Do we err when we associate fascism exclusively with Nazism? When we fail to understand that fascism can take different forms? That it isn’t necessarily accompanied by Sieg Heils and swastikas?
These were the questions running through my mind during Sunday’s annual Fred Marcus lecture, featuring Prof. Gavriel Rosenfeld discussing “The Fourth Reich.”
Make no mistake. Any type of rise in neo-Nazi activity is extremely dangerous. Indeed, in recent years, most violent terrorist attacks in the US have been carried out by white supremacists.
But there’s also a real danger in focusing too heavily on neo-Nazism. Yes, it is a real threat, but it is a marginal one. While I do not believe Donald Trump to be a white supremacist (I do not see him as an ideology-driven person), his election did embolden white nationalists. The rise of QAnon, while not strictly white supremacist, has overlap, and is also a frightening development. These trends must be monitored and countered.
But the authoritarianism that we’re most threatened by today will not come in the form of neo-Nazis. I see the greatest threat coming from illiberalism, which has already taken root in Russia, Hungary and, to a large extent, Poland.
This type of authoritarianism posits that liberal democracy — the foundation of our country — is not the best form of governance. While a liberal democracy believes that government officials are held accountable to its citizens, primarily through elections but also direct democracy, illiberalism believes government knows best.
That is why Trump’s unwillingness to accept the election result is dangerous; not because he may or may not be a white supremacist, but because it is illiberal.
To be sure, neo-Nazi fringes are empowered by this illiberalism, but the power doesn’t lie with them; it lies with the illiberal governments.
This type of illiberalism also exists on the left — for example, among those who would dictate “right” and “wrong” speech. Or the mass surveillance that was expanded under the Obama administration.
Prof. Rosenfeld, while exploring the very real threats over time of a Nazi resurgence, warned against the hyperbolic overuse of the term Nazi. He warned of crying wolf. I’m less concerned about “crying wolf” and more concerned that by crying “Nazi” we’re missing where the more tangible potential authoritarianism lies.
Shana Goldberg may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org