This is a slightly edited version of an essay that ran here on August 5, 2009, called "What is Fascism?"
Fascism is a modern-day response to the breakdown and disappearance of traditional societies and traditional sources of authority, such as the king, the church, and the family patriarch.
Fascist governments and political movements attempt to re-connect with lost traditions and to substitute new kinds of strong loyalties, especially loyalty to the nation, in modern-day societies which have lost their direction following the breakdown of traditional forms of authority. We have to a large extent lost confidence in the old ways, because pre-industrial ways of thinking have disappeared along with pre-industrial modes of production and consumption.
"Today we live in a new world," one analyst declares, which has witnessed tremendous scientific and medical progress, but has also seen "the breakdown of the family structure, with its related increase in unwanted pregnancy, divorce, depression, crime, and suicidal and even homicidal children," says American yogi and writer Gary Kraftsow. We are all, to some extent, victims of the social anarchy that attends social dissolution, and fascism is one of several competing modern philosophies that attempt to remedy this state of affairs.
The central feature of fascism is its peculiarly modern form of nationalism, which inevitably acquires the overpowering intensity and transcendent qualities formerly limited to religious expression. Since fascist movements also encourage their followers to observe the ancient religious forms (and usually to ignore their otherworldly contents), religion and nationalism combine, and the nation -- its soil, its symbols, and its heavily redacted history -- becomes sacred, holy, and the repository of the citizenry's most profound emotions.
This nationalism is accompanied by a sense of national destiny and the absolute conviction of the superiority of one's nation over all others, accompanied by the belief that the nation needs to have a strong and aggressive military presence in the world for purposes of securing its "rightful place," or in other words, an empire at the very least, and global dominance in the most pronounced cases of fascist statism.
Other characteristics of fascist governments include partnership and collusion with the nation's largest business concerns, state control of the nation's modern forms of mass communication for purposes of blanketing society with fascist propaganda, and intimidation of and violence against any opponents of fascism who have the nerve to speak up once the dictatorship is established, especially "intellectuals" such as teachers, journalists and scientists. Because the basic appeal of fascism is emotional rather than intellectual, any person, group, or philosophy committed to rational, dispassionate analysis based on evidence rather than nationalist hysteria and naked self interest is treated as an enemy and a threat. Science is especially feared and hated by all fascists, for science is the study of reality, and reality is the enemy of fascism, which is inevitably based on the fantasy of national superiority, infallibility, and invincibility.
Benito Mussolini is generally regarded as the founder of fascism, and his fascist dictatorship in Italy of the 20's and 30's as the template for all fascist movements which followed down to the present day. I found Wikipedia's biography of Mussolini thorough and well crafted, and believe it serves as an excellent introduction to this subject.
For anybody who's still confused about what fascism is, I'd suggest listening to Rush Limbaugh for five minutes at random, or watching a quarter hour of Fox News.
The typical fascist believer of a modern nation hasn't changed much since George Orwell described him (or her) in 1948, consumed with patriotic hopes and fears, and "expected to be competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits, but it is also necessary that he should be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph." (Orwell, 1984, p. 192.)