The narrative needn’t be specific, either; in some cases, vague ones might work best. “When Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan came out, the puzzle was, ‘What are you talking about? What’s the baseline for when we were great versus now?” says Dumm. “It becomes sort a cloudy and vague period.” The precise meaning of MAGA is a modern Rorschach test for those vulnerable to fascism’s message, because the era of to-be-restored American greatness exists in the eye of the beholder.
Once a group has identified a problem, they must identify a way to fix it. And this, says Dumm, is a key moment in the emergence of fascism. “When people are feeling insecure about their status, they can go one of two ways,” he explains. “They can say, ‘We have to work together to make things better.’ But the fascist response is to find scapegoats, and build the idea things will be better if these people are marginalized and dealt with.”
Minority groups are easy to cast as enemies, because their lack of political power makes it difficult for them to push back against state-sanctioned oppression. Nazis made Jews the scapegoat for Germany’s downfall; fascists in Italy targeted, among others, Slavic groups and communists. “There’s a kind of xenophobia, I think, that’s inherent in fascism,” Isaac says, stemming from its purported function of protecting the people from being overwhelmed by shadowy, insidious enemies.
The links between economic anxiety, fantastical nostalgia, and chosen scapegoat are not rational. But fascism, Dumm explains, is an affective response to crisis—it appeals to emotion, not logic, and delivers a “false promise of hope for masses of people who will be betrayed and hurt by it.” Academic studies of 2016 Trump voters suggest that white Christian males were more motivated by the perceived loss of their group's dominant status than by economic well-being. Scapegoating enables people to duck their collective responsibility to solve hard problems, or to even think about what causes foundational economic shifts in the first place. It is easier, for example, to blame immigrants and refugees for disappearing jobs than it is to grapple with the intertwined complexities of globalization, climate change, and the steady accumulation of corporate power.
In places succumbing to fascism, people come to see their situation as so perilous that the usual procedures for dealing with existential threats are no longer sufficient. Instead, fascism relies on a strong, charismatic authoritarian figure, uniquely equipped to do what must be done to solve the problem without allowing pesky institutions to stand in the way. The leader becomes the vessel for the authentic will of the people, and any dissenters become enemies of the state.
Egomaniacal, almost messianic declarations are common among fascist strongmen. Mussolini once told an associate that he wanted his epitaph to be, “Here lies one of the most intelligent animals who ever appeared on the face of the earth.” In a 1940 speech, Hitler declared himself the true representative of “have-nots” everywhere. “I know that the whole German nation is behind me,” he said. “I am the guardian of its future, and I act accordingly.”
While accepting his party’s presidential nomination at the Republication National Convention in 2016, Trump declared his own political uniqueness. “Nobody knows the system better than me,” he told attendees, “which is why I alone can fix it.” Four months earlier, he had retweeted an infamous Mussolini quote—“It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep”—attributed to him by a bot account set up by Gawker. Even after learning he’d been duped into parroting a murderous dictator, Trump didn’t seem especially perturbed by the potential implications. “It’s a very good quote,” he told NBC’s Chuck Todd. “I want to be associated with interesting quotes.”
After his appointment as chancellor of Germany, Hitler consolidated power by suspending civil liberties and cutting the legislature out of the lawmaking process. Mussolini abolished free and fair elections, setting himself up as the unaccountable head of a nascent police state. In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, Francisco Franco quickly established himself as dictator and began executing his opponents. And all three men banned other political parties, ensuring that dissenters couldn’t speak out for fear of violent reprisal. “If you have a situation where the law is not being enforced because of political intimidation,” Dumm says, “that’s when things start to crumble and fascist power comes in.”