On the question lately raised of fascism in the Trump White House, it would be well to begin with a definition. Benito Mussolini himself thought that it meant everything in the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state. He intended fascism to be an integral program of nationalist politics with the state serving as the foundation of every individual right and value.
Giovanni Gentile, the movement’s foremost philosopher, explained in Origins and Doctrine of Fascism that the state should be the arbiter between capital and labor. To create class harmony, fascism “neglects nothing and excludes itself from nothing that involves the interests of the citizen, whether economic or moral.” He celebrated fascism as “before all else a total conception of life” far superior ethically to the oligarchy of liberalism and the class tyranny of communism.
Mussolini’s foremost biographer, Renzo De Felice, drew attention to the immense popularity of fascist ideas during the interwar period. The regime had achieved consensus, he wrote. An implication of his research concerned the possibility that fascism could return to popular favor in circumstances of crisis, when radical causes stand their best chance of gaining a politically significant following.
At the end of the Second World War, the prospects of a fascist revival appeared to be foreclosed. The horrendous image of Mussolini’s bullet-riddled corpse dangling head down from the roof of a gas station in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto might well have served as a death notice for the movement he had led to triumph 23 years before.
A neo-fascist party, however, sought to perpetuate Mussolini’s legacy in postwar Italy. In the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), which remained marginalized throughout the postwar era, pragmatic moderates and idealists of varying stripes coexisted uneasily.
Neo-fascist true believers on the fringes of the MSI presented themselves as the revolutionary conscience of the party, but then formed their own extreme right-wing group, Ordine Nuovo. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, numerous other groups competed with the ordinovisti for the hearts and minds of the hard neo-fascist right in Italy. Their acrimonious feuds and rivalries notwithstanding, they shared the dream of overthrowing Italy’s democracy and establishing a new fascist order.
Like-minded fringe neo-fascist groups throughout Europe dedicated themselves to the cause of reversing the outcome of World War II, which in their view had ended with the subjugation of the people of Europe to the control of Washington and Moscow.
The man of ideas who exerted the greatest influence on Europe’s radical neo-fascists of this period was Julius Evola. They identified him as their maestro segreto. His complex intellectual biography included a Dada phase and then a deep dive into mysticism, what he called his “transrational” philosophic studies. He immersed himself in the occult world of magic, alchemy, and Eastern religions. Friedrich Nietzsche’s caustic denunciations of democracy, socialism, and feminism gave him his basic anti-modernist political philosophy.
In 1934, Evola published The Revolt Against the Modern World. This book made a very meager impression at the time of its publication. As a self-proclaimed super-fascist, he opposed the pragmatic compromises that Mussolini made. Especially galling to him were the Lateran Accords of 1929 with the Catholic Church, an institution the viscerally anti-Christian Evola assailed as one of Italy’s supreme misfortunes. He never enjoyed high standing with the regime and found a more receptive audience in Nazi Germany.
After World War II, however, The Revolt Against the Modern World became a cult book for neo-fascists in Italy and throughout Europe. They learned from Evola that the materialist values of modernity had subverted the vital organic traditions of aristocracy and hierarchy, which in the Western world had reached their supreme point of development in the Roman Empire. The progress culminating in modernity and celebrated in history textbooks in fact had led straight to what he habitually scorned as the wasteland of the postwar world.
Even before the Second World War, Evola feared the United States as a deadly bacillus for European civilization. In his postwar books, all of which became required reading for neo-fascists with any genuinely radical pretensions, he characterized the United States as the prime mover of world capitalism, the most destructively revolutionary force in history. Soviet communism, another bankrupt system, and American consumer society represented the final stages of the West’s decline and fall. The only hope for Europeans lay in an authentically fascist revolution against the dictatorships of capitalist plutocrats and communist bureaucrats.
Evola’s wholesale condemnation of America makes him an extremely odd ideological reference point for Steve Bannon, now a key figure in the Trump administration. With his much-quoted mention of Evola at a 2014 Vatican conference, Bannon almost single-handedly introduced the secret master of neo-fascism to the mainstream American audience. People in search of guideposts for the worldview of Trump or the advisers in his inner circle subsequently seized upon the name of Evola as a possible pathway to understanding. It is a pathway of limited utility.
Bannon’s 2010 film, Generation Zero, provides an illuminating introduction to his political philosophy. For Bannon, the triumph of the narcissistic 1960s counterculture over traditional American values has caused the country’s decline. In the film’s shorthand, Woodstock in 1969 presaged the financial meltdown of 2008. He calls for a return to the culture of moral responsibility enshrined in free-market capitalism and Judeo-Christian civilization. Only through such a revival can America become great again. The philosophy of the film comes mainly from the American Enterprise Institute, whose spokesmen and allies in the Republican Party have featured speaking roles.
Bannon commanded the Breitbart media empire before joining the Trump campaign team. That organization’s alt-right reputation for misogyny, racism, and xenophobia has followed Bannon into the White House. A person could be guilty of all three of these prejudices without being a neo-fascist. Moreover, Breitbart’s origins as a pro-freedom and pro-Israel advocate rule it out on principle as any kind of neo-fascist structure that Evola would recognize as such.
Evola interpreted the American conception of freedom as a license for capitalist piracy and debauchery of the planet. As for Jews, he did not share the Nazi racial obsessiveness about them. Jewish culture in general, however, offended him, and he would not have looked to Israel for anything but trouble.
As a philosopher of Western crisis, Evola could give Bannon some useful images for depicting the perilous state of the world today. For both men, all great things stand in peril. Their ideas about what those great things are, however, could not be more different.
For Bannon, the United States is the greatest country on earth and in danger of destruction from within by liberals. For Evola, American exceptionalism had meaning only in a thoroughly negative sense. To him, the United States had become an exceptionally malignant country, precisely because it embodied the worst features of free-market capitalism and Judeo-Christian civilization.
Fascism or neo-fascism may be on the rise today, but not at the Trump White House in anything remotely resembling their Evolian forms.
Richard Drake teaches history at the University of Montana and is the author of The Revolutionary Mystique and Terrorism in Contemporary Italy .