape knowing that, in our times, even decisions made far away could spell the difference between death and life. On entering high school, I started an international affairs club, named myself president, and provoked discussions about everything from Titoism to Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha (“The Force which is born of Truth and Love”).

My parents cherished the freedoms we found in our adopted country. My father, who quickly established himself as a professor at the University of Denver, wrote books about the perils of tyranny and worried that Americans were so accustomed to liberty, so “very, very free,” he wrote, that they might take democracy for granted. After I began a family of my own, my mother called each Fourth of July to confirm that her grandchildren were singing patriotic songs and had been to the parade.

There is a tendency among many in the United States to romanticize the years just after World War II, to imagine a time of sky-blue innocence when everyone agreed that America was great and each family had a reliable breadwinner, the latest appliances, children who were above average, and a rosy outlook on life. In fact, the Cold War was a period of unceasing anxiety in which the lingering shadow of Fascism was darkened by another kind of cloud. In my teenage years, due to atomic tests, the radioactive element strontium 90 was found in babies’ teeth at fifty times the natural level. Virtually every town had a civil defense warden urging the construction of backyard fallout shelters stocked with canned vegetables, Monopoly boards, and cigarettes. Children in big cities were issued metal tags, embossed with their names, for identification should the worst happen.

Growing older, I followed in my father’s footsteps and became a professor. Among my specialties was Eastern Europe, where countries were dismissed as satellites orbiting a totalitarian sun, and where it was widely thought that nothing interesting ever happened and nothing of importance would ever change. Marx’s dream of a workers’ paradise had degenerated into an Orwellian nightmare; conformity was the highest good, informants kept watch on every block, whole countries lived behind barbed wire, and governments insisted that down was up and black was white.

Then, when change did come, it was with a velocity that amazed. In June 1989, the decade-old demands of dockworkers and the inspiration of a pope born in Wadowice brought democratic governance to Poland. That October, Hungary became a democratic republic, and in early November the Berlin Wall was breached. In those miraculous days, our televisions brought news each morning of what had long seemed impossible. I can still picture the decisive moments of my native Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, so called because it was secured without the widespread cracking of heads or gunfire. The time was a frosty afternoon in late November. In Prague’s historic Wenceslas Square, a crowd of 300,000 joyously rattled keys to emulate bells tolling the end of Communist rule. On a balcony overlooking the throng stood Véclav Havel, the valiant playwright who six months earlier had been a prisoner of conscience and five weeks later would be sworn in as president of a free Czechoslovakia.

In that instant, I was among the many who felt that democracy had aced its severest test. The once mighty USSR, made fragile by economic weakness and ideological weariness, shattered like a dropped vase on a stone floor, liberating Ukraine, the Caucasus, the Baltics, and Central Asia. The nuclear arms race subsided without blowing any of us to bits. In the East, South Korea, the Philippines, and Indonesia cast off longtime dictators. In the West, Latin America’s military rulers made way for elected presidents. In Africa, the freeing of Nelson Mandela, another prisoner who became president, engendered hopes of a regional renaissance. Around the globe, countries meriting the label “democracy” expanded from thirty five to more than one hundred.

In January 1991, George H. W. Bush told Congress that “the end of the Cold War has been a victory for all humanity and America’s leadership was instrumental in making it possible.” Across the Atlantic, Havel added, “Europe is attempting to mate a historically new kind of order through the process of unification, a Europe in which no one more powerful will be able to suppress anyone less powerful, in which it will no longer be possible to settle disputes with force.”

Today, more than a quarter century later, we must ask what has happened to that uplifting vision; why does it seem to be fading instead of becoming more clear? Why, per Freedom House, is democracy now “under assault and in retreat”? Why are many people in positions of power seeking to undermine public confidence in elections, the courts, the media, and on the fundamental question of earth’s future science? Why have such dangerous splits been allowed to develop between rich and poor, urban and rural, those with a higher education and those without?

Why has the United States, at least temporarily, abdicated its leadership in world affairs? And why, this far into the twenty first century, are we once again talking about Fascism?

One reason, frankly, is Donald Trump. If we think of Fascism as a wound from the past that had almost healed, putting Trump in the White House was like ripping off the bandage and picking at the scab.

To the political class of Washington, D.C., Republican, Democrat, and independent alike, the election of Trump was so startling it would have caused an old-time silent film comedian to clench his hat with both hands, yank it over his ears, leap in the air, and land flat on his back.

The United States has had flawed presidents before; in fact, we have never had any other kind, but we have not had a chief executive in the modern era whose statements and actions are so at odds with democratic ideals.

From the early stages of his campaign and right into the Oval Office, Donald Trump has spoken harshly about the institutions and principles that make up the foundation of open government. In the process, he has systematically degraded political discourse in the United States, shown an astonishing disregard for facts, libeled his predecessors, threatened to “lock up” political rivals, referred to mainstream journalists as “the enemy of the American people,” spread falsehoods about the integrity of the US. electoral process, touted mindlessly nationalistic economic and trade policies, vilified immigrants and the countries from which they come, and nurtured a paranoid bigotry toward the followers of one of the world’s foremost religions.

To officials overseas who have autocratic tendencies, these outbursts are catnip. Instead of challenging anti-democratic forces, Trump is a comfort to them, a provider of excuses.

In my travels, I hear the same questions all the time:

If the president of the United States says the press always lies, how can Vladimir Putin be faulted for making the same claim?

If Trump insists that judges are biased and calls the American criminal system a “laughingstock,” what is to stop an autocratic leader like Duterte of the Philippines from discrediting his own judiciary?

If Trump accuses opposition politicians of treason merely for failing to applaud his words, what standing will America have to protest the jailing of prisoners of conscience in other lands?

If the leader of the world’s most powerful country views life as a dog-eat-dog struggle in which no country can gain except at another’s cost, who will carry the banner for international teamwork when the most intractable problems cannot be solved in any other way?

National leaders have a duty to serve the best interests of their countries; that is a truism. When Donald Trump talks about “putting America first,” he is stating the obvious. No serious politician has proposed putting America second. The goal is not the issue.

What separates Trump from every president since the dismal trio of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover is his conception of how America’s interests are best advanced. He conceives of the world as a battlefield in which every country is intent on dominating every other; where nations compete like real estate developers to ruin rivals and squeeze every penny of profit out of deals.

Given his life experience, one can see how Trump might think that way, and there are certainly cases in international diplomacy and commerce where a clear separation between winner and loser is evident. However, at least since the end of World War II, the United States has championed the view that victories are more readily won and easier to sustain through cooperative action than by nations acting alone.

The generation of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman argued that states would do best by promoting shared security, prosperity, and freedom. The 1947 Marshall Plan, for example, was grounded in a recognition that the American economy would stagnate without European markets able to buy what U.S. farmers and manufacturers had to sell. This meant that the way to put America first was to help our European (and Asian) partners rebuild and develop dynamic economies of their own. The same thinking led to Truman’s Point Four Program, which made U.S. technical assistance available in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. A comparable approach has served us well in the security realm. Presidents from Roosevelt to Obama have sought to help allies protect themselves and to engage in collective defense against common dangers. We did this not in a spirit of charity but because we had learned the hard way that problems abroad, if unaddressed, could, before long, imperil us.

This job of international leadership is not the kind of assignment one ever finishes. Old dangers rarely go away completely, and new ones appear as regularly as dawn. Dealing with them effectively has never been a matter of just money and might. Countries and people must join forces, and that doesn’t happen naturally. Though the United States has made many mistakes in its eventful history, it has retained the ability to mobilize others because of its commitment to lead in the direction most want to go, toward liberty, justice, and peace. The issue before us now is whether America can continue to exhibit that brand of leadership under a president who doesn’t appear to attach much weight to either international cooperation or democratic values.

The answer matters because, although nature abhors a vacuum, Fascism welcomes one.

NOT LONG AGO, WHEN I TOLD A FRIEND WAS WORKING ON A NEW book, he asked, “What is it about?” “Fascism,” I said. He looked puzzled. “Fashion?” he queried. My friend was less mistaken than it might have seemed, because Fascism has indeed become fashionable, insinuating its way into social and political conversation like a renegade vine. Disagree with someone? Call him a Fascist and thereby relieve yourself of the need to support your argument with facts. In 2016, “Fascism” was searched on the Merriam-Webster dictionary website more often than any other word in English except “surreal,” which experienced a sudden spike after the November presidential election.

To use the term “Fascist” is to reveal oneself. For those on the far left, virtually any corporate bigwig fits the bill. To some on the not-so-far right, Barack Obama is a Fascist-in addition to being a Socialist and a closet Muslim. To a rebellious teen, Fascism may apply to any parentally imposed cell phone restriction. As people vent their daily frustrations, the word escapes a million mouths: teachers are called Fascists, and so, too, are feminists, chauvinists, yoga instructors, police, dieters, bureaucrats, bloggers, bicyclists, copy editors, people who have just quit smoking, and the makers of childproof packaging. If we continue to indulge this reflex, we may soon feel entitled to label as Fascist anyone or anything we find annoying, draining potency from what should be a powerful term.

What, then, is real Fascism, and how does one recognize a practitioner? I put these questions to the graduate class I teach at Georgetown, two dozen students sitting in a circle around my living room balancing lasagna leaking paper plates on their laps. The queries were harder to answer than might be expected, because there are no fully agreed, upon or satisfactory definitions, though academic writers have spilled oceans of ink in the attempt. It seems that whenever some expert shouts “Eureka!” and claims to have identified a consensus, indignant colleagues disagree.

Despite the complexity, my students were eager to have a go. They began from the ground up, naming the characteristics that were, to their minds, most closely associated with the word. “A mentality of ‘us against them,”’ offered one. Another ticked off “nationalist, authoritarian, anti-democratic.” A third emphasized the violent aspect. A fourth wondered why Fascism was almost always considered rightwing, arguing, “Stalin was as much a Fascist as Hitler.”

Still another noted that Fascism is often linked to people who are part of a distinct ethnic or racial group, who are under economic stress, and who feel that they are being denied rewards to which they are entitled.

“It’s not so much what people have,” she said, “but what they think they should have, and what they fear.” Fear is why Fascism’s emotional reach can extend to all levels of society. No political movement can flourish without popular support, but Fascism is as dependent on the wealthy and powerful as it is on the man or woman in the street, on those who have much to lose and those who have nothing at all.

This insight made us think that Fascism should perhaps be viewed less as a political ideology than as a means for seizing and holding power. For example, Italy in the 1920s included self-described Fascists of the left (who advocated a dictatorship of the dispossessed), of the right (who argued for an authoritarian corporatist state), and of the center (who sought a return to absolute monarchy). The German National Socialist Party (the Nazis) originally came together around a list of demands that catered to anti-Semites, anti-immigrants, and anti-capitalists but also advocated for higher old-age pensions, more educational opportunities for the poor, an end to child labor, and improved maternal health care. The Nazis were racists and, in their own minds, reformers at the same time.

If Fascism concerns itself less with specific policies than with finding a pathway to power, what about the tactics of leadership? My students remarked that the Fascist chiefs we remember best were charismatic. Through one method or another, each established an emotional link to the crowd and, like the central figure in a cult, brought deep and often ugly feelings to the surface. This is how the tentacles of Fascism spread inside a democracy. Unlike a monarchy or a military dictatorship imposed on society from above, Fascism draws energy from men and women who are upset because of a lost war, a lost job, a memory of humiliation, or a sense that their country is in steep decline. The more painful the grounds for resentment, the easier it is for a Fascist leader to gain followers by dangling the prospect of renewal or by vowing to take back what has been stolen.

Like the mobilizers of more benign movements, these secular evangelists exploit the near universal human desire to be part of a meaningful quest. The more gifted among them have an aptitude for spectacle, for orchestrating mass gatherings complete with martial music, incendiary rhetoric, loud cheers, and arm lifting salutes. To loyalists, they offer the prize of membership in a club from which others, often the objects of ridicule, are kept out. To build fervor, Fascists tend to be aggressive, militaristic, and-when circumstances allow, expansionist. To secure the future, they turn schools into seminaries for true believers, striving to produce “new men” and “new women” who will obey without question or pause. And, as one of my students observed, “a Fascist who launches his career by being voted into office will have a claim to legitimacy that others do not.”

After climbing into a position of power, what comes next: How does a Fascist consolidate authority? Here several students piped up: “By controlling information.” Added another, “And that’s one reason we have so much cause to worry today.” Most of us have thought of the technological revolution primarily as a means for people from different walks of life to connect with one another, trade ideas, and develop a keener understanding of why men and women act as they do, in other words, to sharpen our perceptions of truth. That’s still the case, but now we are not so sure. There is a troubling “Big Brother” angle because of the mountain of personal data being uploaded into social media. If an advertiser can use that information to home in on a consumer because of his or her individual interests, what’s to stop a Fascist government from doing the same? “Suppose I go to a demonstration like the Women’s March,” said a student, “and post a photo on social media. My name gets added to a list and that list can end up anywhere. How do we protect ourselves against that?”

Even more disturbing is the ability shown by rogue regimes and their agents to spread lies on phony websites and Facebook. Further, technology has made it possible for extremist organizations to construct echo chambers of support for conspiracy theories, false narratives, and ignorant views on religion and race. This is the first rule of deception: repeated often enough, almost any statement, story, or smear can start to sound plausible. The Internet should be an ally of freedom and a gateway to knowledge; in some cases, it is neither.

Historian Robert Paxton begins one of his books by asserting: “Fascism was the major political innovation of the twentieth century, and the source of much of its pain.” Over the years, he and other scholars have developed lists of the many moving parts that Fascism entails. Toward the end of our discussion, my class sought to articulate a comparable list.

Fascism, most of the students agreed, is an extreme form of authoritarian rule. Citizens are required to do exactly what leaders say they must do, nothing more, nothing less. The doctrine is linked to rabid nationalism. It also turns the traditional social contract upside down. Instead of citizens giving power to the state in exchange for the protection of their rights, power begins with the leader, and the people have no rights. Under Fascism, the mission of citizens is to serve; the government’s job is to rule.

When one talks about this subject, confusion often arises about the difference between Fascism and such related concepts as totalitarianism, dictatorship, despotism, tyranny, autocracy, and so on. As an academic, I might be tempted to wander into that thicket, but as a former diplomat, I am primarily concerned with actions, not labels. To my mind, a Fascist is someone who identifies strongly with and claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use whatever means are necessary, including violence, to achieve his or her goals. In that conception, a Fascist will likely be a tyrant, but a tyrant need not be a Fascist.

Often the difference can be seen in who is trusted with the guns. In seventeenth century Europe, when Catholic aristocrats did battle with Protestant aristocrats, they fought over scripture but agreed not to distribute weapons to their peasants, thinking it safer to wage war with mercenary armies. Modern dictators also tend to be wary of their citizens, which is why they create royal guards and other elite security units to ensure their personal safety. A Fascist, however, expects the crowd to have his back. Where kings try to settle people down, Fascists stir them up so that when the fighting begins, their foot soldiers have the will and the firepower to strike first.

FASCISM CAME INTO BEING EARLY IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, A time of intellectual liveliness and resurgent nationalism coupled with widespread disappointment at the failure of representative parliaments to keep pace with a technology driven Industrial Revolution. In previous decades, scholars such as Thomas Malthus, Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, and Darwin’s half cousin Francis Galton had propagated the idea that life is a constant struggle to adapt, with little room for sentiment, and no assurance of progress. Influential thinkers from Nietzsche to Freud pondered the implications of a world that had seemingly broken free of its traditional moorings. Suffragettes introduced the revolutionary notion that women, too, have rights. Opinion leaders in politics and the arts spoke openly about the possibility of bettering the human species through selective breeding.

Meanwhile, astonishing inventions such as electricity, the telephone, the horseless carriage, and steamships were bringing the world closer together, yet those same innovations put millions of farmers and skilled craftsmen out of their jobs. Everywhere, people were on the move as rural families crowded into cities and millions of Europeans pulled up stakes and headed across the ocean.

To many of those who remained, the promises inherent in the Enlightenment and the French and American Revolutions had become hollow. Large numbers of people could not find work; those who did were often exploited or later sacrificed in the bloody chess game played out on the battlefields of World War I. Winston Churchill wrote of that tragedy, “Injuries were wrought to the structure of human society which a century will not efface.” But with the aristocracy discredited, religion under scrutiny, and old political structures, such as the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, breaking up, the search for answers could not wait.

The democratic idealism put forward by President Woodrow Wilson was first to seize the public’s imagination. Even before the United States entered the war, he proclaimed the principle that “every people has a right to choose the sovereignty under which they shall live.” This doctrine of selfdetermination helped secure postwar independence for a handful of mostly smallish European countries, and his plan for a world organization blossomed into the League of Nations. Wilson, though, was politically naive and physically frail; America’s global vision did not survive his presidency. The United States rejected the League and, under Wilson’s successors, washed its hands of European affairs at a time when the continent’s recovery from conflict was not going well.

Many governments that started out liberal after the war were confronted by explosive social tensions that seemed to demand more repressive policies. From Poland and Austria to Romania and Greece, fledgling democracies took wing, then plunged back to earth. In the East, fierce Soviet ideologues were purporting to speak for workers everywhere, thus haunting the sleep of British bankers, French ministers, and Spanish priests. In Europe’s center, an embittered Germany struggled to regain its footing. And in Italy a rough beast, its hour come round at last, was striding forth for the first time.



THOMAS EDISON HAILED HIM AS THE ”GENIUS OF THE MODERN AGE”; Gandhi, as a “superman.” Winston Churchill pledged to stand by him in his “struggle against the bestial appetites of Leninism.” Newspapers in Rome, host to the Vatican, referred to him as “the incarnation of God.” In the end, people who had worshipped his every move hung his corpse upside down next to his mistress’s near a gas station in Milan.

Benito Mussolini was ushered into the world in Predappio, a small farming town forty miles northeast of Florence, in 1883. His father was a blacksmith and a Socialist, his mother a teacher and devout. He grew up in a two-room cottage attached to the one-room school where his mother taught. His family was comfortable but unable to afford full tuition at the priest-run boarding academy that he began attending at age nine. There, during meals, the wealthier students were assigned to one table, Benito and his companions to another, an indignity that kindled in Mussolini a lifelong rage against injustice (to him). The boy was full of mischief, often pilfering fruit from farmers and getting into fights. At eleven he was expelled for stabbing a fellow pupil in the hand, and at fifteen he was suspended for knifing a second classmate in the buttocks.

But Benito was also a reader. He loved to sit alone with the daily newspapers and the thousand-plus pages of Les Miserables. From his father he inherited a liking for bold action; his mother taught him patience, the twig bent his father’s way. In college, when other students griped to each other about the staleness of the bread they were supposed to eat, Mussolini confronted the rector one on one, causing his classmates to cheer, the rector to back down, and the bread to come freshly baked.

School days behind him, Mussolini earned a teacher’s certificate but lacked discipline in the classroom and was quickly cut loose. At nineteen, he headed to Switzerland, where he worked as a laborer, slept on a packing crate, and was jailed, the first of many arrests, for vagrancy. Out of prison, he got a job as a bricklayer and soon became active in the local union. This was a period in Europe when labor politics tilted sharply to the left and Socialist firebrands preached anger toward the government, contempt for the Church, and militancy on behalf of workers’ rights. Mussolini was not an original thinker, but he was a gifted actor who could play a role. Though neatly dressed in private, he often refrained from shaving or combing his hair before appearing in public. Prior to a speech, he rehearsed diligently so that he might sound spontaneous. He knew the value of the popular touch and usually succeeded in eliciting whoops of approval from his audience. Before long, he had come to consider himself a man of destiny, the next Napoleon, perhaps, or Augustus Caesar.

Swiss authorities, however, were unimpressed by the budding emperor. They viewed him as an irritant and kicked him out. Undaunted, he returned to Italy, where he penned a popular magazine serial about a lecherous cardinal, edited Socialist newspapers, and began to develop a following. Speaking in smoke filled halls, Mussolini warned workers that the elite classes would never relinquish their privileges without a fight and that no parliament would take their side against the bourgeoisie. The old answers, provided by religion or embodied in a sense of patriotic duty, had been exposed as false and should be abandoned. Justice, he said, could be obtained only through violent struggle. Revolution was essential.

Then, suddenly, it wasn’t. In the summer of 1914, with war in Europe imminent, Mussolini transformed himself without warning from a Socialist caterpillar into a patriotic butterfly. Rather than join his leftist comrades, who wanted nothing to do with a calamity generated, as they saw it, by upper-class imbeciles, he founded an independent newspaper, Il Popolo d’ltalia, and urged Italy to enter the war. The turnabout may have stemmed from a sincere change of heart, because Mussolini’s ideological commitments were never deep, and pacifism was alien to his nature, but there are other possibilities. French business interests asked his help in pushing Italy into the struggle against Germany and AustriaHungary and promised to reward him should that happen. Also, running a newspaper is expensive; weapons manufacturers were generous in financing Popolo d’Italia.





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