Fascism and Analogies — British and American, Past and Present - Priya Satia

News Article - Priya Satia

NAVIGATING UNCERTAIN TIMES, it is tempting, and helpful, to search the past for precedents that might help guide understanding and action — inevitably with the risk of drawing false equivalences. Comparing Trumpism to 1930s fascism, especially, has struck some historians and political theorists as likely to blind us to the longer trajectories of Trump’s reactionary politics — his quintessential Americanness.

The question of historical analogies has also defined the United Kingdom’s memory wars. With respect to Britain’s imperial past, Boris Johnson’s government has rejected all fascist implication. Britain’s schools, museums, and country houses, it insists, must not reflect on restitution, statue-removal, or the idea of white privilege; these worries are the province of nations that truly have something to apologize for — namely, Germany. As the Times explained last year, the moral case for returning colonial artifacts is unlike that of returning artworks stolen by the Nazis. After all, Britain, led by Johnson’s hero Churchill, defeated the Nazis — the finest hour of its proud past. The National Trust’s efforts to explore country houses’ ties to colonialism and slavery similarly outraged the Churchill biographer Andrew Roberts by implying a “moral equivalence between colonialism and slavery,” as if the empire was not founded on slavery and did not continue to depend on forms of bonded labor well after abolition in 1833.

Johnson’s government instead calls for unapologetic pride in Britain’s past to fortify the nation’s capacity to endure today’s political challenges, from lockdown to Brexit, when, the prime minister promises, the UK will once again emerge as “the greatest place on Earth.” The past must redeem the present, not the other way around. The leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg calls on the United Kingdom to “be proud to have spread overseas the liberty it so valued at home,” while the Tory MP Iain Duncan Smith celebrates the “prospects” Brexit creates for British youth “to be out there buccaneering, trading, dominating the world again.” Rather than redress the imperial past, Britons ought to revive it.