Both centrists and leftists have eyed the Trump administration with a sense of disgust and horror, turning en masse to the ultimate political insult. Are the new populists of the hard right fascists in different clothing? There are three ways of answering the question from the left, each with its own limitations.
By far the most influential strand of left intellectual theory of fascism comes from Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt school, an analysis that took as its immediate subject not the German state that had spawned the Nazi regime but the postwar, consumer society of the USA. It may seem deeply incongruous that this - the land of plenty and the pursuit of happiness - was the place which they took as their model for the emergence of potentially fascist political tendencies. Yet what drove the Frankfurt school's analysis were not the abstract models and ideal types of conventional sociology, but a negative dialectic by which "heroic" bourgeois individualism gave way - in consumer society - to a bland, anonymous authoritarianism which was latent in capitalist societies and tended towards fascism. The latter was, therefore, a tendency inherent to late capitalist consumer societies in which questions of truth were subservient to questions of power. In such conditions people's latent authoritarianism had an ever-present potential to be converted into fascism.
Yet we can't avoid here questions of conventional political science - which are basically those of abstract definition. We have to define authoritarianism' relationship to fascism.. Is authoritarianism some kind of proto- or pre-fascism, a somehow incomplete expression of its ultimate object? We are also asked to group the various strands of fascism - from its Italian origins to Nazism - into a typology. How do we distinguish ultra-nationalism from fascism or account for those forms of ultra-nationalism that never fully became fascist nor understood themselves to be fascist, even as they allied themselves with the Axis powers?
These are substantial, weighty questions, even if they would be anathema to Adorno et al. But the point is not to reach for perfectly abstractly-defined types only to step back and shake one's head when those distinctions break down in practice - when, say, a populist right winger adopts some of the style but not the whole substance of fascism. Rather it is to look at the concrete - that is, real world - development of political tendencies in their contexts.
As Dylan Riley has argued, the fascism of the 1920s and 1930s was in its own way a response to the economic and social modernisation of two laggard European states - Germany and Italy. It echoed in an extremely perverted way the great processes of political modernisation of the nineteenth century - in particular, the French Revolution. Fascism, Riley argues, had a tendency to depict itself as the authoritarian-democratic alternative to modern liberalism. What caused the radicalisation of the political right in these circumstances was - besides the economic crash - the existence of a powerful communist movement and the successes of the Soviet Union.
So fascism is radically opposed to liberal democracy, but it is not simply a violent form of anti-democratic reaction to it. It is also a complex form of political response to the economic, social and political crises of capitalist liberal democracy. What's missing today from the new hard right is not some conceptual element - say, the central role of Jews as an enemy of the people - but enabling conditions for its radicalisation into fascism. For Riley, the absence of an economically threatened agrarian producing class, the absence of millions of demobilised soldiers, and the absence of a powerful communist movement all militate against the emergence of full-blown fascism.
In this way we move away from the potentially reductive reading of fascism as a "tendency" - that is, both a political tendency within liberal democratic politics and as a situation towards which liberalism tends under late capitalism (or the weird formulation of a tendency towards a tendency). Fascism can be seen not only as a tendency but as a specific political formula which arose in specific historical circumstances. Its exact reoccurrence - fascism qua fascism - has all the likelihood of lightning striking twice. But that does not mean there aren't plenty of echoes of it.
The most pressing issue for political theorists today is to identify the defining characteristics of recent hard right "populists" without falling back on cliche or the tired idea that populists are simply illiberal fantasists unable to compromise with stark reality. These are the populists - whose opposition of a pure people to a corrupt elite resonates with fascism but also with many non-fascist movements - who have had such extraordinary success in the last few years and to whom many in the liberal and radical left refer when they talk about fascist tendencies today.
Beyond the right-populists who have seized power in the USA there are innumerable shock troops of the hard and extreme right, groups formed in the incessant churn of social media and occasionally bleeding out into real life as boots on the ground. Navigating this sea of pop/culture authoritarianism and violent ultra-nationalism, it is easy to pick out the specific resonances with Nazism. And indeed it sometimes even openly declares itself as such - as when Richard Spencer's mob hailed Trump with Nazi salutes.
There is then a third way of understanding fascism: that is, as a political style, one that can be adopted and adapted, fed into discourses that oscillate between other political styles. Spencer characterised the swastikas at his rally as expressions of "a spirit of ironic exuberance." Here fascism is less a properly articulated, coherent political position than a set of resonances that can be worn semi-ironically and retracted just as easily - as accidental overspill, a moment of blind acquiescence.
None of this should blind us to the extreme danger of the present political moment, however. Ultra nationalism in its many guises is sailing to electoral victory where it can most easily highlight the failings of liberalism. Just like fascism, the hard right counterposes a pure democratic will of the people to liberal elites. While it lacks some of the racial- genocidal intensity of fascism and Nazism especially, it is feeding off a broken political system. The grave danger it presents can only be met with a similarly radical politics of the left: a promise of renewed democratic participation for all in the future direction of society.