This piece was originally featured on Research Matters.
Federico Finchelstein, Professor of History, returns to studying the history of fascism to understand the current political moment. His new book, A Brief History of Fascist Lies (University of California Press, 2020) is a companion to his 2019 book, From Fascism to Populism in History (University of California Press). This latest work explores the new terrain of “post-truth” and “fake news,” while investigating the long lineage of fascist leaders weaponizing lies.
Emmanuel Guerisoli, Sociology and History PhD candidate, and Ihor Andriichuk, Politics PhD student, sat down over Zoom with Finchelstein to discuss the inspiration behind his research and how lies define politics today.
An excerpt of the edited transcript of the discussion is below ***
On why this book, now
Guerisoli: I wanted to start with a basic question. You mention at the beginning of the book a series of events like the El Paso shooting and a Christchurch shooting in New Zealand that in a way triggered the idea to write this book. Do you want to talk more about that, why you’re writing this book now?
Finchelstein: Those events happened almost by the end of the writing…This [book] is a kind of continuation of a longstanding worry about how and why people believe in fascists, what makes that fascism successful? One of the issues that makes it successful is that these outrageous ideas become a matter of belief. They spread throughout, motivating a lot of people to not only believe, but also to kill in its name, to exert a lot of violence in its name. So the two examples that you mention, Emmanuel, are rather examples from the end of the story.
This book is a kind of continuation of a longstanding worry about how and why people believe in fascists
….After finishing my work, From Fascism to Populism in History, I wanted to return to some questions that I have been addressing before. This started in a way with a conference that I gave in Italy in the mid-2000s. This was like a longer question of why people believe in fascism and why that belief moves beyond empirical demonstration to be a world of fantasy which, ironically, is believed and presented as true.
Andriichuk: You mention at the very end of the book that you actually started working on this book in 2013, after this conference in Italy. In the introduction, you say that fascists and populists are playing in a league of their own. And if to speak from today about 2013 and the period between those dates, is this league increasing or declining?
Finchelstein: What I mean by that is that all politicians lie. And lying is not an issue which depends on a particular ideology. All ideologies eventually engage with lies and often propaganda. What I mean when I say that they play in a league of their own is that most other political traditions generally do not believe their lies. I think that is an important distinction. The other part of that distinction is that not only do these people believe in their lies, but also they believe that their lies are the truth. Even reality does not correlate to that belief, hat they do is try to change reality and in the book I present many examples of this.
Lying is not an issue which depends on a particular ideology. All ideologies eventually engage with lies and often propaganda. What I mean when I say that they play in a league of their own is that most other political traditions generally do not believe their lies.-Finchelstein
One of them is one of the most dramatic assumptions of these beliefs…is the belief in an anti-Semitic lie…that states that Jews are dirty and they spread disease. They are sometimes presented a virus themselves. This is a lie, and hat the Nazis did with this is to create an artificial war in which this lie could turn into a reality. Jews were, of course, not spreading disease per se, but once they were put in horrible conditions, in ghettos and concentration camps, they didn’t have food, they didn’t have sanitary conditions and so on and so forth. They eventually became ill and certainly spread disease, but they only did so not because that was true, but rather because the Nazis turned their lies into situations which became the truth. But that truth itself is a lie because it’s the effect or the outcome of turning lies into reality.
On believing lies
Guerisoli: Something that I found really quite striking from your book is…that you make a difference that lying is something that also liberalism does. But as you just said, liberalism doesn’t believe…
Finchelstein: Or communism.
Guerisoli: Exactly, they don’t believe their own lies. One could…say, well, liberalism or communism might be hypocritical, but fascism is a dangerous, sincere type of ideology. The issue is that what you are saying is that also the lying is racist, it is based on this idea that certain communities of people, certain races, certain ethnicities, are superior or have a sacred space in the world. Their leaders appear able to reveal a “sacred old truth” that certain spaces or certain people are sacred and therefore they need to act upon it. And this is, going back to the El Paso and Christchurch shootings, the idea of the replacement theory, that these people believe that migrants or foreigners of people who are not white or Christians are invading and spreading disease, or contaminating, polluting the romanticized idea of their society.
Finchelstein: ….This is exactly what I want to say. It involves racism because fascism historically has been racist. So basically, the idea of truth in fascism, which is, of course, a lie for the rest of us, is a racist lie. It involves demonization, discrimination, and racism. And there uou see the connection between the past and the present.
And here I would like to stress a distinction between the current populism and far-right populism, the current one…I mean Trump, I mean Bolsonaro, I mean Orban, I mean Narendra Modi and others, is that as opposed to most populists in history — starting with Juan Peron to Silvio Berlusconi or Hugo Chavezmeaning populism left and right — they did not exactly engage with lies in the same way. They were much more pragmatic, closer to the liberalism way of lying. Whereas what Trump and Bolsonaro share, not with the populists in history but with the fascists themselves is the idea, this belief in their own lies. A good example of this is that we have a lie that divides us, the lie being that you don’t need a mask to protect yourself from the virus. Even in this country now, people are divided across two ideological lines. I mean, you wear a mask if you believe in science. You don’t wear a mask if you believe in Trump. But Trump himself exposes himself to the disease because he doesn’t wear a mask. There you have a perfect demonstration of how he believes in his own lies.
I think here you see the connection between populism and fascism in a very particular way. The current populism, the current post-fascism, is very different to the post-fascist populism of the past. It’s different in the sense that it is racist, it glorifies violence and also lies as fascists lie.
That connects them not only with the fascists of the past…but also with the fascists of the present, as these terrorists that you were talking about. So this terrorism involves the same lies and even kill, as the fascists did, for these lies. But these lies are also the lies that are being involved by Trump. I mean, this idea of replacement, this idea of invasion. Sometimes it’s even verbatim, that these terrorists use the same words that Trump is using. So Trump is not responsible for their violence, but is enabling it. I mean, he’s not legally responsible for the violence, but he has a responsibility…He’s spreading the same lies as they do.
A good example of this is that we have a lie that divides us, the lie being that you don’t need a mask to protect yourself from the virus. Even in this country now, people are divided across two ideological lines. I mean, you wear a mask if you believe in science. You don’t wear a mask if you believe in Trump.-Finchelstein
On the psychoanalytic history of lying
Andriichuk: ….In the book…you’re stressing that this kind of fascist lie and populist lie is not conscious or intentional. So the person who is lying does not necessarily imply there is a lie. So there is not necessarily a knowledge of this lie.
Andriichuk: So it’s kind of subconscious or a gray area. You approach this matter from a psychoanalytical point, and this matter is revealing. My question would be what those populist or fascist lies might reveal in themselves.
Finchelstein: So there are a couple of things….From Hitler, Mussolini, Goebbels, at some level…they recognize that these lies were lies. But even then, the idea was that these lies were servicing the truth, or were enabling the truth, or were at the service of the truth. Sometimes in a minimal way, they were acknowledging to some extent that they were lying for the truth, rendering these in a way smaller than the truth, which was an ideological one, such as racism. Even if this particular person is not spreading disease at the current moment, they insisted on the fact that this person was spreading disease because at the end of the day, what mattered was the big truth, as they understood it. Even Hitler himself will say about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is one of the craziest lies of anti-Semitism and racism…When they asked Hitler about this, Hitler would say, “Even if there are aspects of the Protocols that are not correct or true, they speak to a greater truth.” …. Now, regarding the question of psychoanalysis, as you know from the book, there are different levels of this. The book is about how the fascists understood their lying, but also how anti-fascists at the time were trying to think about the lies of fascism. Among these anti-fascists, many of them were very interested in psychoanalysis, starting, of course, with Freud…but also people like Adorno, people like Mariátegui…Many of them thought that the concepts of psychoanalysis and its approach to the unconscious could help us understand this irrational belief in a form of truth that basically rejects empirical demonstration but have faith as truth in emerging in the inner being.
Traditional media still are looking for a middle ground that doesn’t exist.-Finchelstein
At the beginning of the book, I quote Trump, Hitler, and Mussolini. I compare their understanding of the truth, which of course is quite similar. The truth is not being based on empirical demonstration. Perhaps the most explicit among the three of them…is Trump, who says, “Don’t believe in what you are seeing.” How can you not believe in what you are seeing?..This is extremely irrational, and the unconscious has an important role to play… The other level is that…the fascists themselves were quite obsessed with psychoanalysis. There is a chapter on this issue…and why they thought that psychoanalysis was so problematic for fascism.
Guerisoli: …I wanted to point out that this issue connects to the idea of race, because in the end,… the concern is that Freud is attacking the idea of myth, but particularly what is sacred to fascists, which in this sense would be the nation, particularly for fascists. It’s not that Freud is directly attacking fascists, although in the end he will, but that
by attacking the idea of anything that is sacred as something that is not truth, then what fascists are saying is that “Freud is saying this because he’s a Jew and not loyal to the nation and therefore he’s a virus in our own societies. And you see going around not just in Europe, but also in Latin America, with the clerical fascism types, from Mexico to Argentina.
With the case of Trump, or at least today…you mentioned also that what’s most dangerous is this relationship between conspiracy theories that are believed by a lot of people, but then public officials like Bolsanaro or Trump talk about them as if not facts, but as possibilities that should be addressed and discussed as they have enough evidence of any other type of historical facts. You add to that liberal societies with new media, you have the perfect environment for these to become mainstream, like birther conspiracy and everything else.
Finchelstein: The point here and the problem here is that it’s very hard to discuss lies. Generally, in a rational discussion…arguments need to be supported by facts. Now, if you have on one hand an anti-fascist critique that is supported by facts, and on the other hand pure racist fantasies and xenophobic fantasies, on the other hand there is no middle ground. So that’s why, sometimes, traditional media still are looking for a middle ground that doesn’t exist. Because quite simply, as many of the anti-fascists from the 1970s and 40s pointed out ,on one side, there is the truth and on the other one is fascist lies….you will see sometimes the New York Times…when Trump says something outrageous, or I will say, Trump says something outrageous about the coronavirus. So Trump says there is a miracle cure; experts disagree, somehow implying there are two sides. There are not two sides. Trump is lying; science tells you otherwise.