Fascism does, of course, require a small proportion of the country to be following an agenda that puts the blame for the bulk of problems onto a vulnerable part of the population and is prepared to take extreme measures to deal with the "untermensch". But these bitter negative people exist in all societies and in good times they can usually be constrained and the damage that they do kept to the margins.
What goes wrong when fascism gains strength is that the nasty voices begin to appeal to the silent majority. The time to be scared is not when there are some fringe dangerous elements in your society that no one really takes seriously. It is when you begin to hear people in the pub, at a dinner table, at the school gates or in the doctor's waiting room discussing their ideas as if they are perfectly reasonable and sensible.
Hitler didn't get to power by telling people that he was going to kill their neighbours. He convinced large numbers of people that he would stand up for them and solve their problems. He sold himself as the champion of the little man. The same little man who ended up sitting on the Eastern front through a Russian winter. The same little man who spent the rest of his life trying to live down the shame of having kept quiet whilst the gypsies, the homosexuals the communists and the Jews were carted off and killed. And of course the little woman who yelled with joy at the rallies as a strong man finally told her that he was going to impose his will on the nation and make the country great again.
I was reminded sharply of this on several occasions during the second US Presidential debate. Fascism involves a belief in the need for a supreme string leader who must take strong action. That was Trump's pitch. Fascism involves blaming the problems of your country on minority groups and taking action to exclude them from society. That was exactly what Trump did to get the nomination. Fascism tries to speak to the ordinary person by claiming that things in their life have gone wrong because of the weak corrupt policies of old order but a few strong simple solutions can put all that right. Once again this was almost exactly what Trump said. His line of attack was "Follow me and you will get you your job back". "Follow me and the factories will come back to small town America". "Follow me and I can cut your taxes, build up your army and make America great again".
The only difference I can spot between the things Trump is saying and the way Hitler tried to appeal to the ordinary German in the late 1930s is that Hitler promised his people guns not butter. Trump is promising them both.
The other thing both men were brilliant at was mixing truth with lies in ways that sounded convincing to dangerous numbers of people. Trump says some things that are true. The US did fight a stupid un-necessary and counter-productive war in Iraq and that has made the world a more dangerous place where there is good reason to fear religious extremists. The US did fail to protect its blue collar workforce as its companies took their production to China, Mexico and the Far East. The towns many of those people live really have been damaged by global market forces that they felt powerless to resist and not remotely enough was done to manage those market forces and protect those people. The US really did fail to protect the vast bulk of its middle classes. It really is a lot harder to get a decent graduate job, pay off your debts, acquire a home, raise a family and educate it at a reliable local school, and feel secure in enjoying the fruits of doing the right things. Most young Americans really will end up with harder lives on lower standards of living than their parents and the chances of them "making it" through the merits of their own hard work go down every year not up. Something really has gone wrong with the American dream and something radically really does need to change.
In these circumstances the most worrying thing is not that Trump is saying the things that he is. The worrying thing is that his opponents have been so poor at separating out the truth from the lies and have allowed a bullying multimillionaire to sound like the voice of the people. This means that it is of no help at all to simply call Trump out as a fascist, or a sexist or any other ist and assume that somehow this finishes off his argument. It is necessary to fight against his horrible prejudices and then be even better than him at articulating the legitimate concerns he raises and much better at putting forward policies that would genuinely help those people rather than use and exploit them.
There is no point in engaging in debates with Trump and the like over who can build a better wall and keep out the immigrants more effectively. He has already won the second you accept the terms of the debate. There is every point in making sure that we understand why ordinary people are so angry and feel so betrayed. He wins the second his opponents sound like they don't understand that something has gone very wrong indeed and a great many things have to change if we are going to put that right. He only loses if we can make it clear that his solutions will make things a lot worse and there is an alternative approach that will gradually start to make them a lot better.
Life in a global economy is very insecure because every individual is effectively competing against 7 billion others to earn their living. The answer to this is not to cut taxes in America in the hope that more billionaires will locate their cash there and that will somehow magically bring back jobs to American factories. The answer is for countries to establish much better ways of managing that global economy than the voluntary collaboration of nation states and their central bankers. When people in one country get richer that ought to provide more customers for people in another. The US ought to be doing well out of a global increase in living standards. The reason it is failing to do so is because the education of its ordinary citizens is being neglected. It is because, even though it has some wonderfully innovative scientists and companies, its banks are not investing effectively and the country is failing to turn good ideas into products and services that enough people want. Things are going wrong because high wealth individuals like Trump are happy to earn money in the States but are not prepared to pay any taxes to help American citizens and money is constantly leaching out of the country.
There is therefore a battle going on for hearts and minds that is more important than anything which has happened in my lifetime and I'm 65. If we let narrow nationalists win the debate it is highly likely that the West will decline into a sour unsuccessful resentment as it watches new economies emerge, grow equally rich and then surpass us. Just as China is doing. If we can invest in ensuring that we have a modern high tech low energy consumption economy then we stand a chance of not just surviving in a world of many prosperous nations but of prospering ourselves. If we can internationally manage and guide globalism effectively we stand a chance of giving our citizens back the secure welfare state they had when national economies were guided by the state between 1945 and the mid 1970s.
And of course there will be no prospect of secure and stable economic growth unless we plan it so effectively that it takes place without adding to the environmental pressures on our planet. Indeed the very heart of any investment strategy needs to be to take the advanced Western nations away from a bygone era of fossil fuels and get them at the forefront of a new era of technology with all the jobs and economic well being that could provide for its citizens.
I can't exactly see Donald Trump saying that in the next Presidential debate!