Warnings that leaders like Donald Trump hold a dagger at the throat of democracy have evoked a sense of befuddlement among moderates. How can so many Republicans—voters, once reasonable-sounding officeholders and the new breed of activists who claim to be superpatriots committed to democracy—be acting like willing enablers of democracy’s destruction?
As a political philosopher, I spend a lot of time studying those who believe in authoritarian, totalitarian and other repressive forms of government, on both the right and the left. Some of these figures don’t identify themselves as fascists, but they share important similarities in their ways of thinking.
“ The leader is supposed to be an extraordinary figure, larger than life. These are the true hallmarks of a leader, one who embodies the will of the people: intense feeling expressed by supporters, large rallies, loyal followers, the consistent ability to demonstrate freedom from the norms that govern ordinary people, and decisiveness. ”
One of the most articulate thinkers in this group was the early-20th-century philosopher Giovanni Gentile, whom Italian dictator Benito Mussolini called “the philosopher of fascism.” And many fascists, like Gentile, claim they are not opposed to democracy. On the contrary, they think of themselves as advocating a more pure version of it.
Unity of leader, nation-state and people
The idea that forms the bedrock of fascism is that there is a unity between the leader, the nation-state and the people, as Mussolini wrote.
For instance, Mussolini famously claimed that “everything is in the state, and nothing human or spiritual exists, much less has value, outside the state.” But this is not an end to be achieved. It is the point from which things begin.
This is how Trump, according to those around him, can believe “I am the state” and equate what is good for him is by definition also good for the country. For while this view may seem inconsistent with democracy, this is true only if society is viewed as a collection of individuals with conflicting attitudes, preferences and desires.
But fascists have a different view. For example, Othmar Spann, whose thought was highly influential during the rise of fascism in Austria in the 1920s and 1930s, argued that society is not “the summation of independent individuals,” for this would make society a community only in a “mechanical” and therefore trivial sense.
On the contrary, for Spann and others, society is a group whose members share the same attitudes, beliefs, desires, view of history, religion, language and so on. It is not a collective; it is more like what Spann describes as a “super-individual.” And ordinary individuals are more like cells in a single large biological organism, not competing independent organisms important in themselves.
This sort of society could indeed be democratic. Democracy is intended to give effect to the will of the people, but it doesn’t require that society be diverse and pluralistic. It does not tell us who “the people” are.
Who are the people?
According to fascists, only those who share the correct attributes can be part of “the people” and therefore true members of society. Others are outsiders, perhaps tolerated as guests if they respect their place and society feels generous. But outsiders have no right to be part of the democratic order: Their votes should not count.
This helps explain why Tucker Carlson claims “our democracy is no longer functioning,” because so many nonwhites have the vote. It also helps explain why Carlson and others so vigorously promote the “great replacement theory,” the idea that liberals are encouraging immigrants to come to the U.S. with the specific purpose of diluting the political power of “true” Americans.
The importance of seeing the people as an exclusive, privileged group, one that actually includes rather than is represented by the leader, is also at work when Trump denigrates Republicans who defy him, even in the smallest ways, as “Republicans in Name Only.” The same is also true when other Republicans call for these “in-house” critics to be cast out of the party, for to them any disloyalty is equivalent to defying the will of the people.
How representative democracy is undemocratic
Ironically, it is all the checks and balances and the endless intermediate levels of representative government that fascists view as undemocratic. For all these do is interfere with the ability of the leader to give direct effect to the will of the people as they see it.
Here is Libyan dictator and Arab nationalist Moammar Gadhafi on this issue in 1975:
“Parliament is a misrepresentation of the people, and parliamentary systems are a false solution to the problem of democracy.…A parliament is…in itself…undemocratic as democracy means the authority of the people and not an authority acting on their behalf.”
In other words, to be democratic, a state does not need a legislature. All it needs is a leader.
How is the leader identified?
For the fascist, the leader is certainly not identified through elections. Elections are simply spectacles meant to announce the leader’s embodiment of the will of the people to the world.
But the leader is supposed to be an extraordinary figure, larger than life. Such a person cannot be selected through something as pedestrian as an election. Instead, the leader’s identity must be gradually and naturally “revealed,” like the unveiling of religious miracle, said Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt.
For Schmitt and others like him, then, these are the true hallmarks of a leader, one who embodies the will of the people: intense feeling expressed by supporters, large rallies, loyal followers, the consistent ability to demonstrate freedom from the norms that govern ordinary people, and decisiveness.
So when Trump claims “I am your voice” to howls of adoration, as happened at the 2016 Republican National Convention, this is supposed to be a sign that he is exceptional, part of the unity of nation-state and leader, and that he alone meets the above criteria for leadership. The same was true when Trump announced in 2020 that the nation is broken, saying “I alone can fix it.” To some, this even suggests he is sent by God.
If people accept the above criteria for what identifies a true leader, they can also understand why Trump claims he attracted bigger crowds than President Joe Biden when explaining why he could not have lost the 2020 presidential election. For, as Spann wrote a century earlier, “one should not count votes, but weigh them such that the best, not the majority prevails.”
Besides, why should the mild preference of 51% prevail over the intense preference of the rest? Is not the latter more representative of the will of the people? These questions certainly sound like something Trump might ask, even though they are actually taken from Gadhafi again.
The duty of the individual
In a true fascist democracy, then, everyone is of one mind about everything of importance. Accordingly, everyone intuitively knows what the leader wants them to do.
It is therefore each person’s responsibility, citizen or official, to “work toward the leader” without needing specific orders. Those who make mistakes will soon learn of it. But those who get it right will be rewarded many times over.
So argued Nazi politician Werner Willikens. And so, it appears, thought Trump when he demanded absolute loyalty and obedience from his administration officials.
But most important, according to their own words, so thought many of the insurrectionists on Jan. 6, 2021, when they tried to prevent the confirmation of Biden’s election. And so Trump signaled when he subsequently promised to pardon the rioters.
With that, the harmonization of democracy and fascism is complete.
Mark R. Reiff is a research affiliate in legal and political philosophy at the University of California, Davis. His current book project, about the rise of Trumpism, populism, and the alt-right, is called “The Unbearable Resilience of Illiberalism.”
This commentary was originally published by The Conversation—Why some people think fascism is the greatest expression of democracy ever invented
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