By Gargi Mahadeshwar, Class of ‘24

In Is Fascism Back? Trans-Atlantic Perspectives on the History of the Present three panelists analyzed recent claims of fascism in the US government. Claudia Koonz, the Peabody Family Professor of History Emeritus at Duke, began by highlighting the purpose of finding historical analogies, saying “Analogies sound the alarm.” They help us diagnose problems by giving us the ability to find patterns in historical events. She then continued by looking at the core of fascism and contrasting it to today’s politics. History shows that fascist leaders tend to centralize power. “Fascist leaders are shrewd. They are not delusional, and they are competent,” Koonz states. She asserts that these characteristics cannot be seen in Trump’s policies, making fascism an ill-fitting analogy.

Because of these differences, Koonz chose apartheid as a better historical analogy to understand current events. South Africa managed to preserve white supremacy despite its suffering economy and push back from other nations. This determination can be compared to recent events through white supremacist Christian faith. Koonz identified this faith as a great danger, noticing that the driving commonality among rioters is their devotion to Christianity. Koonz said, “We are fighting a movement that doesn’t care about the facts because it’s based on faith.” She also included a call to action, saying that we can learn from South Africa that there is a chance to save our democracy. She urged people to work to fight voter suppression and do more than just “dump Trump.”

In contrast, Cecilia Márquez, an assistant professor of History at Duke, found a reason to use the analogy of fascism. She began with a powerful reading of excerpts from We Charge Genocide and Langston Hughes’s Beaumont to Detroit, introducing the perspective of Black activists who saw fascism in white supremacy in the 1940s. She compared the continuous policing of Black people today to fascist paramilitary groups and white supremacist vigilantes. Márquez continued to point out that the analogy of fascism has value when considering spaces such as detention centers and Guantanamo because of the impact they have on marginalized populations.

Dirk Moses, the Frank Porter Graham Distinguished Professor of Global Human Rights History at the University of Chapel Hill, built off Marquez’s points about race by looking at changes in the idea of fascism throughout history. He read selections from W.E.B Dubois’s “Black Reconstruction in America” and Toni Morrison’s “Racism and Fascism” to highlight the connection between racism and fascism. From the selections, Moses concluded that “Fascism is a version of liberal rule in crisis.”

The panelists also delved into the issue of the spread of ideologies today, identifying the difficulty to fight an ideology that moves so quickly through social media platforms. This new method of communication creates a gap between current and historical events, rendering historical analogies unproductive.

Moses ended the discussion on fascism with the thought-provoking question “Why have so many Americans lost faith in the ability of its institutions to deliver the kind of life to which they aspire?” He continued by asking “What are you going to do to rebuild that faith? Is it a matter of trying to convince them that the system is good or are you going to try to rebuild that system to work for everyone?”

The next fascism event, What is Antifa? Anti-fascism from 1930s Spain to 2020s North Carolina, was an attempt to understand an opposing force and potential solution: anti-fascism.

James Chappel, the Hunt Family Associate Professor of History at Duke University, focused on the first half of the 20th century, finding a moment where fascism has been defeated. He looked at Germany, the birthplace of anti-fascism to find a definition of Antifa. Chappel explained that the initial goal of anti-fascism was to unify varying degrees of the left. “[It was] not just an electoral strategy,” he said, “It was about taking it to the streets to defeat fascism where it lives.” Chappel also explains that, at its core, anti-fascism was both antiracist and international.

To continue, Denise Lynn, an associate professor of History and Gender Studies at the University of Southern Indiana, gave insight on the role of American communist women in anti-fascist movements. They recognized that strict restrictions on birth control and abortion were fascist in nature.

Stuart Schrader, Associate Director of the Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship at Johns Hopkins University, showed through anti-fascist punk rock that the antifascist movement is a movement of the people. Punk rock demonstrates the ability “regular people” have to make a change. Schrader explained that the most difficult aspect of anti-fascist movements was actually trying to create a more just and equitable society.

The panelists left us with a call to action and a message of hope that we can learn from the successes and failures of history. There are moments when fascism was once defeated and can be defeated again.

 

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