A fundamental difference between populism and fascism is that for populists election results matter. Fascism, on the contrary, implies permanent power, independent of the ballot box.
Populism claims the authoritarian idea that a person can fully embody the “people” and the nation, but must be confirmed by electoral procedures.
While fascism rejoiced in lying, populism respected the ballot box. This does not mean that he always promotes democracy; in fact, he often handles it.
But it still derives its power from and depends on the integrity of the electoral system. This is why populist leaders tend to recognize the value of respecting election results, even if they are losers in the democratic process.
This distinction, however, is starting to fade, and Donald Trump has been a pioneer for autocrats around the world.
By denying the results of the US election and promoting the “big lie” of electoral fraud, Trump represents a historic turning point in populist politics, enabling and inspiring others as well as the fascist dictators who came before him.
Perón and Peronism
Juan Domingo Perón was the strongman of a military junta that ruled Argentina from 1943 to 1946. Although he came to power under a regime of force, he encouraged and participated in the elections of 1946.
After the defeat at the end of World War II, fascism, like coups and military dictatorships, had become toxic. Thus, ex-fascists and dictatorship activists tried to regain power by democratic electoral means.
In the early postwar years, politicians like Perón understood that elections were a fundamental source of political legitimacy.
He presented a populist candidacy, proposing a third way beyond capitalism and communism. He won the 1946 elections, becoming the first populist leader in history to come to power.
Peronist populism borrowed elements from fascism. He was deeply illiberal and created a messianic cult of the leadership of his conductor.
He denounced ruling elites, hampered independent journalism and fostered a deep aversion to pluralism and political tolerance.
But Perón was elected by universal suffrage and as such he differentiated himself from the fascists.
Like Perón, other Latin American populists in countries like Brazil, Venezuela and Bolivia came to power by asserting the legitimacy of election results in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Maintaining power depended on the victory of real elections.
Perón, like his Brazilian, Venezuelan and Bolivian populist counterparts, was popular. When they were ousted from power, it was through coups, not elections, that their movements continued to win.
More recent populist leaders like Silvio Berlusconi in Italy or Hugo Chávez in Venezuela have shown the same pattern.
They avoided unfounded fraud claims because they based their grandiose claims to embody the popular will on the democratic idea that the elections represented the will of the people.
Berlusconi lost the 1996 and 2006 elections, while Chávez lost the 2007 Venezuelan constitutional referendum on the abolition of presidential term limits. Both accepted these results despite extremely low margins.
The situation is different today with Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, because it is no longer about populism, but about dictatorial regimes in which the elections are not real and therefore can never be lost.
The situation is different with the new right-wing populists losing the real election and lying about the results.
The fascists of the 1930s
Many autocratic losers lie to escape actual or potential electoral defeat.
For example, the fascists of the 1930s, like the German Nazis, saw no value in the electoral system and only used it to claim legitimacy and leadership when it was to their advantage. They then worked to destroy democracy from within.
In fact, the fascists believed that elections and patriotism were essentially opposed because the real leader was not necessarily the one who received the most votes.
As Benito Mussolini wrote in “Doctrine of fascism” in 1932, “Fascism is therefore opposed to this form of democracy which assimilates a nation to the majority, reducing it to the level of the greatest number; but that is the form the purest of democracy if the nation is considered as it should from the point of view of quality and not of quantity, as an idea, the most powerful because the most ethical, the most coherent, the truest, which is expressed in a people as the conscience and will of a few, if not, in reality, of only one “.
Adolf Hitler agreed with this logic, as he viewed democracy itself as a “fraud” because elected politicians could not represent the true will of the people, which only Nazism and Hitler himself embodied.
Hitler declared in “Mein Kampf” that the Nazis had “the right, but also the duty, to stress with the utmost rigor that any attempt to represent the popular idea outside the German National Socialist Labor Party is futile and, in most cases, fraudulent ”.
When the fascist regimes in Italy and Germany became full-fledged dictatorships, elections were no longer needed as a source of legitimacy because the leader’s will was now perpetually embodied in the people.
This situation was not only European.
In 1923, the Argentinian fascist Leopoldo Lugones equated electoral procedures with demagogy and claimed that dictatorship was the answer to “electoralism”.
The fall of Argentine democracy came a few years later, in 1930, when General José F. Uriburu staged a military coup. Uriburu asked Lugones to write the founding proclamation of his regime.
Similar critiques of democratic electoral procedures and the need to overturn them have been leveled by fascists around the world, from Brazil and China to Spain and Mexico.
In short, fascism denied the very nature of democracy.
His supporters argued that votes were only legitimate when they confirmed the autocratic will of their leader through a referendum.
Populists, on the other hand, used the elections to emphasize their own democratic nature, even as other authoritarian tendencies advanced.
The line between fascism and populism is blurring
These differences matter today when Trump and others deny the electoral legitimacy of their opponents.
Bolsonaro in Brazil, Netanyahu in Israel, and Keiko Fujimori in Peru use lies to create an alternate reality in which they can rule without democratic procedures.
Fujimori and Netanyahu have failed in their attempts before, but Bolsonaro recently said he would not accept the 2022 election results unless the voting system is changed. Then he repeated, without proof, that the elections might not be “clean” and even threatened not to hold them.
The more we know about the fascist attempts of the past, the more we will be aware of the post-fascist and populist forms of the present.
Trump’s calls for “reinstatement” based on the alleged legitimacy of a false past – that is, a bizarre world in which he “won” the elections, are blatant forms of fascism that do not can be tolerated.
Text originally published in the Washington Post.