The fight for multiracial, multiethnic democracies is urgent, according to editor Christopher Shay. The aims of this "Fascism Rising" issue are, first, to analyze the strategies autocrats have used to distort history, erase truth, and mobilize their publics and, second, to explore ways of pushing back against xenophobic populism.
After the inauguration of President Donald Trump, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 jumped 9,500 percent. The dystopian novel, about a totalitarian regime crushing critical thought, was published in 1949 after two world wars and amid the threat of Soviet authoritarianism. Now, with Trump inventing a terrorist attack in Sweden and his surrogates appealing to “alternative facts,” Orwell’s novel is again a best-seller.
Orwell resonates because he understood the central importance of language and of being able to hold onto simple facts. “Freedom is the freedom to say two plus two equals four. If that is granted, all else follows,” one of Orwell’s characters says in 1984.
Six years before 1984 came out, Orwell had already used his two-plus-two example to explain Nazi Germany. He argued that the Third Reich’s lies created “a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’—well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five—well, two and two are five.”
Orwell said that this loss of truth “frightens me much more than bombs.”
With terms like “gaslighting” and “fake news” entering our lexicon, it’s clear a fight over reality is being waged in the U.S. The aims of this “Fascism Rising” issue are, first, to put Trump’s rise into a global context by trying to understand the strategies that autocrats have used to distort history, erase truth, and mobilize their publics, and, second, to explore ways of pushing back against xenophobic populism.
One of Vladimir Putin’s fiercest and most eloquent critics, Masha Gessen, emphasizes the role of language not just in resisting autocracy but in healing from it. In our Conversation section, she reminds us that there will be a time after Trump, and that “our ability to recover will depend on the state of the culture, and the state of the culture will be determined, largely, by the state of the language.”
Gessen warns, “If we don’t have language in which to recover from Trumpism, we will be unable to recover.”
Sarah Kendzior, a scholar of Central Asia, sounded an early alarm over Trump’s ability to undermine democracy with his aversion to facts. In this issue, she compares the fabrications of Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway to falsehoods of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov. In February, Conway conjured a mass terrorist attack on U.S. soil—the Bowling Green massacre—in much the same way Karimov invoked an alleged Islamist terrorist group—Akromiya. In both cases, the make-believe tales were designed to demonize Muslims and inflate the terrorist threat. Kendzior writes that Conway’s fantasies “should not be dismissed merely as disprovable nonsense. They should be heeded as a warning and viewed as a contribution to a greater narrative, one that the government may insert into public life whenever it deems necessary.”
Ian Bateson, a Ukraine-based correspondent, further explores how establishing a particular version of history can help assert authority. Bateson visits the founding of the political wing of a far-right nationalist battalion in Kiev. Reclaiming history is fundamental to the party’s vision, and its members even go so far as to purchase a 10th-century lead seal of a Kievan Rus’ prince. The leaders’ goal, Bateson writes, is for their followers—and Ukraine as a whole—to embrace an imagined past that “they hope will become the future.”
The fight against far-right populism isn’t just about salvaging the power of words or battling over historical accounts. We need to counter the nostalgia for a repressive past with, as Gessen puts it, “a vision of a glorious future.”
Journalist Cole Stangler contends that the left in France can be rebuilt by embracing the public workforce and prioritizing the needs of wage earners. Progessive policies, he says, “need not privilege the native-born over the foreign-born, seniors over youth, or rural areas over urban ones.” A universal basic income, he argues, would benefit the vast majority of people living in France.
Similarly, political science professor Terri E. Givens writes that mainstream left parties across Europe and the U.S. should focus on addressing inequality, strengthening unions, and developing more supportive immigration policies. If they do that, they can defeat the far-right threat at the voting booth.
All of this issue’s writers describe dangers ahead, but as historian Enzo Traverso writes, Trump is not “a meteor crashing down onto a peaceful country.” Traverso believes that Trump is not fascist in the traditional sense and that the U.S. has not become a fascist society overnight. Instead, in his concession to nationalist and racist currents, Trump represents something we haven’t seen before: “capitalism without a human face.” This, Traverso says, renders the normal rules of engagement ineffective and drives politics back to the grass roots.
Across the globe, the fight to reclaim or defend multiracial, multiethnic democracies is urgent. All of us must now protect these ideals at the sentence level, in the political sphere, and in the streets. We can be outraged, but we must also strive to keep our language and institutions intact.