Right-wing movements have surged in Europe, and fascism is on the ascendancy across disparate regions of the world. As populist leaders gain power, the specter of authoritarianism looms large.
Across the globe, worrying trends are emerging in both politics and society.
In the Netherlands, the Freedom Party, known for its anti-European, anti-Muslim, and anti-Ukrainian stance, recently won the national elections. In Argentina, newly elected president Javier Milei proposes an extreme solution to the economic crisis – destroying the central bank. Right-wing movements are gaining traction among young voters across Europe, seduced by neo-Nazi influences not seen since World War II.
China has long been operating concentration camps for Uyghur Muslims, while racism remains a major problem in Russia. Next year will witness a phalanx of critical elections worldwide, with over three billion people voting for new governments. Concerns over the potential rise of anti-democratic governments are growing in tandem.
In this climate of deepening polarization and radicalization, many commentators have issued warnings about the free world losing ground to autocracy. But there's another underlying trend that's not being discussed directly enough: the shift towards fascism, itself. Left-wing radicalism, anti-immigrant sentiments, demographic challenges, and terrorism have all contributed to the rise of fascists camouflaged as populist dictators.
Fascists are deceptive
What does a fascist leader look like? Consider the man that Thomas Edison hailed as a genius, Gandhi praised as a superman, and Churchill lionized as an exemplary figure for all. He defended his homeland, suffered severe wartime injuries, witnessed the collapse of his own state, and then plotted to transform it. He built roads, bridges, and healthcare infrastructure, fought against the mafia and communism, and promised a better life for the underprivileged and veterans. Benito Mussolini did all of this while also earning a reputation as a fascist dictator.
Mussolini was the epitome of a fascist leader, but Europe failed to recognize his true nature.
Mussolini was the epitome of a fascist leader. He was a politician with limited knowledge, lacking in economic understanding, aiming for complete state control without a clear program, often adapting to the prevailing public sentiments. His regime curtailed rights as much as possible.
Mussolini propagated war, ruthlessly targeted minorities through any available means, persecuted opposition forces, and projected a macho image of himself among citizens. In essence, he was an unprincipled individual seeking total obedience.
Europe failed to recognize Mussolini's true nature. Projected as a socialist courtesy of his newspaper Popolo d'Italia, he received financial support from French businesses to counter German propaganda before and during World War I, but would go on to adamantly oppose Lenin and communism. After his coup d'état, the Italian press dubbed Mussolini as the "incarnation of God."
Javier Milei concluding his presidential election campaign in Córdoba, Argentina
The Putin doctrine
Over in Russia, a distinct brand of fascism evolved, departing from influences such as Wagner's aesthetics, Lebon's psychology, Nietzsche's philosophy, and Darwin's science. Instead, it was propelled by figures like Ivan Ilyin, Volodymyr Shchedrovytskyi, and Aleksandr Dugin, who promoted a more primitive form of fascism.
A prime exemplar of this was Joseph Stalin. He established a network of Gulag concentration camps in Russia, targeted entire ethnic groups, engineered artificial famines, ruled via troikas (three-person committees with unchecked power), and laid the groundwork for punitive psychiatric practices, among hundreds of other criminal acts. What is happening in Russia today under Vladimir Putin carries strains of this history.
Like with Mussolini, Europe also misjudged Putin in his early days. He was perceived as a reformer and follower of the "democrat" Yeltsin. Only Margaret Thatcher seemed to see who he really was. Following the Kursk submarine disaster in 2000, in which 118 personnel on board died, she saw the lack of humanity in the man who had assumed control in Russia.
Putin is different from the Italian dictator in one regard: he has delegated responsibility for economic matters to others, unlike Mussolini, who directly seized control over every aspect of governance, including local administration, courts, the church, and parliament. However, à la Mussolini, Putin loves to project himself as a superman astride horses, planes, and submarines. Moscow's very own Putinka brand of vodka is reminiscent of all manner of products sold in Mussolini's Italy with the dictator's photo slapped on. Like Mussolini and his other Western predecessors, Putin believes in suppressing all opposition. Like them, he has courted popular support by lamenting the loss of state power, demanding revenge against manufactured 'enemies', and unleashing expansionist wars.
While Italy and Russia are familiar names in the history of fascism, the scourge is all too visible in the rising acceptance of racism in the US and authoritarianism in Europe. As troubling as the grip of authoritarian leaders over a section of eastern Europe is, the surge in seats held by a party with fascist tendencies in France and the growing popularity of Germany's Alternative for Germany party, affiliated with neo-Nazism. In Spain, the Vox party, which embraces the dictator Franco's ideology, wields significant political influence. Dictatorships also persist in large swathes of Africa and Asia.
Two significant developments from recent months hold further evidence of the authoritarian creep across the world. Argentina elected a new president, Javier Milei, amid a severe economic crisis, with inflation above 140% and 55% of children living below the poverty line. Milei's main support base consists of disenchanted youth and workers, and his plan to revive the economy includes dismantling the central bank, eliminating "unnecessary" ministries (such as science, culture, and social welfare), and advocating for a complete shift to dollars and bitcoins. He vocally opposes Chinese communism while criticizing Russia, and Brazil's leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. He also intends to ban abortions.
Milei's style is a stark reminder of the Mussolini school of leadership, which involved purging bureaucrats he deemed inconvenient or superfluous, resulting in the dismissal of some 35,000 officials. Mussolini also pegged Italy's lira to the dollar, aggravating its debt burden. And he criticized communists while banning abortions to appease the church, whose bishops he appointed.
Every era has its own fascism
The far-right Dutch leader Geert Wilders, who rejected Dutch mainstream politics to establish the Freedom Party, is currently trying to stitch up a governing coalition following a dramatic electoral victory. Wilders advocates for the prohibition of migration, the Koran, and the construction of mosques; promotes the superiority of Christians; and proposes to hold a referendum on the Netherlands exiting the EU. He has consistently thrown his weight behind forging relations with Russia, not holding it responsible for the war in Ukraine. He opposes supplying arms to Ukraine and may obstruct efforts to condemn Russia's aggression at the International Court of Justice at the Hague.
Both Milei and Wilders have stopped short of openly espousing fascist ideology, instead aligning themselves with the "libertarian" label. However, they seem devoid of any clear ideology and driven primarily by a desire for power, preferably absolute.
Madeleine Albright, who fled Czechoslovakia as a child to escape Hitler and Stalin and served as US Secretary of State, cautioned democracies about fascists perennially at their doorsteps. Citing the Italian writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, Albright emphasized that “every era has its own fascism.” Even though all dictators are not grandiose, “the longer these authoritarian figures hold power, the more profound the damage they inflict, making it harder to heal the resulting wounds."