Trend Watch


How an ancient Roman symbol is still invoked in present-day U.S politics


Lookups spiked on December 3, 2015.


Within a few days of each other, writers for Slate and the New York Times and a commentator on CNN all referred to Donald Trump as a “fascist.”

Fascism means “a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.”

Fascism comes from an Italian word formed from the Latin word for “bundle” or “group.” In English the word from the same Latin root is fasces (FASS-eez), meaning “a bundle of rods and among them an ax with projecting blade borne before ancient Roman magistrates as a badge of authority.” As a symbol of authority the fasces has endured up to modern times and appeared on government buildings, on U.S. military insignia, and on coins, including the dime.

From the meaning “group,” fasces also came to mean “a politically united group,” and Benito Mussolini’s followers were called fascists as he rose to become Italy’s dictator in the 1920s. The word has since been used for leaders in many other places, and has been used to describe both right-wing and left-wing political groups. In fact, the term has become less specific over time, and a second, broader definition has been added: “very harsh control or authority.”

In writing about the use of the word as an insult, E.B. White wrote in The New Yorker in 1946 that the meaning of fascist had degenerated to the point where “a Fascist is a man who votes the other way.”

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