An historian friend of mine, a specialist in European intellectual history, once told me of an encounter he had had with an undergraduate student at the end of a course on comparative political philosophies. The student thanked the professor for exposing him to a variety of points of view and their expression in political movements. He said that the course had helped him to clarify his political outlook, and that he now realized that he was, at heart, a fascist.
You can imagine that my friend was startled, and not pleased, to learn of the fruits of his labors; but there are all kinds of people who go to college, and you never know who will be attracted to what ideas.
In this election year, we have also been discovering that there are all kinds of people in the electorate—both here and abroad.
As we look around the world at the anti-democratic leaders and rising politicians to whom the term fascist has been applied, we can see that they are quite a diverse group, and there is much that they do not have in common. There are the former Communist Vladimir Putin in Russia, the billionaire capitalist Donald Trump in the United States, the committed Muslim Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and a variety of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-Semitic politicians across Europe, including Marine LePen in France, Norbert Hofer in Austria, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Morten Messerschmidt in Denmark, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and others in other European countries.
The obvious questions are what if anything do they have in common, and to whom do they appeal.
Since I am a psychologist (not an historian or political scientist), my interest in the recrudescence of fascism stems from my specialties in cross-cultural psychology and clinical psychology. That is, I’m concerned with the interaction of psychological elements with larger social and cultural forces—trying to understand what kinds of people are drawn to fascism, and what kinds of leaders appeal to them.
A reasonable place to start is to look for definitions. My Apple Dictionary says in part that, “Fascism tends to include a belief in the supremacy of one national or ethnic group, a contempt for democracy, an insistence on obedience to a powerful leader, and a strong demagogic approach.” And Merriam-Webster defines fascism as, “a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.”
In this sense, fascism is not so much a specific political system as it is a resentful us-against-them movement, that views democracy as an impediment to addressing our grievances, and that places our trust in a powerful leader to put them in their place.
Twentieth century fascism arose amidst the Great Depression and the excessively punitive conditions imposed on Germany after World War I. Hence, in trying to understand why individuals are attracted to fascist movements, we need to avoid the fallacy of reductionism—the belief that a complex phenomenon like a social movement can be entirely explained by a simpler phenomenon, like the personalities of its members. For example, to say that authoritarian individuals are drawn to fascism doesn’t explain why the movement came to power in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, rather than 20 years earlier or later. Similarly, to say that authoritarian individuals are attracted to authoritarian leaders doesn’t explain why that attraction is taking place now, in the wake of the Great Recession, rather than during the economic boom of the 1990s.
On the other hand, there is also the useful scientific strategy of reductionism—the attempt to understand aspects of a complex phenomenon like a social movement in terms of another, simpler phenomenon, like the personality of individuals. For example, we can ask why some people are drawn to fascism while others are not.
In 1950, following the devastation of World War II, four sociologists published a book, The Authoritarian Personality, that purported to describe the personality characteristics of individuals drawn to fascism. These included traits such as conventionalism, authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, and anti-intellectualism. The book included a personality test, the F-scale (F for fascism), that claimed to measure relevant personality components. While there were many problems with the work—problems with the authoritarian personality construct, problems with psychological theory claiming to explain its origins, and problems with the construction of the F-scale, the book had a profound effect on the development of social psychology, stimulating much research aimed at understanding individuals drawn to fascist-like ideas, movements, and leaders.
More recently, people who score low on Openness to Experience (one of the “Big Five” personality factors) have been found to agree with more authoritarian and prejudiced statements. It is easy to see how individuals who like new experiences might see people who are different from them as interesting and worth engaging with, while those who are conventional and dislike the unfamiliar might be frightened or repelled by such “others.”
As the presidential campaign continues, there are claims that the United States—like European democracies—is in danger of heading toward fascism. Researchers will need to consider different levels of analysis--both larger social, economic, and political elements, and individual psychological elements--in evaluating those claims.
Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler stand together on a reviewing stand during Mussolini's 1937 official visit in Munich.
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