WATCHING DONALD TRUMP on TV whipping up his base of supporters at a rally in Harrisburg, Pa., I had a sudden feeling I had seen this all before. I remembered a speech I had seen on YouTube. It was a speech Mussolini had given in Milan in 1932. I watched it again, and it was all there. The chin thrust, the pouts, the hand gestures, the adoring base cheering every word. He spoke of the might of his army “second to none,” the “injustices committed against us,” and how he had “stormed the old political class.” There was even a complaint about the press that had drawn “arbitrary conclusions” to what he was saying. Mussolini’s Blackshirts, his squads of roughnecks, were used to assaulting reporters they didn’t like.
It got me thinking that nations, like people, can be changed very quickly according to how they are led. Today, Angela Merkel is thought of as the thoughtful, reasonable voice of the liberal order that has ruled in the West since World War II. But within my memory, her country lived under two monstrous dictatorships, Hitler’s and East Germany’s. What makes Germany today different from the Germany of my childhood is leadership.
Japan today is our closest ally in the Far East. A more civilized and polite society you cannot find. Yet older Americans can remember when the Japanese played a very different role. The difference in the way the Japanese treated their prisoners of war in World War I and World War II demonstrates how quickly a country can change. In World War I, Japan was on the side of the Allies, and treated the German and Austrian POWs it captured in Germany’s Far East possessions with extreme respect and to the letter of the Geneva Convention.
Then, in the 1930s, Japan turned toward militarism and nationalism. In one generation, when World War II came, Japanese society had changed. When WWII broke out, the Japanese began treating their prisoners of war with extreme cruelty against every convention. The difference was leadership.
Today the Italians are an easygoing and generous people. But when Fascism took hold in the early 1920s, Italy became belligerent and bullying. Its concentration camps for the native population in Libya and its use of poison gas became genocidal. And it was quick to join the Nazis in dreams of conquest. Mussolini was telling Italians they had to begin winning again.
In his 2004 book, “The Anatomy of Fascism,” Robert O. Paxton wrote that fascism did not die with the end of World War II, that its seeds were planted “within all democratic countries, not excluding the United States.” According to Paxton, fascism was a “form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood. . . . “Fascism was an affair of the gut more than of the brain.”
Or as R.J.B. Bosworth wrote in his 2005 book “Mussolini’s Italy,” “Border fascism,” an obsession with borders and keeping the population pure, was always a “key strain in the fascist melody,” as was “allowing the nation to stand tall again.” All you needed was a charismatic leader, Mussolini, whom Paxton compared to the modern “media-era celebrity.”
Thirteen years ago Paxton wrote that all that is required for a rebirth of fascism is “polarization, deadlock, mass mobilization against internal and external enemies, and complicity by existing elites. . . . It is of course conceivable that a fascist party could be elected to power in free, competitive elections.”
But that could never happen here in America, the oldest democracy in the world, could it?H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe and author of “Foreign Correspondent: A Memoir.”