On the Saturday before Election Day this year, a coalition of scholars who study authoritarianism issued an open letter of warning titled, “How to Keep the Lights on in Democracies.” It began: “Regardless of the outcome of the United States election, democracy as we know it is already imperiled. However, it is not too late to turn the tide.”
It continues, “While democracy appeared to be flourishing everywhere in the years following the end of the Cold War, today it seems to be withering or in full-scale collapse globally.”
The letter points out that many of the societal conditions that allowed fascism and authoritarianism to flourish in history are evident in modern society. And it issues a call to “safeguard critical thinking based on evidence.”
Since then, much has happened in American history. One week after the letter was issued, former Vice President Joe Biden won the U.S. presidential election. Outgoing President Donald Trump, as of this writing, has refused to concede the race.
Still, the scholars write, “We believe that unless we take immediate action, democracy as we know it will continue in its frightening regression, irrespective of who wins the American presidency.”
The project behind the letter, The New Fascism Syllabus, came together around the time of the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Historians with expertise in 20th Century fascism, authoritarianism and right-wing populism were becoming concerned with how some of what they saw in the United States seemed to echo conditions they recognized from their fields of study. The project’s editorial board of 18 international scholars curates and crowdsources syllabi and scholarly writings to provide insight into how past societies experienced and resisted fascism.
The creation of the open letter was a group effort by that board, spearheaded by Jennifer Evans of Carleton University and Brian J. Griffith of UCLA. Another member of the editorial board, and one of the more than 200 scholars who signed the letter, is professor Diana Garvin. Garvin is an assistant professor of Italian Studies at the University of Oregon and studies the history of fascism in Italy and its former colonies in East Africa. She’s also the author of the forthcoming book, “Feeding Fascism: The Politics of Women’s Food Work."
Garvin spoke recently with OPB’s Jenn Chávez regarding what we can learn about modern democracy from the history of Italian fascism, as Americans move past a historic election. Here are some highlights from their conversation:
On conditions that accompanied authoritarianism in Italy:
“So, here’s what Italian politics looked like about 100 years ago. Giovanni Giolitti, an old hand at Italian politics, has just been reelected prime minister of the Liberal Union. So that’s a centrist liberal government, and it’s trying to modernize, it’s going global. Italy is going to help found the League of Nations that year. But not everything is rosy.
"Leftist protests are raging across the urban north. And yet, the Liberal Union tries to ignore the noise. It keeps supporting factory owners. Plus, they’ve got a tendency to leave poor, rural voters behind.
"And that group was the first to sign up for the Fasci di Combattimento. To these voters, it seemed like the Giolitti government didn’t care about them at all. It was catering to foreigners, to urban elites. And worse still was the government’s style, which they considered to be feminized. It was too conciliatory, too subtle. It was not sufficiently invested, they thought, in questions of national pride and the military.
"Many were veterans, and they felt that they had done a great service to the country in World War I. But then they came home to diminished prospects and massive unemployment. This made them prime recruits for the nascent Fascist Party. They were sad, they were angry and they were very familiar with guns.”
On seeing similar conditions in the modern United States:
“Over the past four years, we’ve seen the creation of a model for anti-democratic approaches to American politics. In 2016, we talked a lot about outrage fatigue, but we don’t say that anymore. It’s now commonplace to hear vanguard newspapers dismissed as fake news, to hear climate change described as a belief, to see caravans of armed drivers in the United States. In other words, the past four years have already shattered our limits of acceptable behavior. And it’s not just for leaders, it’s also for American citizens.
"So even with the Biden/Harris win, far-right groups are part of the new political landscape. We might reject white supremacist groups like the Proud Boys and the Three Percenters and Patriot Prayer, but we’re covering them regularly on mainstream stations. That is new. These formerly fringe groups are now relevant to American citizens, and it makes me think of a historical lesson from interwar Italy, which is: Fascism wreaks havoc not through hyperbole, but through normalization.”
On concerns that remain past the election:
"At present, Democrats have got to resist the temptation to throw a party and then take a four-year nap. We’re still at high risk for violence and paramilitarism. Militia numbers and activity are on the rise, and that is the result of four years of repeated and deliberate galvanization of radical right groups. It was in whispers to the Proud Boys to ‘stand back and stand by.’ But it goes back to Charlottesville, to ‘some very fine people on both sides.’ It’s that kind of rhetoric.
"To understand the psychology of these groups, the history of fascism offers some helpful insights. Under democracy, the use of force is usually the province of state: so the military, or the police. But fascism deputizes its followers to use violence. So, patriots can use force against enemies, so long as it’s on the state’s behalf.
"The Blackshirts — those were the followers of fascism — nursed a rigid sense of victimhood. And that remained true even when they held power in a single-party state. What fascism did was it made the Blackshirts feel big. It gave them license to physically dominate and to bully, and it told them that they were part of a movement that was going to put them on top of society, over effeminate elites, intellectuals, where they so rightfully belonged. Oregon’s political geography puts it on the front lines of a similar cultural battleground.
“Since the Biden/Harris win, there’s been an escalation of far-right rhetoric about Democrats being too dangerous to rule. Historically, it’s that kind of chatter that precedes exceptional government actions. The risk now is not a Trump campaign in 2024. He might aspire to authoritarianism, but he lacks the commitment and the skill to carry it off. The real threat would be a far-right figure who could match the populist bluster, while also saying just enough of the right things to gain institutional support. A patient autocrat would be much more dangerous.”
On the importance of looking at these issues through a global and historical lens:
“Fascism as a phenomenon was born in Europe at the start of the 20th Century. And historically, fascism doesn’t rise alone. Instead, it gained ground through an uneasy but very effective collaboration with traditional elites.
"Contrary to popular belief, Mussolini did not take power in a coup. Against a backdrop of economic depression, labor crisis, Italian politicians in the 1920s were aimless and divided. So those were the background conditions. With a lethargic parliament and the threat of violence in the air, the King of Italy offered Mussolini the chance to form a coalition government. The political establishment had considered Mussolini to be kind of ridiculous. He was a brawler, a yeller, he didn’t seem very bright. But his brash, vulgar style was popular and they thought they could use him to energize the party.”
On how people can act in defense of democracy:
“I always tell my students to think about how to make speaking up feel easier. Find something that you’re already good at, and then tweak it toward doing good. That way, you make activism sustainable.
"So first, you could learn how to persuade. Logic alone rarely works, but emotion does. People have to want to do something. You can paint vivid pictures for your listeners. Use the future tense. When I teach courses on fascism and neo-fascism, we prepare talking points in advance. Then you can talk directly with people who you don’t agree with. Maybe they’ll come around, maybe they won’t, but you start seeing yourself as someone who speaks up. That’s the first step.
"The next one is to take part in broader civic debates. You could get started by checking out the Mellon Foundation’s Monuments Project. They pledged $250 million to reimagine monuments over the next five years. We need to rethink the places where national history gets written. So memorials and statues, but also museums and art installations. These are the places where we write who we are as a nation.
"Then finally, and most importantly, you could help out with the organizations that have been fighting these forces for a long time. So, Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, Indigenous Environmental Network, Transgender Law Center ... History has demonstrated that nonviolent protest is extremely effective, and that was true, even in the darkest years of fascism.”
Listen to the full conversation by clicking play on the audio player at the top of this article.