With "How to be a Fascist," Michela Murgia offers a practical handbook for aspiring fascists. But this tongue-in-cheek guide is surprisingly insightful. First, in how well it captures the authoritarian mindset of power over principal. Second, as a frame for understanding why modern politics are so bipolar and toxic. But most importantly, by unintentionally lampooning the cause it's trying to champion: democracy.
What is fascism? Murgia never offers a definition. That omission feels deliberate. By allowing the reader to apply their own definition, the book can appeal to a wider audience. In fact, Murgia is cleverly applying her own instruction: "Unlike an opponent, with its annoying tendency to be recognizable in a person or faction, the enemy doesn't have a fixed identity, often not even a name, so it can be found in general, vague categories... We can make the enemy a mystical hidden power, unreachable and poorly defined, always planning our demise..." [34, 38] However, although fascism is undefined, it has clear demarcations.
Fascism is described as having a "head" – not a representative or a leader, but someone chosen by themself and declaring themself as beyond question. Further, fascism is consistently juxtaposed with democracy. The implication is that fascism is rule by one, infallible, and is fundamentally pitted against democracy, rule by all, always failing. The entire handbook is approached with this good-versus-bad framing: fascism-versus-democracy.
The manual outlines a simple strategy to undermine and defeat democracy. It can be summarized as three steps:
- Use the system's oppenness to enter the system.
- Once in the system, delegitimize it and demonize all opponents as "enemies".
- Once delegitimized, seize power at the first opportunity, by any means available.
This passage captures the essence of the first step, using the system against itself:
"[If someone] has the gall to demand that we not be allowed to run in an election or to have headquarters, or even pursues legal action against us, that is when the opponent Trojan horse becomes fully functional. All we need to do is cry: "See? You don't actually believe in democracy! You want to silence dissent, crush differences, pluralism, opinions different from yours," and the impossible will happen: being a flawed mechanism, a democracy accused of being anti-democratic will short-circuit, and its supporters will even start thinking they are the real fascists if they don't let you speak. This is the beauty of democracy: unlike fascism, it can always be used against itself. [33-34]
The second step, delegitimization, is the most subtle. It is a combination of insisting that individual people are weak, vulnerable, and victimized, but with the coordination and protection of the fascist become powerful together. Murgia elaborates on the careful framing:
Convincing people that it's possible for them to become independent of the state demonstrates a lack of responsibility toward them: it makes them believe they no longer need protection, so that when a real threat emerges, they won't be ready to face it. The weakness of individuals is crucial to the strength of the state, because those who recognize their own weakness rely on the strong. And the strong, when necessary, don't back down from defending their own. 
Finally, the third step of seizing power. The guidance is simple: "When in doubt, strike."  To be clear, violence is not only acceptable, but recommended.
Murgia's little fascist handbook is striking. Not because of how it it accurately explains fascist strategy, or describes tactics being applied in politics more every day. All that is to be expected. What is striking is the organic accident – the author's indictment of democracy itself.
Unsurprisingly, democracy is criticized throughout the book. Of course we would expect the fascist narrator to diminish "the enemy". But the "Fascistometer" at the end of the book is an unintentional lampoon. This list of 65 statements is intended to be a fascist litmus test. The more you agree with, the more fascist you are. But in Western democracies that are producing abominable approval ratings and nearly universal discontent, most of these statements don't feel like red flags – they feel like common sense. Here are the first 4 statements:
- "Universal suffrage is overrated." But this is true if many ignorant, self-serving people vote to benefit themselves at the expense of others.
- "We have no moral obligation to help everyone." But this is true if many people have made careers of seeking help.
- "The average voter's IQ is the same as that of a moderately intelligent twelve-year-old." But when it comes to politics, this is probably true in every Western democracy today.
- "I've had enough of party politics". But who hasn't?
The list goes on. Here are statements 38 to 41:
- "There's no difference between left and right anymore." But if they agree on escalating spending, taxes, debt, economic intervention, and war-making, what meaningful differences remain?"
- "I have a right to voice my opinion." But isn't this true in a democracy?
- "Those people should not be allowed to vote." But isn't this true of people trying to weaponize the state for their own ends?
- "Journalists are all biased anyway." But isn't this also true?
It seems the author wants to spook you into self-reflection. In other words, it seems the author wants you to agree with some of these statements, perhaps earning yourself ranking of "Proto-Fascist" or "Initiate" or even "Aware Militant". And in ranking as any degree of fascist, you are to critically examine your beliefs. You are to flagellate yourself for not being sufficiently democratic. But what if your beliefs are perfectly reasonable? Maybe there is nothing wrong with you, maybe there is something wrong with your system.
Fascism is obviously bad, because it obviously harms people. But what if democracy is also bad, unobviously bad, because it unobviously hurts people? In other words, what if blind faith in democracy is actually the fundamental problem?
Recognizing that democracy is flawed does not make someone a fascist. Nobody has said it better than Winston Churchill, with a famously backhanded critique: "Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
In fact, democracy's failings have been well-known since its earliest days as a form of government. Plato said, "Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty." This is because unprincipled democracy is self-destructive. Unprincipled voters corrupt their own government, and make it ripe for the fascist to promise a restoration of order and take control of the chaos. The big question is whether it is even possible to maintain a principled democracy over time.
Murgia says to the fascist: "All you need are two generations of kids who haven't been subjected to the blight of critical thinking, and your path will be clear for you." This feels accurate. As soon as you have a democracy with an unprincipled majority, you are simply waiting for a dictator to make their claim to the golden bludgeon of tyranny. Who would want a form of government so susceptible to catastrophic self-destruction?
So let's not pretend democracy is an unqualified good. And while we're at it, let's not imagine democracy is the best we can do. The United States is proof – it's not a democracy, it's a republic (with many democratic practices). Yet even this famous republic seems to be falling toward authoritarianism, as both fascism and democracy are prone to do. That suggests every system has the same tendency toward eventual authoritarianism. In turn, that suggests the crucial insight: we freedom seekers are not looking for a system – we are looking for principles.
The principles of freedom have not changed over the course of human history. In fact, those principles can be summarized in one statement: Do not harm people who did not harm you. This is the way – the only way – toward lasting peace, harmony, prosperity, and happiness.
Few dictatorships or democracies follow this rule. But a dictatorship that does will be preferred to a democracy that does not. It is not the system that matters, it is the principles.
"How to be a Fascist" is intended to be a bit scary. You are supposed to not only see the fascist's tactics in everyday use around you, but even to identify with the fascist to some degree, and be repulsed by that awareness. Through this exercise, you are to become a stronger advocate for democracy. But what's truly scary is what little remains to recommend modern Western democracy over other systems. In a book that is intended to be ironic, the Facistometer is legitimately anti-democratic.
To practice democracy without principle is to doom yourself to eventual "tyranny and slavery." A critical reading of "How to be a Fascist" should conclude we must reassert good principles if we want to save our democracies from that ruinous fate.