Authoritarian Rhetoric 101

July 4, 2020 | By eric.terzuolo | Filed in: Authoritarianism.

It was ironic how, in his July 3 Mt. Rushmore speech, the President presented himself as a defender of free speech against “far-left fascism.” As we know, the President himself is highly selective about what writings and testimony should be allowed to into the public domain. Regrettably, his own political language also picks up on themes typical of 20th-century authoritarian rhetoric.

Mussolini’s Two Italies

Speaking to the Italian parliament on 27 November 1922, not long after his designation as prime minister, Benito Mussolini drew a stark distinction between “those who love, who work for, and who are ready to sacrifice themselves for the nation, or, on the other hand . . . those who are ready to do the reverse.” “To be a true Liberal,” he argued, it is necessary to give some hundreds of irresponsible people, fanatics and scoundrels, the power of ruining forty millions of Italians. I absolutely refuse to give them this power.”

In addition to this distinction between the genuine, healthy part of the nation and a sick and dangerous part, Mussolini also distinguished between two States. A genuine, true, and efficient State embodied Fascism, in opposition to an unhealthy State representing a “political class grown enormously tired and discouraged,” a political class, a State which “no one succeeded in defining.” A “neat surgical operation” was required to solve this problem

Hitler’s Two Germanies

Authoritarian rhetoric frequently traffics in such bipolar concepts. Shortly after his appointment as German chancellor, Adolph Hitler called on the parliament to legalize his dictatorship. Hitler blamed “Marxists,” soon to become the first occupants of Germany’s concentration camps, for the “disintegration of the nation into irreconcilably opposite world views,” leading to “destruction of the basis for any possible community life.” He argued that “the completely opposite approaches of . . .individuals to the concepts of state, society, religion, morality, family, and economy rips open differences which will lead to a war of all against all,” i.e. to “Communist chaos.” Hitler attacked the “unforgivable weakness on the part of former [German] governments” in the face of these threats and promised a “thorough moral purging.”

Donald Trump is not Mussolini or Hitler. But he does employ classically authoritarian rhetoric. And in political life, the link between rhetoric and action is not to be neglected.

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3 comments on “Authoritarian Rhetoric 101

  1. John Evans says:

    Another excellent column, Eric. From your putting “far left fascism” within quotation marks, may we anticipate another comment on the question of whether such a thing actually exists? Surely there can be violence on the left, violence of anarchists, violence of ill-educated mobs, but classic Fascism is always on the Right, mostly aligned with Capital, sometimes with more traditional conservative forces like the Church. I think it is a misnomer when applied to the Left. Are Trump’s speech writers confused? Maybe they just think “fascism” is a word they can attach to “bad people?”

  2. J Miller says:

    I rather think fascism is a code word among trumpees for black and brown people.

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