How right-wing populism is returning to its fascist roots

Brazilian president-elect Jair Bolsonaro has threatened to have political opponents jailed, exiled or even killed. Historian Federico Finchelstein says his election is a signal populism is moving "closer to fascism than ever before."
Brazilian president-elect Jair Bolsonaro has been branded the Brazilian Trump. His brazen, inflammatory rhetoric is filled with virulently racist, misogynist and homophobic statements. Some even call him a fascist. (Getty Images)
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According to Federico Finchelstein, the election of Brazilian president-elect Jair Bolsonaro is a signal populism is moving "closer to fascism than ever before."

Finchelstein, an Argentine historian, said modern right-wing populism developed out of the ruins of fascism in 1945, after the defeat of leaders like Hitler and Mussolini.

"Especially in Latin America, even former fascists like Juan Domingo Perón, the Argentine leader, realized that in order to do politics in the new world that emerged after 1945, they needed to re-enter the democratic game," he told The Sunday Edition's guest host Peter Armstrong.

"They were not into dictatorship, and they believed that violence and racism were not good for the new politics of the world."

Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro celebrate in front of his house in Rio de Janeiro after he won Brazil's presidential election. (Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

But now, Finchelstein warned, far-right populism appears to be returning to its fascist roots.

Bolsonaro, who won Brazil's presidential election on Oct. 28, has made virulently racist, misogynist and homophobic statements. He has threatened to have political opponents jailed, exiled or killed, and staunchly defended the military junta that ruled Brazil before its transition to democracy in 1985.

On Nov. 2, U.S. President Donald Trump's national security advisor John Bolton praised Bolsonaro as "like-minded" and said his election was a "positive sign" for Latin America.

"This new populism of the extreme right gets closer to fascism … because now people like Trump or Bolsonaro, they are not as allergic to racism, political violence and authoritarianism as early populists were," Finchelstein said.

Fascism vs. populism

While the labels fascist and populist are sometimes used interchangeably, Finchelstein explained they have distinct meanings.

The key question now for Brazil is whether this person, who has basically spoken like a fascist, will rule like a fascist.- Federico Finchelstein

A key difference is that while populist leaders often curtail democracy, they do not try to abandon it. While they often use violent rhetoric, especially towards those who disagree with them, that violent speech does not lead to the arrest or murder of political opponents.

"You have this very violent rhetoric, and still a democratic game. That's populism. On the other hand, fascism is not a democracy but a dictatorship. There is continuity between violent speech and violent practice," he said.

Finchelstein said Bolsonaro blurred the lines between populism and fascism during his campaign.

"The key question now for Brazil is whether this person, who has basically spoken like a fascist, will rule like a fascist," he said.

"If he doesn't, he will be the so-called Trump of the tropics — a person that's bastardizing democracy without destroying it — and not a fascist."

Finchelstein told The Sunday Edition's guest host Peter Armstrong Jair Bolsonaro could become the "Trump of the tropics" — or transform the country into a full-blown fascist dictatorship. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

"If he destroys democracy, and he becomes a dictator, if people in the opposition or people that disagree are not only presented as traitors, but treated as such in a violent way, then we will be talking more of fascism and not necessarily of populism."

But, he said, it's not just up to Bolsonaro.

"Even if he wants to act like a fascist, he might not be able to, if Brazilian institutions, as well as Brazilian citizens who do not agree, express themselves and put some limits on these brazen authoritarian attempts."

Finchelstein argued mislabeling populist politicians as fascists could have a chilling effect.

"If we believe that populist leaders are fascists, then we might be giving up on possibilities for resistance and contestation that are still available for those of us who believe in democracy," he said.

The past 'coming back with a vengeance'

While Finchelstein believes Trump cannot accurately be described as a fascist today, he argued he bears a moral responsibility for both the string of pipe bombs sent to leading Democrats, and the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

To see this again, coming back with a vengeance, and legitimized or enabled by the White House, is very problematic.- Federico Finchelstein

It's no surprise to him that anti-Semitism has resurfaced in modern far-right populist and fascist movements.

"Anti-Semitism was key to every fascist movement that existed," he said.

A makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life synagogue in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the in Pittsburgh. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

Finchelstein is the descendant of a German Jewish family that fled to Argentina, and grew up under the 'Dirty War' military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. He said it has been deeply upsetting for him to watch the events of the last two weeks, both as a citizen and as a historian.

"It is very distressing to see that things we believed were located in the past and will not affect our future are still going on, as if nothing had happened. After the Holocaust, after incredible amounts of suffering — to see this again, coming back with a vengeance, and legitimized or enabled by the White House, is very problematic," he said.

"It seems almost as if many people have not learned from the past."

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.

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