The particular challenge that populism presents for constitutional democracy, in Finchelstein’s reading, is precisely its ability to jostle the foundations of institutional democracy without tipping over the entire structure. In the wake of 1945, when fascism became an obsolete “third way” between liberalism and socialism, the emergence of populism produced another alternative. “Globally, populism represented an authoritarian response to an extended crisis of democratic representation,” Finchelstein writes. In this sense, fascism became populism—not by accumulating all of its specific strategies—but rather by carving out a place for authoritarian rule into electoral politics. “Populism is an authoritarian form of democracy,” Finchelstein said, “It’s not a dictatorship.
This is a nuanced argument, and one that pushes back against a tendency to equate populism with fascism in every case. Indeed, above all else, Finchelstein suggests that it is too simplistic to suggest that populism constitutes fascism in a new wrapping. As he puts it, this manner of one-dimensional interpretation limits our ability to, “explain the persistence of modern populism and its formidable ability to undermine democratic tolerance and oppose pluralistic forms of popular sovereignty.” The knack of populists to wear away at institutions, while still obeying the results of democratic elections, makes their power particularly pernicious.
To begin to comprehend populism in power, Finchelstein suggests it is vital that we know exactly how it has been wielded in the past, and exactly what populism owes to its origins in fascism. “Let’s not consider this version of American populism in power as entirely new,” he suggested, “because in order to learn a little bit more about what’s going on, we need to see previous experiences of populism in power.”
In this, From Fascism to Populism in History constitutes a defense of patient historical analysis itself. “The book is a critique of an approach in the social sciences that relies on essentialist notions of populism and fascism,” Finchelstein said. Such notions are problematic because they are often “detached from the specific histories that make and shape fascism and populism in the first place.”
But when pressed to suggest what advice a historian might provide about how to combat populism in its current instantiation, Finchelstein was quick to clarify that historical analysis does not produce such recommendations.
“History can’t do that,” he said. But he added that it can equip us to better understand the present: “What I’m saying is that it has an incredibly important role to play in understanding what’s really going on.”