Left and Right

How Everything Became ‘Fascism’: Stanley Payne

December 8, 2022

Photo: A. Davey / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Fascism Comes to America: A Century of Obsession in Politics and Culture
By Bruce Kuklick
University of Chicago Press, 264 pages, $35

Speaking to a group of donors in Rockville, Md., in August, President Biden declared that support for Donald Trump constituted a kind of “semi-fascism.” It is the latest expression of a century-old tradition of Americans calling their political enemies fascists. In Fascism Comes to America, historian Bruce Kuklick provides the newest analysis—a brief but reasonably comprehensive survey of the bewildering variety of ways in which the “f-word” has been used in the United States during the past century, often in an attempt to distract from the real sources and contours of contemporary Western proto-authoritarianism.

Indiscriminate and ubiquitous usage to denigrate adversaries was made standard propaganda practice by the Soviet Comintern in 1923, but Kuklick’s focus is on American practitioners. The author, a retired professor at the University of Pennsylvania, employs an impressively broad lens that goes beyond politics and what passes for theory to culture and entertainment. This produces a thoroughly engaging work that, more than any previous account, reveals the bewildering range of usage and conjecture associated with the term in the United States.

“Fascism as epithet has little to do with fascism as historic reality.”

Kuklick recognizes at the outset that fascism, as an epithet, has little to do with fascism as a historic reality. His book isn’t a treatise in political history, but in the history of political language and images, accomplished with precision and insight. Its greatest achievement is to reveal for the first time the full extent, both chronologically and speculatively, of the rhetorical usage of the term in America. Its employment began earlier and its application has been yet more indiscriminate than even informed observers have been aware.

Initially, Italian Fascism received a warm reception from many American progressives. Polemical use emerged during the New Deal, and from the start in the 1930s, the f-word was thrown about more widely and indiscriminately than most of us have thought. Aside from Roosevelt himself, the most common lightning rod was Louisiana’s Huey Long, who first called FDR a fascist for the New Deal’s initial effort to coordinate big business and in turn was himself so termed for his radical populism. Then Long even applied the word to himself on a few occasions, though probably tongue-in-cheek. New Dealers applied the epithet to enemies, who hurled the word right back at them. The only common denominator was imprecision and vague polemics.

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