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Ask An Expert: Could America Ever Get A Fascist Leader?

Steve Helber
The deadly white nationalist demonstration in Virginia in 2017 brought new attention to an anti-fascist movement whose black-clad, bandana-wearing members have been a regular presence at protests around the country in the last year.

The Trump administration’s actions are raising difficult questions about presidential power, with some suggesting we’re inching closer and closer to a constitutional crisis.

Others go even further—calling Trump’s “America First” doctrine the first dangerous step fascism.

That’s a loaded word. To unpack it, GLT called on the faculty and staff at Illinois State University’s Redbird Scholar magazine. Each issue features an “Ask A Redbird Scholar” section, where ISU faculty answer challenging questions from the public.

One of the questions in March’s issue dealt with fascism. It was answered by Joseph Zompetti, professor in ISU’s School of Communication who focuses on political communication. 

GLT: Could the U.S. ever have a fascist leader?

Zompetti: That’s a very interesting question. In some recent presidential elections, both the Republicans and Democrats have characterized some of the opposing candidates as fascist or fascist-leaning. So it’s certainly on the minds of many Americans that we might have a fascist leader at some point, or we’ve had one already and didn’t quite realize it.

Credit Illinois State University
Illinois State University
Joseph Zompetti, a professor in ISU’s School of Communication, who focuses on political communication and rhetoric.

Is it possible? Yes, in short, it is possible. But I believe it’s relatively unlikely because we have several checks and balances in our system that I think would prevent a fascist leader from taking over.

… We have a president who can’t do everything by him or herself. We have a Congress that checks that. We have a court system that checks that. We even have executive agencies that check presidential action, like the FBI, which we’re seeing with the current FBI investigations.

Who is the prototypical fascist leader in history?

One of the key criteria for fascism is hypernationalism. It’s one thing to be patriotic. That’s reasonable and most would agree that’s a good quality. But when you take it to the extreme where everything about your nation is superior and must be maintained at all costs, to the point of restricting individual and civil liberties, hypermilitarization, aggressive and confrontive policies to secure everything that might be considered national, that’s one of the key characteristics of fascism.

But that also means that you’re talking about something that’s very unique to a particular nation. Although we can point to specific historic examples of fascism—like World War II Italy, World War II Germany, Franco in Spain, etc.—the one thing they had in common was that hypernationalism.

The best we can do is really just identify themes of fascism, as opposed to a clear-cut definition. We have an authoritarian figure, typically elite economic interests who have some influence, and extreme hypernationalism as the three main criteria.

What do you think of the rise of the Antifa (anti-fascist) movement?

As we saw in Nazi Germany, if we aren’t conscientious we could see the rise of a fascist leader, and unfortunately it might be too late because we actually recognize that. That’s certainly what happened with Hitler, where he secured the popular vote, won the chancellorship in Germany. Although he certainly gave out signals about his true beliefs, they didn’t become manifest until after he secured power. A lot of people became duped into thinking one thing but got something different once he came into power.

We need to be vigilant, engaged, educated, and knowledgeable as citizens in a democracy. But that can also be carried too far. The Antifa movement is illustrative of that. The Antifa movement sees, from their perspective, some signs of potential fascist policies or qualities in certain politicians, and then they react the way they do.

But I think we have a lot of other things we can do or exhaust before we get to that point. I don’t think we need to immediately jump to the conclusion that so-and-so is a fascist and then engage in this Antifa-like response.

Full segment from GLT.

Read more of this issue of Redbird Scholar at IllinoisState.edu/RedbirdScholar.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.