Donald Trump and Ur-Fascism

Umberto Eco and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Over twenty years ago, in The New York Review of Books (June 22, 1995), Umberto Eco wrote of the difficulty of deciding whether a contemporary political movement is fascist:

It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, ‘I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.’ Life is not that simple.

To break through the quandary of how to identify fascism on the contemporary scene, Eco turned to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances for help.

Family resemblances. Wittgenstein is a notoriously difficult philosopher, but his family resemblance idea isn’t, at least not on a first pass. Think of an actual family. Family resemblances are traits more or less shared by most who belong to a family, but not necessarily everyone. Most everyone in a family might, to a greater or lesser degree, have big noses, buck teeth, and a tall and lanky build–but maybe not all. Some may have two of these traits, or one–or even none. Someone in the family may share, instead, another characteristic trait (small ears). But when you put the family members side by side, the resemblances jump out at you.

Wittgenstein broadened this simple observation to everything we might seek to define. By replacing the search for definition with the search for family resemblances, Wittgenstein bypassed the narrowing constraints of traditional essentialist definition (all family members have trait x or they’re not part of that family, period; all fascists have trait y or they’re not part of the fascist family, period). Wittgenstein brought a lighter touch to the identification of a thing than, say, a medieval thinker like Thomas Aquinas might have. Essentialist definition could, Wittgenstein claimed, be fruitfully substituted with a search for family resemblances.

You might thus say that, for Wittgenstein, what is essential gets replaced by what is interesting, as when Lionel Abel (1910-2001), an early contributor to Partisan Review, in an interview from the mid-1990s, said this about the Russian revolutionary and author, Leon Trotsky:

He had a literary verve which was unmistakable. He was a great journalist. And the intellectual power of his criticism of the Stalin regime . . . [is] accepted nowadays as justified, that he was right. But we didn’t know he was right. We knew he was interesting. And, in a way, if you lived in the Village [Greenwich Village in New York City in the 1930s], what was interesting was right. Certainly, the uninteresting was wrong. I’m not willing to altogether give that up, even today.

Traditional definition can be limiting in ways that block broader insights and generalizations. But by looking for interesting family resemblances, and deploying a lighter touch in definition, one might see fresh patterns, comparisons, and contrasts. Umberto Eco did this in his attempt to identify fascist resonances in the present. He wasn’t seeking an essentialist definition of fascism, or one grounded in the details of politics in the first half of the 20th century, thereby excluding from the designation fascist all those not belonging to that period. Instead, he tried to tease out family resemblances among movements throughout history that mark them, for Eco, as akin to the fascism he knew in the 1920-40s. Eco coined the term Ur-Fascism (Eternal Fascism) for the sort of fascism he had in mind; a fascism that he sees as emerging in different places and times.

Ur-Fascism. In his original essay from 1995, Eco identifies in some detail fourteen things he takes to mark a contemporary encounter with Ur-Fascism. Let’s lay them out in digest form, so as to absorb them at a glance. If you want more detail, of course, the original essay is here. The phrases and sentences in quotation marks are Eco’s:

  1. The cult of tradition gets wed to the occult in a way that tolerates the contradictions between them. The past provides revelation, and directs followers to a nostalgic Golden Age, but only in hints and in creative interpretive syncretisms. “Saint Augustine…as far as I know, was not a fascist. But combining Saint Augustine and Stonehenge–that is a symptom of Ur-Fascism.”
  2. There is a rejection of the Anglo-French Enlightenment tradition of reason. Eco calls this the fascist dismissal of “the Spirit of 1789 (and of 1776, of course).”
  3. There is distrust and resentment of intellectuals. “Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes.”
  4. There is impatience with making careful distinctions, maintaining coherence in sustained argument, and arguing civilly. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism….For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.”
  5. There is fear of diversity. Ur-Fascism “seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference.”
  6. The movement’s energy is derived from “a frustrated middle class.” This middle class is “suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups….[T]he fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.”
  7. National identity is besieged by enemies from within that are sinister and engaged in criminal conspiracy. “[A]t the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one.”
  8. There is bitter resentment of opponents, and thus an incapacity on the part of fascists to judge their enemies rightly. Fascists at once underestimate and overestimate their opponent’s actual capacities, and resent them for their wealth, cunning, solidarity, and power. “Followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies,” and yet they repeatedly misjudge them as “at the same time too strong and too weak.” For this reason, fascists “are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.”
  9. Enemies must be vanquished utterly. Solutions must be final. There is no living with the enemy. “Life is permanent warfare” that brings about “an Armageddon complex.”
  10. Mass elitism. The fascist group consists of the best people on Earth. Are you a member? If not, you’re looked down upon. There is open contempt for outsiders and the weak. (This may be a reaction formation against aristocratic attitudes directed down toward the middle class.)
  11. The cult of heroism and heroic death is celebrated. “[E]verybody is educated to become a hero.”
  12. Machismo. This extends not just to “war and heroism,” but to a “will to power” in “sexual matters,” a “disdain for women,” and a playing “with weapons…[as] an ersatz phallic exercise.”
  13. Populism trumps democracy and rights. The Leader channels the People; individuals don’t have rights or agency that exceed the will of the People. “Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter.”
  14. Language is corrupted. Language games that cloud or prevent critical thought, such as the language of Newspeak instituted by the English totalitarian state in Orwell’s 1984, or the insular, epistemically closed, rhetorical world of the talk radio host, are deployed. “Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”

Donald Trump and Ur-Fascism. If you accept Eco’s criteria for what constitutes Eternal Fascism, and you’ve got Eco’s fascist family traits list out in front of you, it’s pretty evident what jumps out: Donald Trump’s movement can be reasonably thought of in fascist terms and he is its tangerine Jack-in-the-Box. I’ll thus approach a conclusion to this blog post with a passage toward the end of Eco’s original essay that I take to be at once a prophetic and chilling prediction of the coming of a movement like the one Trump leads:

To have a good instance of qualitative populism we no longer need the Piazza Venezia in Rome or the Nuremburg Stadium. There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.

This is a pretty impressive prediction. At a time when the Internet was at the barest fraction of its existing size, Eco saw that it might function one day as a kind of electronic Nuremburg rally; a gathering place for the followers of a would-be Mussolini. Breitbart Virtual Stadium. Hmm.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in atheism, donald trump, feminism, hillary clinton, Politics, Ted Cruz, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Donald Trump and Ur-Fascism

  1. david doyal says:

    This approach is the opposite of what Wittgenstein stood for. He saw philosophy as clarifying, not expanding a category so that it no longer had a clear meaning. One must be able to ask “if p…?” What can one say about the “p” proposed by Eco? What is significant about being a “p”, if it is indeed a “p”?

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      Eco is not “expanding a category,” but noticing family resemblances. Wittgenstein would appreciate what Eco is doing in arriving at greater clarity surrounding fascism–and what I’m doing in response to Eco. Comparing Trump’s movement to 1930s fascism is indeed clarifying. Using Eco, I’m generating a fresh site for seeing comparisons and contrasts in the usage of two language games: 21st century Trump fascism and 1930s fascism. They have family resemblances when placed alongside one another that inform how both games get played.

      So it would be better to ask the Wittgensteinian grammatical question, What is the USE of ‘p’? Recall that, for Wittgenstein, a grammatical investigation is a word usage investigation within a language game–but part of teasing out the use of a word in a specific language game is to compare and contrast it to the way it’s used outside the language game–in other language games (whether historical ones or logically possible, fanciful ones). That depends on the analyst’s purposes, not just something internal to the language game itself.

      If, after all, what you were saying about Wittgenstein were true–that he would resist comparisons of the sort Eco and I are making–then why was his method of investigation so frequently to generate logically possible, though fanciful, cases for contrasting reflection with the language game he had before him? He did what we would today call thought experiments. He generated parallel language games that functioned as background to what he was studying or thinking about, causing aspects of issues to leap forward in greater relief (think of Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit here).

      Why did he do this? For clarity. That’s the same thing Eco and I are doing with older historical language games. Comparing them with Trump’s movement brings clarity. How do these language games function? Where do they function similarly–and where do they contrast in interesting ways? For instance, in Trump’s language game, when he deploys the phrase, “Make America great again,” is it functioning in Trump’s language game in ways at all similar to Mussolini’s language game, when he said in 1927, “Make America great”? What distinctions are important?

      You can liken this method of analysis–which was an important part of Wittgenstein’s method–with arranging books in a library. Say the library has three thousand books–and they’re all yours. You can arrange them any way you want. Depending on your purposes, there are perhaps an infinite number of ways you could organize your books. You could order them by genre, author, the number of vowels contained in each book from fewest to greatest, etc. The sky’s the limit. There is no essential arrangement to the books that you have to follow.

      So let’s say you’re into 20th century intellectuals, and you’ve got lots of books written by them, and you’ve decided to put non-communist and non-fascist intellectuals together into a single grouping in your library, and quickly discover that, by golly, there are some interesting family resemblances between, say, the writings of Hannah Arendt, George Orwell, and Franz Kafka. You could never define them in an essentialist way as having, necessarily, to belong together, and yet putting them alongside one another reveals some unmistakable family resemblances between the language games of the three authors, as well as obvious and telling differences. The similarities and differences jump out at you as akin to duck-rabbit aspect seeing, and serve clarification.

      Here’s the late Wittgenstein (from 1953): “The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have known since long.”

      • david doyal says:

        If one asserts that “X is a game-player”, one could look at the various uses of ‘game’ by looking at ordinary usages…..which would lead to listing many different types of games….all linked by family resemblances. If one then asserts that “X is a game-player”
        to another (Y), he could do so if chess playing was the only game that X played.
        Would Y have a clear meaning of what X meant? No. Looking at ordinary usage was meant to allow X to choose the meaning or use that allowed him to most clearly cause Y to understand his statement.
        Your example is more applicable to a scientific method of showing bundles of qualities that might help form a hypothesis about what this thing might be…..and perhaps to make predictions about what this “thing” might do or exhibit in the future. This approach would suggest that there exists an underlying causal entity that would explain the observed events or actions…….
        I believe that Wittgenstein was positing the former use and value of ordinary languge usage examination… as to afford the speaker the ability to be more clearly understood…..AND….to be more able to assert a statement that could be used to assert truthful statements.

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        You said that very well, and I don’t quarrel with it at all. What I want to suggest is that Wittgenstein was also open to speaking the way Eco does about fascism. He would recognize its value in the same way he would recognize the value of Einstein’s physics. He would just notice and analyze Eco’s way of talking about fascism as another language game of a particular sort: one that is grounded in facts (historical, scientific, etc.) and appeals to facts. These facts put persistent pressure on the game (for the facts might be disputed or the data change). If data points changed, or the history got disputed (for instance, if one pointed out that Mussolini and Hitler’s fascism entailed a lust for endless territorial expansion, and Trump’s does not), then it would put pressure on the players of the “Trump is a fascist” game to either abandon the game or qualify its parameters.

        Wittgenstein argued that you can’t do this with philosophy because it doesn’t appeal to facts or data in the way that a scientific or historical argument does. But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t see value in the way Eco talks any less than the way Einstein talks. He would dismiss such ways of talking only in relation to philosophy.

        Philosophy–at least metaphysics–is not a reality-testing language game. It’s not sensitive to facts on the ground in the same way that Eco’s or Einstein’s languages are. But philosophers, Eco, and Einstein all have language games functioning–they’re just each of a very different nature.

        You know the below quote from The Blue Book, I have no doubt, but I’ll include it here for others who might stumble into this thread. Wittgenstein suggests that the job of the philosopher is not to unify, generalize, simplify, reduce, or explain:

        “Our craving for generality has [as one] source … our preoccupation with the method of science. I mean the method of reducing the explanation of natural phenomena to the smallest possible number of primitive natural laws; and, in mathematics, of unifying the treatment of different topics by using a generalization. Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness. I want to say here that it can never be our job to reduce anything to anything, or to explain anything.”

        What then is the philosopher to do? What is her job? Wittgenstein would replace ambitious philosophical explanation of the world with description.

        But that’s his advice to philosophers. A historian or scientist–or Umberto Eco–might use Wittgenstein’s idea of family resemblance to help him or her work out a language game within his or her own discipline, akin to Stephen Hawking’s notion of “model dependent realism.” Is one’s language game sufficiently responsive to facts on the ground? What language game are you playing, exactly, and to what end? Wittgenstein’s insights are valuable outside of just the philosopher’s practice, and that’s what Eco saw, in my view, and what people like Kuhn developed in terms of “paradigm shifts,” Hawking in terms of “model dependent realism,” etc.

        These are just ways of talking about the way people overlay languages onto facts on the ground. The facts don’t speak, we speak, and Wittgenstein’s point is that philosophers don’t have facts on the ground to guide their language games, and so they delude themselves when they try to generate language games that pretend to grasp reality whole (such as Thomism, etc.), achieving ultimate metaphysical truth.

        Wittgenstein brings the philosopher up against silence, noting the limits of what can be achieved in philosophy.

        So when you wrote that Eco’s “approach [to fascism] is the opposite of what Wittgenstein stood for,” that’s only true in the realm of philosophy. Wittgenstein, I submit, would be delighted to see Eco deploying self-consciously the notion of “family resemblance” to get his head around fascism. It would suggest to Wittgenstein his triumph in the broader culture, where intellectuals see what they’re doing in Wittgensteinian terms (playing language games, deploying different tools for different purposes, rearranging things in suggestive ways that reveal family resemblances, etc).

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