Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis came to Utah last month and delivered the keynote address at the Utah Republican Party organizing convention in Orem. He was greeted as a hero by some 2,500 delegates in attendance. At the same time, he was jeered by some 100 students outside, many of whom accused him of being a fascist.
It’s not the first time DeSantis and other followers of Donald Trump have been accused of fascism. Trump’s rise to power in 2016 triggered a movement toward the right end of America’s political spectrum, and younger politicians such as DeSantis, Matt Gaetz, and Marjorie Taylor Greene have pushed it even farther. This has triggered increasing use of the term fascism in our political discourse. But what is fascism, exactly? And is Ron DeSantis a practitioner?
To answer that question, I turned to Umberto Eco, the great Italian philosopher and novelist (The Name of the Rose). Born in 1932, Eco experienced Mussolini’s fascism first-hand. In his later years, he wrote about this and listed 14 characteristics of fascism. In what follows, I indicate ways they do or don’t apply to DeSantis.
First, fascism is “a cult of tradition.” DeSantis’ traditionalist, anti-“woke” policies are a good example.
Second, Eco considered it “an irrational rejection of modernism.” DeSantis’s vow in Orem to “kneecap” environmental, social and governing investing strategies exemplifies this.
A third characteristic is “action for action’s sake” and “distrust of the intellectual world.” Examples include DeSantis’ continuing attacks on Florida’s colleges and universities and their open-minded searches for truth — which he simplistically demeans as “wokism.”
Fourth is a rejection of the critical spirit, replaced by the notion that “disagreement is treason.” This accords with the previous point.
A fifth characteristic is fear of diversity. As Eco puts it, “Fascism is racist by definition.” DeSantis is notorious for his attacks on the teaching of Black history, Indigenous history, slavery, or anything else that deviates from the traditional white-oriented curriculum.
Sixth is fascism’s appeal to frustrated middle and lower-middle classes. In our hypercapitalistic nation, money flows upward to the wealthier classes, creating resentment among everyone else. DeSantis’ political rhetoric takes full advantage.
A seventh characteristic is ultranationalism and obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. DeSantis has promoted laws that would criminalize and incarcerate not only undocumented immigrants but any citizen who helps them.
Eighth is a feeling of humiliation due to the wealth and power of their enemies. Not applicable in DeSantis’ case.
Next is the fascist belief that “life is permanent warfare.” The current culture war embraced by DeSantis and his followers is a good example, as was DeSantis’ crusade against Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Tenth is a populist form of elitism that includes contempt for the weak. DeSantis is known for such cruelty, going back to when he was a Navy officer at Guantanamo sitting in on — and, according to one victim, enjoying — torture sessions.
Eleventh: the myth of the hero. Fascism always has a strong leader who considers himself superior to everyone else. DeSantis’ attacks on Disney World and the CDC are good illustrations.
Twelfth is the “fetishizing of machismo” and “disdain for women and homosexuals,” enhanced by what Eco calls “the worship of guns as phallic symbols.” DeSantis projects a kind of machismo in his public image, including disdain for women in a harsh new abortion law and disdain for gays in his book bans. As for guns, he recently signed into law the right of all Florida citizens to carry a concealed gun anywhere — without a permit.
A thirteenth characteristic of fascism is “TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.” DeSantis is a frequent guest on Fox News, Newsmax, and other right-wing platforms, which promote him in every way.
Finally, fascism uses “an impoverished vocabulary and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.” Though he’s well-educated, DeSantis uses simplified speech in public, and simplistic reasoning.
In sum, what we are witnessing in today’s polarized politics does indeed include fascism, embodied and promoted by DeSantis and others on the far right. Those student protesters at UVU had it right.
Tom Huckin, professor emeritus, University of Utah and longtime resident of Salt Lake City, likes to challenge conventional wisdom.