Umberto Eco's essay on Ur-Fascism was first published on June 22, 1995, in "The New York Review of Books." It is available, presumably without a copyright violation, on the website.

Umberto Eco was a medievalist, scholar, philosopher, and social commentator active professionally in the second half of the 20th Century. He taught at several universities in Italy and the United States, notably the University of Bologna, Harvard, and Yale. I learned of him through his novel The Name of the Rose. In it, an English Franciscan monk in the mold of Francis Bacon or William of Ockham applies Sherlock Holmes-like empirical techniques to solve the mystery of a growing number of dead monks being found in a Benedictine monastery. It is 1327, 300 years before the Inquisition forced Galileo to recant his observations, demonstrating that the Earth is not the center of the solar system. This contrasts starkly with the monastery’s abbot, who is convinced that the deaths are the devil’s work. This is when Western Europe is re-discovering the deductive logic of Classical Greece, lost after the Christianization and Fall of Rome. It is a fascinating time in history for me. After a long slumber under the blanket of superstitious Christianity, the spirits of Classical Rome and Greece are re-awakening. Western Europe is throwing off the shackles of mysticism and adopting a tradition of clear thinking that will ultimately lead to the Enlightenment and, for better or for worse, the Industrial Revolution.

Eco experienced the rise and apex of Italian Fascism as a child and adolescent, much like I got a gentler experience of it from my Italian stepfather in my youth. He was 13 when Mussolini was executed. I have to think Eco experienced Fascism viscerally as he did not yet have the intellectual tools to have a more objective opinion. as I experienced Fascism on a subjective level, I came to be able to immediately recognize the close-minded nationalism or allegiance to some arbitrary cultural dogma. I saw the jaw-jutting strut, the poses of Fascism. I could feel the hostile anger at a world it wanted to change but could not. Of course, I never acquired Eco’s social analysis skills or brilliance. But I was immediately drawn to his Ur-Fascism essay in The New York Review. I had been trying to determine a crisp definition of Fascism. The challenge is that Fascism is not a set system of thought like Marxism or Communism. These have philosophies of economics, history, and social relations. They are cohesive systems of thought. Fascism is devoid of any cohesive structure or particular beliefs. It is a style, a psychological condition. A Fascist is identified more by his emotions and style than any cohesive set of ideas.

In Ur-Fascism, Eco identifies 13 traits that point to or indicate Fascism. He writes: “I think it is possible to draw up a list of characteristics typical of what I should like to call ‘Ur-Fascism’ or ‘eternal Fascism.’ These characteristics cannot be regimented into a system; many are mutually exclusive and are typical of other forms of despotism or fanaticism. But all you need is one of them present, and a Fascist nebula will begin to coagulate.” Amazingly, Eco wrote Ur-Fascism sixteen years before Trump’s arrival on the national political scene.

As a note, Ur was a very early Mesopotamian civilization, at one time, thought to be the first. Thus, “ur” has a secondary meaning of archetypical or primal.

1. “The first characteristic of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition. This new culture was to be syncretic. …when they seem to be saying different or incompatible things, it only because they only allude allegorically to some original truth…..Consequently, there can be no advancement of learning. The truth has already been announced once and for all, and all we can do is continue interpreting its obscure message.”

“If you browse through the New Age sections in American bookshops, you will even find Saint Augustine, who, as far as I know, was not a Fascist. But putting together Saint Augustine and Stonehenge, now that is a symptom of Ur-Fascism.”

Fascism has as a basis for self-justification a reliance on a past golden age. This golden age does not need to have actually existed. It can be an imaginary place and time when things were ideal. It can be an idealized, white, middle-class 1950s U.S. suburb, a Holywood fantasy of rugged individualism replacing the grim reality of impoverished settlers scratching livelihoods out of the prairie sod, or some a-historical re-enactment of pilgrims sharing a meal with the natives they in fact massacred. Or it can be a literal, but by no means singular, interpretation of the Bible. This traditional truth is immune to alternate interpretations. Revisions are heresy. Protestantism, Copernican cosmology, biological evolution, and critical race theory are all assaults on the one truth.

2. "Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism. The Enlightenment and the Age of Reason were seen as the beginning of modern depravity. Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism."

The Enlightenment removed god from the center of cultural consciousness, replacing it with man as the measure of all things. Reason replaced faith. Human rights replaced eternal damnation. Human rights led to the embrace of diversity and acceptance of lifestyles different than one's own. The Enlightenment led to a belief that the human condition can be improved by applying rational thought to life's challenges.

3. "Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action's sake. ... Thinking is a form of emasculation. 'The universities are a den of Communists.'"

Too much thought leads to questioning the revealed truth. Thus, thought is replaced by action. Think nerd scientist versus N.F.L. football star. The Ur-Fascist prefers the military bias towards action to the cerebral musings of the academic. He fancies him a military man or in a militia, walking around in para-miliary clothes and sporting military-style assault weapons. An Ur-Fascist President who dodged the draft can accept a Purple Heart from a misguided veteran and assert that he always wanted one. Half of America's Ur-Fascists would probably not even meet the standards for enlistment.

4. "No form of syncretism can accept criticism. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and distinguishing is a sign of modernity. For Ur-Fascism, dissent is betrayal."

Aristotle's reductionist approach to understanding the world is the hallmark of the Enlightenment. Before the post-modernists get all in a froth, what they usually love to ignore is that in science, reductionism is a tool to get at facts. Synthesis based on facts is the necessary next step for science; otherwise, it is just observation. Kepler's observation of equal areas in equal times is a marvel of reductionism. However the breakthrough occurred when the differential formula modeling this relationship was applied to the results of the reduction. This is synthesis. The inescapable fact is that there must be real facts on which to base synthesis.

Thus, this making of distinctions is the bane of syncretism. Syncretism allows the creation of connections across disparate thought systems in the absence of critical, dare I say reductionist, distinction-making. Syncretic thought is based on no real facts. Its most frequent manifestation currently is called conspiracy theories.

5. "Dissent, moreover is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows and seeks a consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The fascist movement is a call against intruders. Ur-Fascism is therefore racist by definition."

"Others" is the red herring of all superficial social movements. They have no real doctrine or solutions to appeal to the masses. No solutions to better the conditions of the masses. To distract from this, they focus on anyone different from the socio-ethnographic group from which they derive. Every difference in thought, social status, ethnicity, race, or sexual orientation is game to be singled out as subversive. In the United States, Jews, Catholics, Germans, Native Americans...before they were so totally crushed, Hispanics, southern and eastern Europeans, the poor, and any sexual orientation not exclusively heterosexual have all been singled out for persecution. In this view, Mexicans are invading swarms of rapists. By the same logic, same-sex marriage is not just an affront to a narrow reading of the Christian bible but an attack on the institution of marriage. Most recently, this insane thought that transgender kids using the bathrooms of their choice will somehow corrupt hetero-sexual kids using is popular.

6. "Ur-Fascism springs from individual or social frustration. the appeal to the frustrated middle classes, disquieted by some economic crises or political humiliation and frightened by social pressure from below. Fascism will find its audience in this new majority."

The last sentence recalls the "moral majority" of the 1990s, so vocally advocated by a right-wing serial adulterer in the Senate.

People are not naturally duped by transparent, hate-generating lies that solve nothing. But if an influencer can associate the cause of their frustration or humiliation with one of the "other" groups identified above, then he will find he has a "majority" of loyal followers who will believe any lie, no matter how ridiculous, that validates their hate.

7. "To those with no social identity at all, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common privilege of all, that of being born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Thus, at the root of Ur-Fascist psychology lies the obsession with conspiracies, preferably international ones. The easiest way to construct a conspiracy is to appeal to xenophobia. Jews are usually the best target." 

While people with real or imagined grievances are good recruiting ground, the lumpen lower middle class is another good target. They have no real self-identity at all and can be attracted by equating foreign with "other." This confers both identity and unity in one stroke. Followers identify with that vague word "country" while despising or hating all others.

8. "The disciples must feel humiliated by the enemy's vaunted wealth and power. The Jews are wealthy and help one another through a secret network of mutual assistance."

It is hard to despise and hate your inferiors unless they represent a "social pressure from below." More often, the "others" are "Eastern elites," "European socialists," "ivory tower elites," "liberal pedophiles," "the United Nations," and the list goes on and on.

9. "For Ur-Fascism, there is no struggle for life but, rather, a 'life for struggle.' Pacifism is, therefore, collusion with the enemy; pacifism is bad because life is a permanent war."

Hence, Fascism manifests itself in the United States as an obsession with all things guns: violent computer games, owning guns, strutting around in camos with assault weapons, or joining militias. This last activity is nothing but the adult expression of adolescent boys playing war. It also manifests itself in America's perpetual "War on Terror."

10. "Ur-Fascism cannot do without preaching a 'popular elitism'; every individual belongs to the best people in the world, party members are the best citizens, and every citizen can (or ought to) become a part member. But you cannot have patricians without plebeians."

This manifests itself as loudly in "America First" as in the first stanza of Deutschland Uber Alles.

11. "In the Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, it should be noted, he usually manages to make others die in his place."

Unfortunately, a professional military is the expression of this. While our professional men and women do the fighting for us, the Fascists can stay home, get fat, chant "USA," share conspiracy theories and bigoted memes and strut with weapons.

12. "Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power onto sexual questions. This is the origin of machismo (which implies contempt for women and an intolerant condemnation of nonconformist sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since sex is also a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero plays with weapons, which are his ersatz penis."

It is no surprise that so many of the right-wing are serial adulterers. Trump, Boris Johnson, and Newt Gingrich come to mind.

13. "Ur-Fascism is based on 'qualitative populism.' In a democracy, the citizens enjoy individual rights, but as a whole, the citizens have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view (the decisions of the majority are followed). For U-Fascists, individuals have no rights, and the 'people' is conceived as a monolithic entity that expresses the 'common will.' Since no quantity of human beings can possess a common will, the leader claims to be their interpreter."

Whenever I hear a politician utter the words "the American people," I cringe. When in the height of jingoistic anti-communist paranoia, Congress jettisoned our Founding Fathers' national motto in favor of the current fiction-based one, we took a step away from our founders' wisdom. We don't all believe in a god; many of us don't call her a god. The current national motto is not my motto; I only recognize that of the Founding Fathers. America is not a monolithic entity and never was. Whenever a politician with a Fascist bent wants to project some opinion, usually of dubious merit, onto the whole country, the line usually goes, "The American people will (or will not)...." 

13 (continued) "Every time a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents 'the voice of the people,' there is a suspicion of Ur-Fascism."

The Trumpian Stop the Steal lie is the very embodiment of this.

This is, of course, when this assumes representative elections. We now have a party in the United States that has factions that actually argue that there is no basis in law for the popular vote.

14. "Ur-Fascism uses newspeak. .... All the Nazi and Fascist scholastic texts were based on poor vocabulary and elementary syntax, the aim being to limit the instruments available to complex and critical reasoning."

This is consistent with Ur-Fascism's self-contradictory syncretism and distaste for the Englightenment and academics. It breeds fertile ground for another recent phenomenon in American politics: the legitimacy of alt-facts.

The challenge of Fascism isn't that it is a set of cohesive ideas about the human condition or its betterment. Marxism has a complete theory of economics and of history. It presents a plan for human improvement. The Enlightenment embraced rational thinking and gave birth to the concept of universal human rights. It has a plan for human improvement through liberal Democracy. Fascism is a brutish implementation guide for brutish men to gain and hold power. It subjugates the country's economic base and human capital to the goal of maintaining power in one man at the top. Its weaknesses are its inevitable need to use violence to achieve its ends and, once they are achieved, its lack of a succession plan. One needs only to look to the Twenty-first century's crop of strong men or strong men want-to-be: Putin, Xi Jinping, Boris Johnson, Muhammad bin Salman, Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban, Duterte, and Erdogan.