The world just lost its leading historian of fascist ideology. The late historian Zeev Sternhell would have recognized the president’s lies as propaganda in the tradition of Mussolini.
On July 3, at Mount Rushmore, U.S. President Donald Trump warned about the threat of a novel fascism: “In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance. If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished. It’s not going to happen to us.”
As with the fascist leaders of the past, there was in Trump’s speech a contradiction between his words denouncing tyrannical invisible forces and his actual dictatorial leanings. In fact, Trump echoed a classic technique of past fascist leaders; fascists always deny what they are and ascribe their own features and their own totalitarian politics to their enemies.
Had he lived to see the speech, the late Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell would have no doubt recognized that Trump was perpetuating a lie that he’d spent his career discrediting. Sadly, a week before Trump’s tirade, the world lost Sternhell—its most important historian of fascism.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in fascism, which has become a clear and present danger across the globe rather than simply a historical problem. This is why Sternhell’s death should be not only a time of sorrow for the loss of a great mind and an engaged citizen but also an opportunity to learn from his life, during which he escaped fascism and then sought to explain it.
Born in Poland in 1935, Sternhell survived the Holocaust, but his mother and sister were killed by the Nazis. He escaped the Przemysl ghetto and disguised himself as a gentile—posing as an altar boy and eventually converted to Catholicism. Once the war was over, he immigrated to France in 1946 and then to Israel in 1951. He was a man of letters, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as a soldier and a public intellectual.
These are times of confusion when the racist right depicts itself as democratic while falsely presenting fascism as an ideology of the left—as Trump did at Mount Rushmore and Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has done for years.
Sternhell refused a popular understanding that conflated fascism and communism. This not only banalized fascism but also distorted “the true nature of the European disaster of our century,” he wrote in the Journal of Political Ideologies in 2000. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini destroyed democracy, and Sternhell recognized that today democracy stands vulnerable to the forces of the right due to their lies, ideologies, and violence. When democracy, truth, and history are under intense attack by propagandists who act out of the fascist playbook, Sternhell’s explanation of fascism is even more essential.
Sternhell knew fascists have always been on the extreme right. They emerged out of a long tradition of anti-Enlightenment thought that developed in reaction to the French and American revolutions and against the notion that universal values such as pluralism, equality, and freedom should be defended.
Fascism stands as the most radical outcome of this revolt against universal values. It was an anti-left and anti-liberal counterrevolution, and while it appropriated the vocabulary of the left—it bears remembering that the Nazi movement’s official name was the National Socialist German Workers’ Party—it put it at the service of right-wing domination and oppression.