Academics and commentators across the world have diagnosed what seems to them a global crisis of liberal-democracy. Many of them have focused in on populism, forming what some have called a ‘populism industry’. Feeding a confused and worried public’s desire for a prognosis, they have crafted definitions of populism that can explain and connect the seemingly new tide of right-wing politics in many very different contexts around the world.
Federico Finchelstein, Professor of History at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College, argues that to understand our contemporary political predicament, we should instead start by contextualizing it by studying the actual historical experiences of populism within the long-term patterns of challenges to democracy. This, he insists, is preferable to theorizing perfect definitions of populism. Starting in 1945 in Latin America, where fascistic sentiments were reformulated for a post-war era and then brought into power through democratically elected governments, Finchelstein takes us around the world to see both patterns and divergences as this specific form of anti-democratic sentiment, populism, is expressed in various political contexts.
His book, From Fascism to Populism in History (University of California Press, 2017) provides the reader with an understanding of many of the most important theories of populism and how these theories stack up in the face of the ‘messiness’ of the global historical record. This hybrid intellectual-political history demonstrates how fascism and populism are connected but not the same, and why this matters for understanding the world today. In doing so, Finchelstein shows why we cannot afford not to have historians engage in contemporary political conversations.
COLLIN BERNARD: Reading the news, it is clear populism has become the watchword for describing what many see as a set of troubling global political trends. Others prefer different words: fascism, authoritarianism, ethno-nationalism, nationalism, some even say “global Trumpism”. What is your definition of modern populism and why is it the most appropriate descriptor?
FINCHELSTEIN: I think that all those terms describe what is clearly a new chapter in the history of the long-term patterns of challenges to democracy. In the long history of authoritarianism, different terms have been used for different times. Now, in my own case, I use populism rather than, for example fascism, to describe Trumpism because I see it belonging to a particular context, which is the contemporary context, as opposed to the moments in which fascism prevailed as the main challenge to democracy. So basically, I see Trumpism as part of a long history, which of course includes fascism, but more recently it includes populism, as a kind of following chapter after the history of fascism.
One of the things that I argue against is ahistorical definitions—they are in fact Platonic definitions—and how they do not take care of the long historical patterns behind the current phenomenon. Instead of a definition, I propose a historical understanding of what has constituted populism in history. After studying many cases, I came up with a couple of patterns that over time prevail in this ‘vertical reframing’ of democracy. For starters, populism is an authoritarian understanding of democracy that reformulated the legacy of fascism after 1945 in order to combine it with different democratic procedures. So you can say in a way that populism is a form of post-fascism, which reformulates fascism for democratic times. Another way of putting it: populism is fascism adapted to democratic times.
This means that populism is not fascism. Fascism has historically been properly contextualized as, above all, a form of political dictatorship, which often actually emerges within democracy in order to destroy it. Historically, populism has done the opposite. It has often surged from other authoritarian experiences, including dictatorship, and in most cases it has distorted or twisted democracies, downplaying their qualities, while never, or almost never destroying them.
So populism is a form of democracy that relies on the notion of a leader who, without institutional mediations, tries to unify his/her voice and that of the ‘people’. So you have this idea of unifying the people and the leader. Now, this has authoritarian implications, but it starts with a democratic premise: to bring a closer relationship between those in power and the people. The result of that is there is a leader that assumes and often says he or she is the voice of the people and in fact speaks for them and decides for them. After starting with this premise in opposition—that they will bring the people closer to government—in power the leader doesn’t do so at all. Actually, when in power, populists do the opposite. In that regard, key to my understanding of populism is not only that populism is a form of opposition that speaks in the name of the people but also that is a form of government that, in doing so, downplays democracy to a great extent.
BERNARD: In many accounts of modern politics across Western democracies and beyond, there seems to be a sense that ‘proper’ democracy is being undermined. Many people have come up with a mono-causal explanation of this: populism. Yet something so complex as the weakening of these democracies cannot be reduced to a single factor. As a scholar of populism, what factors do you see at play today that are not populism but are potentially being lumped together with populism?
FINCHELSTEIN: Yes. For starters, the idea is (and it is a wrong idea) that this phenomenon is new, only because it has now become the form of government that rules the US and has been increasingly more successful in Europe (think of Austria but also Germany, Italy, Poland, Hungary and other places). These North Atlantic versions are, of course, of key importance to its history but in a way they represent the last chapter of a long global history. My argument is that we need to take the long road and understand that this is not new even if it might be new in certain countries in Western Europe and the US. We need a more global view of the history of populism in order to, first, see that this is not new and second, see that populism itself is part of a larger history, a longstanding history of challenges to democracy. So of course many things are new in the new populism (especially the fascists undertones of its racism and xenophobia), but what is not new is the misunderstanding of populism by its critics. These misunderstanding springs from the lack of history in their analysis. I will name four of them: First, the tendency to conflate populism with every other authoritarian trend in a democratic context.
Another tendency that also emanates from the lack of a more historical view of populism is the conflation of actual dictatorship with populism. Populism is not a form of dictatorship but an authoritarian form of democracy. That is one of the key historical and contextual distinctions between populism in power after 1945 and fascism in power before 1945. Fascism actually destroys democracy to establish a dictatorship. Populism relies heavily on electoral procedures while diminishing other meaningful forms of democratic participation.
Another element is that sometimes you have actual neo-fascists that are often branded as populists when in fact they are not; they are for dictatorship and the return of old fascism. That is number three.
Number four: There is a tendency both in the press and with some neo-liberal politicians such as Tony Blair or the President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, to basically present as populism everything that stands against the status quo that they so clearly represent. So populism then appears as a kind of insult instead of a historical category or form of government that defines important national histories. That is also clearly a problem.
The way to understand what is populism and what is not is by focusing on the history of populism. In the book, I give, I wouldn’t call it a definition, I would call it a kind of historical reading of elements that have been central to all the global populist cases that I analyze. That includes Latin America, Europe, Africa, the US, and Asian contexts, and forms a reading of elements that have historically defined populism.
These include: populism appearing as a political theology that combines notions of popular sovereignty with ideas that were previously fascist and before fascism relate to pre-revolutionary and anti-enlightenment thinking. Populists recombined them with democratic notions of popular sovereignty. They fused the notion that power comes from the people with an idea that presents the leader as not only the best of and voice of the people but also as a messianic, illuminated individual who is predestined to be powerful. So there is a theological dimension there, which legitimizes the power of the leader in theological and sacred terms, an almost divine sovereignty for the leader. This combination signals the very anti-democratic dimensions of populism. But it is also a hybrid. That is why in the book I talk about populism being between democracy and dictatorship.
In populism we also have a deep distrust of the press and the serial distrust of other branches of government that dispute these authoritarian claims about unifying the people and the leader without other types of mediation. These are just some of the elements. And with this, it becomes clear, what is populism and what is just presented as populism in order to attack things that the denunciator doesn’t like, which has often been the case.
BERNARD: Your personal background seems to be of great use in piecing together your version of the story of populism. Could you talk about your journey in becoming a historian, how this book came about, and why Argentina, your native country, plays such a special role?
FINCHELSTEIN: Yes. I thank you for the question because the issue of subject position is key to every historian and we cannot ignore it. We are seeing so many new books on populism and so much recent interest in the phenomenon by many colleagues in the social sciences, but there are many people, and I am one mere member of this group, that have been working on these issues for the past twenty years. It’s not because the topic became more of a global concern or a concern to the Global North because of Trumpism, that we are now engaging with it. Rather, it is that we have been studying this in the Global South and now we see more interest in the correlations we were already talking about.
The transatlantic connections of authoritarianism are not a recent phenomenon of study. But when I came to the U.S. to do my Ph.D in the early 2000s, one general idea in the American academy was that these things could only happen in Latin America, or maybe Southern Europe, but not Northern Europe or the U.S. We see that was probably, even at that time, already a bad reading of the context. This has not come out of the blue and it has a long history. For many, the extreme nature of Trumpism has brought this to light.
My own trajectory is that I studied the transatlantic connections between Argentine and Italian fascism. At the end of that book, Transatlantic Fascism (2010), I talk about Peronism as a form of post-Fascism. Then in my book on The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War (2014), there was a chapter analysing the issue of populism and dictatorship in Peronist Argentina.
Now, the question of why my country is important (but not the only important one) to arriving at a better understanding of what Trumpism means in terms of both national and global history. In the same sense that one needs to study Hitler and Mussolini to know and understand that Fascism was not only about aesthetics and ideology but was also about ruling, the same is true with populism. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, populists were a form of opposition, in Latin America, Europe and the US. It was only after 1945 that some populists reached power. And this first happened in the global south, more precisely in Latin America. With these first populist regimes in Latin America we can better understand what is the meaning of this type of politics, while it rules.
Historically here, in the case of Perón in Argentina, Vargas in Brazil, then in Bolivia and Venezuela, populism is key to understanding these histories. After 1945, it was here that the first populist regimes appeared. People who ignore Latin American history have been writing articles talking about populism first appearing, for example, in Europe in the 1980s, but this is a short view. One needs to study populism globally and thus it is problematic to ignore Latin America and other histories of the global south.
Imagine the opposite. People who say but never explain why Latin America doesn’t need to be included. I think this argument relies on a combination of ignorance about history outside of Europe and the United States as well as on a stereotype of the Europe or US being so different or perhaps Latin America being somehow different in an un-modern way. This is either conscious or un-reflexive prejudice. The argument about the difference the north and south is established aprioristically and not after a serious historical assessment. Latin Americanists, Asianists, or Africanists are also trained in European and American historiographies but it is often the case that the opposite is not necessarily true. Europeanists and Americanists can also learn about their centers by also learning about their margins. As I address it in my book, usually this argument is never explained as such and the Global South is just ignored in the history of populism. But actually Trumpism and other populist cases themselves show how connected these histories are.
BERNARD: This clearly destabilizes many historians’ understanding of political-philosphy. You argue in this book that particularly for fascism and populism, there has been this Euro-centric or North Atlantic perspective. How does a global history of political thought challenge specifically our understanding of the concepts of fascism and populism, and how does this move us to a new political theory?
FINCHELSTEIN: I will say that in my own case, I don’t have much of a methodological concern or proper historiographical concern for global history. Rather, global history, in the case of these particular ideologies, is what we need to understand their very global nature. If we only do national histories or continental history, we don’t understand the very globality of the object of study. My point is that it’s not really a trend in historiography or a concern about trends in historiography but rather an approach to something that is at the centre of the sources.
It is not a coincidence that it was in Western Europe after ’45, where you have these anti-Fascist constitutions, that the recalibration of old fascism into an authoritarian democratic process was much harder and less successful compared to Latin America. In Latin America, you didn’t have this defeat of fascism, thus it was easier to recombine the two. In Eastern Europe, it was impossible because you had forms of dictatorship. In many countries in Africa and Asia you still had colonies after 1945, in some eventually you had the rule of one party, or dictatorship and these are contexts in which populism cannot thrive. Populism thrives in democratic contexts.
The question is, then, not emphasising Latin America’s uniqueness in this case, but asking what are the specific contexts in which populism can thrive in certain places after 1945? It is clear that in Europe in the 1980s in countries like Italy and France and other places, there is a going away from the anti-fascist foundations of the nation and you can see authoritarian forms of democracy making more successful claims among the electorate. So it is a question of historical context and not geo-political hierarchies and aprioristic prejudices and distinctions.
My point is that yes, historians can be helped by definitions, but only really as a starting point. At the end of the day what can really explain the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of populism is its histories, its global histories.
BERNARD: You argue that an important part of modern populism is the turning point of 1945 with the reformulation of fascistic, anti-enlightenment tendencies adapted to a post-war world. How do you see populism interacting with a context in which that commitment to anti-fascism is loosening, if not being pushed back upon enthusiastically in some cases?
FINCHELSTEIN: You see populism thriving. This explains the recent histories of populism in places like France, Austria, Italy and even Germany. What was after 1945, at least institutionally, a clear rejection of fascism, became less and less so, to the point that you had second or third parties in the nation making very authoritarian claims on what democracy should be.
One of the interesting things in this long history of populism and this new chapter—which is defined in terms of Trumpism but also Le Penism, The Italian Lega, Afd and others—is that when it first reached power in 1945 in these Latin American cases, if populism was a recalibration of fascism for democratic times, one of the main elements of this was embracing democracy and leaving behind the political violence and the racism that had defined fascism. That was at the centre. People like Perón and Vargas would claim again and again that they were not fascist.
Early on, central to populism was it’s carrying on of some authoritarian trends, but also rejecting political violence and racism. As we move on, populism adopted different forms all over the world. Form more left-wing forms, which included Kirchnerism and Chavismo, to neo-liberal forms in places like Italy with Berlusconi, in Argentina with Carlos Menem, in Brazil with Collor de Mello. In many of these forms, what you have is the populist idea of the people far removed from the fascist idea of the people.
For the fascists, the people are defined not only as a demos, but they are also conceived as an ethnos. There is a radical distinction between that and early populism in power. As authoritarian as they were—in the sense that if you were not with them you were not considered a member of the people but instead as a member of the anti-people or an enemy of the people—their definition of the people was rooted in the notion of the demos. If you wanted to support the regime, suddenly you would switch from the anti-people to the people. Unlike in fascism, the idea is that these anti-people are rhetorically demonized as enemies of the people, but they are almost never seriously attacked physically or in terms of political rights. So they are enemies of the people who are allowed to exist and lose in elections.
When we move to more recent chapters—the most important being Trump because he came to power in the most powerful country in the world—what you see when you analyze the Trump campaign is that this idea of the people as a demos is really conflated with an idea, that was originally fascist, of the people as ethnos. Racism then again becomes of key importance to this authoritarian tradition. This is not full circle. We don’t see a return to fascism, but one of the paradoxes is that we see, after many decades of populist reformulation of fascism, we have in a way arrived again at a notion of the people that is based also on the ethnos and is increasingly racist or in the case of Trumpism, fully racist.
This is why, going back to the very first question, I think often there is a tendency to confuse populism with fascism, because the current populism sounds much more fascist than the original populism that emerged in power after 1945. The people are defined in racial terms and the anti-people are defined often in anti-religious or racist terms, and yet, they are not physically persecuted or eliminated as in the case of fascism. So we have something that sounds like fascism but practically is not, and that is what I call populism.
BERNARD: What it is like to live with populism in the longer term? How does populism seep into the larger politics, society and culture?
FINCHELSTEIN: History here can provide a lot of example. But it cannot provide a prediction of how this will end. What we know more recently is that the existence of populists in power has led to a radical increase in polarization, a tendency to demonize the other, including the populist other, and a downgrading of democratic political culture, and not only because of the populists. It is often the case that the opposition to populism appears to present populism as a pathology and not as a form of politics. They ignore the political nature of populism at their own peril.
A social science bibliography of populism is characterized by the pro-populists, who write theories and definitions that actually try to present this as a good thing for democracy. Then there are the anti-populists in the academy who present this phenomenon as a kind of democratic disease. I think that history has a different role to play in showing that populism in different moments has led to different possibilities, including, initially, a paradoxical combination of democratization and authoritarianism.
There is a trend in the social science bibliography that says populism has never and can never expand a democracy. But it depends how you see the notion of the expansion of democracy. Even in extreme cases, such as Trumpism, what you see is people who did not previously participate in the political system deciding to participate because they voted for a candidate that shared their racist notions of what the people should be and how the nation should be ruled. So technically, as historians we can say there is that dimension of Trumpism that actually can be presented as increasing democratic participation, as paradoxical as this sounds.
This is paradoxical because in this moment of increased democratic participation in populism, it implies at the same time an attempt to decrease the democratic participation of those that are against the populists. So at the same time the so called ‘base’ participates more in the political process, they do so in order to make those they define as the enemies of the people participate less and less and even restrict their political participation. So populism can imply both an expansion at the same time involves a downgrading and deterioration of democratic participation.
History here explains the complex nature of this. It is not the case that these kinds of leaders are there alone or that they are pathological and crazy and people didn’t realize how crazy they were. They are there because a lot of people share with them authoritarian notions of what a democracy should be. All of these historical cases show this complexity.
Recently we have seen in many cases that populism appears to be successful because of a perceived idea of a crisis of representation in our democracies, in the sense that populists denounce technocrats for the majority of citizens. In different cases we cannot simply discard the possibility that this is actually going on. There are actual situations in our democracies where there is a lack of meaningful participation in the political process for many citizens. Populists denounce this situation but propose forms that also do not imply meaningful participation of citizens because once they are voted in, so far as they speak like Trump for the ‘silent majority’, then the ‘people’ never speak and he always speaks for them and decides for them, and in fact for Trump, he decides for himself.
BERNARD: Going further with the societal implications of populism, what are your thoughts on the media and populism?
FINCHELSTEIN: With the new media landscape, there are important differences and important continuities with the past. Populism, like Fascism, concentrated on the media right away: populists took over newspapers, they went after newspapers, and they tried to really attack independent voices in journalism. Why? Because they saw it as a problematic boundary being imposed between the leader and the people, and they didn’t want that boundary. That boundary, as we know, is a key dimension of democracy. But in a populist view of democracy, this was a problem. It impeded the full-fledged identification between the leader and the people. Rhetorically, if you analyze the messages of say Perón and Trump, they sound very similar.
More recently, what you have is the possibility that populist leaders use the Internet, particularly Twitter, as a way to circumvent the media and establish this idea that they can directly communicate with the people. But of course this is not a real dialogue as the word of the leader is never interrogated or questioned. Trump is a perfect example of that. He circumvents the media when he wants but also is able to use traditional media as a way, through scandal and spectacle, to propagate his message. So there is a kind of win-win situation for him, using traditional media while at the same time circumventing it.
Central to populism is this notion that even if you are allowed to participate in the political process, you are not truly a legitimate actor if you are against the populist leader, in so far as then, within the populist logic, you will be acting against the wishes of the people, which the leader ideally represents. The idea is, then, if you are doing that, you are an enemy of the people. So it is not surprising that these leaders, rather than confronting politicians, prefer to confront big names in media. That is typical. That’s not original to Trumpism. We have seen this in Argentina, Israel, Turkey, Thailand, and everywhere.
BERNARD: Earlier you talked about platonic definitions of populism and fascism. This seems to be a broader critique by an intellectual historian against social scientists. Can you talk about the unique tools that historians bring to the table when talking about politics in the past and today?
FINCHELSTEIN: In this book and my work as a whole, I attempt to bridge the gaps between history and theory. Historians, political theorists and social scientists, we have a lot to learn from each other. In studies of populism, you have on the one hand very specific, detailed narratives by many historians of populism without approaching the conceptual implications of how populism works in democracy or without putting populism in the context of long-term challenges to democracy and the history of authoritarianism. So what you have is histories without theory. On the other hand, you certainly have in most of the approaches to populism in the social sciences, theories without history. At best, history appears as a mere illustration of the theory. History is used to provide examples of how great the theory works. Historians work the other way around, first analyzing the history and then looking for patterns. Of course, I am very critical of this lack of connection between history and theory so in that sense I am critical of many historians and theorists.
I want to bring more of a dialogue between historians and theorists. Historians like myself who work on fascism and populism, have a lot to learn from these theories, even when they lack history of have this very instrumental use of history. They sometimes adopt a positivistic view of history as a mere description of things, ignoring the fact that this is not how most historians’ work. My humble point is that we can make better use of history.
BERNARD: What is the role of the historian in the times of populism and what are you currently working on now?
FINCHELSTEIN: I think we have seen, in the last years, more and more participation by historians in the public sphere and I think that is really important. In these times, it’s not that history can provide an answer to what is going to happen, but it can be used to understand what is going on and even understand different possibilities for the future. There is a need for historians to participate more and more in the public sphere, drawing on their expertise to show similar, converging, and even differing histories. We are seeing more and more of this and I am very happy to be part of that trend. There is a lot of global interest in what historians have to say. I regularly contribute to Argentine newspaper Clarín. In the past years, I have also written alone or with colleagues like Pablo Piccato on these issues for the New York Times, The Washington Post, Brazil’s Folha, Open Democracy, Public Seminar and other publications in places like Germany, France and Mexico. All these venues are certainly interested in historical perspectives. Recently I published an op-ed in the Washington Post in this fantastic section, “Made by History”, which is run by three historians Nicole Hemmer, Brian Rosenwald and Kathryn Cramer Brownell. I published on how understanding the history of populism and fascism provides a warning towards the simplification of things by saying that ‘Trump is just crazy’, as it can lead to ignoring both politics and ideology.
I continue to write on populism. I have been writing for some time an essay on the historically contested relation between populism and technocracy and another on populism and racism. I presented them last year at conferences at Cambridge and Yale as well at the University of Milan where I was a visiting professor and I will present newer versions later this year in Germany, Mexico, Baltimore and New York.
Now I am also returning to a previous project that I hope to be closer and closer to finishing, which is a study of notions of true and false in fascism. I think this is also very much related to what is going on in the present. I am going back to the 1920s to the ‘40s, and studying conceptions of irrationality and the unconscious, a fascist unconscious that for fascists is ‘truer than truth’ or empirical truth. I am studying this in the broader context of political myth. This project is called The Myth of Fascism and I analyze some transatlantic notions of the historical and mythical dimensions of both fascism and anti-fascism.